Battle lines drawn on Turcot

By Jessica Murphy on May 28, 2009

The battle lines have been drawn over the Turcot Interchange redevelopment project between a government that wants a new highway and Montrealers who seek a cleaner, greener version of their city.

Residents turning out for the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement hearings on the Turcot Interchange redevelopment plan. For the most part, they agreed something must be done for the decades-old structure crumbling under the weight of hundreds of thousands of vehicles each week.

But they don’t believe a few trees make a project green.

“They’re constantly dreaming in Technicolor. These guys are in the 50s,” said Avrom Shtern, director of the Green Coalition Montreal.

“You shouldn’t call it the Ministry of Transport, you should call it the Ministry of Highways and just be honest.”

Transport Quebec is selling its current proposal as ecological. It says the new smaller structure will be better integrated into the environment, will free up land for development, include pathways for bicycles, pedestrians, and public transit, and reduce noise and air pollution.

Still, more nuanced information from BAPE suggests that the residents closest to the new structure would see an increase in air pollution, a fact brushed off with the note: “These increases, in most cases, will be barely perceptible.”

Since nearby buildings include schools, old age homes and community centres, residents have raised a collective skeptical eyebrow and have begun sporting green felt patches marking their opposition.

Mobilization Turcot - the core group of residents opposing the plan whose homes squat in the structure’s shadow and who may face expropriation- organized a 500-strong demonstration against the project and have garnered a number of political allies on the municipal, provincial and federal level, support from southwest community groups and environmental organizations who are sympathetic to their concerns.

Councilors in the Sud-Ouest borough have also come out against the plan.

Opposition councilors Line Hamel, Ronald Bossy, and Jean-Yves Cartier stated  in a press release last year that they felt the project didn’t take into account the quality of life of the residents. 

Pierre Frechette, also a Sud-Ouest councilor but with Gerald Tremblay’s MICU party - which silently supports of the project - has been even more outspoken, maligning the lack a sympathetic ear at Transport Quebec and Thierry St-Cyr, the Bloc Quebecois MP for the riding, called the current proposal a mistake from the 1960s that was being repeated.

“We can do better,” he said. “Something focused on sustainable development. They’ll have to change it completely, not just stick up a few trees. It doesn’t correspond to our era.”

He cites - along with fellow adversaries - successful highway removal projects that have been implemented elsewhere. Replacing highways with more human scale boulevards has become a popular alternative to repairing or rebuilding existing expressways that critics say cut swaths across cities and decimate neighborhoods. It’s been attempted as close to home as Toronto and as far away as Seoul and sold as a more ecological and human scale alternative to the status quo.

“(Cars) are a problem all over the world but they decided to look at different ways of dealing with it,” said St-Cyr. “We could have a more ambitious, visionary project.”

It’s one alternative that has not, publicly at least, been considered by Transport Quebec. They’ve put forward only two proposals:continuing to repair the current structure as needed and the controversial plan to rebuild.

It makes people question whether, for an estimated $1.5 billion, we’re getting our money’s worth.

The reconstruction project of the Turcot Interchange will include work on the de la Verendrye, Angrignon and Montreal West exchanges and Highway 20. The PPP project is expected to be completed by 2015 and is so far on schedule. Work is slated to begin sometime this summer or fall.

Still, the public consultation may be lengthy if opposition remains strong. The initial consultation period lasts six weeks and BAPE has up to four months to complete its report before handing it over to the ministry. Transport Quebec can’t begin the reconstruction work until after the environmental assessment process is complete and government authorizations are received. 

And so far, Montrealers are giving the project two thumbs down.

“We’ve been fixing Turcot for years,” commented Todd Spurrell on the Spacing Montreal blog. “ It’s beyond fixing and it’s ugly. Tear it down and replace it with something sensible.”

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