News  Activists fight for smaller Turcot

Plans to reduce massive highway interchange unveiled, includes increased public transit, and fewer house demolitions

An alternative to the province’s plan for the reconstruction of the Turcot interchange was unveiled at Montreal’s public health department Thursday. The Turcot375 project – developed by urban planners Pierre Gautier and Pierre Brisset – involves a major downsize of the highway superstructure, and a city-wide shift toward a stronger public transit system.

The development comes two weeks into backroom negotiations between the province, which has sought to expand the vehicular capacity of the Interchange, and the City, whose representatives are pushing for an increased public transit alternative.

Gauthier and Brisset asserted that their plan would be more environmentally and socially beneficial than the province’s blueprint for the Interchange, which involves an 18 per cent increase in the Turcot’s vehicular capacity.

“The foundation of our plan is a major reduction of the vehicles that use the interchange,” said Gauthier, an assistant professor at Concordia’s school of the geography, planning, and the environment.

The Turcot Interchange connects the Ville Marie and Décarie expressways, and is located between Westmount and St-Henri, adjacent to a smaller community known as the Village des Tanneries.

With chunks of concrete falling off the elaborate 18-lane highway structure, it has been apparent that the Turcot would need to be refurbished for several years now. Discussion of the Interchange’s reconstruction have been ongoing since 2001, though progress has been slow – and contentious.

The Turcot375 plan calls for the removal of eight of the Interchange’s eighteen lanes, four of its on- and off-ramps, and for its traffic volume to be reduced from 290,000 vehicles per day to 180,000 vehicles per day. The MTQ’s plan, by contrast, calls for an expansion of the interchange to accommodate 320,000 vehicles per day.

“Based on data we have looked at, we know that there will be an increase in cars,” said MTQ spokesperson Mario St-Pierre in an interview with The Daily in November. “That has nothing to do with any plan or will of the MTQ.”

Several urban planners take issue with the fatalism of the MTQ’s approach, however. Jason Prince – the coordinator of the Community-University Research Alliance at McGill and co-editor of the book “Montreal at the Crossroads: Superhighways, the Turcot and the Environment” – is one of them.

“For the hundreds of thousands of Montrealers who communte to the downtown by car, is it because they have no other option? I think the answer is yes,” said Prince.

He added that the city’s power in province-level negotiations such as this has been attenuated by the depopulation of the downtown and growth of the suburbs in the past four decades.

“This political problem of two million people in the suburbs and one million people downtown is the direct result of these highways we built in the fifties and sixties,” he said.

The Ministere de Transport de Quebec (MTQ), which is responsible for the province’s highway system, unveiled its plan for the Turcot in 2007. In calling for a massive expansion of the interchange, and the demolition of 160 housing units, the proposal was met with fierce opposition from numerous groups in St. Henri.

Following a public consultation last June, Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) demanded that the MTQ go back to the drawing board, and account for locals’ demands for an alternative that involves fewer cars and more public transit.

The mémoire presented to the BAPE commission by the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal cited the MTQ’s 2003 estimate that the socioeconomic cost of traffic congestion in Montreal is approximately $1.4 billion a year, and went on to state that the final plan “must include carpooling and public transit lanes as well as accommodate rail transportation.”

The BAPE’s final recommendations, released in November, echoed the City’s concerns and condemned the MTQ’s planned housing expropriations, and stated that the residents’ concerns about the pollution generated by highway system should also be heeded.

Louis Drouin, head of the Montreal public health department’s urban environment section, agreed that the respiratory health of residents of St-Henri and the Village des Tanneries needs to be considered in any future plan for the Turcot.

“These populations are not in such good health; a lot of respiratory disease and asthma,” he said. “More cars in the city means more public health impact.”

He added that the city’s long-term plan should include a modal shift toward public transport, such as buses and light rail, and active transport, like cycling.

“The city adheres to the same principles as we do,” said Gauthier. “The MTQ comes to it with a very narrow-minded approach: very technical and very focused on increasing highway capacity.” He added that modeling for a reduction in the Turcot’s traffic capacity demanded a reconceptualization of the city’s entire transit system, the details of which are included in the Turcot 375 proposal.

“We’re talking about sustainable urban development,” said Gauthier.

The extent to which the province is considering an integrated public transit system for the future Turcot remains unclear.

Gauthier concluded that a substantial amount of transit infrastructure will have to be constructed during the renovation of the interchange, and that this infrastructure will probably have to encompass an expanded transit system.

“Nobody can expect this reconstruction to work without any disturbance. The capacity will be reduced on the interchange for five years [during construction],” he said. “Urban transit is the solution… This is a once in lifetime opportunity to changes people’s habitudes.”

On March 12, the CBC reported that the MTQ now plans to demolish 100 of the residences – 60 fewer than originally planned. The same story also reported that Transport Minister Julie Boulet is expected to announce the province’s final plans for the Turcot by the end of the month.

But as the unveiling of the final plan approaches, members of the St-Henri community have become increasingly critical of the opacity surrounding the negotiations. On March 3, members of Projet Organisation Populaire Information Et Regroupement (POPRI) stormed the Montreal office of the MTQ and staged a sit-in, demanding a meeting with Boulet.

“There’s a veil of secrecy that will not be lifted until there is a quote-unquote consensus,” said Derek Robertson, a member of POPRI. “They’re doing this with a lack of transparency and a lack of respect for the citizens who are most affected by this project, and that is the residents of the Village de Tanneries.”

He added that POPRI has been granted their requested meeting with Boulet on April 1.

Drouin agreed that the issue of accessibility is important.

“It’s not a perfect process,” he said. “It’s a process by the MTQ with Montreal officials. It’s not an open process; it’s quite dark. The best kind of process is an open process with all the stakeholders involved.”

Robertson stated that he supported the main overall design of the Turcot375 option presented by Gauthier and Brisset, although had reservations about its plan to divert some of the interchange’s traffic into ground-level arteries, as it could potentially cause an increase in accidents.

“We all agree that it needs to be replaced. The question is what with,” said Robertson. “We really have a chance to right a wrong and a chance to rebuild for the 21st century. We should do so with a 21st-century mentality. And the [MTQ’s] projects are very much rooted in a mid-20th-century mentality.”

An abridged version of this story appeared in print on March 29.

Related Article:
BAPE Commission: Go back to the drawing board