Build now, pay later — CAQ wants Quebec City tramway built 'in phases'
Opposition concerned project will be scaled back if financing isn't set in stone before construction begins
Supporters of the Quebec City tramway network are questioning why the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is moving ahead with the $3.3-billion project before having secured all the money needed to pay for it.
Quebec's Transport Minister François Bonnardel confirmed Monday that he was ready to give the go-ahead, after months of back-and-forth with his federal counterparts.
"I'm confirming this to the people of Quebec City and Lévis — this project is going to happen," said Bonnardel.
"We are going to do this project in phases, but the money is on the table."
Bonnardel said he wants to construction to begin on schedule, in 2022, with the funds that are currently available, and would return to the negotiating table in four years in order to secure the rest of the money.
Étienne Grandmont, one of the most vocal supporters of the tramway network that would connect the city's suburbs to the downtown core, said that announcement has left him with mixed feelings.
"We are really happy to see strong will from the Quebec government to make the project happen," said Grandmont, the executive director of Accès Transports Viables, a group that promotes access to public transit.
"But when you start to pick apart the different phases of a project of this magnitude, there are a lot of concerns that it won't be done in its entirety."
Where will the money come from?
Quebec has earmarked $1.8 billion to pay for the project, while Ottawa promised $1.2 billion and Quebec City, the last $300 million.
At the heart of the CAQ's arguments is where, exactly, that $1.2 billion should come from.
The federal government set aside $5.2 billion for Quebec municipalities to spend on public transit, and another $1.8 billion for green infrastructure.
François-Philippe Champagne, the federal Minister of Infrastructure, insists Quebec can draw the $1.2 billion it needs from both those budgets.
"On my end, it's hard to understand — because the money is there," Champagne said on Tuesday.
"All the mechanisms are there to fund the tramway, the Blue line [in Montreal] as well as Quebec's other public transit projects."
But the CAQ wants the $1.2 billion to come exclusively from the $5.2-billion public transit envelope, because there are already plans for the money earmarked for green infrastructure.
The problem is that under an five-year agreement drawn up between the province and the feds, negotiated in 2018, funds for public transit projects are allocated based on the ridership of each network.
This means the bulk of the money goes to Montreal, leaving roughly $400 million for Quebec City.
Right now, the plan is to start building the tram with that $400 million, then in 2023, Bonnardel would renegotiate the agreement in order to get the $800 million needed to build the rest.
A dangerous plan
Last week, Premier François Legault was accused of acting in bad faith after he raised the possibility of scaling back the transit network if Ottawa didn't meet Quebec's demands.
That option shouldn't even be on the table, said Grandmont, who argues the project "only makes sense if it is completed in its entirety."
He urged the government to finalize the budget before starting construction.
Gaétan Barrette, the Liberals' transport critic, said betting on getting that money could be a dangerous plan.
"I think this government has promised too much, and is announcing the project in phases to be able to abandon one, or two, down the line," Barrette said.
Like Grandmont, Barrette said the tramway network can only be functional if the whole thing is built.
The tramway network, in its current form, was first unveiled in 2018 by Mayor Régis Labeaume and former Premier Philippe Couillard. It was expected to be running by 2026.
With files from Radio-Canada