The Mercier Bridge down to one lane. The Jacques-Cartier Bridge closed for an event. The Ville-Marie Expressway closed for construction. Major city arteries clogged with orange cones.
It’s a fact of life, right? A necessary evil in a city that is trying its best to fix its circulatory system with the least disruption possible?
Not quite, it seems.
Documents obtained exclusively by Fagstein have revealed that a small group of radio traffic reporters, keen to boost their ratings, have been intentionally manipulating road construction plans in order to maximize disruption and confusion, potentially causing each commuter hours of unnecessary delays over the past year and a half.
Mayor Valérie Plante has promised an investigation, and the traffic reporters were pulled off the air on Friday evening after station owners were asked for comment about the situation.
“It started out as a joke,” admitted Joe Cunaime, morning traffic reporter for all-traffic station CKAC 730 AM, who along with unnamed co-conspirators at The Beat and CBC Montreal hatched the scheme in late 2015. All three had been included, possibly mistakenly, in an email list of government managers coordinating road closures and highway work between the municipal and provincial governments, private contractors and other groups. The idea behind this list was to make it easier to coordinate between departments so that, for example, two bridges to the south shore aren’t closed at the same time.
One day, bored at work, Cunaime received an email from someone at the Quebec transport department wanting advice on which of three options to take. “One of them sounded really complicated and I knew would confuse drivers,” he said. “So as a joke I replied and said I think option 3 is the best one, and included some BS logic to back that up.”
Cunaime forgot to include his usual work signature on the email, so to others in the thread it was apparently taken seriously. Within an hour, the transport department decided option 3 was the way to go.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Cunaime said. “But at the same time I thought it was probably just a coincidence and it wasn’t my email that made this happen.”
A month later, he tried again, suggesting a closure plan that was even more complicated, and with even more dubious but serious-sounding logic to justify it. And again, they took his suggestion.
“Before long, I think they just thought I was running the whole thing,” he said. “That was the problem with this committee, there was no leader.”
Soon, he got two colleagues involved. Cunaime refused to identify them, but said they all got a kick out of what they were doing. “And six months after we started, we noticed in the ratings book that numbers had gone up. Our bosses threw us a party and everything.”
The scheme began to unravel in January, when an external review of the transport department’s operations led to someone asking questions about the email list and why Cunaime was calling the shots.
“I was called into a meeting with someone from the transport department, and there was this other guy in a suit there and even an SQ officer,” Cunaime said. “I knew right then that it was over.”
Cunaime was threatened with criminal charges, but was released after agreeing not to do it anymore. He also took early retirement from his job. He said he doesn’t know yet what’s going to happen to the other traffic reporters involved in the scheme.
Asked if he feels guilty for complicating lives of Montreal drivers, Cunaime said “yeah, kinda. I mean, I was caught up in some of those messes myself. But those ratings bonuses helped pay the bills, and I’m not responsible for the government’s incompetence.”