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Turning Around Turcot

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Issue: 85 Section: Canadian News Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: public transit, transportation

September 28, 2012

Turning Around Turcot

New hope for highways on a human scale in Montreal

by Dawn Paley

The Turcot interchange. Photo: Axel Drainville

MONTREAL—After months of protests that captured the imagination of the world, things have quieted down on Montreal streets. But the impacts of the mobilizations, which began as a college-student-led rejection of proposed tuition increases and grew into a social strike, are still echoing throughout the city and the province. Environmentalists, anti-highway activists and community associations are but a few of the groups whose organizing is currently riding the upshot of a new government forced to take positions by ongoing neighbourhood organizing in Montreal and beyond.

"The Liberals had a reign of about nine years and we've seen pretty much the worst things that we’ve seen environment wise," said Bruno Massé, the coordinator of the Réseau Québécois des Groups Écologistes, a Quebec-wide network comprising 60 grassroots environmental groups. "Since the [Parti Québécois] took power, there's been a lot of optimism, but mostly people holding their breath," he said.

By the time the government of Jean Charest called elections on August 1, his government was left with little legitimacy in the eyes of a mobilized public. And while the September 4 election distracted from the popular agenda being set in assemblies in colleges and neighborhoods around Montreal and Quebec, it also marked what student associations called a victory when the incoming Parti Québécois cancelled the proposed fee hike.

Massé said that two big victories are on the horizon for environmental organizers: he expects the Gentilly-2 nuclear power plant to be shut down, and a moratorium to be achieved on fracking to extract shale gas.

The Plan Nord, one of Charest's most controversial policy pieces, is progressing as if nothing is changing, said Massé, though it could still be scrapped or changed since the enabling legislation has not been passed. The Plan Nord proposes the opening up of Quebec's northern territories to increased investment in the energy, mining, forest and wildlife sectors, as well as new transportation and communications infrastructure.

But another victory could be on its way, this time resulting from years of community organizing against freeway expansion. Late last week, Montreal's city council issued a surprise request to the PQ government to go back to the drawing board and re-design the Turcot Interchange so that it is on a human scale and prioritizes public transit.

The Turcot Interchange highway complex is Montreal's (and perhaps Canada’s) most famous spaghetti junction, made up of three separate interchanges that tower above cyclists and pedestrians in the streets below. A steady stream of cars and trucks roll up, around, and back down onto the roadways below. Cranes hover underneath the concrete structures, evidence of construction and maintenance work on the decaying elevated highway system.

The Turcot Interchange was unveiled on April 25, 1967, just in time for the World Exposition in Montreal. Once a stately showpiece of modernity and car culture, today the crumbling Turcot is at the centre of a debate about sustainability, transportation and the future of Montreal. The recent announcement by the City of Montreal follows years of community organizing against a new mega-interchange complex, as proposed by the Charest Liberals.

"Part of the idea of building this interchange was that people would be transporting themselves by car in the city, so it's to provide better car transport infrastructure," said Shannon Franssen, an organizer with Solidarité St. Henri and spokesperson for Mobilisation Turcot, a group formed to organize for transit and against highway expansion. "In the 60s that made sense as a vision...Nowadays we know that's not an efficient way to move around the city," she said.

The Quebec government's proposal would see the Ville-Marie highway enlarged, the Turcot expanded, and Highway 20 moved north onto one of the city's last remaining wetlands, at a price tag of $3 billion. But with the exception of a few new busses, the government plan doesn’t include any public transit.

"We have this opportunity here to make this smaller, more efficient highway interchange that has alternatives," said Franssen in an interview in Montreal. An estimated 70 per cent of the 290,000 vehicles that travel on the interchange every day are commuters. "There are way better ways to transport folks from the West Island to downtown, and most people that are in their cars, going through the interchange, don't want to be in their car."

Opponents of the expansion say its not that the interchange needs to disappear, but that there are alternatives to spending $3 billion to expand the towering highway system, which include an emphasis on rail and other public transit. "We're arguing with very precise proposals for a dedicated bus corridor [for commuters], plus accelerating the investment for the train in the West Island...and review the design to reduce the capacity of the highway," said Dr. Pierre Gauthier, a professor in geography at Concordia University.

Montreal has already demolished one urban interchange, which was on Parc Avenue leading into downtown, with great success. "The old one was this crazy thing and they decided that it was more than what was necessary in the city and so they they kind of dismantled that interchange, there's no tunnels there, and it is a good example of how we could be building things better, and how it has happened before in Montreal," said Franssen.

St. Henri, where Franssen works, is a traditionally working class, Québécois neighbourhood that has been impacted by the mega-highway for decades. It isn't only the daily nuisances of traffic jams and noise. There is, of course, the climate change impacts of the estimated 290,000 vehicles that travel through what are in fact three interchanges commonly known as the Turcot interchange every day. But there are also very real health impacts.

"The public health department has identified it as a risk to one's health to live within 200 metres of a highway where there are so many cars going through," said Franssen. "We hear stories about parents bringing their newborns into the hospital and saying, 'well they're having breathing problems' and this kind of thing, and the hospital, when [the hospital workers] find out that they live where they live, basically say 'well, this is an effect of living there, so that's just the way it is.'"

Public hearings about the highway received over 400 submissions from locals and concerned groups. According to Franssen, 95 per cent of them were against the Quebec government's proposal to rebuild the interchange. These petitions for a smaller interchange and for more public transit were largely ignored by the Quebec government until the city’s announcement last week.

In the face of government indifference, local organizers conducted various campaigns, articulating their own vision for the highway, handing out information, holding occupations and marching in the streets in solidarity with students and against austerity. These constant mobilizations, together with an increasing awareness even among the political class that highway expansion is a road to nowhere, may result in another important victory in the struggle for liveable cities and a healthy planet.

Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist based between Montreal and Mexico. This piece was written with support from Stop the Pave and was originally published on the Media Co-op.

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