Light-rail project fails to get green light from Quebec's environmental review agency

The proposed light-rail project that would link downtown Montreal with the South Shore and West Island is incomplete and requires a more in-depth review before getting the green light, according to Quebec's environmental review agency (BAPE).

BAPE says train network won't take many cars off roads, documentation is incomplete

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the light-rail transit system 'the most important project in the last 50 years.' (CDPQ INFRA)

The proposed light-rail project, which would link downtown Montreal with the South Shore and West Island, is incomplete and requires a more in-depth review before getting the green light, according to Quebec's environmental review agency (BAPE).

That report, prepared by the BAPE after a series of public hearings last summer, was released late Friday afternoon.

In the 296-page report, the BAPE said it has several concerns with the project, which would connect 24 stations stretching from the South Shore to Montreal's Trudeau airport and beyond, to both the West Island and Laval.

A map of the proposed rail line that would connect Montreal's West Island, South Shore and Laval. (Caisse de dépôt et Placement)

Among them, it says that the documentation for the project is incomplete, and "several essential elements of the project were not subject to public debate and unable to be analyzed."

Increase Orange line congestion?

The report also raises concerns about further congesting the STM Metro system.

It says, for instance, that many commuters from Deux-Montagnes, Que., on Montreal's North Shore, would opt to get off the AMT train and connect via the Orange Metro line at Sauvé, rather than take the light rail train.

"Currently, the East branch of the Orange line is already operating at maximum capacity and not able to take on more passengers," the report says.

Will commuters leave cars at home?

It also questions the level of service the LRT would be able to offer — and whether it would actually be able to meet a key goal of getting more people to switch to public transit.

"Based on our forecasts, barely 10 per cent of light rail network ridership would come from drivers who would leave their cars behind, and most of those would take their cars to the station parking lots."​

Another concern the BAPE had was the project's impact on the environment. It said it was impossible to evaluate because a complete portrait of the natural habitats that would be affected along the planned route is missing.

Financial questions remain

The agency is also calling on the provincial government to release certain financial documents and said more information is needed to understand how the project will be financed.

Quebec's pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, is funding the project and has committed $3 billion to building the 67-kilometre light-rail transit system (LRT). The balance, about $2.9 billion, is expected to come from the federal and provincial governments.

Lisa Mintz, founder of Trainsparence and Green Coalition board member, says a train is necessary but 'this is not a good system.' (CBC)
"This project has so many flaws on so many levels," said Lisa Mintz, founder of Trainsparence and board member of the Green Coalition. "It's bad for green spaces. It's not good for transportation. There's no financial documents."

"I mean, how can a bank say that they don't have the financial documents to back up a huge project of $6 billion?" Mintz asked.

"The Green Coalition has been asking for a train for years and years and years. We need more public transit, that's obvious. But this is not a good system."

The public BAPE hearings were fast-tracked in order to meet the project's tight deadline. (Radio-Canada)

Project will go ahead, leaders say

The BAPE's decision is not final. The province could choose to move forward with the LRT despite the agency's concerns.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said the LRT, which is being hailed as the biggest infrastructure project since the Metro was built, is "the most important project in the last 50 years."

"I'll see the report, but in the end, we need [it] and we will make it happen," said Coderre. 

Plans for the LRT call for at least part of the system to be up and running by 2020.

Quebec Transport Minister Laurent Lessard said that will happen.

"The BAPE did its job. It had recommendations and even criticisms. We will take our time to analyse it, but it is a project that will go ahead," he said.

"It's a big project, and we will run into pitfalls, that's normal. But the eyes of the government are looking ahead, and we will realize this project with la Caisse de dépôt."

With files from Radio-Canada, CBC's Jay Turnbull