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A drilling rig surveys the underground for the future project of a tunnel between Levis and Quebec City, in the Port of Quebec, on Sept. 2.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Even some of its harshest critics acknowledge that there’s a certain logic to the notorious Third Link.

The proposed commuter tunnel between Quebec City and the suburb of Lévis, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, would supplement two existing bridges, so that travelling a few kilometres as the crow flies would no longer involve a loopy 40-minute circumnavigation.

“If we asked a five-year-old to draw a link on a map, maybe that’s where they would put it,” says Angèle Pineau-Lemieux, a spokesperson for the coalition Non au troisième lien (No to The Third Link).

But for all its apparent banality, the tunnel has elicited passions beyond its effect on commute times in the provincial capital. During the current election campaign, the Third Link has become a controversial wedge issue and a battleground for Quebec’s environmental aspirations. The moderator of last week’s leaders debate called it the “elephant in the room.”

François Legault, leader of the governing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), insists the tunnel will be built in order to ease congestion, aid the booming growth of the metro area, and compensate the region for Montreal’s superior infrastructure. It helps that the project is popular in vote-rich Quebec City.

Critics say that it will encourage urban sprawl, deepen Quebec’s dependence on the car and add disastrously to the province’s carbon footprint. They present the Third Link as a potential Waterloo for Quebec’s cherished self-image as a green society.

“About 80 per cent of Quebeckers in polls say they want to reach our greenhouse gas targets, understand the urgency of fighting climate change and say that it’s important for them,” Ms. Pineau-Lemieux said. “Often where the difficulty lies is in transforming that willingness, shared by Quebeckers, into real gestures.”

The gap between Quebec’s environmental rhetoric and action has been noted by scholars for years. The province’s long-standing disdain for Alberta oil did not prevent a greater proportion of Quebeckers (92.5 per cent) from owning a licensed vehicle in 2009 than the Canadian average. The province added 140,000 SUVs and other “light trucks” to its roads in 2020 alone.

Although Mr. Legault often boasts that Quebec has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in North America, much of that record is thanks to its heavy use of hydroelectricity, which the province developed for economic rather than ecological reasons.

“Quebecers are more preoccupied than the average Canadian with environmental questions such as climate change, air pollution and lake preservation,” the pollster Jean-Marc Léger writes in his 2016 book Cracking the Quebec Code (co-authored with Jacques Nantel and Pierre Duhamel). “But they are also the group that makes the fewest changes to actually reduce energy consumption, conserve drinking water and compost.”

The Legault government has defended the green bona fides of the Third Link. By the time the tunnel is projected to enter service in 2032, the CAQ expects more than a million electric vehicles to be plying Quebec roads; the party vows to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars three years after that. More driving won’t necessarily mean more pollution, they argue.

“Christ, it’s not complicated: We’re going to be building more electric cars,” said Bernard Drainville, the party’s candidate in Lévis and a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister.

The emissions impact of the tunnel will be further reduced by allowances for public transport, Mr. Drainville argued. At least one of the four lanes – which are divided between two underwater tubes – will be dedicated to bus traffic during rush hour, connecting strap-hangers to the tramway network currently being built in Quebec City.

Opponents of the Third Link are “closed to the facts,” the former talk-radio host said. “It’s become chic to be against the Third Link in certain Montreal circles.”

Transportation experts who are critical of the tunnel have bristled at the government’s aggressive counterattacks. Marie-Hélène Vandersmissen, director of the Laval University geography department in Quebec City, resigned from a parliamentary committee on transportation last year after the Transport Minister accused Third Link critics of lying.

In an interview soon after the incident, Prof. Vandersmissen maintained that the project would worsen urban sprawl in the region and add to greenhouse gas emissions without improving traffic, because more people would simply be encouraged to drive.

“It’s like someone who eats too much and just keeps buying bigger pants and a bigger belt,” she said.

Every major party in the campaign leading up to the provincewide vote on Oct. 3 has a proposal for the Third Link. The Parti Québécois would build a light-rail train under the St. Lawrence; the Conservative Party of Quebec would build a road bridge; the Liberals have suggested a possible tramway connection between Quebec City and Lévis.

For their part, the left-wing and proudly green Québec solidaire would cancel any ground transportation across the eastern portion of the river. The party points to the immense cost – an estimated $6.5-billion for the CAQ plan – and argues that Quebec needs to more thoroughly reimagine how it moves people and builds communities.

“That project is becoming a symbol of what’s wrong with François Legault’s vision of the ecological transition,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the party’s co-spokesperson, said in an interview last year. “We cannot continue to spread and spread and spread. … We need to take a turn away from that model. It’s a model essentially of the 1950s.”