A few weeks before last October’s provincial election, François Legault and his star candidate in the Quebec City region stood on the banks of the St. Lawrence River to tout their Coalition Avenir Québec promise to build an underwater tunnel, one that would relieve traffic congestion between the capital and its south shore suburbs.
It was a gorgeous late-summer day and the setting, with the Château Frontenac looming in the background, picture perfect. But the press conference did not go smoothly as journalists fired questions at Mr. Legault and Bernard Drainville about the need for a costly “Third Link” that experts said would cause urban sprawl and higher greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in a region already served by two major bridges.
“Give me a break with the GHG,” an animated Mr. Drainville shot back at one point, arguing that by the time the tunnel was completed, most people would be driving zero-emission vehicles.
It was a political performance for the ages that was only to be outdone last week, when an emotional Mr. Drainville stood before reporters, this time on the verge of tears, to offer an apology to the voters of his Lévis riding after Mr. Legault’s government cancelled the project, citing the downward impact of remote work on traffic levels.
In announcing the cancellation, Transportation Minister Geneviève Guilbault said: “This project was necessary at one time, but the three-year pandemic has changed our lives so much that we don’t have a choice, factually and empirically, but to trust the numbers we have now.”
Instead of a $10-billion four-lane tunnel for cars, the CAQ now proposes a more modest tunnel exclusively for public transit for an undisclosed sum. But the new plan remains too vague to be taken seriously and was likely made to cushion the blow for voters who backed the CAQ explicitly for its commitment to the Third Link.
The significance of the CAQ’s broken promise cannot be understated. During the campaign, Mr. Legault made the Third Link a political hill to die on, touting the CAQ’s vision of the Quebec City region as “a second Quebec metropolis” and chastising Montrealers for “looking down” on their capital-city cousins. Commentators in the Montreal-based media had widely ridiculed the Third Link as an extravagant vote-buying scheme – which is precisely what it was. And it worked like a charm.
The CAQ won 16 of 18 ridings in the Quebec City area in the Oct. 3 election, holding back a challenge in the region from Éric Duhaime’s Quebec Conservative Party. In one local riding, the QCP candidate lost by only 220 votes; in another, the margin was 428 votes.
Mr. Duhaime is not alone in now accusing Mr. Legault and his candidates of selling voters a bill of goods in the 2022 campaign. He is circulating a petition calling for the resignation of CAQ MNA Éric Caire, who once tabled a private member’s bill that would have allowed for recall elections.
Alas, Mr. Legault would not let Mr. Caire resign if he wanted to. A by-election would allow local voters to vent and offer Mr. Duhaime a platform to win a seat. The anti-vaccine-mandate QCP, which last year won 13 per cent of the popular vote but no seats, had been losing steam in recent months as the pandemic faded.
Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has also seized on Mr. Legault’s broken promise, vowing to block federal funding for any future tunnel that prohibits car traffic. The federal Liberals had refused to commit funding for the Third Link in its initial configuration, helping to explain Mr. Legault’s about-face.
The thing is, a new crossing in the Quebec City region may well be needed in the future. The century-old Quebec Bridge and 53-year-old Pierre Laporte Bridge are both in terrible condition. Without major upgrades, they will need to be replaced. There are concerns about their safety, with government engineers ringing alarm bells in recent years.
The CAQ wasted its first term peddling its Third Link promise instead of working with Ottawa, which has jurisdiction over the Quebec Bridge, to fix the problem. The risk of both bridges having to be closed for repairs at the same time has risen greatly.
Mr. Legault, who has refused to apologize for breaking his Third Link promise, may figure that voter anger toward the CAQ will subside before the next election in 2026. He may be mistaken. His flip-flop on the Third Link is too spectacular to forget and reeks of cynicism. The more than 8,000 pages of documents released last week on the Third Link, many of them redacted, showed the government had conducted only preliminary studies concerning the project, raising doubts about how seriously the CAQ took its own promise.
It will not soon be forgotten.
Editor’s note: The number of ridings won by the CAQ in the Quebec City region has been corrected in the online version of this article.