Case for a City State No. 1 – Champlain Bridge Replacement Project is Federal Extortion

Sadly, we won't be getting anything like this - six lanes,  plus a bike lane and covered tunnels for light rail and express buses
Sadly, we won’t be getting anything like this – six lanes, plus a bike lane and covered tunnels for light rail and express buses

I’ve decided to start a series I hope will help make the case for why our city needs to evolve into a city-state responsible for its own internal affairs.

I firmly believe this is the ideal future political arrangement for the city and greater region of Montreal.

We must become Maitres Chez Nous.

Moreover, I believe Montreal is the ideal city within Canada on which to experiment because I’m convinced the people living here are fed up with having nearly zero control over how our taxes are spent locally. If you think of local taxpayers as shareholders in the corporation of the city of Montreal (and yes, it is incorporated), then we’re getting a shitty return on investment.

Though we have the structure of a democracy at the municipal level, it exercises so little actual control over how our city develops and operates it’s ultimately politically useless. Time and again important decisions concerning the future of our city are made by unelected officials who don’t even live in our city. It’s an unsustainable situation that needs to change immediately. Why bother voting at the municipal level at all when seemingly all of the most important urban planning decisions are made by other levels of government?

Our current political situation consistently leads to corruption, collusion, nepotism, price-fixing, fraud and the worst kind of Duplessis-era ‘reward politics’. A couple weeks back the Prime Minister, in justifying his position that the new Champlain Bridge should collect tolls, reminded Montrealers of how ‘unique’ our situation is:

“Our willingness to construct a new bridge … in the Montreal area is quite unique. This is not an international bridge, it is not an interprovincial bridge, and there is no other case in the country where the government of Canada alone is building such a bridge.”

In other words, ‘shut the fuck up about tolls and be grateful you’re getting anything at all you lousy bastards who don’t vote for me.’

Notice that the same guy who has been gutting the federal government of all it’s revenue-generating crown corporations wants this one to keep right on going. No privatization scheme, and certainly no talk of eliminating the Jacques-Cartier and Champlain Bridge Corporation by turning over control of the bridges to the city. Strange too that the prime minister would take such an active role in what’s supposed to be an ‘arm’s length government agency’.

He’s completely unwilling to step up to the plate to save Canada Post or the CBC, but Montreal’s bridges require his direct involvement?

Let’s take a step back and really think about what’s going on here.

1. We (the people of Greater Montreal) need a new link from the island of Montreal to the South Shore to replace a bridge which is falling apart.

2. The existing bridge is defective and was built by the federal crown corporation that’s in charge of most of the major bridges spanning the Saint Lawrence and the Seaway. Corners were cut to get the job done as cheaply as possible and maintenance wasn’t at the necessary level. An agency of the federal government didn’t do its job properly and, as such, we have to deal with a bridge that is in need of constant inspection and repair.

3. The reason the Fed is in charge of our bridges is because, once upon a time, the Fed had the bulk of the expertise and the capital to execute infrastructure mega projects. Today things are different; the city of Montreal could, if it were permitted to, raise funds and find local firms with the expertise to design and build a new span (be it a bridge or tunnel).

4. But given that this isn’t the case, the Fed calls all the shots. Without consulting the public, without holding a design competition and without even considering alternatives to a bridge (such as a precast concrete tube-tunnel, which would last longer and be cheaper to build), they decided (for us) that we will get a new bridge according to their design. It is estimated to cost $5 billion, but given the cost overruns of just about every major infrastructure project built locally or otherwise involving federal administration, most assume it will invariably cost more.

5. And now the Prime Minister is telling us that we’re to pay for it with tolls.

6. The people of the region of Montreal are being forced to accept a $5 billion loan from the federal government to build a bridge we weren’t consulted on.

This is extortion.

If we’re going to pay for this bridge both indirectly (through taxation) and directly (through tolls), we should at least wind up owning it, but according to the prime minister, the bridges – once tolls pay for it – will be transferred to the province, not the city.

The people who are going to pay the bulk of these tolls live on either side of the Saint Lawrence. The residents of the South Shore need it as much as the people of Montreal. Indeed, the economy of Montreal needs it the most. And yet, we’re completely cut out from having anything to do with its design or function.

If the Fed and Quebec City can’t come to an agreement over tolls or how to include public transit access, do we really expect they’ll figure out a way to at least maintain it properly?

In our city’s history it has often been the case that disagreements between the federal and provincial governments have resulted in megaprojects that never seem to work as intended.

As you might imagine, what with recent news about a possible light rail system on the Champlain Bridge, it’s so far proved just about impossible to come up with a solution.

Recent news is that the current provincial transport minister wants another year to study whether having a light rail mass transit system is even worth it. He then further justified his decision to take an entire year to further study something blatantly obvious because the city of Montreal isn’t in a position to develop light rail.

This is coming from Robert Poeti, the same man who holds the AMT’s purse strings. It’s the AMT (another unelected arm’s length government agency) that would plan, develop and execute any light rail, as funding would have to come through the province.

So, to recap:

1. A bridge we weren’t consulted on is being built by the Fed with the intent to transfer it to the province after the people of Greater Montreal pay for it via tolls.

2. Any mass transit light rail system would have to paid for by the province and the province says we shouldn’t expect anything before 2023 because Montreal doesn’t have a light rail system (which hasn’t been planned and has no planned funding).

3. Montreal doesn’t have the means or the authority to develop a light rail system on our side of the river without the province’s involvement and direct financial support.

4. The bridge is supposed to be completed by 2018; current designs do not include provision for mass transit.

5. The province has decided to study whether eco-friendly mass transit on the busiest bridge in Canada is a good idea.

This is government for you. Sometimes it’s a miracle anything gets built or works at all.

And speaking of extortion, SNC-Lavalin is looking for nearly $200 million more for the MUHC superhospital. It’s arguing that slow decision-making by the MUHC, work stoppages and ‘work not included in the initial program’ is what justifies their recently leaked demand for more money. Among others, they cite the bridge they had to build to attach the hospital to the above ground ‘underground’ parking lot, even though they were initially required to build underground and include a tunnel to the multi-modal Vendome station.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. SNC-Lavalin bribed two top executives with the MUHC – among them Arthur Porter – with $22.5 million to ensure the company would get the contract to build the new hospital. They also stole their competitors designs, threatened others and by all accounts will deliver a hospital that is over budget, prematurely outdated, inaccessible and with an insufficient number of beds.

And they want more of our tax dollars.

As I said before, think of yourselves as share holders in the various levels of government you pay taxes to.

Are any of us getting a good return on our investment?