Montreal’s Infrastructure Storm – Public transit to the rescue?

MTQ proposal for the revamped Turcot Interchange - not the work of the author

A Montreal Gazette article from August 25th 2011 detailed what is being described as a perfect storm of simultaneous, overlapping infrastructure projects which may ‘paralyze’ transit on island and in parts of the metropolitan region by 2015, less than four years from now. Among other projects, the controversial Turcot Yards & Interchange renovation project (read a great Walking Turcot Yards post here), the renovation of the Ville-Marie Expressway, the Champlain & Mercier Bridges and the Lafontaine Tunnel renovation are all to overlap by 2015. Experts gathered recently for the Ecocité Conference at the Palais des Congrés issued a statement, saying the City, Province and Federal governments must cooperate not only on major infrastructure repairs, but must also invest in a major re-investment in Montréal’s public-transit systems, so that they can be effectively used to minimize the impact renovations will have on the traffic requirements of a major city. In other words, public transit ought to be the tool used to negate massive gridlock, and provides a fantastic opportunity to get many more Montrealers hooked on the greener way to travel.

While the MTQ and City continue to argue about land-expropriation and the design of the new Turcot Interchange (read this fascinating Spacing Montreal article on the City’s space-efficient circular design), the major spans on the Saint Lawrence crumble, as does the Ville-Marie Expressway, and the traffic disruptions from regular infrastructure repairs and maintenance have already led to varying degrees of small-scale economic damage throughout the region.

In other words, we don’t just need to execute major renovations, but need to renovate with minimizing maintenance clearly in mind. Systems need to be designed with preventative maintenance as opposed to reflexive, piece-meal maintenance, much in the same manner as aircraft are maintained (and its for this reason that some aircraft models have exceptionally long lifespans of over 50 years). Thus, this perfect storm may also be a perfect opportunity to include wide-scale preventative maintenance measures streamlined across the board – after-all, these project are all exclusively within the realm of vehicular traffic, so there’s bound to be a significant amount of capital-cost overlap as well.

What’s significant here is that there are an exceptional number of vehicular commuters here in Montreal, on average spending about 30 minutes commuting to work each day. Two and a half hours on average spent driving to work – what a horrible waste of time! In Montreal, much like Toronto, about a quarter of vehicular commuters spend more than 45 minutes in traffic. The idea is that Montreal commuting times will increase dramatically by 2015 (and I can imagine, incrementally increase until then) as these projects wreak havoc on our local transportation infrastructure, which is heavily focused on individual usage of automobiles. Ergo, a new Transit Alliance proposes that the public transit system be expanded to accommodate people inconvenienced by the traffic disruptions. Unfortunately, according to one StatsCan study, about 82% of commuters who use their cars to get to work have never considered using public transit to get to and from work, whether its available or not. The typical justification given is that it is inconvenient.

I suppose that may be the case for a great many people in a number of cities across the country, but Montreal is well-known for its considerably advanced public-transit system. Over a million rides are taken each day on the Métro, which is a significant ridership level for such a comparatively small system. But despite efforts by the STM and AMT to expand lines, introduce new and improved equipment, and a host of suburban transit systems expanding access to Montreal, it is still exceptionally difficult to convince people to give public transit a try.

What’s particularly maddening is how residents of the West Island have been clamouring for a Métro extension to either the Airport or, in many more cases, Fairview shopping centre, for some time, and yet refuse to recognize this is unlikely to happen as long as the West Island communities maintain their hostile isolation from the rest of the Metropolitan Region. What’s more, it is the residents of the West Island who, for the most part, drive into the city, and are in turn responsible for a good deal of the traffic congestion. It’s a vicious circle of inactivity and futile fist-waving, and I personally find it a bit of a piss-off that West Islanders in general seem to consider using public transit as something diminutive, as though the buses are only designed to serve the hired help and the pre-license teens.

My justification for that previous statement is rather straightforward – if West Islanders, or any other community for that matter, wanted better public-transiot access, they’d pony up the bill, which is high and heavy no matter which way you cut it. Yes, the communities who have access to the STM pay for it in part, but the City is clearly footing the lion’s share of the bill.

I agree fully with the Transit Alliance’s proposal in principle, but it is unrealistic that the three levels of government will provide adequate funding for both the major road and bridge work in addition to the costs of new tram and train lines, Métro extensions etc. The City must take a more proactive approach and find methods to finance the extension of these systems without government support. Moreover, it must be clear to the Citizens that after these renovation projects are complete, a better maintenance scheme will be in play and the total number of road/bridge users will decline dramatically. In other words, the City must market the hell out of our new improved public transit system to get ridership into record-breaking numbers.

On a final note, have you ever wondered how Mayor Drapeau financed the initial Métro system?

Many people think that Expo some paid for it. It did, but after the fact. Initial capital came in from City Hall auctioning off the building rights atop the Métro stations. As an example, the Blum Building (currently Concordia’s Guy-Metro building), was one of the first such projects, wherein the developer paid good money to have an office tower with direct access to the station, and the rental retail properties on the commercial sub-levels were an added bonus. Imagine what we could do if we wanted to expand to all corners of the island?

Public transit needs to be sold to the people as an investment for future economic growth and current stimulus in the construction and services sector. It needs to be marketed as the self-perpetuating economic engine, open and available to all at a reasonable price, offering access to everywhere. Streamlining all metropolitan public transit services and instituting a ‘one-system, one-region, one fare’ policy may encourage new riders, but not in the same wide-reaching manner large-scale city-driven development will. A Métro station for every neighbourhood would not be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Consider the social cohesion and sense of community that is provided every day by frequenters of a ‘community station’ and ask yourself, with everything else in mind, whether we can afford not to do this.

Call your councillor.

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