MONTREAL - Montreal City Council has approved the funding for the first phase of the reconstruction of the Bonaventure Expressway.

Councillors voted late Monday night to approve a $71 million loan for preliminary work on the project.

Critics say that with the traffic headaches and construction projects already underway, one more long-term project is the last thing drivers need.

"At this point with what we know about the Champlain Bridge, with what we know about the Turcot Interchange, this is not the time to have a mega project," said Veronique Fournier, a councillor with the opposition party Vision Montreal.

"What we say is that it's a great project, but this is not the right time."

Richard Deschamps, an Executive Committee Member of Union Montreal, the majority party on council, disagrees, saying that there is no point waiting for the completion of projects that have not even been started.

"We know what we want, we know that we have to have it, and we can go on," Deschamps said. "It's not true that because there are some traffic problems we're going to stop everything to develop Montreal, because if we want to create value and richness we have to go forward with projects."

Vision Montreal leader Louise Harel said a moratorium should be placed on all new construction, especially on the Bonaventure Expressway, until the federal government decides what to do about the Champlain Bridge.

"Until we know what's happening with the Champlain Bridge, it's like throwing money in the water," she said.

Multi-year project

With approval of $71 million in funding, construction on the first part of the revamped Bonaventure Expressway should begin this fall.

The first phase will include work on water mains and other groundwork for the southern entrance to the city of Montreal, and the city says it will not require any lane closures on the Bonaventure Expressway itself.

The full five-year plan will cost up to $300 million, but Projet Montréal Leader Richard Bergeron is not very optimistic that preliminary budget figure will remain stable.

"It will be between 200 and 300 million dollars, and at the end probably 400 million," he surmised.

The project calls for the elevated highway to be dropped to ground level and redesigns roads and bus routes in the area.

The work itself will be split into two parts: $142 million to lower the Bonaventure Expressway to ground level after it crosses the northeasternmost tip of the Lachine canal, and $61 million to widen Duke and Nazareth streets between De La Commune and St. Antoine to four lanes each, and create a so-called 'greenbelt' in the area.

Mayor Gerald Tremblay says the city will never look the same again.

"We're reinventing the entry of Montreal," said Tremblay.

Still, Bergeron is upset council approved a loan for a project he knows so little about, because he says Tremblay's party refuses to give straight answers whenever he asks for details.

"Even me," he said, "I don't know what exactly this project is right now."