Ottawa is used to receiving – and rejecting – requests from the Quebec government for more control over federal programs and properties.
This time around, however, it's Ottawa that is trying to unload some assets onto the provincial government, and the Parti Québécois government that is rejecting the offer.
The Conservative Party's Quebec lieutenant and Infrastructure Minister, Denis Lebel, is confirming that Ottawa is willing to unload three federal bridges to the Quebec government for a symbolic amount. The federal government is arguing that its other bridges straddle provincial and national borders, which means that its links over the St. Lawrence, inside the Quebec territory, are expendable.
As it stands, Ottawa owns the Champlain and Jacques-Cartier bridges in Montreal, and the portion of the nearby Honoré-Mercier Bridge that straddles the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Ottawa is currently busy preparing for the construction of a new Champlain Bridge, as commuters in Montreal worry about the state of the 51-year-old infrastructure that needs the installation of an emergency "super-beam" to remain open to traffic.
Once its replacement is built, in the coming decade, Ottawa will gladly unload all three of its bridges in Quebec.
"As we announced on October 2, we are currently working on an accelerated schedule that will see the new bridge in service as early as is possible," said Marie-Josée Paquette, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lebel. "We are also open to listening to the proposals of the Québec government concerning the transfer of all the federal bridges in the greater Montreal area, once the new bridge is built."
Ottawa made its pitch after Quebec Premier Pauline Marois mused that Ottawa should pay for the new bridge, while leaving control of the project to the Quebec government. At this point, the cost of the massive project is estimated to be as high as $5-billion.
However, Quebec City has rejected the offer for the asset, at least for now. With over 160,000 crossings per day, the Champlain Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in the country.
"Our priority is to have a new bridge. We are not exploring the scenario of recuperating bridges from the federal government," said Yann Langlais-Plante, a spokesman for Quebec Transport Minister Sylvain Gaudreault.
Before Ottawa and Quebec City decide what to do with the ownership of the new structure, there are a series of other discussions that need to happen. For example, Ottawa is looking to impose tolls on the new bridge, while officials in Quebec City, Montreal and the suburbs on the South Shore argue that there is a need for a much more concerted approach to transport in the area. In addition, Ottawa and Quebec City still need to decide what kind of mass-transit system is put in place on the new Champlain Bridge.
Still, a Conservative official said it is ironic that Ms. Marois' Parti Québécois government was so quick to reject the offer.
"It's bizarre that they don't want to control that particular economic lever," the Conservative official said.
Daniel Leblanc is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.