Peter Black Column: Are we really missing a (third) link?

Peter Black Column: Are we really missing a (third) link?

mag_dec2016_coverThis column first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Are we really missing a (third) link?

By Peter Black

Back when there was not even one fixed link spanning the St. Lawrence, it was all so simple – though not necessarily convenient. If you wanted to cross le fleuve between Québec City and Lévis, you had two choices: Take a boat or canoe, or wait until winter froze the river and then cross by foot, horse-drawn sleigh or dogsled.

The ice bridge was a very popular thing in its heyday, even featuring cabanes along the way, offering travellers a shot of something warming (caribou, perhaps?) to ease their frosty journey. The impromptu publicans deemed the zone in mid-river “no-man’s-land” to avoid paying for a liquor license.

The ice bridges were rendered obsolete when more powerful watercraft began breaking through the ice. Before steamships came along in the mid-1800s, there was the brief era of “horse-ferries,” essentially barges powered by three or four horses going round and round, turning gears to propel the boat forward.

Meanwhile, railways were springing up all over the place, specifically Canadian Pacific on the north side of the St. Lawrence and Grand Trunk on the south side. While politicians dithered for decades over building a bridge near Québec City to connect these rail networks, opportunistic railway barons came up with an interim solution: the train ferry.LiQ_Sub_Dec2015

The ships, looking not unlike today’s double-decker car-carrier trailers, ran virtually non-stop, year-round, back and forth across the river, with rail cars as their cargo. At one point, there were three such train ferries working the loop, averaging some 3,000 cars of freight each month.

The completion of the Québec Bridge in 1920, after two fatal collapses during construction, put an end to the train ferries. When an automobile lane was added to the stupendous bridge nine years later, and then the Pierre Laporte Bridge opened in 1970, the die was cast for the current hubbub over a third link between Lévis and Québec City, which continues nearly five decades later.

There is a cacophonous chorus of commentary and opinion on the cross-river traffic situation, which Mayor Régis Labeaume stirred up in October with an apparent volte-face on his previous opposition to a third link. While rejecting a tunnel running under the river west of the Île d’Orléans because of its $4-billion price tag, Labeaume now says he’ll “do battle” for a third link, if it’s “rational.”

There is, of course, a simple, green pie-in-the-sky solution to the mounting traffic madness in the Québec-City-Lévis agglomeration: Take the bus. Unfortunately, despite the earnest efforts of the publicly funded transit corporations on the north and south shores, ridership is actually falling. According to the Réseau de Transport de la Capitale’s annual report for 2015, the overall passenger traffic tally of 45.2 million riders is down three per cent from the previous year. The same report notes that one in four commuters takes the bus to work.

Still, it’s apparently full steam (or electricity) ahead for the city’s Service rapide par bus (SRB) plan, which envisions a 38-kilometre network of dedicated bus lanes running between the D’Estimauville complex in Beauport and the Desjardins complex in Lévis, crossing the river on a dedicated lane on the Québec Bridge (thereby eliminating a car lane, we might add).

At least half of the SRB grid could be operational by 2022, according to recent reports, although there are serious misgivings about the project from various quarters. Critics point to Montréal’s light rail transit plan, rather than more buses, as the way of the future. Labeaume, though, has already abandoned the tramway plan he had once promoted with passion.

Another city-commissioned document, the 2010 Plan de mobilité durable, or sustainable mobility plan, paints a nearly apocalyptic scenario for the future of car traffic in the region. It predicts that if current trends persist, by 2021 there will be “between 20,000 and 40,000 additional cars on the road during the morning rush hour … The equivalent of three additional traffic lanes would have to be added to maintain a traffic flow of 2,000 cars per lane during the two-hour morning rush hour.”

So how would a third link across the St. Lawrence address the seemingly limitless need residents have to get around by car? Some observers say an additional bridge would only make matters worse by sending the message to folks on both sides of the river that the malls or whatever on the other side are more accessible. Studies prove if you build more roadways they will come, and keep on coming.

While politicians and planners try to sort out this gridlock of ideas to ease traffic in the region, fuming drivers are left to deal daily with the real thing.

Bring back the horse-ferries!

*Much of the history of river crossings mentioned here is from La petite histoire de la traverse de Lévis by Roger Bruneau (Ministère des transports, 1983).
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About Author

Peter Black

For years Peter Black was the producer of Breakaway, on CBC Radio One in Quebec City. Before arriving in Quebec City in the 1990s, he lived and worked in Ottawa and Montreal. Peter is married and has two sons.

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