covering Décarie Expressway Autoroute

Denis Coderre’s plan to cover the Décarie Expressway: ludicrous

It’s a classic election promise: A good idea, albeit with a mangled presentation, that will almost certainly never happen.

Denis Coderre has come out with one of his first big ideas. Unfortunately, what he’s proposed and the image he’s using to sell the idea are quite literally opposites of one another.

Take a good look at the above image.

Coderre has stated that his party will seek to cover the Décarie Expressway from Queen Mary to Côte-Ste-Catherine, turning the covered section into a park. 

That’s a great idea. The problem is that the image Ensemble and Coderre are using to promote the idea shows Côte-St-Luc to Queen Mary covered, and then shows that Queen Mary to Côte-Ste-Catherine isn’t covered. The intersection in the foreground of the above image is where Côte-St-Luc road crosses Décarie, not Queen Mary.

So what? Honest mistake?

Perhaps. Perhaps something got lost in translation on the way to the designer who was commissioned to draw the image. It is a little peculiar that no one at Team Togetherness, least of all Côte-des-Neiges lieutenant Lionel Perez (the guy whose office faces the Décarie Expressway just north of Queen Mary) has noticed that the image they’re using literally shows the opposite of what they’re proposing and which has been widely reported. Cult MTL reached out to Perez for comment, which he refused, despite the fact that he was listed as a contact on the press release. Questions sent to the party’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Lemay, went unanswered.

It’s worth pointing out too that so far no one in local media (other than the intrepid journalists here at Cult MTL) has realized the error either. 

That said, it’s also worth considering that while Coderre has attached a dollar figure to this endeavour — an estimated $700-million — it’s not clear whether that’s just for the Queen Mary to Côte-Ste-Catherine section or whether it’s the whole Décarie Expressway (or the whole thing minus the Queen Mary/Côte-Ste-Catherine segment).

Complicating matters is that the proposal also suggests reducing the number of lanes on the Décarie service road on both sides of the park. While this would certainly make the new park more accessible, it would also cause a perennial traffic jam. Reducing the roadway capacity on the service roads just at the location of the park would cause a bottleneck on the already generally congested roadways. Reducing the number of lanes the entire length of the Décarie Trench would solve the bottleneck problem, but only by extending the reduced capacity of the roadway over a much longer distance. Furthermore, Team Coderre hasn’t quite explained how two-lane highway off ramps, such as the one in the Queen Mary to Côte Ste-Catherine segment, are supposed to merge into a reduced number of surface road lanes.

Denis Coderre’s plan to cover the Décarie Expressway: ludicrous

If you read the fine print of the press release, Coderre is really only proposing to — you guessed it — conduct a study as to the feasibility of covering over the trench, but you’d hardly know that from how the story was reported over the past few days, which almost makes it seem like construction crews are already pouring concrete slabs. Coderre himself may be to blame for this, given that his announcement of his party’s intention to follow through on conducting a study could be described as a “great day for Montrealers” (I suppose it will be a super terrific fantastic amazing day if this thing actually gets built). 

What Coderre was careful not to mention was that the Décarie Expressway is technically provincial government property and very much their responsibility. If anyone’s going to be calling the shots on developing the highway’s aerial construction rights, it will undoubtedly be the province of Quebec. Don’t get me wrong — I’d prefer this wasn’t the case, but it’s unclear how exactly Coderre intends to wrestle control out of the hands of the province, especially given that auctioning off development rights over a covered highway could be potentially very lucrative for the province. Assuming Coderre can work with Quebec to realize this goal, I doubt the province will agree to any proposal where exploitable property development isn’t reserved for the majority of reclaimed land. If Coderre’s cost estimate of $700-million is actually accurate, and only covers the Queen Mary to Côte Ste-Catherine segment of the trench, then we’re talking about a very expensive new park indeed, almost prohibitively so.

Some may make the argument that it’s the province’s responsibility to cover over the trench since they installed the highway in the first place, but let’s be realistic: Nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars is a hell of a lot of money to spend on a part of town that votes Liberal at two government levels irrespective of what the candidates say or do.

All this aside, don’t get the impression that this isn’t a worthwhile endeavour — it is. I just don’t think that Coderre has really thought this through. His team’s use of a promotional image that shows the wrong part of the trench covered leads me to this conclusion, it’s all a bit broche à foin. 

The exposed highway trenches absolutely should be covered over, and putting a park on top is the best possible thing we could do, both to improve our living environment as much as the city’s environment more broadly speaking. If you’ve ever lived in Côte-des-Neiges or NDG near the trench, you know that everything is pretty much constantly covered in a thin layer of grime kicked up from the highway. Closing off the trench would likely have an immediately positive effect on the quality of life of the citizens of Montreal’s most populous borough, not to mention likely increase property values as well. Moreover, if the project further involved the installation of some kind of industrial-sized air purification system (to suck air out of the tunnels and clean it before being pumped back out), all the better.

But again, this is an expensive proposal. Changing minds to the point where large-scale investments are driven by positive environmental impacts is something that should have happened 30 years ago and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Coderre hasn’t presented this as an environmental project as much as a city beautification one. 

While the presence of a park would not only increase property values and invite new development projects, it would also add new pressure and potentially displace residents. Trench-facing apartments have been some of the least expensive in the city for many decades for fairly obvious reasons, so there will be considerable renoviction pressure if the highway is covered and a park is built on top. However which way the project is paid for, those parties involved will want to recoup their losses through new development projects. While there will doubtless be a lot of interest in new park-facing, condos, the construction of new condos doesn’t necessarily free up residential units elsewhere, and the presence of new expensive units tends to drive prices up around them, too. So while there’s a lot of interesting possibilities that might come out of this proposal, without proper and effective management, this could just be a very expensive public subsidy of luxury condos most Montrealers can’t afford. 

Final thought: not including a surface tram was a bit of a missed opportunity. Something’s going to need to take cars off the road if the plan is to reduce traffic lanes, and the orange line’s western branch is already at capacity. A surface tram, along with the park proposal, would be truly transformative.

But before we get to that, Denis Coderre needs to tell us what part of Décarie he actually wants to cover up. ■

Read more articles by Taylor C. Noakes here.