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ARTM and CDPQ Infra: Overturning Montréal’s Crimes Against Urbanity

Updated: Jun 12

By Thomas Frenette

Arts & Culture Editor

Via CTV News Montreal

In recent decades, cities like Amsterdam and Singapore prioritized public modes of transportation in urban structuring, ranging from traditional public transit — metro and bus — to alternative modes of transportation — driverless shuttle, car sharing, cycling — First advocated by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, the 15-minute city design philosophy that promotes access to work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure within a 15-minute walk, bike ride, or public transit ride from any point in the city. This ideal human-scale environment aims to reduce car dependency, promote healthy and sustainable living, and improve mobility for low-income communities. 

Montréal’s urban design, renowned for its spacious and numerous parks, cycling infrastructures, and walkable streets, confirms the city’s pioneering efforts to rise among the first 15-minute cities in North America. Transportation infrastructure, the cornerstone of accessible, efficient, and sustainable urban design, is the key to creating a human-scale city prioritizing wellbeing. 

In the 1960s, tramways were removed and multi-laned roads and highways were plastered across Montreal, isolating peripheral boroughs and necessitating private vehicle use. Car culture increased the perennial problems of rising vehicle fleets, gridlock traffic, air pollution, and the division of the inner and outer-city areas. 

Fortunately, the Autorité Générale de Transport Métropolitain (ARTM) and the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ Infra) have deployed structural transit solutions to implement sustainable urban restructuring. Public transit services like tramways, subways and trains are tried and true solutions for decentralizing the city, limiting private car use, and creating open urban spaces for fluid mobility, thus enhancing city dwellers’ quality of life.

Montreal’s most famous and promising innovation in public infrastructure is undoubtedly the large-scale installation of light-rail networks. The first five Réseau express métropolitain (REM) stations inaugurated last summer connect Bonaventure station to Brossard, offering a 20-minute commute end-to-end. Plans from 2016 promise a 67-kilometer system connecting Deux-Montagnes, Anse-à-l’Orme, and the YUL airport. 

However, modernizing the Mount Royal Tunnel, a critical artery of the REM railway, encountered major issues. Explosives left behind from a hundred years ago unexpectedly detonated during the excavation of the platforms of the future Édouard-Montpetit station. Much slower remote-controlled operations were then imposed to ensure the workers’ safety. The work pace was further slowed by the long term effects of  de-icing salt corrosion on columns and steel beams of the walls and arches under McGill College Avenue and pandemic-related challenges, namely supply chain issues, labor shortages and public health measures. 

In 2020, CDPQ Infra announced an initiative to create a 32-kilometer light-rail system in the east end, reaching Cégep Marie-Victorin and Pointe-aux-Trembles from Robert-Bourassa. This means that more than 800,000 people would now live within a 3-kilometer radius of a train station. However, angry locals—known as NIMBYs (not in my backyard) in urbanist circles—objected to the elevated sections proposal, citing concerns for noise and visual clutter in residential and industrial neighborhoods. The CDPQ Infra suggested burying the system, but expensive and time-consuming tunneling infrastructure and social acceptability issues ultimately convinced provincial and city governments to relinquish the project. 

The ARTM then rechristened the project to Projet Structurant de l'Est (PSE) and released a revised report for the REM infrastructure which rose to over three times the initial price for a total of $36 billion. Though extending the system to Rivière-des-Prairies and l'Assomption in Lanaudière, this proposed phase severed its connection to downtown via Robert-Bourassa. 

The fate of the PSE is quintessential of how people hold public transit projects to a much higher standard than car infrastructure. Roads despite being eyesores, public safety risks, polluting, and barriers across neighborhoods, are often overlooked, unlike public transit projects, which are subject to intense scrutiny despite their benefits. It is absurd that we should view periodic train passings with greater hostility than the unbroken whir of cars. 

Slow, expensive, but effective projects often face hurdles. The standing REM network was built swiftly to avoid protests by the loudest — and often wealthiest — citizens who object against massive roadworks and automated drivers. Because the REM compromised time over quality, consecutive breakdowns reported in the last month sparked a lot of outrage. Yet this compromise warranted its existence, unlike the five new stations of the Blue Line promised to appear by 2030. Although first drawn in the 1980s, the project conversely suffered setbacks because tunnel-digging processes are time-consuming and the project is estimated to cost $6.9 million — the same amount as the entire westward REM network. 

Despite challenges, Montréal is slowly but surely conceding the consequences of massive road building in the 1960s. Investing in light-rail networks similar to the REM fosters reliable automated travel at low operating costs, frequent and flexible service, and contributes to designing a 15-minute city. The REM represents a learning opportunity from the past crimes against urbanity and heal the scars of nightmarish car-scale cities.


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