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

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

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

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The 87,000 vehicles a day that usually cross the link were forced to squeeze from six into just two lanes — causing gridlock and misery even when frequent crashes didn’t cause longer delays.

But good news in this fiasco is relative.

We’re now back where we were in November, when Transport Quebec found a new crack and announced the decrepit span was only safe enough for three of six lanes to be open. This setup allowed for a reversible third lane at rush hour to ease traffic, so there were two toward Montreal in the morning and two back to Vaudreuil-Dorion in the evening, with one going the other way.

At the time, that was considered very bad news. That reduction in capacity came just two months after Transport Quebec finally reopened a fifth lane on the bridge, permitting a third lane of outbound or inbound traffic during peak periods, with two the other way.

For nine months, starting right before Christmas 2022, the Île-aux-Tourtes was reduced to four lanes — two in each direction — which still created chronic congestion.

Are you keeping track? Trust me, residents who live off the western tip of Montreal Island follow these developments as obsessively as they do the Habs. And they will until a replacement for the crumbling bridge is built alongside the old one.

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Construction has been expedited in light of how seriously the Île-aux-Tourtes has deteriorated. The first section of the new bridge is scheduled to open at the end of 2026. But that’s not fast enough to avoid this series of cascading crises caused by inexcusable maintenance failures and inertia.

In hindsight, the two lanes that persisted in each direction for the better part of last year now looks entirely reasonable — pleasant, even. But that’s because off-island residents have become so inured to the constant roller-coaster of closures and reconfigurations, even the slightest amelioration brings widespread relief.

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

Now for the bad news.

If you hadn’t already noticed, the return of the third lane will only ease the hellish traffic during the evening rush hour. It will no longer change direction, because making the switch each day is too tricky in winter. So, at least for the time being, the morning rush hour will remain just as painful.

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Also, some of the mitigation measures put in place to deal with this mess are being withdrawn.

For instance, the tolls on the Highway 30 ring road will be reinstated starting Monday — except heading eastbound between 5:30 and 9:30 a.m., given there is still only one lane open toward Montreal. Since December, passage on Highway 30 has been free both ways all the time to encourage some motorists to use an alternative, albeit much longer, route into the city.

Also, free rides on Exo trains and express buses for off-island residents will stop at the end of the month. A “favourable” new pricing scheme is coming, but has yet to be announced.

Thankfully, the additional Exo departures — including a third train in and out of Hudson every weekday, which began service Jan. 8 — will stay. For now.

These measures — both the waived fares and the extra trains — were a very faint silver lining in a stressful situation. It’s unfair to start withdrawing them prematurely, when we’re not even back to where we were in terms of bridge capacity at this time last year.

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

The free tickets were an incentive to draw more people aboard trains and off the roads — perhaps encouraging them to change their commuting habits for good. It’s not only a golden opportunity to be seized, but a bare minimum offer of compensation to those suffering through the bridge nightmare.

And let’s face it: While the Transport Ministry is saying more lanes could reopen on the 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 the congestion should be kept in place 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’s still a long way to go before the new Île-aux-Tourtes is ready.

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