New designs for Montreal's REM de l'Est address concerns, promoters say
Expert report raises ‘strong worries’ about project’s effect on urban landscape
Promoters of the proposed $10-billion light rail project for Montreal's east end are defending its design after a new report warns that the elevated concrete structure could "fracture" the urban landscape.
The second phase of the Réseau express métropolitain, known as the REM de l'Est, is being developed by CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of Quebec's pension fund manager, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.
It includes 23 stations along 32 kilometres of track, stretching from downtown to the eastern neighbourhoods of Pointe-aux-Trembles and Montréal-Nord through a mix of underground tunnels and elevated tracks.
The new report, compiled by an expert advisory committee tasked with ensuring that the project is well-integrated into its surroundings, cited concerns that the large concrete pillars used to support the elevated portions of the track could become a physical barrier bisecting the neighbourhoods along its route.
The committee concluded that to keep the area around the elevated track livable and accessible, the layout of René-Lévesque Boulevard would have to be "fundamentally revised."
"We're not here to say that this project should happen or not: we're here to say if this project is going to happen, this is what needs to happen," said the committee's chair, Maud Cohen, in an interview with CBC Montreal's Daybreak.
In particular, the report expresses "strong worries" about the large gap that would be created on René-Lévesque between de Bleury and Saint-Urbain streets, where trains would exit an underground tunnel onto the elevated track.
The committee also cited "extensive discussions" with representatives of CDPQ Infra about other concerns, such as the visual effect of the wire system used to power the trains, the height and opacity of sound barriers and the use of concrete, rather than steel.
Pedestrian path & urban lookout in new designs
But Chantal Rouleau, Quebec's junior transport minister and minister responsible for the metropolis and the Montreal region, believes the committee's report is favourable to the project overall. She said that many of the concerns have already been addressed by the promoter.
"It will be well-integrated in the urban sector," she said.
Christian Ducharme, vice-president of engineering at CDPQ Infra, said new designs unveiled Wednesday address "more than 80 per cent" of the concerns raised in the report.
The designs include a 16-kilometre pedestrian promenade along René-Lévesque Boulevard, Notre-Dame Street and Sherbrooke Street, as well as bike paths and green space.
However, the walkway is not included in the project's $10-billion price tag and would be up to the city of Montreal to add.
An "urban lookout" would also be created, overlooking the tunnel entrance on René-Lévesque, to make the area accessible for pedestrians.
"We'll have pretty exceptional views toward the east of Montreal, on Jeanne-Mance Street and to the north and south," said Ducharme.
He said the new designs also improve the look of the wire system, which will take the form of a series of arches above the track.
While Ducharme says some sound barriers as high as four metres will be necessary in areas where the elevated track is close to buildings, the upper portion will be built from reflective materials, rather than a solid concrete wall.
"What we suggest is to use materials like glass or plexiglass, to make it transparent and to have something that's less heavy in the [surrounding] environment," he said.
WATCH | Heritage advocate says elevated track will end up 'cleaving neighbourhoods':
Ducharme also argues that using concrete — rather than steel, as suggested by the committee — allows builders to create more "refined" and esthetically pleasing structures.
The new design proposal includes V-shaped pillars and a narrower curved track, rather than the straight columns and flat track used on the West Island REM.
Dinu Bumbaru, policy director for Heritage Montreal, questions whether an elevated concrete structure can co-exist with existing neighbourhoods.
"The infrastructure of the 60s should remain in the 60s, not in the 21st century," he said. "We have to do things differently … not just [create] a monster and pretend it's green because it's public transit," he said.
Bumbaru is calling for the project to be put on pause for a year, so the design can be more carefully thought out. He said the city of Montreal should also have more of a say in how the project is developed, "not just to discuss what kind of shrubbery they put around the station, but to make sure this is a project that fits the city, and not the contrary."
2 options for route
Ducharme says two options remain on the table for a small section of the route through the city's Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough: one running along Sherbrooke Street and connecting with the Honoré-Beaugrand Metro station and the other staying further to the south, along de Souligny Avenue.
While the expert committee supports moving the elevated track away from Sherbrooke Street, it's urging promoters to find a way to keep the connection with the Metro station.
"We're asking them to push the envelope and find a solution so there are ways for somebody coming from the east to connect to the green line at some point," said Cohen.
Lancelot Rodrigue, a master's candidate in geography at McGill University who specializes in public transit, questions whether the REM will be useful to the most underserved areas of the northern and eastern parts of the island.
CDPQ Infra estimates that "nearly 40 per cent of the travel needs in the east end are for downtown and central Montreal," which is the route serviced by the project.
However, Rodrigue said changing commuter patterns and the impact of the pandemic may mean that fewer people will need to go downtown in the future.
"People are going, for example, to Saint Laurent which is not really served by transportation. So maybe having a link that's north of the blue line, going east to west and that's actually going through Montreal North all the way through … is probably the most important area in terms of equity that we need to serve," said Rodrigue.
The regional agency responsible for transit planning, the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM), raised its own red flags about the REM de l'Est's route in a report last month.
The ARTM said the project would "result in only a modest number of new public transit users" and would instead compete with existing public transit infrastructure, namely the green line of the Metro and the Mascouche commuter train.
WATCH | Promoters of REM de l'Est explain benefits of latest designs:
With files from Simon Nakonechny, Radio-Canada's Mathieu Prost, Benoît Chapdelaine