What’s really behind the city’s Swiss cheese roads
With the winter now long behind us, Montrealers are also getting the springtime reminder of more potholes and more construction. As the weather gets nicer, construction sites are popping up across the city to deal with our ever-deteriorating road system.
The melt of ice and snow also brings with it the further destruction of many of the city’s roads. Government sources and many industry groups often point to Quebec’s “rough winters” as the culprit for our pockmarked roads and subsequent neverending construction projects to fix them.
But Quebec is not the only place with a cold climate either, so what makes our roads particularly bad? Is it the weather, size of our road network or poor construction? Turns out it’s a combination of all those things.
How potholes happen
According to Transport Québec, potholes are closely linked to the state and age of the road. When cracks form in the pavement, water infiltrates and causes the asphalt to split as traffic drives over it.
With increased vehicle traffic, especially from heavy vehicles such as trucks and busses, more cracks form and more water infiltrates into the road, causing it to crack further and break up.
This creates a vicious cycle of road degradation, further compounded by shorter and more erratic winters where freeze and thaw cycles have increased.
The reason given by the Ministère des Transports du Québec for the undeniably bad state of many of our roads has been the same for years. Due to the sheer size of Quebec’s road network and our harsh winters, the ministry argues that they are costly to maintain and cannot be compared to other countries.
According to the MTQ, Québec has a total of 325,000 km of roads managed by the provincial and municipal governments and shared between 8.4M people. On the other hand, the number in Ontario is roughly 250,000 km of roads shared between a much larger population of about 14M.
So coupled with harsher, wetter winters, Quebec has to manage a larger road network with a smaller tax base. This example is even more apparent when comparing to higher density regions like New York State or Nordic countries in Europe. But this reason doesn’t account for the quality of workmanship nor the design of roads.
Modern road construction is generally composed of a foundation and a shell, made of asphalt. Most techniques and materials are standardized across North America, where nearly all localities use an asphalt shell known as Superpave. All except Quebec.
“It is difficult to compare roadways in Quebec with those of other countries and therefore difficult to import technologies without doing in-depth analyses,” reads the MTQ’s website with regards to why it uses another type of asphalt.
Although it is of good quality, new technology has not been adopted in decades. A study conducted at McGill University in 2019 demonstrated that roads could be made more resistant by including polymers in the paving mix of roads.
Since that study was released, both the city and provincial governments have made no changes to their paving approach.
This is in addition to different foundation techniques to address deeper freezes. Stéphane Trudeau is the technical director at Bitume Québec, a group representing the paving industry.
“We tend to make foundations fairly deep,” he said, but added that because of that it “becomes less interesting to make a firm foundation.”
This tends to make the road less resistant to heavy vehicles, damaging both the shell and the foundation, eventually making the road unrepairable.
For Trudeau, it would be better to maintain a road early in its life, thus reducing costs later. “We could do much more preventive maintenance,” said Trudeau, adding that reconstruction costs far outweigh it.
Poor quality of construction is further compounded by a history of shady dealings of contracts and a lack of oversight in ensuring the respect of construction standards. In 2018, a report published by the city’s inspector general found that many contractors were cutting corners.
“Observations on the sites show that some entrepreneurs try to save time and money by saving on the quantities and quality of the equipment in spite of the standards or technical requirements,” reads the report.
Combined with the fact that the city awards construction contracts to the lowest bidder, it incentivizes many companies to bid as low as possible and then cut costs down the line by using lower quality material.
Regardless, of the reasons behind the issue, it is undeniable that Quebecs’ roads could use some improvement. The longer the problem goes unaddressed the price tag of the solution will also increase.