Nine Reasons Why the Métro Blue Line Won’t be Extended Above Ground

Ceci n'est pas une système de tram

Ceci n’est pas une système de tram

Call it a problem of thinking aloud…

Last Wednesday Denis Coderre was musing about public transit expansion and improvement when he let slip that he thought it might be possible for the Blue Line’s projected expansion to be moved outdoors.

His argument was simple – the average cost of at-grade light rail is roughly a quarter of what it would cost to extend the Métro underground.

And this is true, to a point.

However, there are several reasons why the Métro cannot be expanded outdoors, which I’ve listed here:

1. Our Métro trains aren’t designed to be used outside. This is true of the existing Métro trains as well as the new Azur trains (production of which has been delayed six months because the automated control software doesn’t work – the trainsets were ordered in 2010); ergo, if the Blue Line were extended above ground, the line would require an entirely new set of trains designed with outdoor operations in mind.

2. It’s because the system is ‘sealed off’ from the elements that we’ve been able to get so much service out of our Métro trains. The oldest trains have been in service since 1966. They would not have lasted nearly as long had they had to contend with snow, slush, corrosive road salt etc. (not to mention the wear and tear on the exposed tracks and the problems inherent with using an electrified third rail at ground level). We want the Azurs to be inservice even longer than the MR-63s and MR-73s – exposing them to the elements they weren’t designed to encounter will likely result in a shorter operational lifespan.

3. Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely new train be created to operate both inside tunnels and above ground, and this hypothetical train could operate exclusively on the Blue Line. This would be expensive. It would also prevent any future ‘interlining’ initiatives (wherein trains could hypothetically switch lines while in operation, offering more potential routes) and eliminate an efficient aspect of the Métro’s original design. If the whole reason behind considering the above ground extension option is cost effectiveness and efficiency, this is the wrong way to go about it.

4. Subterranean mass transit systems are subterranean for a reason. Usually, the presence of buildings above ground is the chief motivating factor for burrowing underneath. This is pretty elementary. It’s also why subway systems are typically found in the most densely populated parts of the city. So we need to ask ourselves – where is this above ground extension supposed to go? The AMT’s plan has been to follow Jean Talon Boulevard east from Saint-Michel station towards a likely terminus at the junction of highways 40 and 25 at the Galleries d’Anjou. If it’s too expensive to tunnel underground, how expensive will it be to expropriate the land necessary for a new above ground rail line?

5. Alternatively, if the above ground extension were to be simply a tram line running on Jean Talon Boulevard, why go to the trouble of integrating it into the Métro system? Call it a tram and have people transfer onto the Métro at Saint-Michel. Again, if keeping costs down is the ultimate goal, creating a Métro line that requires its own trains and operates both as a subway and a tram is not the way to go about it. It would require a substantial investment in new technology and infrastructure, and the Blue Line simply doesn’t generate enough traffic to merit it. The Blue Line is underused – it is the only Métro line to use six car trains rather than the standard nine car trains.

6. Trams are fundamentally different from the Métro and have different service expectations. Our Métro trains don’t have to contend with traffic, their routing and speed is centrally controlled by a computer. Unless the tram line is grade separated or otherwise runs on an express right of way, it would have to deal with traffic congestion on the street it runs on. Automated controls wouldn’t work with half the line having to deal with street traffic. Again, this would be an expensive alternative to what’s already assumed to be too expensive.

7. The mayor is right to be thinking with an eye to efficiency. Yes, tunnels are expensive and yes, light rail systems offer an efficient alternative. There’s considerable interest in developing a mass transit system based on standard gauge railways – which Montreal has in excess – and, based on the most recent news, will be building more of. Light rail’s main advantage is that it uses the same tracks used by heavy rail – freight, passenger and commuter – but can also be integrated into the existing roadway network. The other advantage is that a hypothetical light rail system would likely be electrically powered by overhead wires, the same method currently favoured by the AMT for its commuter rail lines. But integrating light rail with our existing Métro system would likely be a step too far, presenting a multitude of new costs. For this reason we should be prioritizing tram development over the Blue Line extension generally speaking.

8. But this doesn’t mean we should rule out the Métro altogether. If the province has earmarked $1 billion to be spent on the Métro, spend it on system improvement first. Before expanding, we need to assess what we have and bring it up to the highest possible standard. If there are deficiencies in the current system design, fix those defects first. Consider how few of our Métro stations are universally accessible. Or the complete and total lack of public washrooms. And let’s face it – some of our stations are downright ugly and most are aesthetically dated. Renovating and improving what we have could help encourage greater use and fundamentally, this ought to be our primary concern. Moreover, is the Blue Line the most deserving and requiring of expansion? Wouldn’t it be more effective and useful to close the Orange Line loop instead? Or to improve the tracks so as to permit line-switching, in turn allowing for express Métro trains?

Isometric view of Edouard-Montpetit Métro station's original design

9. And if the money is to be spent specifically on the Blue Line, wouldn’t it be wiser to increase the line’s usefulness? One of the reasons I suspect is responsible for the generally lower usage rate and smaller trains on the Blue Line is that it doesn’t connect directly to the downtown core, but rather serves to move people to either side of the Orange Line. Originally, the Blue Line was supposed to be connected to the Mount Royal Tunnel at Edouard-Montpetit station, permitting Métro users to transfer onto commuter trains underground for the five minute trip to Gare Centrale. If there was ever an improvement to make, this is it. It would give the Blue Line an entirely new raison-d’etre, cut down on passenger congestion on the Orange Line and Parc and Cote-des-Neiges bus corridors. Most importantly, it would provide an excellent impetus to Blue Line expansion in both directions, given that the Métro primarily serves to move citizens between the urban first ring residential neighbourhoods and the Central Business District.

Now, all that said, a few things to consider. The Blue Line extension project was a PQ initiative and so far all it is is a feasibility study whose results are due later on this year. The AMT is not actively planning a new Métro Line, just doing a study on an extension project that dates back to the mid-1980s. I’m not sure what it is they’re studying for the umpteenth time. The current Liberal government is not actively pursuing the Blue Line project – the official line is ‘wait for the feasibility study’.

Light rail seems to have a bright future in our city – based on the recent ‘agreement in principle’ with the Caisse de Dépot et Placement concerning infrastructure project financing, rail systems will be prioritized in the near term (such as the Train de l’Ouest) and light rail will hopefully be integrated into the new Champlain Bridge and airport express projects. Light rail is an attractive and generally uncomplicated option.

So let’s not re-invent the wheel trying to integrate outdoor rail systems with a very unique subway.

I don’t think we can handle any more feasibility studies.

A Thousand Words for this City in Time

Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1963 - Archives de Montréal

Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1962 – Archives de Montréal

I don’t know for certain but I’m guessing this shot was taken in the summer of 1962 or 1963.

It fascinates me because it shows our city at a crucial moment of transition.

Look closely at this photograph and think about what you don’t see.

No Bonaventure Expressway. No Ville Marie Expressway. No Métro. No Expo. No Tour de la Bourse nor Chateau Champlain.

And consider what you do see. Large neighbourhoods now lost to time; the Red Light, Griffintown, Goose Village, Faubourg à m’lasse.

This is Montreal right before the slum clearance gets thrown into full swing, before the era of the wrecking ball. Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance has already been built but despite it’s arguable success as a housing project, would never be replicated in our city. There were many other massive, somewhat utopian housing projects intended for downtown Montreal, but the few that were ultimately realized, like Habitat 67, would wind up condos auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For many this was not a particularly good time to live in Montreal, even if the economy was arguably stronger and there were greater local opportunities. For far too many, this photo is of a moment right before mass expropriations and the intentional destruction of urban neighbourhoods in the presumed name of progress.

Dorchester Boulevard has been widened by this point and serves notice of the next phase of apparent urban renewal – the highways. You can see the blacktop cutting a nice wide swath through the downtown, reminiscent of the Lachine Canal further south – neat and boxy, the next commercial artery. Dorchester was widened at the expense of its former estates and grand churches throughout the 1950s, expanded from a quiet and meandering tree-lined residential street into a stately minor highway.

The construction of the Bonaventure, Decarie and Ville Marie expressways further hampered the livability of the city for a considerable period of time, and we’re fortunate that there are plans in place to a) eliminate the Bonaventure expressway viaduct downtown and b) continue covering over the Ville Marie. In time we can only hope the remaining exposed sections of urban highway that have so thoroughly divided the city are eliminated as barriers. It’s a crucial component of our city’s urban rehabilitation.

This is Montreal at a crossroads. The end of the North American colonial metropolis, the beginnings of both the international and the self-conscious city.

The city you’re looking at was much smaller, geographically, than it is today, and when this photo was taken in 1962 the city’s population was only about 1.2 million people. The population of Montreal would grow to nearly 1.3 million people by mid-decade, but then depopulated by about 300,000 people over the course of the next thirty years. The population of Montreal didn’t surpass the high water mark of 1966 until 2006, and only as a result of the municipal reorganization and forced annexations of some populous on-island suburbs.

The reason I point this out is because this photograph represents the kind of built environment that developed to accommodate a city population that was once far more tightly packed at its core.

Consider this. Were you to get in an airplane and fly to the same spot today and take another photograph and compare the two, you’d see there were once many more buildings in this city, though today we have many more tall and otherwise large buildings occupying massive pieces of urban real estate. In the photo above you see a downtown where commerce, retail, residences, industries and institutions existed practically one atop another. Today you’d see a largely corporate sector that in some respects has very little to do with what Montreal actually is. Industry and residential areas have been pushed to the periphery.

Zooming in you can see Montreal’s downtown was once filled with a great variety of smaller office buildings, not to mention traditional triplexes, in places we no longer associate with small businesses or neighbourhoods. Much of the human scale architecture, the fundamentals of city-building, was gutted in the name of civic improvement, and worse, was done so in an area of exceptional architectural variety and vitality.

But such as it is, it’s history. What’s done is done. We would be wise not to develop our city so haphazardly and inconsiderately in the future.

Now, all that said…

Looking at this photograph I also see just how far we’ve come. In the thirty years after this photo was taken downtown Montreal transformed into a massive parking lot and the urban vitality of the city suffered. All too often whole blocks were wiped out before the intended replacement project had even gained funding (Overdale immediately comes to mind). Complexe Guy-Favreau, as an example, was an open pit for much of the 1970s. At one point the intersection of McGill College and Boul. de Maisonneuve was four parking lots and the Champ de Mars was a parking lot too (before someone had the bright idea to turn it back into a commanding public green and local historical site). Demolition teams tore strips through the cityscape to install Métro lines and highways, obliterating nearly everything in their paths with no concern paid to the negative effects it would have on local livability.

We don’t develop like this anymore, and it seems as though a lot of recent attention – broadly speaking over the course of the last twenty years or so – has been placed on rehabilitation and rejuvenation, both of the core and the first ring suburbs (like NDG, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, Plateau and Mile End).

There’s no doubt in my mind Montreal is a superior city to live in today than at any point since this photo was taken. The city has more to offer its citizens today than it ever has, and I hope we soon start to realize this. For as great as past achievements may have been, they do not compare to what our accrued potential has made us capable of.

Thoughts on a Grim Day

kissing_hebdo

Some very foolish, backwards people did an awful thing today. In a misguided attempt to satisfy the insane demands of their purported faith, three men stormed the offices of a satirical French magazine and shot ten people dead. They then killed two police officers, one pathetically as he pled for mercy lying prone on the ground. That man, 42 year old Merabet Ahmed, was a Muslim. I’m quite certain the faith of the dead officer was vastly different, and indeed in innumerable ways better, than whatever sick corruption manifested itself as faith in the minds of the gunmen.

The magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked and a dozen people massacred because three young men had committed themselves to the extreme end of a religion, and believed that the magazine’s depictions of the Muslim prophet Mohammad was a blasphemy so extreme and heinous the only appropriate reaction was to gun down the cartoonists responsible.

What sins did those people commit, to warrant their deaths?

Illustration?

Caricature?

There is no justification for such violence. And indeed the violence is so unjustifiable and sickening it reminds me why I’m convinced religious fundamentalism of any kind is a nefarious social pathology.

But worse was how we in the decadent West reacted.

It upsets me to no end that some would argue this nearly insignificant weekly satirical newsmagazine had it coming, or that they baited religious fanatics into being attacked.

Who cares how they illustrated Mohammad? Should we not live in a society free the restrictions of any one particular religious dogma? Am I not free to doodle whichever deity I should choose?

It confounded me to see people of ‘the left’ argue that the illustrations had been perceived as racist or otherwise culturally insensitive. For one, the prohibition on visual representations of the man known as Mohammad are unique to extremist Sunnis. Why should anyone give two shits about their obscure rules – neither Canada nor France is a caliphate.

And Islam is not a race.

It’s a religion that purports to be multi-racial and all-encompassing. It’s a set of values and a collection of ideas, and ideas are fair ground to be mocked, belittled, dismissed etc. If anything, the Sunni extremists who perpetrated the attack want their understanding of Islam to be the dominant form, and believe further that their racial identity as Sunnis gives them the right to dictate Mohammad’s teachings. They are the racists for pushing a Sunni Supremacist worldview. They’re fascists too. The cartoons were not ‘racist’ even though they may have been tasteless, but they sure as hell were critical of of those who want to turn back the clock on human evolution by appealing to religious fundamentalism, and severely curtail individual rights and freedoms.

It should be of primary concern to all those who want to defend free speech to acknowledge this means defending all that you personally disagree with as well.

As an example, I cannot morally support Quebec independence, pro-lifers or death penalty advocates, but in our society they have every right to express themselves. Should they, or I, choose to belittle/undercut our own positions by stooping to the level of mocking the rhetorical opponent, the onus is on the audience to consider that debasement as well, in context, and weigh it against whatever other pertinent information is available.

It shouldn’t have to be spelled out like that, least of all to those on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum.

Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and thought are the most important, fundamental freedoms in a liberal democracy.

And yet, when it came time to show some true solidarity, The Associated Press, the Daily Telegraph, CNN, New York Daily News and from what I can tell, an unfortunate number of Canadian news outlets have decided that they would rather censor Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures and cover pages in their news reports.

There’s a word for this: cowardice

The unfortunate reality is that, as damaging and despicable as today’s terrorist attack in Paris is, it’s not nearly as damaging and despicable as our own media’s self-imposed censorship.

The only thing more insane than gunning people down for ostensibly mocking a 6th century merchant who claimed divine revelation is for ostensibly secular news and media corporations to defend the outrage of religious fanatics by supporting their efforts at censorship.

Censoring the images does nothing to defend the rights, values and responsibilities of our society. It does the exact opposite.

Worse, it encourages terrorism, because it demonstrates just how quickly we’re willing to compromise our values and further demonstrates that violence can be used as an effective tool against the apparent ‘excesses’ of Western secularism, free speech and liberal democratic tradition.

It is pathetic and perverted that news organizations in Canada and the United States, organizations that have a civic responsibility to defend the public interest against censorship, have collectively decided to fold like umbrellas and censor themselves.

If I can put it simply, this is literally how the terrorists win.

State secularization and political and economic socialization are fundamental aspects of the progressive evolution of our species. Today, the wretched fist of the Middle Ages, of barbarism, struck a satirical magazine in early 21st century Paris. Twelve people dead because they dared imagine what a 6th century Arabian might look like, and dared further to criticize the beliefs and practices of that man’s most insane followers.

And in the supposedly free and learned West, the progressives blamed the victim and the media tacitly endorsed censorship.

It was a very grim day indeed.

Personae non gratae – Champlain, Richard, Taillibert

I feel this story might have slipped under the radar.

The guy who designed the Big O has a counter-proposal to the Fed’s Champlain Bridge Redux project.

Noted 88 year-old French architect Roger Taillibert says his design looks better, is better designed, will cost less and can be completed in less time than what’s currently being planned.

The Tory plan is estimated to cost anywhere between 3 and 5 billion dollars and is currently slated to open at the end of 2018 (fifty months from now).

Taillibert says his plan would cost $1.7 billion and can be completed in 39 months. Main difference: use of pre-fabricated steel supporting structures in lieu of the seventy or so concrete columns currently featured in Poul Ove Jensen’s design.

Now before I get going, an issue to address.

Taillibert designed the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Village and a variety of other structures at the Olympic Park, including the pool and the velodrome, which today houses the Biodome.

All the problems related to the Big O are principally issues relating to its construction, not its design.

The substitution of building materials by crooked contractors and the numerous delays had nothing to do with the architect, and everything to do with the construction companies, several of which were run by individuals who had political connections to former mayor Jean Drapeau.

So before anyone jumps up on the soapbox to unilaterally dismiss anything proposed by Taillibert, remember that his designs aren’t the problem, it’s how they were built and by whom (and what corners the builders cut).

Also worth noting: all the buildings he designed here are still in use, and that’s significant in and of itself. Most Olympic structures end up slowly rotting away as they seldom have any post-game use.

We’re lucky because we’ve gotten 40 years of service from our Olympic installations.

***

Taillibert has additional criticisms to volley at the appointed Danish architect (remember – there was no design competition); namely that the proposal is aesthetically lacking while being needlessly complex – in sum it seems over designed. He points to the concrete pylons and the use of three physically separated roadways instead of a suspension bridge design supporting a single large roadway. Taillibert’s design conforms to the Fed’s requirement that the bridge support at least six vehicular traffic lanes and two lanes for public transit (with the eventual implementation of light rail), but does so in a more straightforward (and in my opinion practical) fashion.

For a comparison of the two designs, side by side, check this out.

What makes Taillibert’s design intriguing is that, for an architect so closely associated with the use of concrete, his proposal instead uses steel, which he considers superior to concrete in terms of long-term survivability. In essence, he describes his design as being both practical, with an eye to minimizing maintenance, and more worthy of Montreal and the bridge’s namesake – the multiple suspension towers and their cables more evocative of the ship Champlain sailed on.

Consider that the current Champlain Bridge was built with steel-reinforced concrete which eroded due to road salt and a lack of vehicular deck drainage system; over the years corrosive slurry infiltrated the concrete and ate away at the steel cables within.

The response to Taillibert’s proposal have ranged from outright refusal on the part of the federal infrastructure ministry to scepticism from Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre. The Fed’s position is that the bridge project is already moving along, that they’re sticking with the architects they’ve already chosen and are about to announce which of three consortia will actually build the bridge.

Here’s where things get interesting: both SNC-Lavalin and Dessau are bidding to build the bridge, and both these firms are either currently or have recently been investigated for corrupt practices.

It should be noted that the winning consortium is “expected to operate the structures (meaning the new bridge and some of its connected roadways, including the federal portion of Highway 15) for thirty years”.

I’m not well-versed in legalese, but I would assume this means that the winning firm will get the maintenance contract, locked-in, for whatever bridge they end up building (and yes I checked the preliminary report – that’s precisely what it means). The Fed also states that the winning consortium will have some leeway in terms of the final design and the materials to be used.

But it was this sentence that made me do a double take:

“Given the long operating period under the responsibility of the private partner, the client may allow it to deviate from traditional methods and introduce technological innovations at its own risk.”

The concrete used for the original bridge was supposed to have been a ‘technologically innovative’ type of concrete that ultimately failed.

I don’t how comfortable I am knowing the winning consortia would be encouraged to take risks to maximize profitability.

Isn’t this the whole problem with construction of government projects in this province in the first place?

***

Perhaps Mayor Coderre has a point about Roger Taillibert – why didn’t he make his proposal sooner?

The lack of a formal design competition, for one. Provencher Roy and Poul Ove Jensen were selected and it’s not entirely clear how the Fed came to make its choice. Mr. Jensen principally designs bridges, and has some 200 designs to his name. Provencher Roy is a well-known architectural firm based in Montreal with a long list of various projects, including a lot of institutional spaces and rehabilitated spaces (such as the new Canadian arts pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Montreal World Trade Centre and the renovation of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel).

Though these are logical choices, an open design competition never occurred, and therefore the proposed bridge seems like it’s little more than a rendering based on the preliminary study, albeit with one major defect.

Clearly Mr. Taillibert did his homework. One of the more curious points he brought up in the interview he did with Radio-Canada is that because his design features fewer (far fewer) support columns, which he says would lessen the environmental impact.

Initially I thought this was little more than mere greenwashing – it’s always a good idea to tout the ecological merit of your project, regardless of how dubious those claims may be, simply because people like hearing ‘green’ buzzwords. Frankly, it’s usually about as far as we go.

But the preliminary proposal actually spends a great deal of time pointing out issues pertaining to environmental and cultural impact. I didn’t realize it, but there’s a Mohawk burial site located on Nun’s Island that needs to be considered separately, and a fair bit of text focuses on minimizing damage to the river’s underwater ecosystem.

Fewer supporting columns means less disturbance to what lies beneath, so it makes the Fed’s choice to go with seventy supporting columns a bit of a head scratcher, especially given how much time was spent by the consultants focused on ensuring the new bridge design would do as little environmental damage as possible.

***

I’ll close by saying this: this is the most important bridge in the entire country. It’s both the busiest crossing and the one pulling in the most revenue from cross border trade. It’s vital to the interests of Montrealers.

And yet, despite this, the only kind of appeal to the public has come somewhat as a back-handed compliment. We were told by Denis Lebel that ‘maybe the bridge could be named after Maurice Richard’ in what I can only imagine was a Tory effort to make nice with Les Habitants and maybe score a few votes here in 2015. That said, the idea to name the bridge after Maurice Richard left many Montrealers and Quebecers wondering how anyone in Ottawa could possibly elevate a mere hockey player to be on a equal footing with the man who started the colony of New France, arguably setting the sequence that lead to our creation as a nation in motion.

The Richard family said they were not at all in favour and then the issue was dropped.

And then, as though to prove just how utterly useless the provincial government actually is, the PQ and CAQ managed to get the National Assembly to agree (without debate) that the new bridge should be named after Samuel de Champlain. An affirmation after the fact (it was decided yesterday).

Provincial transport minister Robert Poeti made the point that the motion would be pointless given the bridge is under federal jurisdiction.

Ultimately, they’ll also make the all, unilaterally, on naming the bridge.

From what I’ve been told, if we’re really well behaved they might let us drive on it.

More to come on this issue, doubtless.

After the sabbatical…

Image

So here’s the deal…

After many months trying to figure out what to do with this blog, and after being accosted by a variety of people inquiring, angrily, whether I was ‘that guy with the Montreal blog’, I figured, much like Ross Perot in 1992, to listen to my many belligerent supporters and get back in the game.

What’s going to happen is this: taylorcnoakes.com will be redeveloped into a far more personal website, one I intend to use to showcase myself as a professional, as a journalist, pundit, photographer, project manager etc.

A new site I’ve tentatively called ‘expomontreal’ will replace this website as my main outlet for all things related to this great city. You can expect expomontreal to be up and running by the start of the new year, at which point this website will start to look and feel a bit different.

The new site will have three main focuses: architecture, history and politics – it’ll be information rather than opinion driven.

For those still interested in opinions on one issue or another, come here.

And all of this will be wrapped up in the Kondiaronk Foundation, which may very well have its own website at some point over the course of the next few months. Simply put, the Kondiaronk Foundation is a non-profit organization intended to study the city of Montreal with an aim to better understand how we came to be, and further, to get an idea about where we’re going. As you probably already figured out, I don’t think this city is an accident, and I think we could use something a bit more in depth than what mtlblog has been churning out for the last little while.

So that’s that, and that’s where we’re at.

I’d like to thank everyone who told me to stop being a lazy curmudgeon and keep blogging. This is for you. You’re the real heroes…

Now does anyone know what symbol means irony?

Afterthought – since the top of the year I’ve been working with some regularity over at CJAD as a producer and reporter. In part, focusing on developing a new set of skills lead me to temporarily abandon blogging.

Then the following happened:

1. JF Lisée said the best way to bring about greater social cohesion in Quebec could be accomplished by eliminating Anglophone CEGEPs
2. Two mentally ill men who killed Canadian Forces personnel are now being called ISIS terrorists
3. The Feds wanted to name the new bridge after Maurice Richard
4. The members of the National Assembly actually had to pass a motion stating that “organizations should not be involved in organized crime” – a motion Quebec Solidaire abstained from voting on, and in which a dozen PQ MNAs weren’t even present to vote on.

So yeah, with all that’s going on what choice do I have but to resurrect this website.

Case for a City State No. 1 – Champlain Bridge Replacement Project is Federal Extortion

Sadly, we won't be getting anything like this - six lanes,  plus a bike lane and covered tunnels for light rail and express buses

Sadly, we won’t be getting anything like this – six lanes, plus a bike lane and covered tunnels for light rail and express buses

I’ve decided to start a series I hope will help make the case for why our city needs to evolve into a city-state responsible for its own internal affairs.

I firmly believe this is the ideal future political arrangement for the city and greater region of Montreal.

We must become Maitres Chez Nous.

Moreover, I believe Montreal is the ideal city within Canada on which to experiment because I’m convinced the people living here are fed up with having nearly zero control over how our taxes are spent locally. If you think of local taxpayers as shareholders in the corporation of the city of Montreal (and yes, it is incorporated), then we’re getting a shitty return on investment.

Though we have the structure of a democracy at the municipal level, it exercises so little actual control over how our city develops and operates it’s ultimately politically useless. Time and again important decisions concerning the future of our city are made by unelected officials who don’t even live in our city. It’s an unsustainable situation that needs to change immediately. Why bother voting at the municipal level at all when seemingly all of the most important urban planning decisions are made by other levels of government?

Our current political situation consistently leads to corruption, collusion, nepotism, price-fixing, fraud and the worst kind of Duplessis-era ‘reward politics’. A couple weeks back the Prime Minister, in justifying his position that the new Champlain Bridge should collect tolls, reminded Montrealers of how ‘unique’ our situation is:

“Our willingness to construct a new bridge … in the Montreal area is quite unique. This is not an international bridge, it is not an interprovincial bridge, and there is no other case in the country where the government of Canada alone is building such a bridge.”

In other words, ‘shut the fuck up about tolls and be grateful you’re getting anything at all you lousy bastards who don’t vote for me.’

Notice that the same guy who has been gutting the federal government of all it’s revenue-generating crown corporations wants this one to keep right on going. No privatization scheme, and certainly no talk of eliminating the Jacques-Cartier and Champlain Bridge Corporation by turning over control of the bridges to the city. Strange too that the prime minister would take such an active role in what’s supposed to be an ‘arm’s length government agency’.

He’s completely unwilling to step up to the plate to save Canada Post or the CBC, but Montreal’s bridges require his direct involvement?

Let’s take a step back and really think about what’s going on here.

1. We (the people of Greater Montreal) need a new link from the island of Montreal to the South Shore to replace a bridge which is falling apart.

2. The existing bridge is defective and was built by the federal crown corporation that’s in charge of most of the major bridges spanning the Saint Lawrence and the Seaway. Corners were cut to get the job done as cheaply as possible and maintenance wasn’t at the necessary level. An agency of the federal government didn’t do its job properly and, as such, we have to deal with a bridge that is in need of constant inspection and repair.

3. The reason the Fed is in charge of our bridges is because, once upon a time, the Fed had the bulk of the expertise and the capital to execute infrastructure mega projects. Today things are different; the city of Montreal could, if it were permitted to, raise funds and find local firms with the expertise to design and build a new span (be it a bridge or tunnel).

4. But given that this isn’t the case, the Fed calls all the shots. Without consulting the public, without holding a design competition and without even considering alternatives to a bridge (such as a precast concrete tube-tunnel, which would last longer and be cheaper to build), they decided (for us) that we will get a new bridge according to their design. It is estimated to cost $5 billion, but given the cost overruns of just about every major infrastructure project built locally or otherwise involving federal administration, most assume it will invariably cost more.

5. And now the Prime Minister is telling us that we’re to pay for it with tolls.

6. The people of the region of Montreal are being forced to accept a $5 billion loan from the federal government to build a bridge we weren’t consulted on.

This is extortion.

If we’re going to pay for this bridge both indirectly (through taxation) and directly (through tolls), we should at least wind up owning it, but according to the prime minister, the bridges – once tolls pay for it – will be transferred to the province, not the city.

The people who are going to pay the bulk of these tolls live on either side of the Saint Lawrence. The residents of the South Shore need it as much as the people of Montreal. Indeed, the economy of Montreal needs it the most. And yet, we’re completely cut out from having anything to do with its design or function.

If the Fed and Quebec City can’t come to an agreement over tolls or how to include public transit access, do we really expect they’ll figure out a way to at least maintain it properly?

In our city’s history it has often been the case that disagreements between the federal and provincial governments have resulted in megaprojects that never seem to work as intended.

As you might imagine, what with recent news about a possible light rail system on the Champlain Bridge, it’s so far proved just about impossible to come up with a solution.

Recent news is that the current provincial transport minister wants another year to study whether having a light rail mass transit system is even worth it. He then further justified his decision to take an entire year to further study something blatantly obvious because the city of Montreal isn’t in a position to develop light rail.

This is coming from Robert Poeti, the same man who holds the AMT’s purse strings. It’s the AMT (another unelected arm’s length government agency) that would plan, develop and execute any light rail, as funding would have to come through the province.

So, to recap:

1. A bridge we weren’t consulted on is being built by the Fed with the intent to transfer it to the province after the people of Greater Montreal pay for it via tolls.

2. Any mass transit light rail system would have to paid for by the province and the province says we shouldn’t expect anything before 2023 because Montreal doesn’t have a light rail system (which hasn’t been planned and has no planned funding).

3. Montreal doesn’t have the means or the authority to develop a light rail system on our side of the river without the province’s involvement and direct financial support.

4. The bridge is supposed to be completed by 2018; current designs do not include provision for mass transit.

5. The province has decided to study whether eco-friendly mass transit on the busiest bridge in Canada is a good idea.

This is government for you. Sometimes it’s a miracle anything gets built or works at all.

And speaking of extortion, SNC-Lavalin is looking for nearly $200 million more for the MUHC superhospital. It’s arguing that slow decision-making by the MUHC, work stoppages and ‘work not included in the initial program’ is what justifies their recently leaked demand for more money. Among others, they cite the bridge they had to build to attach the hospital to the above ground ‘underground’ parking lot, even though they were initially required to build underground and include a tunnel to the multi-modal Vendome station.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. SNC-Lavalin bribed two top executives with the MUHC – among them Arthur Porter – with $22.5 million to ensure the company would get the contract to build the new hospital. They also stole their competitors designs, threatened others and by all accounts will deliver a hospital that is over budget, prematurely outdated, inaccessible and with an insufficient number of beds.

And they want more of our tax dollars.

As I said before, think of yourselves as share holders in the various levels of government you pay taxes to.

Are any of us getting a good return on our investment?