Quebec treasury board president Sonia Lebel tabled a new bill on Wednesday to speed up certain infrastructure projects and reboot the economy.
As the province faces a second wave of the novel coronavirus, Lebel said fighting the virus and strengthening the economy are top priorities for the Quebec government.
“Last spring we were forced to put Quebec on pause,” Lebel said, adding the acceleration of infrastructure projects is a key part of government’s plan to get the economy back on track.
Lebel explained that the gradual and careful resumption of activities wasn’t enough by itself to offset the negative impacts the health crisis.
Bill 66 replaces Bill 61, known as an “Act to restart Quebec’s economy and to mitigate the consequences of the public health emergency”, which was heavily criticized after in was tabled in early June by then-treasury board president Christian Dubé.
Opposition parties at the National Assembly raised several concerns at the time, saying Bill 61 could leave the province vulnerable to corruption and collusion since it would allow some projects to be sped up without all the checks and balances in place.
Lebel said she heard the critics and the the most controversial aspects of Bill 61 were abandoned in the revamped bill.
“It is possible to speed up the start of projects without compromising on integrity without compromising on the environment,” she said.
Among other things, the government is abandoning the idea of bypassing the law on public contracts.
“We are not touching in any way whatsoever the law on public contracts, this is not a process we are accelerating,” Lebel said.
The government is also dropping the idea of extending the state of health emergency indefinitely.
Under a state of emergency, the government has extraordinary powers. The law suspends many civil rights and normally a government is only able to enact it 10 days at a time.
Lebel also said the new bill addresses environmental concerns raised by environmental groups and that processes and safeguards are well defined.
Projects with moderate to low environmental risks will be allowed to go ahead with construction and provide environmental assessments once work is underway.
Lebel explained that environmental protocols are already known for many of the projects and environmental laws and standards will be respected.
“We can anticipate what the problems will be,” she said. “We know whether there is a wetland or not… we know how to protect it or rebuild it, if necessary, if we have to damage it.”
She also said the environment ministry would be supervising the projects and that the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) would — except for two projects — maintain its role of informing and consulting with citizens, carrying out environmental investigations and providing recommendations to inform government decisions.
The two projects include the revamping of Highway 117 between Labelle and Rivière Rouge, and the widening of Highway 30 between Brossard and Boucherville.
“Highway 117 is one of the deadliest roads in Quebec,” Lebel said, “The work is is necessary, expected and requested,”
As for Highway 30, widening the road would allow for an express bus route and is part of wider plans to improve traffic congestion within the wider Montreal metropolitan area.
By bypassing the BAPE, it will allow to speed up the completion of the projects by 20 months, Lebel said, adding that they will be subject to all other environmental laws and requirements.
Initially, the province wanted to fast-track 202 infrastructure projects — including the construction of schools, seniors’ homes, roads and public transit systems.
Under Bill 66, however, that list has been whittled down to 181 projects.
“It’s a closed list,” Lebel said, meaning projects not included under the proposed legislation will have to follow regular procedures.
Bill 66 will be studied in committee this fall.
— With files from Global’s Raquel Fletcher and Kalina Laframboise