Clash of the Quebec political titans: Labeaume fires back at Legault on tramway project

The province's premier and its capital's mayor are Quebec's preeminent political heavyweights, and on Monday Régis Labeaume reacted to François Legault's decision to try and freeze the city out of a $3.3-billion transit project.

Quebec City mayor isn't taking kindly to the premier's suggestion he is closed to any changes

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume isn't happy at being described as inflexible about the city's $3.3-billion tramway project by Premier François Legault. (Carl Boivin/Radio-Canada)

As befits a man who has metaphorically lugged a legacy-defining project around for the better part of a decade, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume looked weary and a little exasperated on Monday.

But it soon became clear he still has enough energy to push back against the latest accusations from the town's other leading political actor, Premier François Legault.

The premier has demanded changes to Labeaume's coveted 22-kilometre, 33-station tramway mega-project. Labeaume was being uncooperative and intransigent, Legault said last week.

Those were charges Labeaume, evidently, had no intention of accepting.

He sat down in a room at City Hall on Monday and began his news conference with a dry presentation of figures and facts aimed at countering Legault's claims.

Certain streets, like Boulevard Louis XIV, pictured here, will lose on car lane on either side of the tramway line. (Submitted by Quebec City)

He pointed out how Montreal's Réseau express métropolitain is running up unforeseen costs and how the province is suddenly facing the prospect of being the de facto majority owner.

In contrast, Quebec City is being forced to live off relative crumbs, Labeaume said.

Montreal's $7.7-billion REM project has seen overruns on the order of 38 per cent. Quebec City's tramway, he argued, is still expected to be on budget at $3.3 billion, absent a few adjustments on the order of $250 million.

So, Labeaume wanted to know, Why is there money for the goose but not the gander?

Labeaume speaks his truth

His tone was calm and restrained but, Labeaume being Labeaume, the words were selected for their cutting edge.

"Quebec City," he said, "is being treated like a village, a small town."

The provincial government's attempts to take over the tramway project and re-draw the map, he said, amounted to "total inequity" and "flagrant injustice."

Labeaume, though, was just warming up. He then started spilling details of his confidential meetings with provincial officials — all in the name, he said, of "laying out the facts."

The Quebec City mayor said he had struck a deal with Transport Minister François Bonnardel just before Christmas. It would have allowed the project to move forward.

At the time, Labeaume said, there was no mention of integrating the new transit network with the "third link" — another tunnel or bridge connecting Quebec City with Lévis (a Legault campaign promise).

Premier François Legault has demanded changes to Labeaume's coveted 22-kilometre, 33-station tramway mega-project. Labeaume was being uncooperative and intransigent, Legault said last week. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

But in his comments last week, Legault said "Régis Labeaume is not open to any changes" and talked up the importance of planning the third link and the tramway network concurrently.

Legault also said the city is giving short shrift to the suburbs, which is one of the problems identified by the province's environmental assessment board, the BAPE, in a harshly critical report last fall.

All of it is bunk, Labeaume said.

In his telling, Bonnardel submitted a new map for the tramway route earlier this month, but provided no other documentation about why the re-engineered plan was better.

Labeaume refused to sign on to the new plan. "It was done on the back of an envelope, and I couldn't accept something done on the back of an envelope," he said.

For Legault to claim he was being close-minded, "Honestly, that was special," Labeaume said.

A tricky position

Invited to expand on the point by a reporter, Labeaume sidestepped. He also passed up other occasions to add fuel to the fire or take a personal jab at Legault or Bonnardel.

Labeaume insisted he was merely forced to respond with "the truth, as we experienced it." 

In fairness, he's in a tricky political position. 

The project timeline has the initial qualifying process for bids starting next month. Any meaningful delays will likely result in some of the consortia who have lined up proposals to withdraw.

That, in turn, could extend the completion deadline. And Labeaume, in power since 2007, is up for re-election this fall, if he decides to run again.

His key ask of the provincial government is simple: move the tramway project closer to completion.

But asked what the way forward might be, he sighed and said "I don't know."

Neither Bonnardel's office, nor Legault's offered a comment on Labeaume's sortie.

With files from Radio-Canada