Montreal’s light rail : don’t listen to science or research!

Montreal’s transport agency (Autorité régionale de transport) has just submitted a report to the Québec government which is critical of the light rail system planned for the east of the island. It’s critique mirrors that which has been levelled by many commentators – the light rail system is poorly planned, it will cannibalise ridership from existing subway lines, and does not meet the needs of residents in the east island.

The government has been very quick to dismiss this report. According to La Presse, the minister delegated to Transport and the metropolitan area, Chantal Rouleau, claims that the ARTM has acted beyond its mandate.

She is reported as saying that the Caisse des dépôts – the para-public investment body that has designed and planned (and intends to build and run) the REM – does not need to respond to such drivel, which “denigrates a visionary project that will transform east-west and north-south mobility” in Montreal. Reliance on the 2013 OD survey is, according to the minister, enough to invalidate the report’s findings.

Construction du REM - Montréal
Some elegant REM overhead beams. “. Construction du REM – Montréal” by AX, Creative Commons 

Faced with this deluge of scorn, what can be said in defense of the ARTM’s report?

The ARTM is re-articulating existing analysis of the REM – it is not alone

Although I have not had access to the report, nothing that La Presse or the ARTM itself relates contradicts the specialists1 who have publicly critiqued the project; nor does it fly in the face of the great work performed by students from the School of Urban Planning who have, twice in the last three years, written detailed reports on aspects of the proposed light rail line.

Maybe everyone except the minister and the Caisse is mistaken, out-of-date, or misinformed.

Or, maybe, these people, and now the ARTM, are making valid points.

Research is OK, but only if the government says so

We are slowly emerging from a pandemic. We have been told by the government – ad nauseumto listen to experts, to follow confinement and other rules because researchers have shown them to be effective. When it suits the government, science and research count.

But, all of a sudden, when it comes to the government’s pet light rail scheme, research and analysis do not count: suddenly research is a waste of time and the government can decree what it wants because it knows best.

I am being sarcastic, but this is serious: by undermining the credibility of well-informed reports when it suits them, the Quebec government plays into the hands of any other group or organization that wishes to dismiss careful analysis.

The government need not agree with the ARTM: but it does need to respect its opinions (it is a serious and well respected body), consider its analysis carefully, and refute points when necessary in a careful and well-documented way.

Please note: few if any people are against better public transport in the east island. What is wanted is a good, well planned project that best meets the area’s various needs, and a planning process that would enable this.

The ARTM should fulfill its mandate – isn’t it doing exactly that?

Finally, and most surprising, is the claim that the ARTM is stepping outside its mandate. The ARTM is set up by provincial law (A-33.3 – Loi sur l’Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain). This is what the law states2 :

“S5 : In view of sustainable development and carbon footprint reduction, the ARTM’s mission is to ensure, by way of collective transport modes, the mobility of people on its territory, including people with reduced mobility.

To this end, the Authority plans, develops, supports and promotes collective transport. It favors the integration of services between different transport modes and increases the efficacy of road corridors….

…The competency in terms of collective transport of people that the present law confers upon the Authority in its territory overrides any similar competency that a public transport organization or a municipality, whose territory is included in its own, might exercise by virtue of a general or special law.”

Amongst its specific duties are:

“S6.5 to study and plan the maintenance, improvement, replacement, addition to or demolition of collective transport equipment and infrastructure.

S6.8.1 to favor the articulation of collective transport services and urbanisation on its territory.”

In short, the ARTM seems to be acting completely within its mandate.

Even though the government has issued a special law giving the Caisse autarkic power to trample over planning rules, transport authorities and neighbourhoods, to my knowledge this does not override sections 6.5 or 6.8.1 of the ARTM law – which strongly suggest that the ARTM should study collective transport on its territory, and emit reports analyzing the “maintenance, improvement, replacement, addition to or demolition of collective transport equipment and infrastructure”….

1 -Here are links to a few open letters by a variety of architects, urban planners, economic development experts…:

2 – This a free translation by myself. Please follow the link to find the original French text.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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