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MONTREAL, Que. - Recently, an early morning accident completely closed Highway 133; there were icy and snowy patches two sunny days after a 10-cm snowfall....

MONTREAL, Que. – Recently, an early morning accident completely closed Highway 133; there were icy and snowy patches two sunny days after a 10-cm snowfall.

I slowed as a gentleman clomped across the road with a handful of mail, then hit 70 km/h, almost brushing a vine covered veranda. A jeep signaled in the centre turning lane. A strip joint crowded the other side of the road.

It would be a pretty typical country road if it didn’t happen to be the busiest north-south highway between Quebec and the United States, after Autoroute 15 between Montreal and New York State.

It carries $7.5 billion worth of merchandise a year southbound across the Saint-Armand/Phillipsburg border onto Vermont’s Interstate 89. Some 4,500 vehicles, 1,500 of which are trucks, cross in both directions every day.

Highway 133 was never meant to be this busy. Transport Quebec began the A-35 between the A-10 and Saint-Armand in the 1970s, but a highway construction moratorium stopped the pavement at the 19-km mark south of the A-10 and at the five-km mark north of the border. In between is a 34-km right-of-way Transport Quebec purchased in the 1970s, biding its time as fields and forest just east of Highway 133, which bears the burden of the moratorium.

But this March Transport Quebec will hand over an environmental report on the A-35 to the Ministry of Sustained Development, bringing the long lost four-laner one step closer to completion.

In a year, Transport Quebec will have in hand a decree letting it proceed with construction, to begin by or before 2009, at a cost ballparked at $250 million, plus or minus $50 million, and a completion date two years later.

The diversion of through traffic off Highway 133 will come none too soon. “The increasing truck traffic on Highway 133 is very problematic. It causes noise and pollution. There are a lot more accidents than there used to be and they are more spectacular. They are due to the fact that there is a mix of local traffic and transit traffic between Vermont/Boston and Montreal. When you mix the two types of traffic it increases the risk to the road travelers,” explained Bernard McCan, an environmental impact specialist with Transport Quebec.

There are, on average, 118 accidents a year on this little road, 29 per cent of which involve trucks.

McCan said trucks traveling between Quebec and Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts suffer little or no mileage penalty taking the southbound A-15 to the I-87 and then back east to the I-89, or driving 100 kms further east to Magog, then taking the A-55 south to the I-91. But there is a surprising amount of origin and destination truck traffic at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, through which the A-35 passes at about the 17-km mark.

A poll of southbound traffic taken at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu revealed that 61 per cent of the vehicles originated from there, and nine per cent of the traffic was headed toward the U.S. via Highway 133. Eight per cent of the traffic, that’s 638 trucks a day, were trucks: 76 per cent were from the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu area and 53 per cent were bound to the U.S.

“We cross the border at Saint-Armand at least 10 times a day,” said a spokesperson for Transport Bourassa Inc. in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

“We don’t complain about the traffic that much, because our drivers leave after seven o’clock in the evening. But during the day and the weekends the traffic is pretty heavy.

“We have a lot of villages at 50 km/h and there are a lot of accidents. It is nonsense that you leave Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu on a divided highway and then from there to the border it is a small highway.”

Transport Quebec owns 95 per cent of the right of way it needs to complete the A-35, but a law preventing road construction into flood plains – and Pike River has a big one – means finding an alternate route for a few kilometres.

McCan was unable to address the question of whether the A-35 completion might be a public/private partnership, and said that there is no plan to build a dedicated truck lane at the border.

“The volume of traffic does not show any need for it,” he explained. Once the A-35 is completed, truckers will enjoy a 488-km, limited access run from Montreal to Boston.

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