A federal plan to rebuild and charge tolls on a key bridge to Montreal is renewing a wider debate over turning the region's network of bridges into Canada's first pay-as-you-drive metropolitan system.
Transportation Minister Denis Lebel said the federal government will launch a public-private partnership to build a new Champlain Bridge over the next 10 years at a cost of up to $5-billion, but "at little or no cost to the taxpayer."
Several municipal leaders in the Montreal region lined up behind the idea to pay for the bridge with tolls, some saying they should be charged on most, if not all, of the bridges leading to the Island of Montreal.
Tolls have long met strong resistance in Canada's biggest cities. Ontario has a 108-kilometre toll freeway bypassing Toronto, but the city's mayor, Rob Ford, campaigned against adding any new tolls in his successful election bid. Vancouver has a toll bridge, but suggestions of a wider network routinely die amid howls of suburban protest. Montreal had bridges with tolls for most of the 20th century. In 1990, the Champlain Bridge was the last to get rid of them.
Paul Leduc, the mayor of Brossard, a suburb right at the foot of the Champlain Bridge, says his community has long supported the principle that users should pay. The mayors of Montreal and Longueuil on the South Shore say more tolls are key to the future of the city's regional transportation system, and should be used on more, if not all, of the metropolitan area's bridges.
"In the 21st century, you have to find innovative ways to fund infrastructure. Tolls are one of the ways, and it's up to us to explain it to taxpayers," added Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay. "The right decision has been made here. There will be a bridge, there will be public transport on it, and there will be tolls."
Longueuil Mayor Christine St-Hillaire added that "everybody should pay. Tolls shouldn't be imposed just on the South Shore, it should be a metropolitan toll, not a toll on one community."
Only the Quebec government appeared to hesitate. Transport Minister Pierre Moreau, conspicuously absent from Wednesday's announcement, initially said he was against tolls, arguing they would unfairly penalize suburban commuters.
"It's not a privilege for people in Brossard, who work in Montreal, to have to go to Montreal. And, meanwhile, someone in Longueuil could use the Jacques-Cartier and not have to pay. I certainly can't ask local commuters to take a helicopter to go to the Jacques-Cartier or another bridge where there are no tolls," said Mr. Moreau, who represents a South Shore riding.
When reminded his ministry has a toll bridge northeast of Montreal which dings drivers from Terrebonne and Mascouche up to $7 for their trips into the city, Mr. Moreau said that bridge is a completely different case because it was new construction, not a replacement.
Concerned that his comments could create friction with Ottawa, Mr. Moreau later called a news conference to explain that he didn't mean to criticize the decision to build a new bridge. He said he only wanted to underscore the need for fair treatment of all commuters regardless of where they live.
Mr. Moreau explained his absence from the announcement, saying he was only informed about the event on Tuesday. Besides, it is a federal project funded entirely by Ottawa, he said.
The province is responsible for most of the bridges leading to Montreal, while the federal government owns spans running over the St. Lawrence Seaway to the south. But the federal Champlain Bridge, Canada's busiest, is a linchpin to Montreal's provincially run freeway system.
Parti Québécois transportation critic Nicolas Girard insisted that Quebec needs to be involved in the project to ensure that public transportation solutions such as a light rapid train be included as part of the bridge construction project.