Montreal·Analysis

How Philippe Couillard went from environmental hero to zero in under a week

On Tuesday, Quebec's Liberal government earned praise for its sustainable mobility plan. By Friday, it had burned through that goodwill from environmentalists like an SUV through a full tank of gas.

Government's plan to extend Highway 19 eroded hard-earned praise from environmentalists

Premier Philippe Couillard promised to spend as much as $600 million extending Highway 19 north of Laval. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It was a roller-coaster week for the Liberal government's reputation as a steward of the environment. 

On Tuesday, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard unveiled a long-term sustainable mobility plan. The product of months of consultation, it was widely hailed by environmentalists for promising "new ways" of dealing with congestion issues.

As part of the plan, Couillard promised to spend an additional $2.9 billion by 2023 in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut commuting time by 20 per cent by 2030.

The largest share of the money — nearly $1 billion — will go toward boosting public transit offerings in the province's biggest cities.

"The policy testifies to the government's strong engagement toward more green and more efficient mobility," Karel Mayrand, head of the Quebec branch of the David Suzuki Foundation, said after the announcement. 

But Couillard's government managed to burn through that goodwill quicker than an SUV goes through a full tank of gas.

The Highway 19 extension project would connect Highway 440 in Laval with Bois-des-Filion. (Radio-Canada)

'Profound incomprehension'

On Friday, the premier announced his government was spending between $500-600 million to extend Highway 19 north from Laval to the bedroom community of Bois-des-Filion.

The announcement stunned the very same environmentalists and public transit advocates who had been lauding the government just days earlier.

Mayrand took back the compliments he had paid the Liberals. In a series of angry tweets Friday, he said the Suzuki foundation was "dismayed at the announcement, which goes against the sustainable mobility policy released only three days ago."

Equiterre's Steven Guilbeault, who took part in the consultations for the province's mobility plan, said he felt "profound incomprehension" at the decision to extend the highway, which currently reaches the 440 in Laval. 

"They tell us they're going to do things differently, and then the first thing they do is propose a transit solution that is 50 or 60 years old and doesn't work," Guilbeault told Radio-Canada. 

Few will contest that congestion in the suburban areas north of Montreal has worsened in recent years. A study released earlier this month found that in Laval, and the communities just north of it, the number of hours lost in evening traffic doubled between 2014 and 2017.

But building more highway is only likely to aggravate that problem by encouraging more people to take their cars to work, say critics.

Their concerns are backed up by what planners refer to as the "fundamental law of highway congestion," a concept first explored by U.S. economist and transportation researcher Anthony Downs in 1962.

The Liberals also recently announced large investments in a tramway system in Quebec City and a Metro extension in Montreal — both more in line with their mobility plan. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Since then, empirical research has confirmed that original idea: traffic volume on urban highways will always reach capacity at rush hour.

In other words, building new highways — or expanding existing ones — does not reduce congestion; it may, in fact, do the opposite.

Increased congestion also leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. Already, an estimated 43 per cent of Quebec's total emissions are produced by the transportation sector.

"There's an incoherence between the highway extension and the goals the government set out in its mobility policy," said Samuel Pagé-Plouffe, coordinator for the public transit lobby group Alliance Transit. 

The Liberals have also spent large sums in recent weeks to push forward plans for a tramway system in Quebec City and a Metro extension in Montreal — both more in line with their mobility plan.

Oft-promised, never delivered

Pagé-Plouffe wondered why the government ignored other, more environmentally friendly solutions in favour of the highway.

The provincial environmental review agency had recommended Quebec build an "urban boulevard," while other groups have suggested a commuter train line that would link the area to the Montreal Metro system.

"We're concerned that the decision was politicized by the election that's coming up," said Pagé-Plouffe.

The project will cut through at least one riding — Vimont — where the Liberals are facing a stiff challenge from their main rival, the Coalition Avenir Québec. 

Yet whatever the rationale is behind the Liberals' decision, the Laval highway extension is one of those infrastructure projects that is oft-promised, but quickly forgotten.

It was first discussed in the 1970s, and former premier Jean Charest vowed it would be built by 2015.

That gives Pagé-Plouffe hope that it's not too late for an alternative plan to be drawn up. 

"There's is still a chance for the government to study its own mobility plan. And not just the government, but for the other parties to put different solutions forward, as well," he said.

With files from Radio-Canada

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