Several days needed before full impact of La Fontaine tunnel half-closure emerges

Source: Montreal Gazette
Date: 31st October 2022

Quebec’s entire supply chain will be severely tested by the partial closure of the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine Tunnel, Port of Montreal chief executive said.

Monday marked the start of a new phase in the $2.3-billion overhaul of the crossing that will see three of six lanes closed for at least three years. Rush hour Monday was lighter than normal, indicating that many commuters had heeded repeated warnings to stay away from the span.

Some 13,000 trucks, equivalent to 10 percent of all vehicle traffic, use the tunnel every day. Of that number, about 1,500 trucks are either leaving or going to the Port of Montreal, Canada’s second busiest seaport by volume.

“We’ve been preparing for this very seriously for months. We’re worried, not so much for the port but because we handle essential goods and commodities for Quebec and Ontario,” the Port of Montreal said on Monday during an address to the Canadian Club of Montreal. “We’re not worried about the impact on our operations, but on the ecosystem.”

Although he called Day 1 of the extensive renovation phase “the psychodrama that didn’t happen,” the port executive stressed that several days will probably be needed for the true impact of the disruptions to emerge.

“Today is not representative,” the port of Montreal said in an interview after his speech. “We will know (the full impact of the tunnel’s renovation) in a few days. We have deployed some solutions that we think will minimize impacts,” including an application that lets truck drivers see their actual wait time when they reach the port.

Convincing trucking companies and their customers to schedule more evening deliveries and pickups would bring some relief, the port of Montreal also said. Although port facilities are open until 11 p.m., truck traffic typically begins shrinking in late afternoon, he said.

“After 3 or 4 p.m., wait times fall dramatically,” he said. “By working with all the players in the supply chain to put a value on these time slots, this would help us avoid crunch times.”

Asked whether the port would consider opening its doors 24 hours a day to lessen congestion inside the tunnel, the Port of Montreal was non-committal. “For now it’s hypothetical. This would require a new operating model for the entire supply chain. It would be no small thing.”

Longer term, Port of Montreal officials are spearheading an effort to create a major container storage facility on the South Shore that would ease congestion in the East End.

Soaring import container volumes at ports such as Montreal have clogged up Canada’s transportation supply chain amid a dearth of warehousing and transloading capacity, a report published earlier this month by the National Supply Chain Task Force concluded. Many ports have become de facto storage facilities because some importers are delaying the receipt of their containers.

Adding large warehousing facilities, whose ownership would be shared between various companies, would be one way to reduce the logjams at the port, the port of Montreal argued.

“It’s not the usual job of the Port of Montreal to do this, but we’ve decided to get involved in this development for the good of the supply chain,” he said in the interview.

“We need to build. Think about a large facility like an Amazon sorting centre. Ownership is shared, and the building is rented to multiple users. We see the port as a transit zone where the container enters and exits quickly. The buffer is located outside the port zone, maybe 10, 12 or 15 kilometres away.”

Building such a facility on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River makes the most sense, the port of Montreal said.

“My intuition tells me that it would be intelligent to be on the other side of the bridges,” he said. “The South Shore axis works best because we serve many U.S. destinations.”

Some 2 million containers, representing about $100 billion of merchandise, are loaded and unloaded at the port every year. About 2,000 ships dock at the port annually.

The port of Montreal declined to say when the future warehousing facility could open, saying it’s too early in the process to have a sense of the exact timeline.

“We are starting to talk” to transportation industry stakeholders, he said. “Everybody that’s going through a crisis today says this is a good idea.”

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