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Montreal’s Light-Rail Transit – An Electric Dream?

Bonnie Wurst – mtltimes.ca

Montreal’s Light-Rail Transit – Last April 2016 the Caisse de Dépôt announced their proposal to build an electric Light-Rail Transit system – LRT (or Réseau Électrique Métropolitain – REM) linking a good part of the Greater Montreal area. The 67km system would connect the areas of downtown Montreal, the South Shore, the West Island, the North Shore and Trudeau airport.

Mayor Coderre was on hand during the announcement to share his enthusiasm for the project – a project the Caisse de Dépôt was committed to financing to the tune of $3 billion, with another ‘conditional’ $2.5 billion needed from the financial participation of both the federal and provincial governments – for a total of $5.5 billion. Well, that tune has already changed. Even before the final plans have been made, the cost has already gone up $6 billion.

In Quebec’s new budget announced on March 28th, they committed to investing $1.3 billion in the project and ‘several hundred millions for related work’. So it seems they are ‘on track’.

LRT Station 2 – Artist Rendition

Initially the project was very well greeted by Montrealers. The Caisse proposed building 24 climate-controlled stations (now up to 27) that would help alleviate congestion on the Metro system. The stations would all be equipped with elevators – and all operating twenty hours per day, seven days a week. There would even be full Wi-Fi connectivity. With the promise of easy access and significantly reduced time in transit for commuters – who wouldn’t welcome the idea?

The LRT system is also expected to generate thousands of jobs during construction and over 1,000 permanent jobs once it is in operation. It would also be the third-largest automated transportation system in the world after Dubai and Vancouver.

LRT Station 3 – Artist Rendition

But there are also the critics and skeptics, many who believe it will never actually be built and those who feel the plan is unrealistic or for that matter, even unnecessary. Public hearings and consultations took place, addressing several important issues – and despite much criticism and the call to study the proposal further, Premier Philippe Couillard and Mayor Denis Coderre both announced it would still go ahead.

A report published in January by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) raised serious concerns about the LRT routes, service and impact on Montreal’s already existing transit system – and therefore withheld their approval. Even more important were the environmental consequences outlined in the report including the risk to fish, reptile and amphibian habitats in and around the island’s water ways, negative effects on the migration of fish and birds, loss of wetlands, agricultural land and even woodlands – never mind the dust, pollution, traffic and noise that will go on during construction.

LRT MAP 1 – Artist Rendition

The announcement that the project would go ahead regardless, prompted a coalition of citizens’ groups, environmentalists and the Canadian Union of Public Employees to launch a legal bid – and on March 24th they filed a motion in court against the government to try and stop it, citing the need for a ‘full environmental review of the project’. The case is expected to be heard soon.

There are also the voices of those, not being heard as loudly, who adamantly feel the electric light-rail transit system should not be built at all. Some of the opinion that part of the project linking the Trudeau airport, West Island and Deux-Montagnes area is a waste of money and it would cut in to existing train service. Ridership would not go up with the LRT system – as it would just be diverting riders from AMT trains. And instead, the money might be better spent improving the train lines along the route, which in turn would provide better and faster service for commuters.

LRT MAP 2 – Artist Rendition

Looking towards the East end of Montreal, where the government has long been promising an extension of the Metro’s Blue Line – there are rising concerns from residents the money going to the LRT project is money being taken away from the yet to be seen or heard extension.

As well, the Caisse de Depot whose expertise is pension fund management, will own and over see the massive project. The Caisse will be making the decisions and not the government. Basically, they will rent the system back to Montreal. A very well subsidized system at that. Montrealers won’t own it, and will continue to pay for it – and the cost of any potential failures or shortcomings.

Construction is expected to start this year and take four years to complete – of which given the city’s history on projects of this magnitude, could in all likelihood take far longer to build and come in over budget.

Would you like to see the Light-Rail Transit system built? Should the issues at hand be addressed first? Or is the project really just an electric dream – supported by overly exuberant politicians… with elections soon at hand?

To see the article in the Montreal Times 22.56 April 8, 2017 edition please click on the above image

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