Transit-dedicated Third Link tunnel a courageous decision for Québec City

By Harry Gow | Quebec

Apr 22

Taking a transit-first approach to mobility is increasingly common in large cities around the world, but is still considered politically courageous in North America. Therefore, Transport Action Canada welcomes the Québec government’s decision to cancel the multi-lane superhighway portion of the proposed Third Link (troisième lien) tunnel under the St. Lawrence River, between Québec City and Lévis, in favour of advancing the project as a transit-only tunnel.

Rather than reinforcing car-dependency and promoting sprawl, the Third Link, if now finally built, will become a rapid transit artery that supports sustainable development and walkable neighbourhoods on both sides of the river. As well as being a victory for the environment, this change could also help to address the rising cost of living. Depending on the final route, the transit tunnel could also provide a convenient connection from Lévis to High Frequency Rail at the Gare du Palais.

The construction of a tunnel has been under consideration for more than fifty years. By the end of the 1940s, the Government of Québec had become concerned that the Québec Bridge, built as a railway bridge in 1917 and adapted in 1929 to accommodate cars, would not be able to handle growing road traffic between the north and south shores of the St. Lawrence River. An initial 1963 project proposal for a tunnel between Lévis and the lower town of Québec City was dropped in favour of a suspension bridge to the west of town, and in 1970 the Pierre-Laporte Bridge was opened to traffic, just west of the original Québec Bridge, where the two shores are closest. Various other highway projects were carried out, to the point that Québec City now has the second highest kilometres of superhighway per person in Canada! 

A 1973-74 study showed that the geology under the St. Lawrence River was not an obstacle to tunnelling, and in 1979 a new report proposed a crossing at the Îsle d’Orléans, again as a highway tunnel, but 1980s budget cuts and downward trends in demographics once again led to the government shelving the project.

The idea was eventually revived, and in 1999-2000 a Tecsult feasibility study suggested a tunnel passing under the western point of the Îsle d’Orléans. A new centre-right populist political party, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) eventually took up the cause and made building the crossing an election promise. The CAQ won the 2018 provincial election, and again a Third Link was promised by its leader, François Legault. As we have since learned, this promise was made without any new research on population trends, origins and destinations, or need for a new crossing.

In June 2019, the ministry of Transport (MTQ) unveiled its proposal. Autoroute 40 would be extended to the south shore, with no entrance or exit on the Isle d’Orléans in order to protect it from development, although a new bridge from the north shore would be built to replace the old one. In October 2019, the MTQ added that the crossing would also link up the transit systems on both shores. Transit was in any case all the federal government would help finance, not the highway part.

In January 2020, the ministry came out with a new routing, linking the centre of Québec City to that of Lévis. The mayors of the two cities approved of this new arrangement, which would include seven stations for the tunnel’s transit component.  In May 2021, the government provided new details of its proposal: The tunnel would have one 19.4m tube – a larger diameter than any previously built – holding six lanes on two levels, and would be 8.3 km long. Ass before, no detailed studies were presented, but the cost was estimated at $10 billion. Fears were being expressed about the cost, and ÉquiterreAccès Transports ViablesTrajectoire Québec, the David Suzuki FoundationVivre en Ville and the Conseil régional de l’environnement de la Capitale-Nationale all partnered to form the Non au troisième lien campaign, predicting vast urban sprawl on the rural south shore if Third Link were actually built as a superhighway.

In April 2022, the government revised the project to a lower-cost version, estimated at $6.5 billion for two smaller tubes with two lanes each, and with one of the lanes to be reserved for transit in rush hour. The proposed superhighway remained unpopular with environmental groups and transit advocates, and the media and the opposition had become more vocal in demanding studies to justify the project’s expense; these were said to be underway and to be released in good time.  Later in the year, the CAQ received a new mandate, having won their second election partly as a result of the promise to build the Third Link.

The CAQ government had wanted to start the dig before the election, working toward a start to actual service in 2032. This did not happen, and there were still no figures to back the project up. The Minister of Transport did however promise that the link would be carbon neutral, a near-impossible goal for any project involving a highway. One minister, Éric Caire, promised he would resign if the project failed go ahead.

Finally, on April 20th, 2023 the Minister of Transport, Geneviève Guilbault, alone at the lectern, announced officially what most of Québec by now expected, that the highway portion of the third link would be abandoned, and that only a transit link would go ahead. She claimed that data showed significant changes in travel patterns post-COVID, and the the time savings for transit users would also be significantly greater then those for drivers would have been. The announcement did not indicate whether bus rapid transit was envisaged for the tunnel, an extension of the Québec Tramway project that the CAQ government has also confirmed, or a dual-use tunnel suitable for both.

In the wake of the announcement, Mayor Gilles Lehouillier of Lévis said he was disappointed to learn about the decision, since the highway version of project had looked set to go ahead just months before. Media and opposition reaction has framed this as a broken promise, adding to the disappointment and the anger of “betrayed” car-loving constituents. The provincial Conservatives hope to benefit from this change of plans at the polls, but will voters still be mad at the CAQ in three-and-a-half years, or will they warm to the idea of a rapid transit link worthy of a 21st century world-class city?

Photograph by Oran Viriyincy: Seattle’s transit tunnel, served by both buses and trams. Could this be a model for the Third Link?

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