The Transportation Plan for Montreal: making progress

By Justin Bur

INFO 2000 11:2, June 2000

On April 11, the Quebec Minister of Transport, Guy Chevrette, announced a new transportation plan for the Montreal region (“Plan de gestion des déplacements de Montréal”). The plan provides for $3.8 billion of capital spending over ten years (2000—2010) to implement a series of projects, some of which have been suggested in the past but never built; several others are new ideas. Overall, 40% of the allocation ($1.5 billion) will go to public transit, in particular for metro extensions, improvements to the commuter train network, and reserved bus lanes. The largest block of spending on the road system is for the “optimization” of the Metropolitan Autoroute, which in itself accounts for 20% of the transportation plan’s budget.

Studies leading up to the transportation plan showed that the number of trips taken in the metropolitan region is constantly increasing, whereas the proportion of trips on public transit is falling. Even worse, the total number of transit trips fell by 11% between 1987 and 1993, though this trend is slowly beginning to reverse. A principal cause of the erosion of transit’s share is the rapid growth of remote suburbs, poorly served by transit and often difficult to serve. It is still necessary to change the form of new suburban construction and to promote the principles of “New Urbanism”, which aim for sustainable, transit-oriented development. In the meantime, the transportation plan does what it can in the current situation.

The transportation plan begins by stating a set of orientations and objectives which are sensible, even praiseworthy. Criticism of the plan is therefore based on the specific measures proposed to reach these goals. Nevertheless, most of the suggested projects are reasonable.

The proposed public transit improvements follow, for the most part, the suggestions of the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT), thereby confirming the credibility this agency has built since its creation in 1996. The Blainville commuter train will enter its permanent phase (with station improvements) and the return of service to the Saint-Hilare line is confirmed. (Partial service will be starting as soon as May 29.) The capacity of the Deux-Montagnes line will be increased. A few new reserved bus lanes are planned. Strangely, the Champlain Bridge reserved lane is to be moved onto its own right of way using the ice bridge.

A return to metro construction is proposed which exceeds the AMT’s proposals. Besides the extensions previously announced (orange line from Henri-Bourassa into Laval, blue line from Saint-Michel to Pie-IX), a blue line extension to Anjou has been announced as well as four new stations on the yellow line in Longueuil. The blue line extension is part of a concerted strategy to develop the east end (encouraging urbanization on the Island of Montreal itself). As for the Longueuil extension, it is justified by the orientation to consolidate the centre of the metropolitan region. After all, Old Longueuil, even if it is not on the Island of Montreal, is still an old-growth suburb, served by streetcars until they were abandoned and by Montreal buses until 1982. The density and urban form of Old Longueuil are compatible with a metro. The extension would take advantage of spare capacity on the yellow line and bring attractive transit to a good-sized group of potential transit users.

The road construction proposals in the transportation plan are numerous and expensive. However, there are relatively few new expressways planned and several projects come with conditions attached. Moreover, some of the road proposals benefit everyone. We will finally have dynamic, computer-controlled traffic lights! (Only 25 years late!) Also, the electronic surveillance system for expressways will be expanded to cover the whole region, thereby improving the safety and efficiency of the existing highway network.

The major construction plans — highway 30 west of Chateauguay, highway 25 between Anjou and Laval, and highway 720 (Ville-Marie Autoroute) through Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Mercier — are dependent on various conditions being met, such as external sources of financing, integrated bus lanes, or public consultation. If nothing else, attitudes have changed a lot over the past 30 years; it is no longer acceptable to build any highway anywhere without at least considering the consequences.

But there is also quite a bit of new highway capacity planned for the suburbs, even a possible new link between Montreal and the South Shore. Such increases in capacity would inevitably lead to a greater volume of car traffic. So why isn’t the transportation plan being more courageous in trying to change people’s habits and in promoting alternative transportation modes?

A reason for the current conservative approach is suggested by a look back at previous transportation plans. In 1979, the government proposed a new regional metro system and complete fare integration for all the transit systems in the region, in the hopes of forcing a major shift to transit. Instead, local authorities and the general public rebelled and finally nothing came of the plan. When transport minister Marc-Yvan Côté brought down a new plan in 1988, transit was left on the wayside while highway construction projects got all the money.

Public transit proponents and agencies had to slowly learn to work together and build public confidence before they could count on major investments again. The creation of the AMT was an important milestone and the success of the AMT’s projects has been such that municipalities are now requesting new train service and volunteering money towards operating subsidies. Regional fare integration has finally been achieved. Now that the institutional and financial framework is in place, the regional transit system can be run effectively and new transit projects can be proposed without opposition. In a democracy, things have to be done by negotiation and compromise or they don’t get done at all.

The new transportation plan ends with a list of projects “for future consideration”, almost all of which are new transit lines. Is this a good sign or a bad sign? It is rather disappointing that more transit improvements haven’t been confirmed immediately. On the other hand, the long list of projects shows the government’s willingness to put money into public transit in the future if its credibility and public support are maintained. Public transit promoters have the wind in their sails, but there’s still a lot of convincing to be done to keep the wind blowing in the right direction.