Last winter, Greater Montreal’s regional transit planning body took major flak from its political masters for daring to weigh in with a devastating analysis of the controversial REM de l’Est being piloted by the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec.
The Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain came across as courageous simply for insisting on doing its job despite being sidelined by the pension fund and elected leaders in their haste to get the elevated rail link to east-end Montreal up and running.
Four months later, the ARTM now finds itself one of the parties in charge of coming up with a new incarnation of the REM de l’Est after the Caisse backed out of participating in a truncated version of the project endorsed by Premier François Legault and Mayor Valérie Plante that won’t scar the downtown cityscape.
While this should be a victory for those who favour putting the “public” back in public transit planning, there are now concerns that the ARTM suffers from the same bureaucratic opacity, “brusque” treatment of other agencies and lack of transparency that the Caisse was accused of.
In a report tabled last week in the National Assembly by Transport Minister François Bonnardel, those who work with the umbrella organization did not mince words about their “dissatisfaction” with the ARTM.
“The stakeholders feel that the ARTM oversteps its responsibilities and meddles in the operational matters that belong to public transit organizations,” noted the report, which is based on a survey of municipalities and transportation agencies beholden to the regional body.
Among the complaints are that the ARTM doesn’t communicate effectively and doesn’t consult enough. This is all rather ironic given these are some of the same criticisms levelled against the Caisse. Many attributed this to the fact the pension fund’s priority is a return on its investment instead of the public interest. But the ARTM’s raison d’être is taking the politics out of transportation planning and ensuring a better integration of services across the region.
The ARTM was set up in 2017 after years of competition rather than collaboration among transit agencies. So perhaps there is some resentment among these stakeholders that the ARTM is treading on their territory.
But this isn’t the first time the ARTM has come under fire for spinning its wheels. It was among those blamed for the Blue Line extension being stalled. And when it finally submitted its big picture transportation plan for the Montreal region to the Quebec government last summer after four years of preparation, it was sent back to the drawing board for failing to articulate any priorities from among a list of $57 billion worth of infrastructure plans.
The Quebec government is paying close attention to what’s going on at the ARTM. Legault made it clear in conferring the REM de l’Est to the Quebec Transport Ministry, City of Montreal, Société de transport de Montréal and ARTM that he expected results. His warning that anyone who drags their feet will be replaced seemed specifically intended for the ARTM in light of its earlier intervention sticking a spoke in the wheels of the premier’s pet project.
But it’s clear Legault means business. The government recently appointed Patrick Savard, the former director general of the City of Longueuil, to the ARTM’s board of directors to shake things up. And after the unflattering report, Bonnardel said an overhaul of the ARTM’s mandate could be in order to improve its operations. Perhaps if the government simply granted the ARTM the same powers it conferred on the Caisse it would be similarly efficient.
On the face of it, it makes much more sense to have the body in charge of planning, building and funding public transit in greater Montreal actually doing the planning, building and funding of public transit. The argument that CDPQ-Infra, the Caisse’s infrastructure unit, would get the job done on time and on budget hasn’t lived up to expectations given the delays and cost overruns with the original $7-billion REM line, mainly due to unpredictable “surprises” in the Mount Royal Tunnel. But the Caisse will remain a partner in Montreal’s transit landscape when the REM is finally done.
At this point, Montrealers don’t need political decision makers to waste any more time or create any more confusion by trying to reinvent the wheel. With so much major infrastructure in the works and major shifts in commuting patterns in the wake of the pandemic, Montrealers just need effective, responsive and innovative leadership to bring important projects into being, no matter who is responsible. Is that too much to ask?
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