Radical revision of REM de l’Est includes axing downtown portion of project

CDPQ has backed out of $10-billion transit project, which will now be managed by Quebec and Montreal.

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Quebec and Montreal are taking over the management of the controversial REM de l’Est project after Quebec’s pension-fund manager backed out of the project, Premier François Legault and Mayor Valérie Plante announced Monday.

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The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s proposed $10-billion, 32-kilometre light-rail project has raised the ire of citizens’ groups and heritage organizations who slam its elevated portion as an instant eyesore that would tower over eastern downtown.

In February, Montreal’s regional transit authority said planners should go back to the drawing board because the REM de l’Est would be costly to run, disfigure Montreal and provide no clear benefit to most east-end commuters.

At a news conference at Montreal city hall, Legault and Plante said they have heard citizens’ complaints and experts’ criticisms and will radically revise the transit project to respond to them.

Monday’s announcement “proves that we are listening to citizens,” Legault said.

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The downtown portion of the light-rail project will be eliminated and the remaining portion will be better integrated with the métro’s Green Line, he announced.

The new project will also be modified to fit better into the Mercier-Est neighbourhood, he said, where residents have held protests, warning it would cast their homes in shadow and reduce property values.

The future rail link could be the key to unlocking the vast potential of Montreal’s east end, said Legault, who touted the need to revitalize the former industrial zone in a 2013 book, Cap sur un Québec gagnant: le projet Saint-Laurent.

Legault said the project could help transform former oil refinery land into “a little Silicon Valley.” He’d also like to extend the rail line to Laval and the Lanaudière region.

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While the premier said he wanted to move the revised project forward as quickly as possible, the opening of the driverless train will likely be postponed beyond the original target of 2029.

It will be up to a new team, representing local and regional transit authorities as well as the city and province, to determine the new details, timeline and budget, he said.

Plante hailed the decision to press the reset button on the project as the outcome she’d been dreaming of when she reached out to Legault to seek improvements to the REM de l’Est.

It shows “when there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.

“The premier and I are on the same wavelength,” added Plante, who had been pressing for Montreal to have a seat at the table in planning the rail project.

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“There is an important need for public transportation in this area and this is something to which the premier and I are deeply committed,” she said.

It was clear that “the aerial section crossing downtown would have been a historic error that we absolutely had to avoid,” said Plante, noting that giant structure would have had a disastrous impact on Chinatown and Morgan Park in the Hochelaga district.

In a statement, CDPQ Infra, the Caisse de dépôt subsidiary that had been responsible for the project, defended its record, saying that its latest proposal had integrated more than 80 per cent of the recommendations made by an expert committee on improving the rail link’s architecture and urban integration.

“CDPQ Infra designed and presented to the public a detailed, ambitious and achievable architectural proposal, in order to effectively meet the sustainable transportation challenge of hundreds of thousands of citizens in the eastern part of the metropolis,” it said.

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In March, CDPQ Infra unveiled some design changes it hoped would mollify critics who said the elevated train would cause an urban scar comparable to the Metropolitan Expressway.

The tweaks included replacing the massive pillars of the original REM project on the West Island and South Shore with more decorative ones and using a lighter colour of concrete.

Daniel Chartier, vice-president of the Collectif en environnement Mercier-Est, welcomed the change of direction.

“We’re very happy,” he said. It will be up to the new team to come up with a solution for the east end neighbourhood, where citizens firmly oppose an elevated train along either Sherbrooke St. E. or Souligny Ave., he said.

“What is needed is an objective and impartial analysis,” Chartier said.

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The municipal opposition warned the change in governance would delay the project.

“With this return to the drawing board and the discussions to be initiated with the new partners, it is clear that Montrealers in the east and northeast will have to wait to see this public transit project become a reality,” said Aref Salem, the interim leader of Ensemble Montréal.

The Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal also complained the project would be delayed.

“The Chamber of Commerce has been calling for years for a fast and efficient public transit link to connect the eastern part of the metropolis to downtown,” president and CEO Michel Leblanc said in a statement.

“Today’s decision unfortunately casts doubt on the possibility of proceeding quickly,” he added, urging the government “to commit to a clear timetable” and open the new line by 2030.

The Chamber of Commerce for eastern Montreal also called for the project to be built within 10 years. The new rail link must be “a lever for revitalizing the territory,” it said in a statement, while the $10-billion price tag, plus $2.5 billion for urban integration, must be maintained. It deplored that the REM de l’Est will no longer go all the way downtown.

mscott@postmedia.com

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