Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

Tunnel Vision

Why Urban Transit is Suffering in Provincial Hands

In Canada, the provinces are in charge of the cities, but sometimes it seems like they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Take Montreal’s proposed Laval metro extension as a case in point.

Tunnelling through 5.2 kilometres of rock, the extension will connect the end of the orange line in Montreal’s north end with three new stations across the lazy Rivière des Prairies in suburban Laval. The project got the go-ahead from then-premier Lucien Bouchard in 1998, but extending the metro to Laval is hardly a novel idea. Indeed, this was first proposed in 1977, just eleven years after the first phase of the metro opened; nine other variations of the extension were proposed over the next two and a half decades.

(Waffling over building a metro is a sort of Montreal tradition, actually. The first time someone proposed a subway system was in 1912. The first station opened a mere fifty four years later.)

But here’s the rub: the Laval metro is a complete swindle. By the time the first station opens in 2007, the project will have cost Quebec taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more than originally planned. The agency overseeing construction reports its current budget as $547 million, but others pin the figure at $693 million. Most damningly, Doris Paradis, Quebec’s auditor general, alleges that costs could eventually soar to as much as $800 million. Not included is the $300 million that was needed to upgrade the entire safety and communications systems at the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM)–the agency that actually operates the metro–so that the Laval extension can be connected to the rest of the metro network. This is all going to cost a hell of a lot more than the original price tag of $179 million.

What will all of this money buy? A whopping 3,000 new customers for the metro, which carries 1.8 million riders per day, according to the STM’s president, Claude Dauphin. Even more insulting is that while the Quebec government funnels its cash into the Laval extension, it refuses to give the STM enough to cover its base operating costs. In 2003 alone, Montreal transit users were subjected to a transit strike and three fare increases as the STM was left to battle a mounting deficit all on its own.

Given the disparity between cost and potential to attract new riders, the Laval metro extension “is not a balanced investment,” says Normand Parisien, head of the transit users’ lobby group Transport 2000 Québec. Far from it, he argues: “It’s a real waste of public funds.” Even back in 1997, when the extension was first proposed, Transport 2000 was cool to the idea. “It wasn’t a priority,” says Parisien, but Bouchard rammed it through anyway.

Now, thanks to the Laval metro, the future of other transit investments is in question. The Parc Avenue light rail, for instance, would replace Montreal’s busiest bus line and connect the new condos and tourist attractions of the Old Port with downtown and the densely populated neighbourhoods to the north. Another potential light rail line would carry South Shore commuters over the Champlain Bridge, easing the burden on traffic-clogged river crossings and the yellow metro line. Both are considered priorities by Montreal’s metropolitan transport agency and both could have been built for less than the eventual cost of the Laval metro: light rail costs only $34 million per kilometre to build, compared to $150 million per kilometre for the metro. Parisien points out that, instead of extending the metro, the suburban train network could have been bolstered. Others suggest that a light rail line to Laval would have been cheaper and more effective

Montreal isn’t alone when it comes to jaw-dropping subway extensions. In Toronto, the Ontario government poured more than a billon dollars into the five station Sheppard subway line while the Toronto Transit Commission hobbled along as one of the most heavily used yet least-subsidized transit systems in North America, forced to scavenge for spare dollars at City Hall and squeeze every last penny out of weary streetcar riders. If that money had been poured into the system as a whole, Torontonians today might not have to cope with overcrowded trains and service cutbacks.

Provincial governments seem eager to fork out cash for poorly planned white elephants. Maybe it’s because, when costs inevitably spiral out of control and everyone’s disappointed, it gives them an excuse to starve transit systems of the money needed for basic things like employees, more buses and new subway cars. Instead of imposing top-down transit boondoggles, provincial governments should give cities the cash they need to run effective public transit.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears eve3ry second Friday.