We’ll get what we vote for

By Robert Presser on July 10, 2008

Compared to many North American cities, Montreal is an easy place to own a car. Insurance rates are relatively low, our traffic congestion problems, although growing, are not at the levels of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Toronto. The baby boomer generation can remember driving downtown and finding street parking with ease; today, the parking is still available, though we are paying for it at expensive rates.

Montreal is also a great city for mass transit, provided that you live in the core of the city with nearby access to the Metro system and its complementary array of bus routes. If you live in the outlying suburbs or off island, the services are more sparse and not as well integrated as they should be, but still better than conditions in many suburban sprawls across the continent where there is no service beyond the occasional commuter rail line.

So what are we getting out of this 20-year, 8 billion dollar plan? The truth is that we are playing catch-up after years of thin municipal and provincial budgets which had no money for infrastructure investment and not enough for transportation system maintenance. Not only are we seeking to get long delayed projects off the ground (Highway 30, the train to Mascouche, Notre Dame, Cavendish) but also to undertake critical repair projects like the replacement of the Turcot interchange.

My interest in this plan is political; how you fare under this plan depends on where you live on and off the island of Montreal, and whether or not your municipality voted for demerger or not. The priorities that have been set reflect electoral realities of the Montreal region and the importance of swing ridings at the provincial and federal levels off the island. Let’s look at several regions around Montreal and analyze the current plan and how people are likely to be impacted once the construction work gets underway.


The West Island: relative losers

One has to pity the demerged West Island suburbs. They pay high taxes on their homes, given the large plots of land relative to more urban dwellers. Planners continue to add to traffic congestion by authorizing more subdivisions with each passing year, increasing the strain on the feeder north-south arteries and highway 40.

So what are West Islanders getting out of this deal? Answer: very little. For road traffic, there will be some expansion of highway 40’s service road between St-Charles and the western tip of the island. The Cote de Liesse/highway 20 interchange is being redesigned, but the primary objective of this work was to facilitate access to the airport, not improve the lives of commuters. Upgrades on the 40 between highways 13 and 15 will ultimately not improve traffic flow because of the bottlenecks at the junction with the Decarie Expressway and the overloading of the elevated section of the Metropolitan between the two highway 15s. Unless Montreal is planning an elevated or subterranean link between the Decarie and the 15 north of the Met, the crawling traffic along the 40 will continue indefinitely. No such link is detailed in the Transportation Plan.

There are some arterial improvements for West Islanders, including the extension of Jacques-Bizard Boulevard south to the 40 and the replacement of the tiny bridge serving Ile-Bizard. The effect of this improvement will allow Ile-Bizard commuters to join the congestion on the 40 a few minutes more quickly than the current arrangement. Pierrefonds Boulevard will be extended west, and a new north-south boulevard will be created between it and the 40. Along with the connection of the two Morgan Boulevards further west, this will open up lots more potential land for residential expansion; developers will love it! However, if I was a current West Island commuter, or a potential buyer in these emerging subdivisions, I would hope for new salvation.

So where is the mass transit relief for the West Island? The dream of the Doney Spur is nowhere to be found in the Transportation Plan. For those unfamiliar with the Doney Spur, it is a run of abandoned CN industrial rail that branches off the Montreal-Deux Montagnes commuter train line in St-Laurent and runs west between the 40 and Hymus Boulevard all the way out to Pointe Claire. According to a January 10th article in the Gazette, there is a committee composed of three level of governments and the airport authority to find a way to combine this spur with a rapid rail link to the airport, resulting in a dedicated commuter line out towards Ste-Anne de Bellevue. This project would provide badly needed relief for West Island motorists heading downtown. The part about the rail link to the airport made it into the Transportation Plan; the discussion of the Doney Spur did not. Buy why? One can only conclude that West Islanders themselves are not a priority.

The West Island ridings typically vote Liberal, both provincially and federally. The last time the Tories won elections in the area was 1988. There is little enticement for the provincial Liberals to shower money over people who are currently voting for them in great numbers. Municipally, these people are on their own, having liberated themselves from Montreal with the exception of Saint-Laurent (you know, where the AIRPORT is). So, getting to the airport is important for all; fixing the 40 as far west as the 13 is important for all; going past the 13 for mass transit? Not so much. The bus depot at Fairview will have to do for now, along with the 7 commuter trains that run in the morning to downtown (yes, count’em, seven!).

The greatest upheaval for West Islanders is still in the future; the extension of the 440 across Ile-Bizard in the form of a highway or an “urban boulevard”, otherwise known as something that can be converted into a highway at a later date. Readers may recall that there were great protests a few years back when this plan was floated; however, the seeds are sown in the current Transportation Plan. The un-named boulevard running north from the 40 to Pierrefonds Boulevard, coupled with the mini-bridge between Ile-Bizard and Laval (for pedestrians and emergency vehicles only, for now) are the foundations for this future project. West Islanders, you have been warned!


Central suburbs:

Short term losers, eventual winners

Much has been said about the extension of Cavendish Boulevard for the past 40 years; the longstanding opposition of Cote St-Luc to any direct link made this project a non-starter for over three decades. The flooding of the Cavendish rail underpass a few years ago demonstrated the dangers of having a community of 20,000 people with only two viable connections to the rest of Montreal, one being via Cavendish south and the other via a miniscule underpass at Westminster.

When the suburbs of Cote St. Luc, Hampstead, Montreal West, Saint Laurent and Town of Mount Royal became boroughs of the City of Montreal, there was cooperation on this file and an indirect link was proposed that would combine Cavendish north with Royalmount Avenue in the TMR industrial sector, Cavendish South in Cote St. Luc and offshoots to Jean Talon and a redeveloped Hippodrome de Montreal site. Smiles all around, an engineering office was opened, and the link was planned to be complete by 2012.

Now we are told that only a truncated section will go ahead for now; the link between Cavendish north and Royalmount Ave. The demerged suburbs of Hampstead, Cote St. Luc and Montreal West will not get access to highway 40 and the resulting emergency escape route. We have been informed that completing the entire project would be too expensive, at $140 million. But extending the Blue Line Metro further east for $700 million is a real bargain, relative to the number of users and the impact on the overall transportation efficiency of Montreal? Can you see the problem here?

When western borough votes were going to have an impact on City of Montreal politics, their transportation needs were a priority. Recall that the original Cavendish link would also have benefitted West Island commuters seeking to avoid the Decarie Circle. So now, diverting funding away from Cavendish inconveniences the demerged central and western suburbs at the same time. As for their political representation at the provincial and federal levels, these central Montreal Liberal ridings have little clout when compared with the swing ridings of Laval and the north shore (more on that later).

The short-term connection of Cavendish to Royalmount will result in complete gridlock in the TMR industrial park as drivers seek to avoid the congestion on the 40. If Royalmount is destined to become a boulevard like Thimens in Saint Laurent, then land will have to be expropriated on both sides of the road to create extra lanes. I do not believe that anyone has told the real estate owners along Royalmount about this eventuality, nor is TMR likely to be pleased that their new project to turn the industrial park into a home design center is going to have a mini-highway running through it.

Why are these municipalities winners in the long run? Mis-management of another transportation megaproject will deliver them salvation. I am expecting the disastrous replacement of the Turcot interchange to create commuting havoc on the Island of Montreal.  Business leaders will demand that Montreal relieve pressures on the Decarie and the 20 while the work is going on. An obvious solution would be to open up Cavendish with a direct link, the configuration that had been opposed by Cote St. Luc since the beginning. The opening of a direct link will start innocently enough, with emergency commuter bus service leaving from Fairview or Place Cote Vertu, running through temporary rights of way across the CN yards all the way down Cavendish into Lasalle to the Agrignon Metro Station. This temporary service will work so well, and the Turcot work will be so seriously delayed, that an expedited construction schedule will be authorized via emergency funding to get Cavendish built as quickly as possible. Watch for this scenario to emerge somewhere between 2011 and 2013.

In the end, Cote St. Luc, Hampstead and Montreal West will have quick access to the 40 to the north and bus service to the metro line in the south. Ironically, if the Cavendish extension is built with a direct link, then this boulevard is wide enough to accommodate a tram line starting in the West Island on the Doney Spur, connecting to a transportation hub in St. Laurent and then running down Cavendish to the Metro. If only these municipalities had the political clout to make it happen.

The City of Montreal: big tram winner!

The Mayor of Montreal came back from Paris impressed with tram service, so that’s what we’re going to get all across central Montreal. There is good and bad in this plan; the circuit comprising Old Montreal, Downtown and a revitalized Griffintown makes sense, since the streets are wide enough to accomodate a bidirectional tram track system without snarling the surrounding traffic with which the system must share the road surface. No surprise that the City of Montreal gets the showcase project of the transportation plan.

The tram on Park Avenue makes less sense; there is simply not enough width along Park in order to accommodate a bidirectional track set and leave room for meaningful car traffic. There would be less than one lane left on each side, which means either no parking at all or reducing the sidewalk width to a sliver to accommodate one lane of traffic plus parking in each direction. The merchants of Park Avenue must be aware of this imminent danger to their livelihoods and should begin protesting now. Imagine what would happen to St. Urbain and Saint Laurent if those streets were forced to absorb all the traffic pushed off of Park Avenue; all three streets would be overwhelmed with traffic and the Plateau would suffer greatly as a result.

There is a compromise, through; the route could be electrified and electric buses could be run on Park, sharing the road with cars as they do now. If a decision was made later on to lay track, then the electrification would already be in place. This is a reasonably-priced, environmentally attractive alternative, but not one that is politically sexy to the mayor’s office, so don’t expect it to get much traction at city hall.

Other expensive goodies doled out to the City of Montreal include the extension of the Blue Line of the Metro to Pie-IX, since, as Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce points out, 70% of Montreal’s workers come from the east. This is a very expensive undertaking that is estimated to cost $700 million; can we trust that estimate after the cost over-runs that befell the Orange Line extension to Laval?

That was a political gift to the swing ridings of Laval in the same fashion that this eastward Metro expansion is an offering to the voters or east-end Montreal.

The Metro line not being enough, east-enders are also getting the long-promised Train de l’Est, 51 kilometers of rail line extension that will go all the way across the northeastern sector of the island, reaching Repentigny and then Mascouche. All three levels of government are in favor of this link, not only because it is necessary but because it also serves swing ridings and districts along the way. No politician at any level of government would oppose this segment of the project. My question is; was there a way to use this new train line in conjunction with improved surface transport to avoid the Metro Blue Line extension? The answer is probably yes; but we are only likely to ask the question once the price tag for the Metro line extension hits $1.2 billion at completion (more or less).

The City of Montreal also gets the lion’s share of the expensive projects planning for imminent undertaking, like the redesign of Notre Dame street, conversion of the Bonaventure into an urban boulevard, and notably, the creation of Rodolphe-Forget Boulevard between Henri-Bourassa and Sherbrooke st., a present to east-end developers and commuters alike. Of course, the extension of Highway 25 across the back river will go ahead, since Laval voters want it badly.


Conclusion: you get what you can vote for

Western Montrealers should console themselves with fact that at least the extension of Highway 30 will get some of the heavy truck traffic off of the 40 and make travelling along that route, the Decarie Expressway and the Metropolitain more tolerable. They still, however, are not getting the Doney Spur and the full Canvendish projects in the current plan as announced, which would really make a difference in their lives.

I have a feeling that Montreal area politicians believe that the wealthier residents of the West Island are a lot less likely to be enticed out of their cars by improved mass transit, so why spend the money on them? If the Montreal Transportation Plan, so favorable to the City of Montreal and those to the north, is successful then indeed there will be more room on the road for those from western Montreal.

As the project moves forward over the next 20 years, there are bound to be cost over-runs, engineering problems, and funding shortfalls. If western Montrealers are going to hold on to the segments of the plan that have already been offered to them when these challenges arise, then they had better increase their political activity to lobby all levels of government to pay attention to their needs. Otherwise, the western transportation map of Montreal may evolve little, and disappoint many, in the decades to come.


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