The BAPE Speaks: Turcot report released (and analyzed)

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On Tuesday, November 10, a half day after being leaked in La Presse story, the recommendations of the province’s environmental assessment commission (BAPE) were released to the public.

The results appear as a rebuke to the Quebec Ministry of Transport’s (MTQ) plan for the interchange; they were told to head “back to the drawing board”. So, at least at first glance, neighbourhood groups and others who’ve taken up the cause will be pleased. But, as always, the devil’s in the details.

The commission cited several major problems with the project, and recommended improvements in the areas of urban integration, protecting the Falaise St. Jacques, incorporating public transit into the overall metropolitan planning picture, and including public consultation in the earlier stages of the transportation planning process. The BAPE reserved a particularly strong words for the expropriations proposed on rue Cazelais, which it highlighted in its press release:

The project, as it is currently planned, would lead, in an urban environment already fragmented by the original construction, to other acquisitions of residential properties,something to which the commission of inquiry cannot subscribe. Instead, the commission proposes that the proponent examine, in partnership with the Cities of Montréal and Westmount, a way of reconfiguring the project to avoid such acquisitions. If, by common consent, the acquisition of homes were to prove to be unavoidable, the affected individuals would have to be adequately compensated.

The wording is strong, but as Jason Prince points out on turcot.ca, compensation is already required by law, so in fact the defense of Cazelais may be mostly huff-and-puff.

Greenhouse gas argument just hot air

While some critics of the project were most concerned with the increase in greenhouse gases that would occur with increased volume on the Turcot, the report places relatively little weight on this point. It seems the commission, in the final calculation, were less swayed by this argument than its main proponent, the Conseil Régionale de l’Environnement. While noting that the transportation sector constitutes the largest and fastest growing emitter of greenhouse gases in Quebec, the BAPE found the proposed Turcot project NOT GUILTY of allegations that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions.

How did the BAPE arrive at such a verdict? Their conclusion is based on a fairly optimistic assurance by the MTQ. The BAPE commissioners write: “Le promoteur estime que le projet en soi n’aurait pas d’influence sur l’émission de GES puisqu’il considère que la capacité routière ne serait pas augmentée et qu’il n’y aurait pas de changements majeurs dans la dynamique de circulation (my emphasis).

It is pointless to attempt to dissect the greenhouse gas projections generated by the MTQ and interpreted by the BAPE. However, the shocking statement made by the MTQ (and implicitly sustained by the BAPE), that a major highway project like the Turcot would NOT have a major impact on traffic patterns, should raise alarm bells.

It is impossible that senior MTQ officials are unaware of “induced demand“, the process by which improved highway traffic conditions generates new highway demand. Thus by not mentioning to the BAPE that wider shoulders and smoother curves would increase the fluidity of traffic, thus increasing the attractiveness of commuting by car, the MTQ was able to maintain the assertion that the project would not increase in itself increase traffic.

This allowed the BAPE to conclude that improved fuel efficiency would offset the growing number of vehicles on the road, with the final result being – imagine – a slight decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Given half a century of evidence of the phenomenon of induced demand, this twisted logic in the report is disturbing, to say the least.

Other issues raised

The BAPE report contained a serious and considered section of the isolating effects of highways on embankments. Particular attention was given to the Cabot/Cote St-Paul segment, between the Lachine Canal and de la Vérendrye interchange, and the effects it would have on the residents and users of that area. Noting that the amount of sunlight would actually decrease in certain areas, and that pedestrian access would be diminished, the BAPE recommended that this section be revised, possibly as a trenched highway.

Regarding the proposal to shift the highway 20 toward the Falaise St. Jacques, it was recommended that a buffer of at least 30 meters be left, and that the highway be hidden from view on the south by a “wooded hillock” and that more trees of large calibre to integrated into the overall design. Who knew the BAPE commissioners had such keen interest in landscape architecture?

What happens next?

The BAPE’s report, while not the resounding rebuke of the MTQ’s auto-centric planning that some might have hoped for, lends considerable weight to the growing calls for better-conceived solutions. The word is that this report will prompt at least an extra year of analysis and planning at the MTQ, before another solution is proposed. Will the Turcot fall down before something is done? Probably not, since the MTQ has hired SNC-Lavalin for 24-hour surveillance and constant repairs. There are likely those in the MTQ who are pushing to go ahead with the project, perhaps with a few cosmetic changes . (After all, the BAPE just makes recommendations.) However, the mounting charges of collusion between government and the highway construction industry will render the strong-arm approach unappealing. If calls for an independent public inquiry into the awarding of contracts in Quebec bear fruit, I suspect that the fallout from such a commission would totally dwarf the impact of this report by the BAPE.

So whither the Turcot? Heck, this is Quebec: your guess is as good as mine.

Read the full BAPE report here (French only).

Le promoteur estime que le projet en soi n’aurait pas d’influence sur l’émission de
GES puisqu’il considère que la capacité routière ne serait pas augmentée et qu’il n’y
aurait pas de changements majeurs dans la dynamique de circulation


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