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Uncertain future for MTL mass transit

Debate continues over metro expansion, Turcot re-design, and tramways

Montreal is buzzing with transit development plans that will shape the city for decades to come.

From the proposed metro expansion into Laval, Longueil, and Anjou, to the redevelopment of the Turcot Interchange in the Southwest, and the perennial promise of the streetcar resurrection, transit has once again emerged as a central issue in the city’s political scene.

“In a way, transport makes the city,” said Étienne Coutu, an architect and urban designer working with Projet Montréal at City Hall.

A central tenet to the burgeoning municipal party’s platform is the installation of 250 kilometres of tramway track to the city, ten per cent of which they hope to have completed by fall 2012. Mayor Gérald Tremblay, meanwhile, has pegged the opening of a tramway line connecting Côte-des-Neiges to downtown and the Old Port for 2013.

“With a tramway, we’re giving space back to public transit,” Coutu said.

“The point is the experience – it’s calm, and it’s stable,” he said, adding that building tramways in Quebec would create jobs, and would also provide an incentive to redesign the streets around the new lines by widening sidewalks and adding green space.

Under Projet Montréal’s plan, a tramway would return to Parc – the most frequently serviced bus route in the city, and a major streetcar artery until the City swapped streetcars for buses in the mid-fifties.

At an estimated cost of $40- to 60-million per kilometre, however, others are not convinced that tramways are the best option for the city.

McGill urban planning professor Ahmed El-Geneidy favours increased bus frequency and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems.

“Exclusive bus-only lanes still take space away from cars – and cost much less,” said El-Geneidy, whose Transportation Research At McGill (TRAM) group works closely with STM, the regional transit authority, and the Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT) on projects such as the implementation of the express bus route 467 along St. Michel.

On January 22, the STM issued a press release stating it was about to finalize a $3-billion contract with the Consortium of Bombardier-Alstom SA for 765 new cars to replace its aging fleet, with an option for an additional 288.

However, the plan has stalled while China’s Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive attempts to join the bidding process with its steel-wheeled trains. These wheels can run outside, and are regarded as more energy-efficient than the rubber tires currently used in Montreal’s metro system, which is set to expand soon.

Last September, Quebec premier Jean Charest announced that the provincial government would move forward with a plan to connect the orange line in Laval, extend the yellow line by five stops into Longueil, and add five kilometres on the east side of the blue line, at a potential cost of about $150 million per kilometre.

With the majority of the construction on the North and South Shores, however, both Coutu and El-Geneidy expressed concern that the proposals could clog the already-congested east side of the orange line.

El-Geneidy stressed that for the extension into Anjou to be successful, the metro expansion must be coupled with a land-use plan to attract retailers, offices, and businesses around the metro lines.

“Without a land use plan, it will succeed at the same level as the old blue line,” he said.

Coutu added that Projet Montréal would also like to see the west side of the blue line extended through Snowdon to connect to Montréal-Ouest, and a tram connecting Trudeau Airport to downtown.

As for the yellow line, “Longueil is going to be a joke,” said El-Geneidy, adding that he would rather see an enhanced BRT service to feed into the existing metro.

However, recent squabbles between the STM, Laval, and Longueil over operating costs suggest the expansion may hit more political roadblocks in the future.

Laval withheld its annual $1.5-million share of operating costs until Longueil joined them in the TRAM 3 fare zone. Longueil is threatening to do the same.

“It’s like we’re in kindergarten, and no one wants to pay for the service,” said Coutu.

The argument raises the issue of the multitude of transit operators and fares in the region, with the STM’s single-fare metro and buses, the AMT’s multi-fare zone commuter trains, and separate suburban bus services like the Réseau de transport de Longueuil on the South Shore.

El-Geneidy said that competition between the agencies is a positive thing, but that the AMT should designate a consistent fare-zone system across the region.