Changes To Montreal's REM de l'Est Are A Disaster For The City & The Planet

Montrealers will lose out on good transit because politicians are too scared of upsetting people, our opinion writer argues.

Contributing Writer
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Quebec Premier François Legault. Right: Rendering of the REM de l'Est in downtown Montreal.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante and Quebec Premier François Legault. Right: Rendering of the REM de l'Est in downtown Montreal.

Cabinet du premier ministre, Courtesy of CDPQ Infra

This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

In announcing Quebec and Montreal's takeover of the REM de l'Est project on Monday, Quebec Premier François Legault and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante projected a confident "nothing to worry about folks" tone.

But there is plenty to worry about.

While the new plan is vague, it is clearly worse for commuters. We've also lost the only organization able to build transit systems on budget and on time, and property owners — who have enjoyed skyrocketing house prices in recent years — chalked up yet another win.

Yes, NIMBY (that's "not in my backyard") homeowners spooked our weak-willed leaders and crushed the fastest solution Montreal had on the table to reduce carbon emissions — a trend seen around the world.

Climate change is important to Montrealers, but property owners are more important to politicians. This announcement was politicians trying to make hitting the reset button on years of work sound like a win for transit.

This transit system was a SkyTrain-style line going from the centre of the city to the transit-starved neighbourhoods of Montréal-Nord and Pointe-aux-Trembles. The problem? Doing that quickly and cost-effectively required Vancouver-style viaducts along some of the routes.

Unable to make the difficult decision between a viaduct impacting homeowners and public transit the government has instead chosen spin. They are cancelling the REM de l'Est, but trying to sell it as "taking it over."

Their first move? The Quebec pension fund (the CDPQ), which did an excellent job of quarterbacking the REM through a pandemic with minimal delays, is off the team. The government is pulling an Arruda and shoving them out the door. The CDPQ just wasn’t willing to gamble our pensions on irrational things for politicians.

The CDPQ was the secret sauce of this project. They're not a government department, and they have spent the last decade staffing up and experiencing the construction of multiple transit systems. They're the reason why the 67-kilometre first phase of the REM has been proposed, planned and built in a decade — for a pricesimilar to the six-kilometre extension of the Montreal metro blue line, which has spent 40 years in planning purgatory.

The government's second move: the REM de l'Est doesn't go downtown anymore. You'll have to get out of one system and transfer underground to the green line. The transfer is because we wouldn't want to upset those homeowners who don't like viaducts.

With transportation, time is what matters most to people and adding ten minutes for a transfer just means more people taking the car. Not a great start for our fearful leaders.

Watching Plante and Legault make their announcement was like watching an award-winning restaurant firing the head chef who founded the restaurant and then deciding to become a Mcdonald's. Why would they become a Mcdonald's? Because the head chef took all the management, sous-chefs and recipes with them so they have nothing exceptional left.

This is all a story we have heard before. Difficult sacrifices need to be made for the climate, but not if it means upsetting special interests, political ideologies, or homeowners who like their view. Sure, climate change is a critical and pressing issue, but let's restart this process because we couldn't get all four million residents of the greater Montreal area to agree on something.

The days of tacking on another decade to climate solutions and appeasing everyone are over. Perfect is the enemy of good but if the REM de l'Est announcement made anything obvious, our politicians are the enemy of climate progress.

Paige Saunders
Contributing Writer