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Charles Emond, head of Quebec's Caisse de Depot pension fund, announces an extension to the light rail rapid transit project in Montreal, on Dec. 15, 2020.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

In the middle of a pandemic, with transit ridership at a third of what it was before the virus struck, an unlikely announcement arrived this week in Montreal: a $10-billion plan to build a second major light-rail project in Canada’s second largest city.

Dubbed REM de l’Est, two LRT lines will connect the east end of Montreal with downtown. It builds on the first Réseau Express Métropolitain LRT, announced in 2016 and currently under construction, and whose lines run south, north and west from downtown.

Backed by public money, both REM lines are owned by, and will be run by, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the provincial pension fund manager.

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The two REM projects represent 99 kilometres of transit. It’s akin to building, in the span of a decade, the entire SkyTrain and Canada Line network in Vancouver.

Pitching REM de l’Est now, in the depths of the pandemic, is the type of ambitious thinking that looks past the pandemic. By next fall, with many Canadians vaccinated, COVID-19 will have receded.

But even before the pandemic, too many cities and provinces were not making new transit a priority. The first REM was an exception, the biggest transit project in Montreal in the half-century since the original Metro opened in 1966.

It’s a hugely ambitious project. But it also offers lessons in the difficulties and dangers of getting big stuff built.

Expanding transit is central to the growth of Canadian cities in the decades ahead. Too often, the pace of building is plodding. Ideas emerge, debate is unending, years vanish.

In Vancouver, the transit operator TransLink expands in half-measures. Work on the Broadway Subway has started but its terminus falls short of the more sensible final stop at the University of British Columbia. Likewise, a proposal to extend the Surrey SkyTrain to Langley only goes halfway.

There are big plans for transit in Toronto but the ideas in various forms have been stuck in political limbo for decades.

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In Calgary, the city approved the long-delayed Green Line LRT in June but, with provincial money being held back, it hit yet another unscheduled stop this week.

Given the perpetual failings in the rest of Canada, Montreal’s ambition is a welcome inspiration. The REM project, however, is another kind of beacon as well: a flashing red warning light.

First, it is a pension fund, not a transit operator, that conceived and will own it. It is not a public project, and there has been a lack of transparency from the start.

Then there are the broken promises. When REM was unveiled in April, 2016 – with a budget of $5.5-billion to be roughly split between the Caisse and the public – the first trains were to roll by the end of this year.

Spoiler alert: They’re not rolling.

In early 2017, Quebec’s environmental review body withheld its support for the project. It said there were unanswered questions about finances and ridership, and a lack of details from the Caisse. The province went ahead anyway.

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This July, an explosion hit. Literally. A detonation of old explosive material halted work in a century-old tunnel under Mount Royal that is central to REM. Then major structural problems came to light.

The Caisse didn’t bother to tell the public until November.

The main downtown line is now delayed until fall 2023, and the airport link – a pillar of the plan – has been pushed back to late 2024.

The budget, once $5.5-billion, was upped to $6.5-billion a year ago, and will rise only higher. Setbacks have forced Ottawa to promise $500-million this month to make sure the airport station gets built..

The REM saga makes for big worries to rival the big ambition of REM de l’Est. One can confidently bet the initial $10-billion price tag will not resemble the final bill.

But big projects are always challenging. The REM is several years behind – but that’s better than the wasted decades during which Toronto hasn’t adequately increased its transit system. And REM is moving ahead, unlike Calgary’s Green Line.

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The lessons of Montreal’s REM are important: It’s a lot easier to promise expanded transit than it is to get it built on time and on budget.

But what really matters is that it can be done. The announcement of REM de l’Est is a reminder to Canada that our cities’ transit ambitions must be bigger.

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