Populist planning

The provincial election campaign is underway in Québec. One hot issue is a planned tunnel beneath the St.Lawrence river between Québec City and its suburb, Levis. It will consist of a 2 x three lane highway: public transport is an afterthought, dropping in and out of plans depending on which way the wind blows.

The current government, led by François Legault, is strongly in favor of this $10 billion project, despite many commentators pointing out that Québec City is already very sprawled, that new highways generate traffic, and that – basically – the tunnel is not required.

Such concerns could be quelled if some basic transport and environmental analyses were performed. There are robust methods for analysing likely scenarios regarding traffic and pollution generated by major new transport infrastructure. If they can show the environmental benefits of this tunnel, or its imperative need for mobility purposes, then I am happy to stand corrected.

However, the government has chosen to keep secret traffic flow predictions, to not undertake comparative studies, and to put off environmental analysis.

Instead, on 1st September a prominent member of premier Legault’s party, Bernard Drainville, justified the tunnel this way (I am translating from the French):

Stop bothering me with greenhouse gases” – [the idea being that all cars will be electric by early 2030s].

“People are increasingly fed up being told ‘You don’t need [the tunnel]’. Oh yeah? So, come to our region, get in line morning or evening… Then you can tell me that I don’t need [this tunnel] […] The delay we put up with (using the two current bridges) doesn’t need to be studied”

This level of crass ignorance is concerning, especially coming from someone who will, in all, likelihood, be a prominent member of a majority government which will be making this $10 billion investment – and many other decisions for Québec.

Yves Boisvert – an editorialist for La Presse – has dubbed this the irritable tunnel syndrome.

Anyway, it is rather depressing: after writing about the provincial government’s autarkic approach to planning Montreal’s light rail system – the second phase of which has been put on hold, which is not much better than forging ahead with a bad plan – our politicians’ willing ignorance when faced with research or analysis that get in the way of pet construction projects could be a new theme…

New? Unfortunately, populism is old news.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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