Allison Hanes: In the Île-aux-Tourtes bridge fiasco, the good news is relative

Starting Monday, there will be two westbound lanes toward Vaudreuil-Dorion and one eastbound toward Montreal, for a total of three. That’s cause for celebration, to some extent.

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There was good news and bad news late last week in the ongoing saga of the cursed Île-aux-Tourtes bridge.

First, the good. Starting Monday, there will be two lanes open westbound toward Vaudreuil-Dorion and one eastbound toward Montreal, for a total of three. That’s cause for celebration, as it’s an improvement over the catastrophic one-lane-in-each-direction that has been in place since early December, when slab damage was detected on the aging stretch, requiring emergency repairs.

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The 87,000 vehicles a day that normally cross the interchange were forced to go from six to just two lanes, causing traffic jams and misery even when frequent crashes did not cause longer delays.

But the good news in this fiasco is relative.

Now we’re back where we were in November, when Transport Quebec found a new crack and announced that the decrepit stretch was only safe enough for three of the six lanes to be open. This configuration allowed a reversible third lane at rush hour to ease traffic, so there were two towards Montreal in the morning and two back to Vaudreuil-Dorion in the evening, with one of them going in the opposite direction.

At the time, that was considered very bad news. That capacity reduction came just two months after Transport Quebec finally reopened a fifth lane on the bridge, allowing a third lane for inbound or outbound traffic during peak periods, and two in the opposite direction.

For nine months, starting just before Christmas 2022, the Île-aux-Tourtes was reduced to four lanes (two in each direction), still creating chronic congestion.

Are you keeping track? Believe me, residents living on the western end of the island of Montreal follow these developments as obsessively as they do the Habs. And they will until a replacement for the dilapidated bridge is built next to the old one.

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Construction has been accelerated in view of the serious deterioration of the Île-aux-Tourtes. The inauguration of the first section of the new bridge is scheduled for the end of 2026. But that is not fast enough to avoid this series of cascading crises caused by maintenance failures and unforgivable inertia.

In retrospect, the two lanes that persisted in each direction for most of last year now seem entirely reasonable, even agreeable. But that’s because off-island residents have become so accustomed to the constant roller coaster of closures and reconfigurations that even the slightest improvement brings widespread relief.

But January is better than December only because December was so disastrous. And the debacle is actually worse this January than last January, when everyone thought things were terrible.

Now the bad news.

If you haven’t noticed already, the return to the third lane will only alleviate the infernal traffic during the afternoon rush hour. It will no longer change direction, because making the change every day is too complicated in winter. So, at least for the moment, the morning rush hour will continue to be just as painful.

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In addition, some of the mitigation measures implemented to deal with this disaster are being withdrawn.

For example, tolls on the Highway 30 bypass will be reinstated starting Monday, except eastbound between 5:30 and 9:30 a.m., as there is still only one lane open into Montreal. Since December, passage on Highway 30 has been free in both directions at all times to encourage some motorists to use an alternative, albeit much longer, route into the city.

Additionally, free travel on Exo trains and express buses for off-island residents will end at the end of the month. A new “favorable” pricing scheme is coming but has not yet been announced.

Fortunately, additional Exo departures, including a third train running in and out of Hudson every weekday, which began service on January 8, will remain. For now.

These measures (both the fare waiver and the additional trains) were a slight ray of light in a stressful situation. It’s unfair to start removing them prematurely, when we’re not even back to where we were in terms of bridge capacity this time last year.

In a rapidly growing region where public transportation service is limited, more trains are welcome. The Hudson Station parking lot hasn’t been this full in years. And it’s hard to find a spot in Vaudreuil, the area’s transportation hub. It shows that people will use public transportation when it is available, reliable and convenient.

The free tickets were an incentive to entice more people to get on the trains and off the roads, perhaps encouraging them to change their travel habits for good. It is not only a golden opportunity that must be taken advantage of, but a minimum compensation offer for those suffering from the nightmare of the bridge.

And let’s be real: While the Ministry of Transport says more lanes could reopen on Île-aux-Tourtes later this year (maybe five, probably never six), there’s no guarantee if or when that will happen. All measures to alleviate congestion should be maintained until that happens. Starting and stopping them all the time just creates confusion.

The current state of the bridge is still far from acceptable. And there is still a long way to go until the new Île-aux-Tourtes is ready.

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