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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Losing sight of the highway for the green: Understanding the “new” Turcot plan

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Welcome to Portland boul. Notre-Dame

In the face of harsh critiques from just about every imaginable governmental and non-governmental body in the province for its previous plan for the Turcot interchange, the Ministère du Tranports (MTQ) went back to the drawing board over the summer, promising to return with an improved plan for the monumental structure. Finally, the results have been made public. So has the MTQ responded to calls for a truly multimodal transport strategy that will improve quality of life for future generations of Montrealers?

Judging by their flashy updated website, interactive map, computer renderings depicting urban scenes like the one above and new moniker guaranteed to make holdouts feel warm and cuddly inside (“Turcot – Un projet aux couleurs de Montréal”), the folks at the MTQ have been busy.  After a dizzying tour of their website, one almost forgets that behind images of a sexy new (potential) tramway, a futuristic marketplace and billions in future economic spin-offs, this is actually a highway project. So what changes are actually being proposed to this vehicle-moving machine? I have attempted to cut through the noise in order to highlight a few new details; you can decide for yourself what is substantive and just another layer of “green” frosting.

  • A pedestrian/cyclist overpass will connect the projected linear park along the Falaise S. Jacques with future boul. Notre-Dame (pictured above). Greater connectivity in this heavily sliced-and-diced area is good, of course, but I doubt the light industries currently located along Notre-Dame are in a hurry to realize this urban planner’s wet dream. Maybe by the next time we re-build the Turcot?
  • No expropriations will occur on rues Cazelais and Desnoyers. This is undoubtedly positive. For the unfortunate inhabitants of the affordable lofts at 780 rue St. Remi, the MTQ will support existing housing initiatives (which residents may or not be eligible for) and console them with some sort of  psycho-social counseling (no joke).
  • The 720 will be downgraded from an autoroute to a “national” route (the 136, apparently). This is an interesting choice, and seems to suggest an acknowledgment of past mistakes that placed car mobility over the continuity (and contiguity) of urban neighbourhoods. However, this new designation will not remove any entrance or exit ramps and the introduction of a shoulder will reduce delays and encourage higher speeds.
  • New video renderings show a highway 20 with a separated reserved bus lane, which will no doubt rejoice many transit advocates. But due to the bottlenecks and delays caused by frequent merging, reserved lanes for buses on freeways require long stretches without on- or off-ramps to be effective and there are few places along the 20 like this. Is is possible that such a substantial piece of infrastructure is actually incoherent window-dressing? After all, the province just announced a plan to address West Island commuters’ complaints with improved train service.

The ‘carte des améliorations’ offers many goodies, some of which may actually happen…

… but the “new” plan looks awfully familiar.

Of course, this dizzying display of propaganda is quite unnecessary at this point. With mayor Gerald Tremblay clearing the way for quick approval by booting Richard Bergeron off the City’s Executive Committee, this Turcot plan gains momuntum as a joint provincial-municipal project. Tremblay obviously has other irons in the fire in Quebec City, and is no doubt eager to make nice after this little spat.  (We should probably expect to see an updated Transportation Plan soon, as we did after the City got on board with the MTQ’s plan for the ‘modernization of Notre-Dame‘.) And with the appointment of Sam Hamad, a more palatable Minister of Transport than Julie Boulet, and no meaningful political opposition to speak of, advocates of an integrated, forward-thinking plan for the Turcot have played their last card. The only glimmer of hope that I can see is the project’s (currently) estimated 2018 completion date; here’s to hoping Quebec’s infamous political ‘immobilisme’ will turn the tide of events towards a saner future.

For the time being, however, this whole episode has only a chilling lesson to impart: our smug Liberal government, poised to dispense $3 billion to its friends and allies, is in this game to win.

I highly recommend readers visit the MTQ’s new website devoted to the Turcot, browse the interactive map and experience for themselves the new heights of green-washing. Be sure to check out the ‘Présentation modélisée du projet’. Just be sure you have something strong close at hand.


  1. for similar projects in other countries (from the 70’s and 80’s) corrections have been necessary and already been realized at immense costs:

    put the whole autoroute in an underground tunnel (since the noise is untolerable to living there). so the next new turcot is already in the pipeline.

    conclusion: somebody has a big interest in spending that much money (to whom?) and spend again to correct it in the foreseeable future.

    $ is $2000 for each person living in montreal (if the project stays at this cost and not even the )

    the best thing would be just to let the structures collapse. the consequences?
    this would save tons of money, kill a few dozens drivers when it finally comes down (which won’t make a big dent in the heap of the 600+ who get killed in traffic in quebec anually), will not increase traffic (since it is auto-regulative) and eventually get people to use the public transport that can be built with all this money.

    time to set the right priorities.

  2. Well written! I agree with pretty much all of your analysis, except for the assertion that Sam Hamad is more palatable that Julie Boulet. While it’s true that he doesn’t have the same air of incompetence that Boulet does, even before this gem he already had the reputation of being a major douchebag. Now more than ever I have the feeling that the Liberals are trying to bash the province like some kind of piñata in hopes of getting as much candy out of it as possible before the party’s over.

  3. @Devin: Perhaps Hamad is a douchebag as well, but he’s a new face and that’s what counts, in a real politik sense.

    @Whataretheysmoking: Well, I disagree that letting it fall down is a reasonable option, but your point about the number of fatalities on QC roads palling in comparison to the number of potential deaths in the event of collapse is an interesting rhetorical point.

    @Jody: Thanks! :-)

  4. Thanks so much for the post, I am interested in the details of the Turcot plan but not sure I can face the fear of reading the whole doc itself.

    I for one am very happy the homes on Rue Cazelais will remain standing.

    The politics involved here are so broken, how can Montreal get out of this mess?

    Also about the pic of the proposed future Notre-Dame, am I the only one that finds this really scary and undesirable? I like the tram but chances are that will be the first thing to be removed from the plan when the costs are analyzed.

    Thanks again.

  5. Wow, that video is something else… look at all that green! And all those happy people using the new space, too! Beurré épais are the words that come to mind.

  6. I am not really sure what the major improvement is in terms of getting the interchange to the ground – sure the east west axis seems to be in the ground now, but the interchange itself is still a spaghetti junction with a bunch of very high overpasses, which at the same time seem to use _a lot of_ space.

    It seems a reduction in capacity and speed would allow more tight turns, while allowing fewer/less high overpasses, and a generally smaller footprint.

    And at 3 billion, this is utterly ridiculous. 800M could pay for the electrified West Island surface metro, for another couple of hundred millions it could be extended further into downtown — and along the villa maria express way right of way all the way to the other end of downtown.

  7. The use of the word propaganda is kind of funny, what do you call all the posts blindly against Turcot on this blog? Most of them written by Rejet Montreal apartchiks?

    @whataretheysmoking: i hope that the biggest piece of concrete from a collapse lands on your head. How can you have the guts to wish the death of other follow citizens? Don’t you have any morals?

  8. @Claude: Contrary to the way it’s often understood, the word propaganda does not necessarily suggest any nefarious intent, merely the attempt to influence public opinion. It is in fact commonly used by governments, often to positive ends. In this article, I don’t oppose the use of propaganda in principle, but rather its extreme use, which borders on the realm of outright lies (eg. tramways, bus lanes and entire neighbourhoods so unconsidered they will most likely never happen).

    What makes Spacing different from other news sources is its mixture of standard reporting with editorial opinion. Rather than name-calling, why not use the comment section to add pertinent information or provide an alternate viewpoint?

  9. @claude: your moral argument doesn’t stand, based on what you’re wishing me. it is also not very probably, since i rarely traverse the turcot exchange.

    what i wish for is a change of law to put responsability on vehicle drivers for any accidents (as in european countries). with that many ‘accidental’ deaths which are really neglicent homicide, would be avoided in quebec. google ‘rougemont’ and ‘cyclists’ for an example. cost: $0
    on the other side, since its difficult to enforce laws for dangerous behavior on, streets can be constructed/modified such that speeding, rounding corners etc. are prohibited by the innate desire of the driver to feel safe themselves. see again to europe how this actually works in reality.

    what makes me really angry is the money which is wasted instead in maintaining the status quo. here is a summary of the $6.7 invested in montreal highway construction in 2000-2010. effect in short: its worse than before:

    thus my conclusion: why pour more into that black hole instead of offering massive public transport investments as viable alternatives?
    to finance corruption and donate more to the mafia?
    to give drivers a fake feeling of safety?
    if you feel you want to drive, you have to live with the risk that you have a 1%-chance of dying in traffic eventually (here in quebec). i did not wish that for you, you chose it yourself.

  10. It does look similar – I’d say probably one of the worst cases of greenwashing I’ve ever seen.
    What vexes me to no end is the decision to move the highway (if I understand correctly) closer to the Falaise St-Jacques. Now, I can understand that this was probably considered a good option given the former Turcot railyard is probably still quite polluted, and therefore residential development projects on that site would not be possible. However, I can’t imagine the land currently occupied by the highway, or the industrial corridor along Boul. Notre-Dame, is any less polluted, which begs the question as to how realistic the residential developments in the area actually are. Let alone that the pollutants have probably migrated over the years, leaving most of this area significantly polluted and undesirable. Moreover, there may not be any residential expropriations planned (good) but are they planning on expropriating the industrial concerns in the corridor? I’m certain that will go over like a lead zeppelin! And all of this is aside from the fact that living next to a highway is far from desirable in the first place. The provision for 30 metres of green space along the Falaise seems hopelessly small, and again, far from an ideal location for a linear park. Plus, with the projected sound barriers, it seems as though this may create a gigantic dead zone, leaving the possibility wide open that the park will become a semi-deserted pain-in-the-ass for the SPVM. And again – what about the pollution?
    I like the idea of putting highways underground, but remember how much and how long it took for Boston to complete the ‘big dig’ – it is nonetheless still the best option, though I fear it may take another generation to pass into the halls of power before anything truly environmentally-conscious comes to fruition.
    Having kept a close eye on this project, it seems as though the MTQ is cognizant of and willing to appease their perception of the public’s interest in environmentalism and sound planning, but it seems insulting to think the public can be so easily bought off. Then again, I’m certain the people who read this blog, or anyone showing up to protest, is simply not part of the demographic base likely to vote Liberal in the next provincial election, and so the project isn’t aimed at the progressives of Montréal, but rather the citizens of the West Island and other off-island communities (who will, incidentally, probably vote PLQ). So, they are pandering a greenwashed project to people disinclined to take public transit in the first place, to the detriment of those who actually give a damn about this city. It is very discouraging, but it brings two issues to mind: first, that Montréal is in dire need of a populist, progressive municipal political party which can be as convincing with regards to good design and sound environmentalism as it is vis-a-vis economic development (I think Projet Montréal is going to go the way of the ADQ – the public perception of the party and its leader is not strong in general). The second issue is this: Montréal absolutely needs to annex the remaining independent communities on and off island within the metropolitan region. I know this has been attempted before, but this time it ought to be done in a manner more condusive to voluntary annexation – in other words, the local government needs to find terms acceptable for voluntary annexation. Simply put, if the City of Montréal had access to a tax base of 3.75 million people, well, frankly, we could fix the Turcot problem by ourselves without MTQ involvement (or at least have the financial means to steer the project towards the municipal as opposed to provincial vision). Think about how much more could be accomplished if this were the case.

  11. to the author:


    How does referring to the Minister of Transport as a “douchebag” lend any credibility to your criticism?

    In fact I would purport that such behaviour even violates Spacing’s own terms and conditions for comments.

  12. @Xavier
    Wow, that editorial is offensive. CTV’s Barry Wilson seems to identify ‘us’, with the West Island, probably as the English community; and ‘them’ as the city people (probably frenchies?), the “anti-car, anti-everything, bicycle lobby”. Using the “tofu-stand” image, he tries to convey the idea that people who are against an increase in car capacity are out of touch; that they are a bunch of hippies who live in a fairy tale world.

    But really it is out of touch to believe that the car culture is going to be sustainable – both economically and ecologically. In the meantime though, putting more cars everywhere does not create more livable cities. It also does not deal with congestion – creating higher throughput at Turcot only so that the few city exits and downtown itself become the congested bottleneck.

    It’s an anachronistic plan, a token of the denial which believes in the perpetuity of a motorized society. The Province of Quebec is shoving it’s car-ideal down the city’s collective throat, in the name of the suburb, and the editorialist, apparently representing this dead-end of urban planning, has trouble keeping back the glee that ‘us’ won.

  13. @Xavier @Ant6n: What is most shocking to me is that Barry Wilson is the producer(!?) of CTV News. He makes the Gazette’s editorials look like a beacon of progressiveness.

    @Taylor C Noakes: Your idea of annexation is certainly intriguing, but it relies on the province to enact the legislation required to do so. And the reason the CMM (Greater Montreal regional body) is largely inactive is the same reason why no regional amalgamation will ever be contemplated: the provincial government does not want to concentrate power in an urban region representing over half of the total population.

    @Marksab: Please take a closer look at the post and comments; I never actually called anyone a douchebag (though in response to Devin’s comment, I don’t rule it out).

  14. @ANT6N

    I wouldn’t be so quick to jump on the old east/west divide.

    Echoing Mr. Wilson from the East, Marco Fortier at Rue Frontenac:

    I thought the author was being ironic for the first paragraph… then realized he wasn’t. (!)

    Just like Mr. Wilson, Fortier is also convinced that dirty hippies from the Plateau are out of touch with reality:

    “Le MTQ a bien fait de tenir tête à la Ville de Montréal, qui voulait remplacer l’échangeur Turcot par une espèce de boulevard à deux voies qui aurait réduit la circulation de 20% à 40%. C’était bien beau sur papier tout ça, mais dans les faits, c’était une utopie. Un rêve. Un voeu pieux.”

    – Xavier

    PS: I predict a Rob Ford-esque candidate for Montreal mayor in 2012… and I wouldn’t be surprised if he/she won.

  15. @Xavier
    This not quite as bad. But this “driving is not a crime” schtick is quite strange. In the long term, it’s simply the more expensive, more stressful choice (imagine train service from Beaconsfield every 10 minutes during rush hour, compared to traffic jam+expensive parking downtown).

    It is strange – in Canada it’s generally harder to see whether news outputs are conservative or progressive compared to the States, which is much more polarized. But this highway project strangely brought out a lot of attitudes.

    As for the danger of a Ford-like mayor — maybe it’s a good thing after all that the suburbs demerged; it leaves Montreal proper being a much more urban entity. In Toronto, people within the former city boundaries voted for the ‘not-Ford’ guy.

  16. When I started to read this story, I though I would come away more informed, with a better understanding of the project. Instead, what I came away with was a foul green taste in my mouth.

    The way this project is talked down is disappointing. Cars are not going to go away any time soon. Commerce, life, and all those things require the roads, they require a way for people to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time – and no, public transit does not meet that goal for many people. Like it or not, the roads are needed, the flow of vehicle traffic into the city will continue for a long time to come.

    The current roadway is a disaster in so many ways, from splitting the city in two all the way to creating visual pollution of those who have to live near it. Most importantly, the constant traffic jams create incredible amounts of air and noise pollution for those living near the roadways. These traffic jams would not be resolved by shrinking the roadway or limiting travel. It would only serve to move those cars to surface streets. One only needs to look at the traffic on St Jacques going west at 5PM when the 20 is blocked to see what happens.

    All the bus lanes, tramways, and other trickery won’t change the basic situation, it won’t significantly reduce the number of cars on the roads, and it won’t change the traffic situation. Attempting to punish car users until driving is as bad as taking public transit isn’t going to fix things. The offering of public transit need to improve, while at the same time not raising their costs.

    Basic rule of thumb: If you make it too hard to get into the city, the city will move. One only has to look at the development of places like St Laurent, Laval, and even the Quartier 10-30 to understand that the city can move to where the workplaces, the businesses, and the stores are more easily reached by the customers. People have been fleeing the city for the burbs for years, and any more significant restrictions on car travel in the city will only lead to companies doing the same. Why pay downtown rents, be forced into public transit, or having to fight for the 3 remaining parking spots in town, when your whole company can move to more convenient locations that don’t face these problems?

    We can choose to be a society of Luddites, wishing that we were back in the 1900s, or we can look forward and move to make our city vibrant, desirable, and accessible. The choice is there to make.

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