When Quebec's pension fund manager announced in 2016 that it was going to build a state-of-the-art, 67-kilometre light rail network around Montreal, it seemed like a miracle solution for the city's cash-starved transit system.
It had been decades since the last major investment in Montreal public transit. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec appeared out of nowhere, offering to shoulder most of the up-front costs for connecting the western half of the metropolitan area to downtown.
In exchange, it would get the revenues generated from operating the network.
"It's probably one of the greatest projects we've seen in [public transit] in the last 50 years," gushed the mayor at the time, Denis Coderre.
Late last year, the Caisse announced it was expanding its light rail network, now dubbed the REM, into Montreal's east end. But the reception, this time, was decidedly less enthusiastic.
Architects and urban planners have publicly criticized the plans. Neighbourhood groups are lobbying for changes. A petition has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures. Even city hall has expressed reservations.
They all share concerns about the current design plan for the project, which features an elevated track supported by massive concrete pillars running through some of the most densely populated areas of the island of Montreal.
"We're scared about what will happen to our neighbourhoods with this immense structure," said Catherine Miron, a spokesperson for a group of concerned east-end residents called REM et citoyen-nes de l'Est de Montréal.
CDPQ Infra, the arm of the Caisse that oversees the REM, maintains the elevated track is the only way the east-end network can be built on time and on budget.
Those are important considerations for the provincial government, which campaigned on a promise to connect the island's east-end suburbs to downtown.
And, so far, CDPQ Infra has proved its alternative model for funding infrastructure can deliver. While other transit projects backed by municipal governments and transit authorities have stalled on the drawing board for years, the west-end REM is nearing completion and in the ballpark of its original budget.
But it sped ahead with only marginal input from independent experts and citizens, say observers of the process. They fear a similar dynamic is emerging as the REM expands east, leading to a project that will scar neighbourhoods in the interest of profit and politics.
"It might not be the right mode of transit in the right place," said François Pepin, president of the public transit advocacy group Trajectoire Québec.
Lukewarm reception from region
There is not much debate that the east end of Montreal needs better transit connections with downtown Montreal. Much of that territory only has bus service, which is usually crowded and slow during rush hour.
In May 2019, the Coalition Avenir Québec government asked CDPQ Infra, as opposed to the co-ordinating transit authority for the Montreal area (known by its French initials as ARTM), to look at meeting that demand.
That CDPQ Infra ended up proposing a light rail network was no surprise. It's the only transit technology it has on offer, though transit experts have in the past suggested other solutions for the east end, such as bus-rapid transit or tramways.
The elevated track being built in Montreal's West Island runs along highways, and hasn't stirred much public concern. But in the east end, large stretches of the REM network would run along boulevards in mixed residential-commercial neighbourhoods.
As well, the prospect of noise, shadows, and a lot of concrete has urban planners worried.
"It's a big structure going through areas where people live. It risks destroying their quality of life," said Sylvain Gariépy, president of the Quebec Order of Urban Planners.
Gariépy expressed frustration at the lack of detailed information CDPQ Infra has provided about the proposed structures, making it difficult to evaluate the project.
Citizen groups have also struggled to get more information about the project, and to offer their feedback. Miron said she has attended two meetings with CDPQ Infra in recent weeks, but they resembled marketing sessions rather than consultations.
"They gave the same PowerPoint presentation at both of them and couldn't answer our technical questions," Miron said.
CDPQ Infra stresses the proposal it has made public is a work in progress. It is promising to spend the next two years consulting extensively with the public as well as an independent group of experts.
Virginie Cousineau, the organization's public affairs director, said consultations will play a larger role in the final design of the REM's extension compared with the consultations that were done ahead of the first phase of the project.
"There are things we're doing differently in the REM East, things we didn't do in the REM 1.0," Cousineau said in a recent interview.
But she also acknowledged that certain elements of the project are non-negotiable. Many have called for the track to go underground as it approaches downtown. Cousineau said while that option was studied, existing subway lines and old sewers threaten to escalate costs to prohibitive levels.
"The Caisse can't endanger the pensions of Quebecers with a project where we are unable to control the risks," she said.
The politics behind mass transit choices
The concerns about the REM's east-end extension are not just technical matters about an engineering project, however. They are part of a larger debate about which institutions ought to be shaping the future of Quebec's cities.
Provincial funding for Quebec City's tramway project was held up when the CAQ government began demanding last-minute changes to the route, even though it had been the subject of extensiveconsultation since 2018 and had widespread local backing.
Premier François Legault said the project needed to better serve the suburbs in order to get his government's approval. Community groups in Quebec City, and the mayor, accused him of meddling for political gain.
In the case of both the Quebec City tramway, and the REM in Montreal, local transit authorities seemed to be sidelined at key stages of the decision-making process.
That's a shame, said Pepin, given that transit authorities, like the ARTM, were created with the intention of limiting the influence of politicians on major projects and making public consultation routine.
They are meant to be relatively independent bodies that have the expertise required to plan a transit network with the interests of the public in mind.
"It's a science," Pepin said of public transit planning. "We talk about it for the vaccine; maybe we should do the same thing for public transit and listen to the science."
Transit authorities, though, often operate too slowly for politicians. That makes alternative funding models that can fast-track projects, like CDPQ Infra, appealing.
"The idea, of course, is to get a project shovel-ready before the next election," said Pierre Barrieau, president of Gris Orange, a Montreal-based urban transit consulting firm.
At the same time, community groups in Montreal have adapted to CDPQ Infra's pace.
They learned from the first phase of the REM, Barrieau said, and are mobilizing at the outset of the second phase to demand more input.
"We should expect a project that will take comments from the public into greater consideration," he said. "I think the Caisse understands that what they did for the first time isn't going to fly for the second time."
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