New light rail system for Montreal by 2020. Seriously?

The prospect of a brand new light rail system criss-crossing the greater Montreal area has commuters around the city dreaming of quicker rides into work. But large-scale public works projects in Quebec have a somewhat mixed history. How realistic is this one?

Ambitious project still faces major financing hurdle

The proposed light-rail system would cross the new Champlain Bridge. (Infrastructure Canada)

The prospect of a brand new light rail system criss-crossing the greater Montreal area has commuters around the city dreaming of quicker rides into work. 

There is no question about the ambition of the project; it's already being hailed as Montreal's largest expansion of public infrastructure since the Metro system was built. 

But large-scale public works projects in Quebec have somewhat of a mixed history. The rail system's backers are predicting the 67-kilometre network will board its first passengers less than five years from now

It took almost 10 years, though, to complete a five-kilometre extension of the Metro's Orange line to Laval, and that end up costing $745 million, hundreds of millions more than initial estimates. 

One of the new commuter rail stations envisioned by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. (Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec)

Quebec politicians of all stripes have also been announcing extensions of the Metro's Blue line for close to a decade, none of which of have yet to come to fruition. 

Show me the money

​Before a train leaves a light-rail station, $2.5 billion in funding still needs to be found. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has only committed $3 billion to a project slated to cost $5.5 billion. 

The balance is likely to come from Ottawa and Quebec. Provincial Transport Minister Jacques Daoust hinted the two levels of government will split the cost between them. 

"We expect the federal government to match us," said Daoust. "We will do our fair share on this, don't worry."​

But if that translates into respective commitments of $1.25 billion, the question is: where will that money come from?

The recent Quebec budget was criticized by transit groups for allotting little to their cause.

For its part, the federal government's budget earmarked $775 million for public transit infrastructure in Montreal over the next three years.

That, however, also has to fund — wait for it — another proposed extension of the Blue line. In its latest iteration, the Blue line expansion is price tagged at $1.8 billion. 

Ottawa has indicated that if it were to help pay for the the light-rail system, it wouldn't do so until a second wave of infrastructure funding is announced next year.

"Minister [Amarjeet] Sohi recently met with Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec to learn more about this project," Infrastructure Canada spokesperson James Chow told CBC Montreal in an email.

"The federal government looks forward to receiving a funding request, which will be analyzed in detail."

​Caisse, the difference maker

If there is an element about the light-rail project that has many feeling optimistic it will actually be built — on time, and on budget — it is the lead role taken by the Caisse.

The pension fund struck a deal with the Quebec government in 2015 that gives it the power to finance infrastructure projects they deem profitable for their depositors. That is a source of confidence for Montreal's business leaders.

"It's the rigour of their analysis," said Michel Leblanc, the president of Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal.

Michel Leblanc, the president of Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, says the participation of the Caisse de dépôt is a source of confidence about the project's chance of success. (CBC)

"We know that the Caisse is an organization that has to prove for the market that it's doing things with the proper approach."

The head of Conseil du patronat du Québec, Yves-Thomas Dorval, pointed out the provincial government wasn't even present at Friday's announcement. 

"The message is this will be a business decision for a fund manager," Dorval said.

"It will be a business decision that will have a positive impact for the population, for the environment, for the economy."

with files from Benjamin Shingler