Harper unveils new bridge tax for Montreal commuters


I don’t ordinarily rant and rave about infrastructure projects, but this time the bridge in question is only a few miles from where I live and I just acquired a car, so bear with me.  This would be the Champlain Bridge, in case you’re wondering, and the controversy stems from the fact that the bridge, the most heavily used in Canada, and a vital artery between the Island and the south shore of Montreal as well as South Eastern Quebec and the U.S. border, is visibly deteriorating.  The framers of the Constitution of 1867 (aka “Fathers of Confederation”) in their infinite wisdom, included a reference to major bridges as being the responsibility of the Feds.  This means that when Transport Minister Denis Lebel announced last October that the Bridge would be finished by 2018 and would include a fancy design by internationally renowned Danish architect Paul Ove Jensen, he was well within his rights to do so.  What he failed to mention at that time, but which has since been confirmed by his boss, the Prime Minister, is that he will be imposing a tax on commuters, or as it is sometimes more euphemistically called by the government, a toll.

You might wonder why the government that is supposedly all about cutting taxes (GST, corporate taxes, etc.) is suddenly in favour of them in this particular case.  The answer to that contradiction might be found in a very simple political calculation based on the fact that the Harper government currently has no political upside in Montreal and probably never will.  They have written off Montreal politically as a hopeless, cesspool of lefty-nationalist-socialists who will never see Ottawa and especially this federal government, in a positive light, even if they’ve already invested millions in repairs and studies about the bridge since 2009.

But if the intention is to convince us that the bridge is a local matter, then Quebeckers aren’t buying it.  Not one notable elected official from the province has come out in favour of the feds toll bridge plan.  Starting with the NDP, who are currently mobilizing public support against the toll bridge by circulating a petition that denounces the government’s position for failing to consult with the public or other affected local groups before making their decision.

Montreal’s Mayor Denis Coderre is also on the warpath, claiming that he will fight the toll bridge tooth and nail and claiming that such a tax would not only be unfair to Montreal, but would also lead to greater traffic jams at other bridges and roads as drivers search for alternatives to paying the toll.  Although his attempts to unite the mayors of all the South Shore municipalities fell through due to an apparent lack of consensus on what should be done about the bridge. 

Coderre also said, somewhat inexplicably that he believed that the imposition of a toll would create a “doughnut effect” in downtown Montreal.  A term normally used by sociologists to explain a phenomenon in many major American cities, mostly during the 70s and 80s, whereby the flight of many middle class white people from city centres to the surrounding suburbs, thus leaving the urban core relatively empty and impoverished.

The plan is not going down well in Quebec City either.  The new Couillard government has made it known that they are opposed to Montreal commuters having to foot the lion share of the bill for the construction of the Champlain bridge (the estimated cost is 5 billion smackers).  Though one might have thought that a federalist government in the province would be more likely to gain some concessions from Harper, it appears that new Transport Minister Robert Poeti in his negotiations has come up empty-handed as well.

So what could possibly explain Harper’s intransigence?  There may be another slightly more sinister motive going on here.  That is the Harper government’s latent libertarianism lends itself well to the idea of user-pay government policies such as toll bridges.  Basically, according to this worldview, you only pay for what you use directly in society.  If you use the Champlain to get to work in Montreal every day, then, by this logic, you should pay for its construction, not me.  If we take this argument to the next level, however, it gets even more troubling.  Why stop at bridges?  Why not schools, hospitals and other vital components of our social and economic fabric in Canada.  I don’t have kids, why should I pay a school tax, and so on and so forth.

We need to realize that the Champlain is a vital piece of infrastructure for the economy of the greater Montreal area as well as Quebec and to denigrate the project as being about a “local bridge” as Harper has tried to do, is not only a spectacular understatement but also misleads the public entirely.


Other articles by David DesBaillets

Chickens coming home to roost on “open nominations” promise
What’s really behind the silence of Harper on the trial of Fahmy in Egypt
Harper has a bad day in court
The “Leprechaun” of Canadian finance takes his walk in the snow

Follow David DesBaillets on twitter @DDesBaillets


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