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Montreal’s new, for profit light rail system: national model or cautionary tale?

The Canadian Press
   

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Eight years after its conception, the first branch of what will become a 67-kilometre electric rail system _ called the Reseau express metropolitain, or REM _ is entering service this weekend, bucking a trend of faltering transit projects in several Canadian cities.

Montreal’s new light-rail train network stands out among major transit projects in Canada: it opened within a relatively short time frame and government didn’t get in the way.

Eight years after its conception, the first branch of what will become a 67-kilometre electric rail system _ called the Reseau express metropolitain, or REM _ is entering service this weekend, bucking a trend of faltering transit projects in several Canadian cities.

Its proponents point to the REM as a national model, but it’s unclear whether the three main factors that helped push the project forward are palatable elsewhere in the country: the network was built for profit; the province passed a law restricting lawsuits linked to land expropriations; and the train’s path follows existing commuter rail tracks and extends through low-density corridors in the metro area _ a route critics say may fail to meet mobility needs.

“The REM model is really one of a kind in Canada,” says Matti Siemiatycki, University of Toronto professor of geography and planning.

“With big transit projects ? you’re always trying to balance speed, cost, community involvement, engagement and accountability.” The REM, he continued, was “far to the spectrum” of speed of delivery.

Other major Canadian transit projects have undergone protracted planning processes and faced lengthy delays.

In Ottawa, official discussions about an east-west light-rail line had been ongoing for at least six years before city council approved construction of the Confederation Line in 2012. It opened in 2019, but construction delays and persistent mechanical problems led to a public inquiry and 2022 report accusing planners of multiple mishaps.

In Toronto, construction on the 19-kilometre Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line has been ongoing since 2011.

Unlike those projects _ both of which are the fruit of public transit agency partnerships with private companies _ the Montreal REM isn’t government-led.

Former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard, who in 2015 kicked off the project that would become the REM, admits governments have an “overreaching tendency” to hamper large-scale transit development with procedural “obstacles.”

“This is their culture,” he said in a recent interview. “This is their way of doing things. They want to make sure that all boxes are well-ticked and nobody can say that they missed one box later.”

The Montreal REM is owned and operated by CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of Quebec’s public pension fund, which is at an “arm’s length” from the government, Couillard said, and thus less burdened by what Siemiatycki described as the politicized planning processes that have dogged the other cities’ projects.

But the REM did benefit from political intervention. In 2017, the Couillard government introduced legislation to push through its construction by removing property owners’ ability to contest land expropriations for the project.

Laurent Lessard, the former transportation minister who introduced that bill, credits the legislation, as well as the REM’s particular route, for the network’s relatively quick construction.

While the REM’s central and northern branches use converted commuter train paths, the western and southern branches run through highway medians and industrial areas. The REM, therefore, largely avoided the contentious expropriations and neighbourhood nuisance concerns that bedevil other transit projects.

Many noise complaints about the REM only emerged in the weeks before its opening, when trains started to pass Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood every few minutes during the final phase of testing.

A 2018 regulation also allows CDPQ Infra to leverage real estate along the REM route to finance its construction. The rule stipulates that many large new development projects near REM stations pay a fee that accounts for the value the light-rail system brings to each project.

Without addressing the REM specifically, Siemiatycki cast doubt on any transit planning that prioritizes profit and development potential.

“The stated goal of transit is to move people, and to move people it has to be close to where they want to go,” he said. “Designing lines ? based on convenience or based on property ownership has tended not to be a great model for building transit that really provides utility for the people who are there.”

The system has faced delays even with the advantages that facilitated its construction, however, including setbacks due to the pandemic. Despite a 2020 opening target when the project was first conceived in 2015, the majority of the network, including branches to Montreal’s western and northern suburbs, is still under construction. A link to the airport won’t open until 2027.

The cost of the total project is currently estimated at $6.9 billion _ the governments of Canada and Quebec contributed, as did Hydro-Quebec and Montreal’s airport authority, but CDPQ Infra, which invested more than $3 billion, hasn’t released an updated price tag for the network. It also remains to be seen whether the REM can successfully meet Montreal-area residents’ mobility needs _ and CDPQ Infra’s expected profit of up to nine per cent.

Quebec’s own environmental review board, for example, argued in a 2016 report examining a preliminary design of the network that it would do little to increase the share of commuters who use transit. It further criticized its monopolization of the Mount Royal tunnel, a critical rail link to downtown Montreal, to the exclusion of other commuter rail lines.

Siemiatycki couldn’t speak to the particulars of planning for the REM, but called into question the feasibility of any transit that generally eschews community involvement.

“Any model that makes that more challenging or puts profit and returns ahead of the community ? (is) gonna struggle across the country,” he said.

The Montreal REM also still needs to prove it works.

“Now we have to make it a success,” Couillard said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

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