It’s the largest investment in public transit the city has seen in decades, but critics warn of a fatally flawed plan that could haunt the region for years.
It sounds like the kind of project cities don’t dare to dream of anymore: a massive new transportation network on par with the great mass transit buildouts of the 20th century.
The Réseau express métropolitain (REM), French for metropolitan express network, is slated to be the largest investment in Greater Montreal’s public transit in 50 years. Projected to be completed within four years, the fully-automated light-rail system rivals the creation of the city’s subway, the Métro, in both size and impact. It is among the largest public transit projects in Canadian history and is intended to demonstrate new alternative funding methods for infrastructural mega-projects — in this instance, a “public-public” partnership.
Once completed, the REM will ferry passengers between the city’s international airport and the train station located near the core of the central business district. It will carry commuters from rapidly growing off-island suburbs over the new Champlain Bridge — designed with light rail in mind — and connect new urban neighborhoods currently lacking in public transit access. Further still, the REM will reach into the city’s sprawling western suburbs to provide a long-awaited improvement to the current cumbersome and delay-prone commuter rail network.
Why, then, are environmentalists, transit lobbyists, architects, urban planners, researchers and the public consultation office highly critical — if not outright opposed — to a project that has so much potential? Why is there strong opposition to a major investment in public transit in a city that regularly ranks third in North America, after New York City and Mexico City, for daily rapid transit ridership?
Critics charge that the REM is a backdoor to the privatization of public transit in its own right, and by privatizing key public transit infrastructure, in the long run it will limit the potential to expand other systems, such as the city’s Métro or commuter rail. Moreover, the project’s developer has chosen a route design that would be highly favorable to its own real estate holdings and would further support suburban residential construction, in which it is a major investor. This has led some to condemn the project as a real estate venture masquerading as a public transit project. To top it all off, though a considerable amount of public money will be used as start-up capital, contractually obligated annual returns will essentially remain in private hands.