Province's environmental review board rejects Quebec City's proposed tramway

Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume has been trying to get the project off the ground for a decade and didn't take kindly to the environmental review, calling it biased and distorted.

BAPE report states project is an expensive gamble that needs complete rethink

Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume showed his displeasure with the report and its conclusions at a news conference Monday. (Marc-André Turgeon / Radio-Canada)

Quebec's environmental review board — BAPE — has turned down Quebec City's $3.3-billion tramway project proposal, which some officials hoped could revamp the city's transportation system. 

Mayor Régis Labeaume has been trying to get the project off the ground for a decade, and the latest version of the plan was to build a 22-kilometer tramway, complete with 33 stations, which would become a hub for many of the city's bus passengers.

The only existing mass transit option for the province's capital city is the bus fleet, and Labeaume hopes a tramway would drastically increase capacity. 

But the BAPE states, in a report released today, that while expanding the city's mass transit system is necessary, planners should have also considered a subway or light-rail system.

"Although the proposed tramway project undoubtedly constitutes an improvement to the city's collective transportation network, it does not prove its ability to best respond to the city's mobility challenges, and more broadly to those of the metropolitan area," the report states. 

The BABE also states the existing tramway proposal doesn't do enough to serve the city's suburbs, which are rapidly growing. 

"This is all the more worrying when one considers the amount of public funds committed and the significant repercussions of the project on the environment," it continues. 

The BAPE's 441-page report states it's unclear whether a tramway could cope with the city's winter weather, or how it would be integrated into the landscape.

Municipal politicians react

Labeaume reacted with indignation, calling the report "distorted, biased and full of contradictions."

"They didn't give us advice to increase the quality of the project. So it's not an analysis. It's a public hearing report," Labeaume said. "This is not what we were waiting for. It's a very bad report by the way.… It's a shame."

City councillor Jean Rousseau said he was shocked by the report.

"We weren't expecting such a critical report," he said, adding he was also surprised the report didn't make more suggestions for changes. 

"The report doesn't go in that direction at all, it just questions what seems to be the basic acceptability issues, but doesn't go to the extent of making propositions," Rousseau said.

Jean-François Gosselin, the city's opposition leader, called the tramway "Mayor Labeaume's biggest political failure." 

He said he feels victorious that the BAPE is rejecting the proposal, and that the report echoes many of the opposition's concerns. 

A spokesperson for transport minister François Bonnardel told Radio-Canada the province is analyzing the report and will comment on it later this week.

Mass transit in the pandemic age

In May, Labeaume said the tramway's construction could generate 19,000 jobs in the Quebec City region in the coming years, and that he still believes the project would still be relevant, even if the COVID-19 pandemic — and people working from home — fundamentally changes the demand for public transport.

"I think we will be rethinking our way of working," he said at the time. "If you have a second car sitting in your driveway most of the week, the tramway will become all the more pertinent for many."

But the BAPE listed the reduced demand as another possible criticism of the project, and calls for newer studies on what mobility may look like post-COVID-19.

with files from Josh Grant, Susan Campbell, and Radio-Canada