All travellers arriving in Montreal from Dorval Airport via Autoroute 20 have seen the beast: a gigantic dark monster of overlapping sky-high lanes that link three highways, two urban expressways and the Champlain Bridge. It is the Turcot Interchange, a fixture so well known in the city that it's routinely called "Turcot."
Seen from under one of its viaducts, the Turcot is even more threatening than seen from afar. Although the Transport Department spends $50-million a year in maintenance, it looks like it is crumbling, and indeed it is, albeit so incrementally that no serious accident has happened. Still, as the Gazette recently reported, a sports complex located under the Décarie Expressway, at the southern tip of the Turcot, has closed its parking lot because chunks of debris were falling from the structure above.
What's worse? Driving on one of the over-congested Turcot highways or driving under one of its viaducts, looking up at the decaying concrete - while thinking about the overpass that collapsed in the northern suburb of Laval a few years ago, killing a total of five motorists?
It's what comes from being a city with a 400-year history: Montreal's infrastructure is old. And the necessary renovations often are left too late because of government negligence or are botched by contractors.
For years, the Turcot Interchange has been nightmare for its users. Built in the 1960s, it was originally designed for 60,000 vehicles. The daily flow is now 300,000, the increase partly due to the growth of the suburbs. But most importantly, the interchange is an essential hub for the transportation of goods in and out of a metropolis that has both a commercial and industrial vocation.
Despite its undisputed usefulness, the Turcot has been a nightmare for politicians, too. The interchange cannot be fixed. It must be replaced by a totally new structure. A reconstruction project first submitted in 2007, by the Transport Department, was heavily criticized by social groups and environmentalists because it would have increased the interchange's capacity, thus allowing more vehicles to pollute the area; and it was built at street level, thus leading to more expropriations. Last year, after much hand-wringing and ideological quarrels and public hearings dominated by environmental activists and tenants angry at the prospect of moving out, the city's executive committee came up with a fancy new proposal that would have cost $6-billion while reducing the hub's capacity by 20 per cent.
The dossier was then in the hands of a radical ecologist, Richard Bergeron, the leader of the third opposition party, "Projet Montréal." Although he had been elected by a clear majority, Mayor Gérald Tremblay had given two seats on the executive committee to the opposition parties, and subcontracted the responsibility of urban planning to Mr. Bergeron.
The Transport Department, which is the sole payer for Turcot II, flatly rejected the city's plan but went back to the drawing board and last week unveiled a project that most commentators consider a sensible compromise. The reconstruction will cost $3-billion - twice as much as the 2007 project - but it will not reduce the traffic flow while providing more green spaces and special lanes for collective transit. The bad news is that the reconstruction will go on for seven years, during which the nightmare will grow since the area will be clogged by both the old interchange and a huge worksite. But at long last, and this is the good news, a decision has been taken.