Why does roadwork take so long in Montreal?
At the moment, St. Denis Street is a mess, with no parking and a single lane of traffic instead of two in each direction for several blocks, and it's going to stay that way for a good long while. Retailers and restaurants are dropping like flies, just like they did when St. Laurent was torn up a few years back. Since then, the Main is just not the same.
St-Denis is not the only street under major construction. Among others, Notre Dame is closed at Robert Bourassa going east; Dr. Penfield is closed as of today between Peel and Pine; Sherbrooke is going to be dug up soon between Peel and University; Atwater has only one lane open on the mountain going north; and major work is currently underway on Chemin Côtes des Neiges right after the General Hospital.
This is not including streets closing for concerts, fares, and demonstrations. Good luck driving in and out of downtown during regular business hours. Everywhere you turn in Montreal, it seems, there's roadwork clogging up the streets–and just wait until the Turcot Interchange construction really gets going!
Montreal's business community recently conveyed its frustrations to Mayor Coderre, asking for better coordination of worksites. According to Michel Leblanc, President of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, stores and restaurants are hurting. He's received numerous phone calls from merchants who say they're not going to make it because of the ongoing construction on their street.
What's slowing down the completion of roadwork? Is it the rigidity of our labour laws? Is it some clauses in workers' union collective agreements? Is it the lack of accountability?
I watched a video recently showing a road crew in the Netherlands install a tunnel underneath a highway in a single weekend. Why can't we be that efficient here in Quebec?
There may be a variety of solutions, but one of them is surely this: more competition when it comes to roadwork. A city that wants to be an economic motor has to be productive in the provision of municipal services. And to do that, the public and private sectors have to compete through an open auction.
Twenty years ago, the then-Mayor of Indianapolis broke with tradition and launched calls for tender, every five years, for the maintenance of a portion of the city's streets. Municipal unions could also bid, but had to measure up to private companies. The contract would go to the group offering quality work at the best price.
Who won the contract? City workers. They presented a lower bid than their private competitors, because they knew their work better than anyone else, and suddenly placed in a competitive situation, they had to be creative and find ways of being more efficient.
Similar experiments have been carried out successfully in other North American cities. And Great Britain has been on this track since the 1980s. Under the British "Best Value" system, all municipal services have to be evaluated at regular intervals to make sure that they're competitive and of similar quality to the best services found in comparable cities. Supply methods are also reviewed, and specialists and the general public are consulted on how to improve the system.
As my former colleague and Professor Emeritus Marcel Boyer pointed out a while back, the savings generated can then be redistributed to residents, but also to public sector workers in the form of better working conditions.
Driving in Montreal has become a serious headache — although that may be what some politicians and activists want, judging by a recent report from the Office de consultation publique de Montréal calling for a drastic reduction in parking spots to make driving… even less attractive and efficient in Montreal.
Efficient cities don't ban cars; they make it easy for all users — cars, buses, trucks, and bicycles — to get from point A to point B in good time.
Greater competition and sound policy reforms could accelerate roadwork. When roadwork is not well coordinated and not completed rapidly, people are encouraged to shop and engage in leisure activities outside the city, to the detriment of Montreal merchants.
Jasmin Guénette is Vice President of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.