By Justin Bur
INFO 2000 10:3, October 1999
Twenty-five years ago, the Ville-Marie Expressway cut through downtown Montreal, separating Old Montreal from Sainte-Catherine Street with a noisy strip of trenches, tunnels, and ramps. East of downtown, 1200 homes in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood were demolished, but the expressway was left, incomplete, as an "urban boulevard". Now there are plans to widen the roadway and complete the expressway all the way to the Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine Tunnel – a dream highway planners have cherished for at least fifty years.
This dream is Hochelaga-Maisonneuve's nightmare. Already the four-lane "urban boulevard" that replaced Notre-Dame Street creates a steady noise level between 62.5 and 73.5 decibels, all day long, as well as a high level of dust and noxious emissions that brings the incidence of respiratory ailments well above the average for Montreal. The areas closest to the boulevard suffer from a particularly high vacancy rate and the commercial strip along Sainte-Catherine is dying.
The Quebec Ministry of Transportation plans to build a six-lane freeway to replace the existing four-lane road through Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and to build a new segment to link up with the Lafontaine tunnel. The only concessions to the residents who live alongside: to lower the roadway by one metre, and to build a pedestrian passage above the road to link Morgan Park, in the centre of Maisonneuve, to ChampÍtre Park along the waterfront.
The neighborhood mobilized quickly. Within three weeks of its creation, the Table d'amÈnagement du quartier Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (TAQ HM) brought together half a dozen community groups and many individuals. They alerted their neighbors, issued press releases to explain the consequences for the neighborhood of the highway project, and organized an informational event at Morgan Park on 26 August, which was attended by several hundred people. During the afternoon, the noise level on the existing urban boulevard was measured every hour (84 dB each time); a doctor was invited to speak about health problems made worse by living near a highway; children made models to show how city life could be improved; corn on the cob was served.
Most importantly, the neighborhood's demand was stated: that the expressway be tunneled through Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. According to Normand Robert, one of the organizers of the event, it would have been impractical to completely oppose the highway. "When you've already got a whole network in place except for a 2.6-km stretch, it's pretty hard to prevent that last stretch from being built. So let's stop talking about "urban boulevards" and admit that it's an expressway, and put it into a tunnel so the residents of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve can live in a healthy environment."
The Ministry of Transportation had hoped to proceed quickly by decree, without public consultation. The neighborhood protest forced the ministry to request (24 August) an environmental impact study from the Bureau d'audiences publiques en environnement (BAPE). The issue will therefore soon be debated in public. For Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, this will be a debate that must not be lost.