The river dump is hardly Montreal’s biggest problem

The sewage diversion is part of the Champlain Bridge project, but not the important part.


A lot of Montrealers are upset about a plan to divert eight billion litres of wastewater into the St. Lawrence River, but the idea of pumping $5-billion into a new, toll-free bridge over the river? Not so much.

Yet the choices being made for the new Champlain Bridge will have a much greater impact on Montreal ecology than the temporary diversion of sewage that, just a few decades ago, was regularly dumped untreated all along the island’s shoreline. (Construction of the new bridge is, incidentally, the main reason for the sewage diversion.)

Opponents of tolls, including Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like to think that they’re championing the rights of the little guy, but they are in fact opposing a polluter-pay system that will not only help reduce carbon dioxide emissions but could help cut traffic congestion and curtail the billions of dollars lost when vehicles, goods and labour are left idling on the island’s roads every day.

That’s not just the opinion of granola-crunching environmentalists, it’s also the viewpoint being promoted by an economic think tank out of McGill University that includes former Quebec premier Jean Charest. In fact, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission is recommending the implementation of a pilot project to turn all of the island’s bridges into toll roads, with variable rates that would encourage a more efficient use of the transportation network in off-peak hours.

The city’s official opposition party, Projet Montréal, is also calling for a public debate on the issue of toll roads, insisting on the need for a coordinated policy for the entire Island. Party leader Luc Ferrandez says placing a toll on the Champlain, the busiest bridge in the country, could be “catastrophic” if it’s done in isolation.


champ brTraffic, like water, likes to take the path of least resistance. Tolls are one of the most efficient ways to redistribute the pressure in our network of public highways, acting as adjustable valves that encourage commuters to explore alternate itineraries, including off-peak travel and public transportation.

As the Ecofiscal Commission notes, “Greater Montreal has extensive commuting to and from the central Island of Montreal. Relatively widespread congestion; an existing, time-varying toll on the Autoroute 25 bridge connecting the Island; and plans to replace — and toll — the aging, highly used and federally owned Champlain Bridge. The natural cordon formed by the island provides a practical opportunity to implement variable pricing on the full array of surrounding bridges and tunnel, harmonizing tolls and reducing congestion throughout the area.”

Acknowledging that opposition to the idea will be strong, especially among current commuters, the Commission suggests trial periods for “congestion pricing,” which would allow the city/province to study the effect on traffic flows and adjust fares and schedules to better meet the goal of reducing traffic snarls.

In other cities, such trial periods have managed to turn around public opinion on tolls after drivers concluded that the time saved was well worth a few dollars a day.

New technologies also allow the toll operators to easily modify tariffs and schedules without the need for physical toll booths, so such a system could be highly adaptive and take into consideration things such as road closures and holidays.


The Ecofiscal Commission isn’t suggesting that changes be implemented overnight. It’s report (download it here) is intended as a starting point for public discussion and it is proposing a process that starts with, avant tout, clearly defined objectives. Its own goals centre on reducing traffic congestion, but other considerations include the issue of where toll revenues are to be spent. The user fees could go to expanded public transit, infrastructure development and maintenance or into general government coffers.

But if Ottawa and Quebec continue using the type of “public-private partnership” that built the two Montreal superhospitals and is slated to build the new Champlain Bridge, we could easily find ourselves giving away both potential revenues and the ability to shape and coordinate regional objectives. Tolls are part of the current agreement between Ottawa and the consortium hired to build the bridge, which is contracted to operate the new structure for 35 years. Trudeau has promised to abandon the toll concept, but that’s a promise that can’t be kept without re-opening the contract and, no doubt, considerably raising the eventual cost to Ottawa of building the bridge.

Leaving tolls in the hands of a PPP is hardly a better option, as we have seen so clearly in the MUHC superhospital’s Glen campus, where the private partners established parking fees of up to $50 a day and are even charging $60,000 a year in rent to auxiliary organizations whose main function is to raise funds for medical equipment. Tolls set by the bridge PPP (which like the MUHC consortium, includes disgraced Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin) are more likely to be driven by the desire to maximize profit than any social consideration, and the fallout will quickly be felt on the remaining bridges.


light railNo one like to pay more for something, especially when they’re already unhappy with the current  level of service. But the island’s bridge, tunnel and road network has been financed by all taxpayers, not just the ones who commute in from Laval, Brossard, St-Lazare or Repentigny. It is essential that these infrastructures be designed to accommodate the long-term interest of the wider public and not just the needs of private commuters. To that end, we need to encourage a hard look at options being tested and used around the globe to reduce congestion and pollution here on the Island of Montreal.

And that most assuredly includes tolls and improved public transit.

The construction of the new Champlain is a critical juncture in the future economic and ecological evolution of our jewel in the St. Lawrence. Now is the time to discuss what we want that future to look like and to take steps to ensure that public interest trumps private profit.

Let’s not piss away this opportunity just because some off-island motorists aren’t willing to pay the equivalent of bus fare to cross the bridge each day. ■


Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.