REM: A Montréal of the Possible
By Michael Sabia
Montréal is on the move.
There’s Lightspeed, whose software helps 40,000 businesses across the world manage their sales. Hopper, whose successful use of big data predicts the best time to buy a plane ticket. Rodeo FX, whose special effects in Game of Thrones have won Emmys. There are researchers like Yoshua Bengio, whose work is pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence. And Moment Factory, whose productions dazzle the planet.
Whether it’s big data or new media, artificial intelligence or virtual reality, Montréal is laying the foundations for its future, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs and researchers who think and work differently.
Thinking differently is what we try to do every day at la Caisse. And our Réseau électrique métropolitain project is a good example of thinking differently in undertaking a major public transit initiative.
Why is this project important? Because it’s vital that Greater Montréal propel itself into the economy of tomorrow. Because if we are to succeed as a city, we need infrastructure that moves the city forward rather than slowing its progress. Efficient public transit is essential in enabling Montréal to become a metropolis as dynamic as its entrepreneurs.
As a city, we have a unique opportunity to build an electric train network that will change the face of Greater Montréal. It’s a big responsibility that matches the scale of this almost $6 billion investment.
No matter their point of view on specifics, I think everyone agrees on one thing: Montrealers have waited too long for a transit system that meets their needs.
Rain or shine, they want to get to the airport without worrying about missing their plane due to traffic on Décarie or Highway 20. They want to make the Brossard-Central Station trip in 15 minutes flat. They want trains to run every six minutes during their rush-hour commute from Deux-Montagnes to downtown.
That said, the REM is much more than an effective public transit network. The project will create some 8500 direct and indirect jobs annually during the four years of its construction. It will inject $3.7 billion of financial adrenaline to boost the local economy. That’s over and above the $5 billion in real estate investments expected along the project’s route, including transit-oriented development within walking distance of stations.
At la Caisse, we estimate that the REM will increase the overall public transit budget for the Greater Montréal area by about 2 to 4 percent. That includes all capital expenditures –that is a first for Québec. Put another way, for a comparable annual budget, the Greater Montréal area gets the equivalent of a second metro system.
Because the REM is such a transformative project for Greater Montréal, it’s perfectly reasonable that the project be closely scrutinized, and the subject of lively discussion. It’s the opposite that would be surprising.
Legitimate questions are being asked. Our goal at la Caisse is always to find better ways to answer them and to work hard to find the best solutions we can. That’s why I think it is important for us to better explain our timetable and the way we’re working to deliver the project on time and on budget.
We have committed to put the first REM trains in service by the end of 2020. First, because we are absolutely convinced it’s doable. And second, because by getting on with the job, we can more easily integrate into the new Champlain Bridge and help relieve chronic traffic jams in Montréal.
Of course, in Québec we have had more than our fair share of substantial delays and chronic cost overruns in major infrastructure projects. And that’s precisely why we’ve chosen a different approach for the REM – one that allows us to deliver the project in a much more efficient way. We’re working methodically, with utmost rigour, using a continuous engineering approach. What does that mean? It means we’re always listening to suggestions and working on improvements, non-stop.
So far, we have organized 12 open-door meetings where we heard the views of some 3000 citizens. We’ve discussed the project with hundreds of city officials, transit administrators and community groups. Many worthwhile improvements have resulted from these exchanges.
To broaden access to the REM for all Montrealers via the main metro lines, we accelerated the opening of three new stations at Édouard-Montpetit, McGill and Bassin Peel. To protect wetlands, we decided to extend a tunnel under the Sources Nature Park. To preserve historical buildings in Griffintown, we will be using elevated tracks. And so on.
This openness has guided us since the beginning, and it will continue to do so in the months ahead. In that spirit, we are currently working with the Environment Ministry to follow up on the recommendations of the BAPE environmental review board, despite our differences on certain issues raised in the report.
We are also using a continuous improvement approach to encourage the bidders who have responded to our call for tenders to deliver their most innovative solutions and technologies. Our open and flexible call for tenders is designed to draw on the very best ingenuity that these consortia have to offer.
This approach, based on flexibility and continuous engineering, is in widespread use elsewhere in the world. It’s an efficient way to continuously improve a project, while ensuring it meets expectations. This way of working — collaboratively and iteratively – is inherent in how the new economy works. That said, it is different from the traditional ways used in Québec to deliver infrastructure.
As our work continues, we will continue to work with municipalities, remain open and receptive to suggestions from the public, and keep you informed of the progress made as we’ve done in recent months.
The REM was never intended to solve all of Greater Montréal’s transportation problems. But it will make a difference. That’s why those of us at la Caisse are working hard every day to plan and build a transit network that meets the needs of Montrealers. Because, for la Caisse and for me personally, there is only one Montréal. A Montréal of the possible.