For years, Montrealers have suffered from infrastructure envy as they've watched new subways, LRTs, airport terminals and highways being built in other Canadian cities while they make do with patches that keep their own crumbling roads and bridges from disintegrating entirely.
So, the news that the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec wants to build a $5.5-billion light rail transit (LRT) network spanning 67 kilometres linking downtown to north- and south-shore suburbs, Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport and the western tip of the Island of Montreal was greeted with the kind of giddiness you imagine lottery winners feel on learning they've won the jackpot.
"Wow! Wow!" exclaimed Yves-Thomas Dorval, head of Quebec's main business lobby, the Conseil du patronat, after the Caisse unveiled its plan last week. He insisted that the largest public transit project since the Metro opened 50 years ago would reposition Montreal as "a global metropolis," helping it recapture the can-do dynamism that propelled the city in the Expo 67 era.
It did not take long, however, for reality to bite. The Caisse's chosen route for its LRT, through some of the leafiest and lowest-density areas in the region, was decried by east-end Island of Montreal mayors whose low-income neighbourhoods would be entirely bypassed. The project would also require $2.5-billion in funding from the provincial and federal governments, leading critics to worry that other infrastructure projects that need public financing could be scrapped.
A new Metro line through northeastern Montreal could be the first casualty. Or it could be the quid pro quo politicians must deliver in order to get lower-income voters in east-end Montreal to buy into an LRT that will primarily benefit property owners in well-off suburbs, most of whom will still drive to work. The Caisse estimates that its LRT would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 16,800 tonnes a year, a blip compared with the 81.2 million tonnes Quebec emitted in 2013.
The wisdom of allowing the Caisse to design, build, own and operate the most important Quebec transit project in decades, whose influence on real estate values and development will create winners and losers for years to come, is suddenly a matter of intense public interest. After all, as the manager of $250-billion in Quebec public-sector pension assets, the Caisse does not share the same priorities as transit users, taxpayers and politicians, all of whom have their own wish lists.
This is just one of the hurdles Caisse boss Michael Sabia will need to clear quickly if he is to silence the skeptics and adhere to his ambitious (many say unrealistic) timeline of having the LRT up and running by late 2020. Mr. Sabia needs to make a smashing success of his all-electric Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) if it is to serve as a demonstration project that allows the Caisse to sell its innovative turn-key transit model to other cities and countries.
The Caisse says its REM would be Quebec's first "public-public partnership." But while one public partner (the Caisse) is focused on earning a long-term "commercial" return on its investment, the other public partners (governments) are likely to seek political as well as financial dividends. The Caisse is counting on pocketing the lion's share of the enhanced property tax revenues generated by a projected $5-billion worth of real estate developments along the LRT route. But municipalities may have other ideas.
There's also the question of whether the LRT would require permanent public subsidies to operate. Although the Caisse argues otherwise, it can't guarantee that its LRT would not require operational subsidies. Should Quebec taxpayers be subsidizing Quebec pensioners? And what's more important, ridership or profits, since the two are not always correlated? Low fares can draw riders but still lead to ongoing operating deficits. The Caisse's preferred route suggests it is more interested in drawing a well-heeled clientele than average Joes, although Mr. Sabia has no doubt internalized the painful lessons of Toronto's troubled Union-Pearson Express.
As for deciding which engineering firms, construction companies and rolling stock manufacturers win juicy REM contracts, Mr. Sabia will face relentless pressure to choose Quebec-based suppliers. No sooner had the Caisse gone public with its LRT proposal than Quebec Transport Minister Jacques Daoust blurted out: "For us, it would be so good to see the name Bombardier written when the [rail car] door opens."
Despite its caveats, the Caisse proposal is a genuine cause for optimism. Most government-led infrastructure projects in Quebec get bogged down in bureaucracy and politics, if they proceed at all. By handing responsibility for this project to the Caisse, the provincial government increases the odds it will get built, period.
On time and on budget, too? That would really be like winning the lottery.