It’s a campaign promise Montrealers probably didn’t pay much attention to, but it could end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The Coalition Avenir Québec said that if elected, it would start construction within four years on something called the “Third Link.”
The Third Link is meant to be either a bridge or a tunnel connecting Quebec City‘s north shore to its south shore with the aim of easing traffic congestion. However, some experts say building more roads only makes traffic problems worse and creates pollution.
This debate has become a full-on clash of cultures between two diverging political camps in Quebec.
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When you think of Quebec City, you probably imagine the cobblestone streets and the Chateau Frontenac. But as much as there’s a love of history, the city also has a love for something much more modern: the automobile.
There are more kilometres of highways per capita in and around Quebec City than any other city in North America.
“That is more than Los Angeles,” said Jean Mercier, a political science professor at Laval University.
And in the near future, another major highway project will likely be in the works — a third bridge or a tunnel — to connect the north and south shores and ease commuter traffic.
One of the biggest debates about the Third Link has been where to put it.
“The vast majority of the destinations coming from the south shore in the morning end up on the western part of the region,” said François Des Rosiers, a professor in Laval University’s Department of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.
“It looks as if Mr. Bonnardel will trace with his pen a line that he will design himself. OK, it’s going to be there,” said Liberal MNA Gaetan Barrette.
According to some experts, the new government is putting the cart before the horse, plowing ahead with the Third Link before experts have analyzed whether the project is even necessary.
“This question hasn’t been answered yet,” said Des Rosiers.
He added: “It’s still a city that you can go from east to west within 20 minutes.”
According to a 2016 Statistics Canada survey, it takes people in Quebec City less time to get to work than in other Canadian cities of about the same size, with average commute times hovering around 22 minutes.
In Calgary, commuting takes an average of 26 minutes, while in Ottawa it’s more than 27.
Des Rosiers said even if traffic was as bad as it is in Montreal, studies show building more highways encourages more people to drive, which creates even more traffic.
“And within a few years, it worsens the problem,” he said.
Quebec Premier François Legault said the population on the south shore is too spread out and that poses challenges.
“Quebec is a very, very large territory, and we will always have, if you look for example, in Chaudiere-Appalaches, where the volume won’t be enough to justify collective transportation,” said Legault.
Many citizens say it’s time to cut down on driving and the pollution that comes with it. Compared to other Canadian cities of the same size, people in Quebec City drive more and take public transportation less. Many citizens support a different type of project in Quebec’s capital — a $3-billion tramway, which is already in development.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to invest in collective transportation,” Legault said. “We are doing so in Quebec City. We will do so, we are doing the same in Montreal, but you will always need to invest in the rural sectors for cars.”
“We can argue about the Third Link, but it’s in the cards right now,” said Mercier.
Mercier added that the tramway and the Third Link represent two opposing views of the future, but it’s not just a local issue — it’s a fight between two groups that are growing farther and farther apart.
“It’s quite hot politically. There are forces on all sides. There are arguments,” he said. “Sometimes the discussions between these two groups can be nasty.”
Québec Solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion raised eyebrows when she compared the Third Link to doing a line of cocaine because, she said, both lead to addictions.
“People say to themselves, ‘Ah, well, I’m going to do one; I am going to be less drunk, I’ll have energy.’ Except, an hour later, you need to do another line of coke,” Dorion said in a video she posted to Facebook on Thursday.
Both Mercier and Des Rosiers suggested that a potential compromise might get support, such as a Third Link that connects to the tramway.