The phenomenon has become as predictably Canadian as the Toronto Maple Leafs breaking hearts: A multi-billion-dollar light rail transit project touted by politicians and promoters as a game-changer is behind schedule and over budget.
After Ottawa’s Confederation Line debacle, and Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown fiasco, Montreal’s Réseau express métropolitain, or REM, is late. The first leg of the REM was twice delayed before. Now, after repeated assurances that it would finally begin running in the spring of 2023, the 16-kilometre segment of the LRT between the south-shore suburb of Brossard and downtown Montreal is set to miss another deadline.
We get that REM owner-operator CDPQ Infra, a unit of the giant Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec pension fund manager, wants to avoid the disaster that Ottawa’s Confederation Line became, in part because of political pressure to cut the ribbon before ironing out its kinks. Ottawa officials hubristically overpromised and spectacularly underdelivered.
Even so, the REM has been shrouded in the same secrecy that characterized Ottawa’s $2.1-billion LRT project and continues to cloak the $12.8-billion (and counting) Eglinton Crosstown project. It took a public inquiry to shed light on what went wrong in Ottawa, where critical information was withheld from the public from the get-go.
The REM is not immune from the same fate.
Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and Spain’s ACS-Dragados are leading members of the construction consortiums on all three projects. But unlike in Ottawa and Toronto, municipal officials have had only limited involvement in the REM project.
Indeed, that was the point the Quebec government sought to make in 2015, when it gave carte blanche to the Caisse to develop, own and operate the biggest public-transit project in the province since the construction of Montreal’s underground Métro line in the 1960s.
By handing the keys to the REM to the Caisse, the government aimed to avoid being on the hook for cost overruns or risk seeing the project become bogged down in political fights between municipalities served by the 67-kilometre LRT line (the route plans to connect Montreal’s north- and south-shore suburbs to the downtown area, and the downtown to Trudeau airport).
But the Caisse has run roughshod over regional transit authorities, including the Société de transport de Montréal, and sought to maximize REM revenues by cannibalizing traffic from an existing suburban-rail network. It has alienated just about every major transit stakeholder in the Montreal region.
Not to mention residents of Montreal’s Griffintown, Pointe-Saint-Charles and Nun’s Island neighbourhoods, who complain about the relentless din of the REM trains still being tested. CDPQ Infra has erected noise barriers in some places, though they do nothing to improve the already woeful aesthetics of the REM’s elevated tracks and the massive concrete pillars needed to support them.
When the project was unveiled eight years ago, then-Caisse chief executive officer Michael Sabia touted his model as an innovative way to build and manage large infrastructure projects. The REM was supposed to be a launching pad for CDPQ Infra to sell other Canadian and foreign cities on the concept. But Mr. Sabia’s successor, Charles Émond, has all but nixed that idea.
The Caisse has not proved any more adept at avoiding major delays or cost overruns. The REM’s initial $5.5-billion price tag was revised upward to $6.9-billion last year. That estimate did not include the $600-million cost of an REM station at Trudeau airport, which is being mostly covered by the Quebec government and the federal Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB). Nor did it account for the hundreds of millions of dollars that Hydro-Québec is spending to connect the all-electric REM to its grid.
La Presse reported last week that the CDPQ Infra will soon provide a new cost estimate for the REM that could exceed $9-billion, excluding the airport station and transmission lines. The pandemic and inflation are cited as the causes of the delays and cost overruns.
Still, in 2015, the Caisse promised a different outcome. Mr. Sabia vowed the first REM trains would be shuttling passengers by 2020. In turn, the CIB and the Quebec government each directly invested $1.28-billion; various provincial bodies have put up another $1-billion in grants and loans.
Alas, even after the first leg opens, the rest of the REM’s 67-kilometre network is not expected to begin operating before the end of 2024. The link to Trudeau airport is not set to open until 2027. The project will depend on annual operating subsidies from the government to enable the Caisse to earn an 8-per-cent return on investment.
After leaving the Caisse, Mr. Sabia became chairman of the CIB, whose creation he had pitched as a member of Ottawa’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth. He was then named deputy federal finance minister and is now set to take over as CEO of Hydro-Québec, where he would oversee a multi-billion-dollar dam-building exercise.
Mr. Sabia obviously gets around a lot. But wherever he goes, the REM will follow him.