Gérald Tremblay’s got the right idea

While Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay was announcing his vision (PDF, en français) for reworking his city’s whole approach to transportation, it’s very possible that I was — at that moment — sitting in traffic on the Métropolitain thinking, “God, what this place needs is a congestion charge.”

We went to Quebec City for a few days, and to get there, drove Autoroute 40 through Montreal. A section of it is an elevated “expressway,” the Met. Depending on the time of day, it’s either a parking lot or a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride of terror. Six lanes of traffic on a road that’s really only wide enough for four, no shoulders to speak of, and everybody bumper-to-bumper whether they’re moving or not. At one point I was going 100 in a 70 zone, moving with traffic, and was aggressively tailgated by a jerk in a white minivan who turned out — when he passed me using a hole in traffic about six inches longer than his vehicle — to be a cop. A supervisor, indeed.

Not that I’m complaining about Montreal drivers. They’re awful, but predictably so, and I like that they give no quarter. You know where you stand with them, whether you’re sharing the road as a pedestrian, cyclist or driver. You get your chance when you take it, and not a second before — in certain other cities, look vaguely interested in turning a corner and everyone screeches to a halt until you’ve made up your mind. It’s awful.

But the Met is a road at the outside edge of its capacity. Even drivers fearless enough to roar along at 120 kilometres an hour in quarters close enough to touch the cars on all sides of them can’t keep the thing flowing. It can’t be made wider. Any redesigned interchanges would certainly just funnel more traffic on, particularly at the Décarie. It’s potholed and crumbling, too; repairs would mean closing lanes, since there are no shoulders to reroute traffic onto.

The Métropolitain is probably the worst road in Montreal — in strong contention for the worst in Canada — but almost every artery gets almost as bad at rush hour. The city can’t take more cars. There’s nowhere for them to go.

So Tremblay is proposing some gutsy changes. In a $5.1-billion proposal, he includes about $400 million for new and improved roads, but the vast bulk of his plan is for bike lanes and new buses and trams and expansions of the Métro (a staggeringly expensive proposition, taking up $3.8 billion of the proposed budget, but I’m not sure what the alternative is in a city already so dependent on its subway).

The gutsy part isn’t the wish-list, though. Everybody has one of those. It’s in how Tremblay proposes to pay for the thing.

Yes, he wants vast sums of money from the Quebec and federal governments, but he also wants to soak drivers. Tolls on the bridges onto the Island of Montreal. A $1-a-space tax on paid parking lots (generating $120 million from an industry whose total revenues, according to the City of Montreal’s information are only $193 million a year). Possibly tolls — congestion charges, really — for cars using the island’s highway network ( “Le péage pour les déplacements en voiture sur le réseau autoroutier de l’Île de Montréal serait également envisageable.”), which the Gazette‘s economics writer Peter Hadekel supports.

And specifically, Tremblay proposes a 10-cent tax on every litre of gas sold in Montreal, up from the current 1.5 cents a litre (unchanged, the city says, since 1996).

While I’m not sure it’s right to link driving charges to funding public transportation — tolls and other fees should simply be for services consumed, independent of the city’s other spending priorities — I like Tremblay’s honesty about the problem. People can’t drive into Montreal more than they are now. It’s wrecking the place:

Montréal reconnaît que l’automobile n’est pas un moyen de déplacement durable. La place occupée par le réseau routier et le stationnement, la pollution, les nuisances de la circulation, etc., en sont autant d’indicateurs.

Montreal recognizes that the automobile isn’t a sustainable means of transportation. The space taken up by the road network and parking, pollution, the nuisances of traffic, etc., are many indicators.

There’s a long way to go before any of this becomes reality (the Gazette reports deep skepticism on Montreal city council that Tremblay can get any of the money for this stuff), but the mayor is pointing out the right problem, and good on him.

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