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Legault government pursuing controversial ‘third link’ in Quebec City

Click to play video: 'Fallout continues following change of plans for Quebec City’s third link tunnel'
Fallout continues following change of plans for Quebec City’s third link tunnel
Related: The Legault government is in damage control mode as the premier navigates what may be his party's biggest internal crisis since the CAQ took power in 2018. After breaking a major campaign promise about a bridge between Quebec City and Lévis last week, Legault called angry members of his team to his office in a bid to calm the situation. Global's Dan Spector reports – Apr 25, 2023

The Quebec government is moving ahead with a controversial transportation project in the provincial capital that has for years been a political lightning rod.

Premier François Legault announced Thursday his government is planning to build a third bridge connecting Quebec City with suburbs across the St. Lawrence River.

The decision comes after Legault abandoned the project last year, infuriating some voters and members of his own caucus, and then promised to revive it last fall — one day after his Coalition Avenir Québec candidate lost a Quebec City byelection.

Legault initially pitched the project as a way to alleviate traffic in the capital region, but he now says the so-called “third link” is important to ensure trucks transporting goods could still get to the city if one of the two existing bridges closed.

“We have to have humility when we need to revisit a decision,” Legault told a news conference Thursday. “In taking a step back, we noticed that the issue of economic security is very important. So that’s why we’re changing our decision.”

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Click to play video: 'Ottawa to acquire Quebec Bridge, will spend $1 billion on span over 25 years'
Ottawa to acquire Quebec Bridge, will spend $1 billion on span over 25 years

The announcement followed a new report Wednesday from Quebec’s pension fund manager — the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec — saying a third link is not justified and would only reduce travel time by about five minutes.

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The report instead recommended a $15-billion public transit plan for the region that includes a tramway network. On Thursday, Legault also gave the green light to the first phase of that plan, worth $5 billion. “We can do both,” the premier said.

The third link, despite being a hypothetical project in a metropolitan area of less than one million people, has contributed to Legault’s declining political fortunes and has often attracted national attention.

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre staked out his position on X Thursday, saying he supports the third link and accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government has refused to fund the project, of being “obsessed with a war on cars” and ignoring people who live in the suburbs.

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However, Poilievre also said he wouldn’t invest “one cent of federal money” in a tramway if he becomes prime minister. The Liberal government, on the other hand, has previously committed to funding part of a tramway project.

On Thursday, Legault said he’s hopeful he can get money for both projects from either a Liberal or Conservative government.

The announcement is the latest development in a years-long political drama. The project was one of Legault’s key campaign promises during the 2018 and 2022 provincial elections, intended to appeal to voters in battleground ridings in the Quebec City region. But in a major about-face in April last year, his government announced the project was no longer justified, due in part to reduced traffic following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The backlash was swift. In October, one day after losing a Quebec City byelection and facing dismal polls, Legault abruptly changed tack and put the third link back on the table. “Losing Quebec (City) is out of the question,” he said at the time.

The new justification for the project — economic security — is “100 per cent political,” said Rudy Husny, a political analyst and former federal Conservative adviser. “The CAQ was able to get in power with the support of Quebec City and Lévis and all that region. It started there, their climb into power.”

The CAQ’s support base is largely outside Montreal, Husny said, and the government has tried to show it’s focused on the needs of Quebec City, which often feels overlooked.

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But the flip-flops on the third link have “damaged the connection” with voters in a region Legault can’t afford to ignore, said political analyst Antonine Yaccarini. She said the issue has become so polarizing around Quebec City that people feel they can only support the third link or the tramway, not both.

“If you’re for the third link, you’re labelled as not caring about the environment or public transit. And if you’re for the tramway, you’re told you want to wage war on cars,” she said. “And it contributes to ensuring that none of the projects is completed.”

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