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Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to the Opposition over the third link between Levis and Quebec City, at the legislature in Quebec City, on April 19.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government is abandoning plans to build a multi-purpose vehicular tunnel linking Quebec City to its south shore in favour of one that will be for public transit only, citing changing driving habits after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The so-called “third link” across the St. Lawrence River – after the Pierre Laporte Bridge and the Quebec Bridge – was a key promise of Premier Francois Legault during the 2018 and 2022 election campaigns to woo voters in the capital region.

Legault’s promises weren’t just designed to reduce traffic congestion but to show Quebec City-area voters that major projects could be realized in the capital and weren’t only destined for Montreal. But On Wednesday, the premier had to scale back his plans for the province’s second-biggest city.

“I believe that as a government, when there is a change in context, we must be able to adapt, we must be pragmatic and we must be responsible because we manage the funds of Quebecers,” Legault said during question period, in response to Liberal attacks that his word was no good.

Earlier in the day, the premier told reporters that Quebec City-area residents weren’t driving as much during rush hours compared with before the pandemic. “The impacts of remote work are enormous: we thought it would return to the way it was before the pandemic,” Legault said. “We see that there are significant changes in habits.”

Quebec City-area ministers Eric Caire and Bernard Drainville – both ardent supporters of the project – refused to answer journalists’ questions Wednesday morning. Transport Minister Genevieve Guilbault said she would provide further details during a news conference Thursday and release feasibility studies related to the project.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Guilbault defended the decision to turn the multi-purpose vehicular tunnel into one that is for public transport only. “We had to make a difficult decision, but one which, in our opinion, is a responsible decision,” Guilbault said. “We are a pragmatic government.”

Just a few months ago, ahead of the October election, Legault and his candidates campaigned on building a vehicular third link across the St. Lawrence River at a cost of $6.5 billion, knowing the project was popular in the region.

The tunnel was also a promise that helped Legault fend off attacks from the Conservative party, led by Eric Duhaime, who was polling high in the Quebec City area and whose major pledge had been to build a third bridge over the St. Lawrence.

“Forget all the nice words of the (Coalition Avenir Quebec) over the last 10 years it’s another betrayal of Francois Legault he is backpeddling completely,” Duhaime said Tuesday night during a livestream broadcast on social media.

Opposition parties welcomed the news Wednesday, with Quebec solidaire house leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois – who has always opposed the vehicular tunnel – calling it a “victory of common sense and science.”

Interim Liberal Leader Marc Tanguay also welcomed the change but criticized Legault for having stubbornly carried out two election campaigns with a “muddled promise without having the assurance that he could keep it.”

Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand, meanwhile, told a news conference Wednesday he was delighted with the decision and saluted Guilbault for shifting the plan.

“It’s not easy in politics to change your tune; I salute the courage of Ms. Guilbault,” Marchand said.

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