Construction begins on Montreal light-rail network as chorus of concern grows

Ground was broken Thursday on Montreal's $6.3-billion light-rail network, but enthusiasm about the project has dampened significantly amid worries of its political, environmental and economic impact.

Political, environmental and economic worries cloud ground-breaking ceremony

Politicians from three levels of government were present at the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday afternoon. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Ground was broken Thursday on Montreal's $6.3-billion light-rail network, but enthusiasm about the project has dampened significantly amid worries of its political, environmental and economic impact. 

Since first announcing the project two years ago, its backers have been promising the 67-kilometre network will revolutionize public transit in the city, connecting the West Island to the South Shore by way of downtown. 

Moreover, it was hailed for the unprecedented involvement of Quebec's pension fund manager, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

The Caisse is not only funding most of the project, but is responsible for building the new network and will eventually operate it for the Montreal transit authority. 

It's an arrangement that appears set to give the city, and the province, a gleaming new piece of public infrastructure at a significant rebate for taxpayers. 

The light-rail network is supposed to be operational by 2021. (Radio-Canada)

The arrangement was so attractive it is serving as a model for the federal government's proposed infrastructure bank. 

But in recent months just about every aspect of the light-rail network — referred to by its French acronym REM — has come under scrutiny. Excitement has given way to suspicion. 

Politicians take shots

Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony was largely symbolic. Under grey skies dignitaries from three levels of government, including Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Premier Philippe Couillard, tossed dirt from a trough onto a stretch of AstroTurf in Griffintown.

When construction actually begins it will be later this month and on the South Shore stretch of the network. 

At the ceremony, the REM's promoters were again left defending it from criticism. Couillard's government was accused earlier in the day of influencing the route, lobbying for it to stretch into West Island ridings prized by his party.

The Parti Québécois has taken to calling the REM the "Red line" as a swipe against the Liberals, and have promised to ditch the entire project and replace it with more cost-effective transit options if elected.

The network will connect the South Shore to downtown Montreal, the airport, and the West Island. (Radio-Canada)

"From the beginning, and the folks from the Caisse will confirm this, we gave them the freedom to decide," Couillard said at the ceremony. 

"The only thing we asked of them was to include the airport, the Champlain Bridge, the South Shore and to cover as much of the island of Montreal as possible."

The Coalition Avenir Québec has also called out Couillard for his handling of the project, protesting that the call for tender included no Quebec content requirement.

A consortium led by French multinational Alstom beat out Montreal-based rival Bombardier for the $2.8 billion contract to build and run the network.

On Thursday, Alstom announced it will build the REM's 202 rail cars in a factory in India. Michael Sabia, who heads the Caisse, defended that decision, saying the Quebec economy still has much to gain from the REM. 

"In the end, the project will have 65 per cent local content, Quebec content," Sabia said. "That's $4 billion invested in the local economy. That's 34,000 jobs during the construction period and 1,000 permanent jobs."

Environmental impact

But many of the concerns currently being expressed are not only political, and can't easily be dismissed as election-year rhetoric. 

For one, there are environmental groups who believe the government steamrolled the public consultation process in order to make sure the REM gets built quickly. They are asking the courts to force Quebec to redo the environmental assessment of the project.

In addition, urban planners, as well as some municipal leaders, are worried Quebec has given the Caisse too much influence over transit decisions.

The Canadian Press recently revealed that Montreal transit authorities signed a confidential agreement with the Caisse in which they agreed not to run to competing transit services along routes served by the REM. 

The mayors of Laval and Longueuil, for their part, have questioned how affordable tickets will be, given the Caisse's expectation to make a profit on the operation.

But the Caisse's reputation as a sound investor has many in the business community willing to trust that the REM will not simply be built, but be built on time. No mean feat for a Quebec infrastructure project. 

"This rigorous commitment to respect timelines aiming for the REM to begin operating in 2021 is an undeniable sign that the project is lead by a serious organization that is focused on the issue of mobility in the city," said Michel Leblanc, president of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC's Sarah Leavitt