This 2004 photo shows the eastbound Ville Marie Autoroute (A-720) at EXIT 4 (De La Montagne Street / St. Jacques Street) in downtown Montreal. (Photo by Alexander Svirsky.)
THE FIRST EXPRESSWAY TO BE MAPPED: What is known now as the Ville Marie Expressway first appeared in a 1949 traffic and mass transit study commissioned by city officials. The study called for the construction of an expressway "in an east-west direction between the river and the mountain" from the Mercier Bridge (QC 138) north and east to the Jacques Cartier Bridge (QC 134) above the CN Railroad right-of-way. A subsequent traffic study estimated a peak traffic load of 6,000 vehicles per hour for the expressway.
As construction began on the Metropolitan Autoroute (A-40) across the spine of the island, the location of the "East-West Expressway" - as it was called originally in planning reports - remained mired in controversy. Under the original plan announced on March 24, 1960, the six-lane expressway was to be elevated along the CN right-of-way as it is today from the Turcot interchange (the junction of A-720, A-20, and A-15) to Guy Street. However, instead of tunneling under downtown as it does today, the expressway was to continue along a viaduct toward Rue de la Commune and the waterfront. One controversial part of the plan called for the demolition of historic Marche Bonsecours, creating a new urban marketplace instead underneath of the piers of the elevated roadway.
Preservation groups fought the proposed expressway out of fears that it would decimate the historic old city (Vieux-Montreal)--the plan would have eliminated 40% of the old city--while officials from the Port of Montreal expressed concern that the piers of the elevated highway would interfere with port operations. Despite Drapeau's desires, the waterfront route was rejected in favor of an inland route that was to be built below grade through downtown. On April 9, 1964, the city reached an agreement with the Ministère de la Voirie du Québec (MVQ) on the route of the expressway from the Turcot interchange (with the Decarie Expressway / A-15) to the Lafontaine Autoroute (A-25) at Souligny Avenue. It was conceived as an important link in Autoroute 20, the main east-west autoroute through Quebec.
CHANGING THE FACE OF DOWNTOWN AND SAINT-HENRI: Demolition began in 1965 and continued for five years on the right-of-way from the CN's Turcot Yards through St. Henri, a blue-collar community whose industrial base already was in decline when the Lachine Canal was closed in 1959. Originally planned for an alignment along St. Antoine Street (then known as Craig Street), the expressway was re-routed to avoid demolition of the Bell Building at the corner of Atwater Avenue and St. Antoine Street. However, this led to the demolition of dozens of "triple-decker" houses along Selby Street.
Transitioning into downtown, the expressway was to dip south toward St. Jacques Street - where an underground interchange was planned with the Bonaventure Autoroute (A-10) - before veering back north toward an alignment along Viger Avenue. The Ville Marie extension meshed well with Drapeau's master plan to redevelop downtown from a mix of low-rise residential and mixed-used buildings to one of modern skyscrapers and sprawling plazas.
More than 850 homes and businesses (most notably the Craig Terminal, which was used until streetcar service ended in 1959) were demolished to make way for the Ville Marie Autoroute. Perhaps most controversial was the removal of Viger Gardens, a landscaped square between St. Denis and St. Andre streets.
On October 18, 1970--in the midst of Quebec's "October Crisis"--Premier Robert Bourassa announced plans to start construction of the expressway immediately, employing 4,000 workers. The initial section from the Turcot interchange to the Jacques Cartier Bridge was estimated to cost C$105 million. However, the final cost ended up totaling nearly C$500 million, including design, engineering, expropriation, and other costs, by the time this section finally was completed in 1987.
This 1968 sketch portrayed the then-proposed "East-West Expressway" built in a trench through downtown Montreal. The expressway eventually was built for the most part in a cut-and-cover tunnel. (Sketch from "Study for Section C Next to Place d'Armes, September 1968; City of Montréal, City Planning Department; from archnewsnow.com.)
FROM TURCOT TO DOWNTOWN: As the sprawling high-level Turcot interchange between A-15 and A-20 opened in 1967, ramps were built for the eventual construction of the Ville Marie Autoroute. Following the hilly terrain of St. Henri, both carriageways of A-720 were built on split-level viaducts running about four kilometers (2.5 miles) long. The westbound lanes were built from three to six meters (about 9 to 18 feet) above the eastbound lanes, and toward the Turcot interchange the westbound lanes are cantilevered over the eastbound lanes. Construction of the elevated section began in 1970, and by November 1972 the initial three-kilometer (two-mile) section of the autoroute from the Turcot interchange to EXIT 3 (Guy Street) was opened to traffic.
TUNNELING UNDER DOWNTOWN: The original plans for the autoroute from Guy Street through downtown called for the construction of a trench similar to that built for the Decarie Autoroute. As properties were condemned and torn down to make way for the expressway through downtown, officials decided instead to build the expressway underground from Guy Street east to Bleury Street. The tunnel was designed to reconnect and expand the downtown business district to the Old Port; it also was built to avoid disturbing Victoria Square. Construction of the tunnel required not only the closure of a number of streets, but also the realignment of tracks and platforms just west of Victoria Station (Gare Centrale).
The first tunnel complex - called collectively as the "Ville Marie Tunnel" - is comprised of 8.4 kilometers (5.2 miles) of tunnels ranging in width from one to five lanes built for not only the Ville Marie Autoroute, but also the connections to the Bonaventure Autoroute. The tunnels were built using a "cut and cover" process in which workers cut trenches for the tunnel and covered them as work progressed. A number of ventilation fans circulate air and remove exhaust from the tunnel.
The mainline expressway was placed as much as 10 meters (31 feet) below the surface in a trench 42 meters (130 feet) wide separated by a high concrete median. To close up the expressway, engineers constructed a series of caissons 0.9 to 1.2 meters (about three to four feet) in diameter that support reinforced concrete girders, which each measure 1.8 meters (five and one-feet) wide. These girders provide support for the cover.
New skyscrapers, plazas, and parking lots were built atop the tunnel. From Bleury Street east to Sanguinet Street, the expressway was built in a trench, but air rights were reserved for future development. The "Ville Marie Tunnel" and the open-air section from EXIT 3 east to EXIT 6 (Vieux-Montreal / Old Port) opened in 1974 after four years of construction.
These 1972 photos show construction of the Ville Marie Autoroute (A-720) at the downtown tunnel section (left photo) and the eastbound ramp leading from EXIT 3 / Guy Street (right photo). (Photos from the Archives de Montréal and the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec.)
TOWARD THE CARTIER BRIDGE: The rise of Parti Québecois (PQ) after the 1976 elections, along with strident community opposition in urban areas, formally suspended many stillborn projects including the Ville Marie Autoroute through the Hochelaga and Maisonneuve neighborhoods. However, construction proceeded on extending the expressway toward the Jacques Cartier Bridge.
In 1979, work began on building the "Viger Tunnel," an eight-lane cut-and-cover tunnel extending east from Sanguinet Street to St. Andre Street. Viger Square, a three-block-long concrete park designed by Charles Daudelin (a Canadian sculptor and landscape designer who was prominent in the brutalist movement), was built atop the tunnel. The one-kilometer (0.6-mile) long tunnel - stretching from EXIT 6 to EXIT 7 (Papineau Avenue / Jacques Cartier Bridge) was opened to traffic in 1985.
The last section connecting the eastbound lanes of the autoroute to Notre Dame Street was opened to traffic in 1987. There is a signalized intersection with Papineau Avenue, but no turns are permitted at this intersection (all turns are from the EXIT 7 ramp).
In 1990, the Ville Marie Autoroute formally received the A-720 designation. The expressway originally had been given the A-20 designation on paper, but the road never was signed as A-20. According to the Ministere des Transports du Quebec (MTQ), A-720 carries as much as 160,000 vehicles per day (AADT), making it one of the busiest highways in the province.
This 2006 photo shows the westbound Ville Marie Autoroute (A-720) on the elevated section at EXIT 2 (St. James Street). The Turcot interchange with A-15 and A-20 is just ahead. (Photo by Laura Siggia Anderson.)
EXTENDING THE CONVENTION CENTER OVER A-720: In 1999, work began to double the size of the Montreal Convention Center (Palais de Congres du Montreal) to 133,000 square meters (1.43 million square feet). To accommodate the C$250 million expansion, engineers devised a plan to extend the convention hall above the Ville Marie Autoroute - which at the time was in an open trench - for a distance of 300 meters (930 feet) between Bleury and St. Urbain streets.
The most difficult part of the project occurred between April and September 2000, when lanes were closed for the demolition of the existing center median and south support wall. A new south wall and center median wall were built to for the 21-meter (65-foot) wide beams that straddle the expressway and support the expanded convention hall. The floor of the expanded hall - which forms the roof of the expressway - was designed to support a 300-ton crane. The deck also supports a relocated fire station.
Engineers also devised a ventilation system to move exhaust from the tunnel. A new mechanical room was built with nine 200-horsepower axial flow fans that produce an airflow of 1.4 million cubic feet per minute. The extended center median wall also seals off airflow so that the ventilation system can push air in the same direction as traffic flow.
The expanded convention center opened in 2002 as part of the Quartier International urban revitalization project. This project included the construction of the headquarters for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) over an existing lid over the expressway between Victoria Square and the convention center, revitalization of Victoria Square and other public spaces in the immediate area, and the addition of 1.3 kilometers (0.8 mile) of space to the city's underground pedestrian network.
ADDRESSING VIADUCT SAFETY… In June 2007, MTQ inspectors on a routine maintenance shift found a critical crack in one of the 200 pillars supporting the Ville Marie viaduct. Repairs on the crack, which was found where the expressway crosses Greene Avenue, necessitated periodic lane closures (and complete closure to heavy trucks) from the Turcot interchange to the Ville Marie Tunnel through the rest of that summer. A more thorough inspection found structural problems in three additional support pillars, as well as crumbling concrete that exposed corroding reinforcement bars. Further east, MTQ officials closed A-720 through downtown for several days in September of that year after inspectors found structural flaws in the deck where Bleury Street crosses the autoroute.
The MTQ repaired the pillars, fixed faulty expansion joints and drainage problems, and replaced concrete and reinforcement bars. Provincial officials say the Ville Marie viaduct could last another 30 to 35 years, but some engineers are pressing the MTQ to rebuild the Ville Marie Autoroute closer to ground level as the agency prepares for the C$1.5 billion Turcot interchange replacement project.
AND TUNNEL SAFETY TOO: The MTQ estimates the cost of maintaining the Ville Marie and Viger tunnels at C$3 million; about C$1 million of this amount is for power expenses. In recent years, the MTQ has upgraded lighting, ventilation, and electrical systems, as well as added new cameras and monitoring systems. The agency is considering replacing the ceramic tiles in the tunnels (which cost C$50 each to replace) with painted concrete walls to save long-term maintenance costs.
Following a smoky vehicle fire in the Ville Marie Tunnel in 2001, firefighters addressed concern to the MTQ that the existing ventilation system was inadequate. The MTQ then sought the advice of National Research Council Canada to evaluate tunnel ventilation. Through a series of twice-yearly overnight tests in which the Ville Marie Tunnel is closed to traffic - these tests still are being conducted - researchers are learning how best to control ventilation fans in case of a fire.
EXTENDING THE CAP WITH A NEW HOSPITAL COMPLEX: The MTQ and the City of Montreal plan to build concrete cover over a 700-meter (0.4-mile) long section of the Ville Marie Autoroute between St. Urbain and Sanguinet streets. Completion of the cover would connect the area around City Hall with Chinatown, and would complete the underground highway between the Ville Marie and Viger tunnels. The air rights would be developed for a new 700-bed French-language teaching hospital and research facility operated by the University of Montreal Hospital Center (CHUM). The C$186 million deck and the C$1.3 billion "super-hospital" currently are scheduled for completion in 2013.
This 2007 photo shows the eastbound Ville Marie Autoroute (A-720) at EXIT 4 (Mountain Street / St. James Street) at the beginning of the Ville Marie Tunnel. (Photo by Ultima8432 from Wikipedia.)
CLEARING THE WAY TO AUTOROUTE 25: As work began on rebuilding the Ville Marie Autoroute through downtown, the province went ahead in 1970 with acquiring rights-of-way for the extension from the Jacques Cartier Bridge (QC 134) through Hochelaga-Maisonneuve to the proposed terminus of the Ville Marie Autoroute at the Lafontaine Autoroute (A-25). A total of 1,200 homes were demolished along a nine-kilometer (5.6-mile)-long right-of-way.
An interchange with A-25 was built in anticipation of the proposed extension. In addition, three overpasses to accommodate an eight-lane freeway were built along the Souligny Avenue right-of-way at Haig Avenue, a CFB-Montreal base access road, and Cadillac Street. (These overpasses were left unused until 1999 when the MTQ built a four-lane connection from A-25 south to Dickson Street on the Souligny Avenue right-of-way.)
As the decade progressed, however, opposition mounted along the length of the proposed route. Taking a cue from groups in Toronto (who stopped the Spadina and Scarborough expressways) and other North American cities, community groups petitioned the MTQ to stop work on the Ville Marie extension. The rise of Parti Québecois (PQ) after the 1976 elections formally ended many stillborn autoroute projects. In 1978, the province formally canceled the project, diverted most of these funds to build a four-lane arterial boulevard along Notre Dame Street, Dickson Street, and Souligny Avenue. The A-20 designation subsequently was removed from the already built section of the Ville Marie Autoroute and redirected onto the South Shore via the Champlain Bridge.
Over the following two decades, congestion mounted on Notre Dame Street as commuter traffic between downtown and the Lafontaine Tunnel had to compete with local traffic from the adjacent community, as well as with trucks from the port and nearby industrial parks. By the end of the 1990's, the four-lane artery handled about 90,000 vehicles per day. The congestion, high percentage of heavy traffic (about 15%), and numerous traffic lights - and the safety and pollution problems they posed - prompted the MTQ to reconsider its opposition to extending what now was known as A-720.
THE PROVINCE'S FREEWAY PROPOSAL: In 1999, the MTQ advanced a C$250 million proposal aimed at completing A-720 as a full freeway along the right-of-way. The freeway, which was to be built within a 69-meter (214-foot)-wide right-of-way, was to have the following design characteristics:
There were to be six through-traffic lanes built in a trench about eight meters (25 feet) below ground, with ramps connecting to local streets; the freeway was to have a 70 km/h (45 MPH) speed limit.
Landscaped "caps" were to be built above the autoroute to provide views of the St. Lawrence River and downtown Montreal; this was to be similar to what was done above the Delaware Expressway (I-95) in Philadelphia.
There was to be a two-lane busway built at grade level immediately south of the trenched autoroute.
There was to be a landscaped, multi-use (ped-bike) path built at grade level immediately north of the trenched autoroute.
There was to be a two-lane road to be used exclusively by trucks serving the Port of Montreal built immediately south of the parallel CN railroad tracks.
THE CITY'S BOULEVARD PROPOSAL: Finding an unwelcome reception to the MTQ proposal at public hearings, city officials countered with their own scaled-down, C$150 million proposal that proposed an upgraded urban boulevard instead of an expressway within a 52-meter (161-foot)-wide right-of-way:
In the center median, there was to be a two-lane busway. The busway was to be flanked by three-lane carriageways in the eastbound/northbound and westbound/southbound directions. All roadways were to be built at grade level and priority traffic lights at only a few intersections would regulate traffic flow; these lights would be kept at green during morning and afternoon rush hours. There were to be no additional grade separations.
As was the case in the freeway proposal, there was to be a landscaped, multi-use (ped-bike) path built at grade level immediately north of boulevard, as well as a "port road" for trucks built immediately south of the parallel CN railroad tracks.
This 2007 photo shows the eastbound Notre Dame Street at Lorimier Avenue near the Montreal approach to the Jacques Cartier Bridge. The MTQ plans to expand Notre Dame Street as a landscaped urban boulevard with enhanced transit, port access, and multi-use trails. (Photo by Christopher DeWolf, www.spacingmontreal.ca.)
REACHING A COMPROMISE FOR THE A-720 EXTENSION: On June 6, 2002, the MTQ and the City of Montreal reached a compromise on the "Rue Notre-Dame Modernization" after three years of debate at contentious public hearings. The compromise solution proposes a ground-level urban boulevard along 80% of the corridor, with the major exception a tunneled section beneath Pie-IX Boulevard and a proposed public park. From north to south, the expanded route would include a multi-use path, a landscaped embankment, a two-lane busway, an eight-meter (25-foot)-wide landscaped right-of-way, and six through-traffic lanes separated by a median strip. As in the original boulevard proposal, priority traffic lights would be placed at only a few intersections and kept at green during morning and afternoon rush hours.
The rebuilt Notre Dame-Dickson-Souligny corridor, which could carry the A-720 designation once completed (based on the kilometer posts signed on the current "Souligny section," would be rebuilt from west to east as follows:
Beginning at the Panet Street overpass near the CBC-SRC complex, the existing eight-lane A-720 would narrow to six lanes. A new overpass would be built to carry Papineau Avenue over the A-720 extension, and a new entrance ramp would be built from Panet Street to A-720. A cut-and-cover tunnel would be built beneath the Jacques Cartier Bridge and Lorimier Avenue.
The eastbound lanes of Rene-Levesque Boulevard would be extended east to the A-720 service road (as the westbound lanes extend from Notre Dame Street do now). New slip ramps from westbound A-720 and to eastbound A-720 would be built at this location.
New priority signal-controlled intersections would be installed at Iberville Street, Frontenac Street, Alphonse D. Roy Street, and Davidson Street. A grade-separated turnaround would be built west (south) of Alphonse D. Roy Street; during peak periods, traffic from Alphonse D. Roy and Davidson streets would be unable to turn left directly onto eastbound A-720, so motorists would have to travel westbound and use the turnaround.
There would be a grade-separated interchange at Pie-IX Boulevard. Slip ramps would connect Pie-IX Boulevard with the extended A-720 in both directions.
A cut-and-cover tunnel would be built to connect both sides of Morgan-Champetre Park. A new priority signal-controlled intersection would be installed at Viau Street.
As A-720 departs the Notre Dame Street corridor, the Dickson Street corridor also would be upgraded to a six-lane artery. Landscaped rights-of-way would provide a buffer from nearby industrial areas. Grade-separated interchanges would be built at the existing Dickson Street intersections with Notre Dame Street and Souligny Avenue.
The Souligny Avenue section would be rebuilt as a six-lane freeway from Dickson Street east (north) to A-25; the unused southbound overpasses along this corridor would be used. Landscaped rights-of-way would provide a buffer from nearby industrial areas.
Under the compromise solution, the A-720 extension would be a built within a 52-meter (161-foot)-wide right-of-way and likely will have a speed limit of 60 km/h (40 MPH). The C$750 million project--its cost far exceeding the C$65 million projected cost for a freeway section as planned in 1964--was scheduled to have begun in late 2008 with a completion date of 2015, but construction has been delayed indefinitely. In the meantime, an anti-highway coalition based in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve ("Coalition Pour Humaniser la Rue Notre-Dame") proposed an alternate plan that keeps the existing four-lane arterial while adding a light rail or tram line.
LEFT: This scale model from a 1971 presentation shows the extended Ville Marie Autoroute (then proposed as A-20) looking west (south) from the A-20 interchange and Souligny Avenue. (Photo from the Archives de Montréal and the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec.) RIGHT: This diagram from a 2005 report shows the "modernized" Notre Dame Street (possible A-720 extension) as a landscaped boulevard heading west (south) toward the Jacques Cartier Bridge and downtown Montreal. (Diagram by Ministère des Transports du Québec.)
REHABILITATE FIRST, THEN FINISH THE FREEWAY: The existing Ville Marie Autoroute first should be rehabilitated to address ongoing safety concerns. Once this is finished, the autoroute should be extended as a full freeway from the Jacques Cartier Bridge to A-25 and the Lafontaine Tunnel. The freeway should be capped through residential areas. If the C$750 million is going to be spent, it should not be spent on a half-solution that keeps signalized intersections and thus does not address safety and pollution concerns fully.
SOURCES: "First Report to the Municipal Council," Montreal Board of Research on Traffic and Transportation Problems (1949); "Volume of Traffic for the Proposed Expressway System, Based on Projections for the Year 1981," Ville de Montreal, Service de la Circulation (1961); "Trans-Canada Highway Route Set" by Myer Negru, The Montreal Gazette (4/10/1964); "A Study of the Existing Montreal Expressway System" by Dominic Mignogna, McGill University (1969); "Final Report of the Public Hearings Commission on East-West Expressway," Conseil de Développement Social du Montréal Métropolitain and Montréal Council of Social Agencies (1971); Distances Routières, Ministère des Transports du Québec (1983); "The Ville Marie Expressway Is Being Built in Slow Lane" by Robert Winters, The Montreal Gazette (11/01/1986); "The Ville Marie Is Being Extended Again" by Justin Bur, Transport 2000 (Quebec) Hotline (October 1999); "City of Lost Dreams" by Kristian Gravenor, The Montreal Mirror (10/26/2000); "Quartier International: Special Planning Program for the International District," Ville de Montreal (2000); "Viger Square Transformed" by Patrick Lejtenyi, The Montreal Mirror (8/26/2004); "Modernization of Notre Dame Street," Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2005); "Montreal Tunnels Undergo Safety Inspections," Journal of Commerce (9/06/2006); "The Downtown Area Will Be Redrawn" by Sara Champagne, La Presse (12/09/2006); "Quebec Considers $1 Billion Plan To Rebuild Turcot Interchange," CBC News (1/12/2007); "Abandoned Turcot Rail Yards Come to Life With Creative Vision" by Andy Riga, The Montreal Gazette (2/05/2007); "Truck Ban on Ville Marie Expressway Lifted, but Lanes Still Closed," The Montreal Gazette (6/10/2007); "Pillar Cracks Need Immediate Fix" by Rene Bruemmer, The Montreal Gazette (6/11/2007); "Quebec To Demolish Crumbling Turcot" by William Marsden, The Montreal Gazette (6/29/2007); "Montreal Commuters Facing Major Expressways Tie-ups," CBC News (8/10/2007); "Structural Flaws Closes Montreal's Bleury Overpass," CBC News (9/14/2007); "Ville Marie Expressway Viable for 30 More Years, Expert Says" by Andy Riga, The Montreal Gazette (10/16/2007); "Notre Dame Street: This Time, It's for the Better" by Sebastien Rodrigue, La Presse (11/21/2007); "City, Province Abandon Their Green Trappings To Build Expressway" by Henry Aubin, The Montreal Gazette (1/31/2008); "Breathing Easier in Montreal Tunnels," National Research Council Canada (February 2008); "Notre-Dame Makeover Opponents Take to Street," CBC News (4/18/2008); "Hospital Project Not So Super, Doctors Say," The Montreal Gazette (9/18/2008); "Mayor Wants Answers on City Issues," The Montreal Gazette (11/13/2008); Project de Reconstruction du Complexe Turcot: Etude d'Impact sur l'Environment, Ministère des Transports du Quebec (2008); "Price Tag of New Superhospitals Ballooning" by Matt Chesser, The McGill Tribune (4/07/2009); "City of Montreal Voices Concern Over Rebuilding Turcot Interchange," CBC News (6/17/2009); Félix-Mathieu Bégin; Christopher DeWolf; Richard Dupuis.
A-720 and A-20 shields by Wikipedia. Lightpost photos by Douglas Kerr.