The troubles with Turcot

By Jessica Murphy on August 7, 2008

The provincial government has agreed that it will pick up the tab for the new Turcot Interchange. But it's Montrealers who may end up paying the highest price.

Transport Quebec's plan for the project—though still in preliminary stages—has been criticized by local politicians, environmentalists and residents, all who say it falls short environmentally, ecologically and socially as well.

Last year, the government announced the $1.5 billion reconstruction and modernization project of the Turcot Interchange that will include work on the de la Verendrye, Angrignon and Montreal West exchanges, as well as Highway 20. It's expected to be completed by 2015.

The modernization plans originated in 2003, when an SNC Lavalin report for the government showed the structure was cracking.

So far, the loudest critics of the plan are those who stand to bear the brunt of the new construction. Residents of the Villages des Tanneries, a tiny district in St. Henri, face expropriation, years of construction, and a highway moving into their backyard.

“The more we looked into it, the more concerned we were,” said Jody Negley. She's a member of Mobilisation Turcot, a group of local organizations and residents fighting the current plan. The group cites health, expropriation, loss of quality of life, and a poor consultation process as their concerns.

“What we’re trying to do is put into question what we’re being told: that this is urgent and there are no alternatives,” said Negley. “Why not at this time come up with something a little more visionary?  We don’t need to accept things the way they are.” 

Mobilisation Turcot isn't alone in their critique of the project.

Councilors in the Sud-Ouest borough have also come out against the current plan. Opposition councilors Line Hamel, Ronald Bossy, and Jean-Yves Cartier stated in a summer press release 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 supports of the project—has been even more outspoken.

He said he's fighting for “the best project possible for those people.”

“I don’t like the word consultation because they were telling us what they were going to do,” said Frechette. “When you’re talking to the ministry, it’s like you’re talking to the wall. We’re not the one expropriating people. They’re the ones.”

Among the most controversial aspects of Transport Quebec's plan is the expropriation of 160 residences.

“They’re decapitating the Villages des Tanneries,” said resident Marc-Olivier Rainville. “They’re cutting off its head.”

The razing of the buildings will indeed have a serious impact on the four-block wide neighbourhood on St. Henri's western edge.

The loss of low-cost apartments raises concerns for the re-housing of current tenants. The ministry is offering the minimum compensation allowed by law: three months rent and moving costs. However, rents in the Sud-Ouest have increased 30 per cent since 2001—five per cent more than the Montreal average. Vacancy rates are also below average and skewed towards more expensive apartments. The area is among the poorest sections of St. Henri, with household incomes $20,000 below the Montreal average.

"It's the minimum by law," said Manuel Johnson, community organizer with POPIR, a neighbourhood housing committee. "If they're going to demolish those units, we're asking for everyone who will be relocated to be re-housed and every rental unit we lose should be replaced."

The second concern for residents is the potential health impacts of the new highway. A portion of the Ville-Marie will be rebuilt lower (from 20 to 30 metres high to between six and eight) and a few meters south, bringing an estimated 280,000 vehicles daily closer to residents. Transport Quebec has also confirmed a three per cent increase in air pollution.

Studies by the Montreal public health department show that living within 200 metres of a highway can have a significant impact on health, especially for youth and the elderly.

The government's current plan will move the highway to within 200 metres of homes, a school, and residences for the elderly.

But Transport Quebec defends its project, saying it will liberate a large portion of the Turcot Yards for development, be cheaper to maintain, and better integrate local infrastructure. They also say that the health and security of residents in the area are paramount.

Many questions remain un-answered, however. An environmental impact study will only be released in the fall, there are rumours that Montreal may have to pay for certain peripheral costs, and the government still isn't decided whether Turcot will be rebuilt with           a public-private partnership or with conventional public financing. There's also another round of public hearings by the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement scheduled before any plans are made official.

What the public really wants is to be heard.

“The Turcot Interchange has to be redone, there’s no doubt" said Frechette.  "But we’re in 2008 and I think the government needs to think of more than just replacing it.”


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