Opinion: The Caisse and its train: Gotcha? No thanks

by Patrick Barnard

On April 22, 2016, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec – our pension fund – made a sudden announcement. It proposed for Montreal a $5.5 billion dollar automated transport system known as the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) that is somewhat similar in concept to Vancouver’s SkyTrain.

The Caisse train will run partly on suspended rail and will take a circuitous, 67-km loop from Brossard up to Deux Montagnes, and then out to Pointe Claire with an indirect connection to the airport.

The Caisse would put in $2.5 billion dollars of pensioners’ savings, but to offset capital costs the pension fund expects Ottawa and Quebec to contribute $3 billion more of taxpayers’ money.

Caisse CEO Michael Sabia was quoted in the Montreal Gazette as projecting “market competitive returns” while saying to the public, “Every time you take this train, you’ll be paying into your retirement” (“Electric light-rail train network to span Montreal by 2020,” Jason Magder, Gazette April 22, 2016)

Unfortunately, I think the exact opposite will likely be true.

There are strong transportation and financial reasons to reject this project and heed the critical voices making themselves heard.

Luc Gagnon of UQAM’s École de technologie supérieure pointed out that the profit motive directly conflicted with the Caisse appearing to choose “one of the most costly technologies.”

There will be few stations, Gagnon says, with huge parking lots and a deep injustice perpetrated on eastern Montreal, whose heavily used transit service will not receive equal investment. (“Un remède au cynisme? “Le Devoir April 23, 2016)

Montrealer Avrom Shtern, a transportation critic for the Green Coalition, shares Gagnon’s concerns. He says the Caisse project “is a terrible investment of public capital for reasons of cost, impact, and utility.” Shtern contrasts Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems used in many other jurisdictions with the Caisse’s REM: “A Skytrain/REM rail type involves a concrete encased, often elevated railway that is incompatible with existing railway modes in Montreal. Alternatives to the REM, such as LRTs, are far more efficient, and they cost less for construction, operating, and maintenance.

“Compare the operating costs of Calgary’s 2006 LRT at 27 cents per passenger versus $3.92 per traveler for Vancouver’s 2013 SkyTrain! And construction of the REM type is 5 times as costly.”

There is also an ethical question here.

In November 2015, the Caisse bought 30% of the train business of the Bombardier group. So in the bidding process for contracts, the Caisse is both the client for a future system, and – as an owner of Bombardier’s rail division – a potential supplier.

That is surely, on its face, a conflict of interest.

University of Toronto professor of urban planning, Matti Siemiatycki told the Gazette “there have been privately funded and financed commuter rail lines” like the Caisse’s REM, “but in most cases they do not recover their operating costs, let alone their capital costs.” Gazette reporter Jason Magder indicated that “The Caisse, which has a real-estate investment division, will also try to recoup some of the investment through development along the line.”

That is the potentially ugly underside of this project: an absurdly costly network, poorly integrated with existing services, that will require real estate speculation and promote urban sprawl in order make up for its chronic revenue deficits.

And one more caveat…The REM system envisaged is proprietary, which means that once a transportation authority purchases a proprietary transit system, from a company such as Bombardier, for example, it is stuck with the original manufacturer for all subsequent needs, no matter what. Railway buffs call this the “gotcha factor.”

Gotcha? No thanks…

Patrick Barnard is a teacher at Dawson College. He edits a video blog dealing with the environment and urban planning called The Pimento Report.

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