The top four mayoral candidates faced off in an English-language debate on Tuesday night at McGill’s Tanna Schulich Hall about the now-familiar topics of Montreal’s crumbling infrastructure, the threat of construction-aggravated traffic, and the recent spectacle of municipal corruption scandals.
With corruption front and centre at the start of the debate, both Denis Coderre, currently polling as the front-runner, and Marcel Côté, who is polling dead last, were on the defensive.
Coderre’s party, Équipe Denis Coderre, includes 25 ex-members of Union Montréal, the now-defunct former ruling party that saw two mayors go down in corruption scandals. Côté’s Coalition Montréal includes eight ex-Union members.
“Who was the leader of the caucus of Union Montreal? It was Bernard Blanchet. He is with you. Who was the leader of the majority on the floor of the city council? It was Marvin Rotrand. […] How can you change the situation with the same people?” Projet Montréal’s Richard Bergeron asked Côté, before adding slyly, “Though it’s not as worse with you as it is with Mr. Coderre.”
Côté insisted that an “unresponsive bureaucracy” rather than party-wide complicity allowed corruption go on. “It’s a question of good management,” he said.
“The reality is that [corruption] is not that deep – we had the inquiry, we had UPAC,” or Quebec’s anti-corruption squad, claimed Coderre. His platform includes the creation of a City Hall-appointed independent inspector general. “You know, if the roof is leaking, you don’t throw the house down.”
Le Vrai Changement pour Montréal’s Mélanie Joly, who plans to combat corruption by making all of the city’s documents available online to the public, earned laughs from the audience when she retorted, “It’s not only the roof, but also the foundation of Montreal that is leaking.”
Vastly diverging views about the city’s transportation goals emerged as the discussion turned to the economy and transit system, with Joly and Bergeron presenting ambitious plans for public transit while Côté and Coderre cautioned against “politician[s’] promises.”
For Bergeron, an urban planner, combatting the urban sprawl that is sending 22,000 Montrealers into the suburbs each year will be key to revitalizing the economy. His plan is to invest heavily in new housing and modern public transit. His program’s hallmark is an electric tramway network for the city, with between 10 and 15 kilometres (km) operational by 2017.
Joly, for her part, wants to create a fully operational 130 km bus rapid transit (BRT) network by 2020, with 62 km, including a loop between McGill and Griffintown, operational within her first term. BRTs are bus-based mass transit systems that mitigate sources of bus delays by providing dedicated lanes and pre-pay stations.
A BRT would cost “eight times less than the tramway of Mr. Bergeron, or 40 times less than a metro,” Joly said, “and it would have the same impact in densifying the territory.”
Coderre, on the other hand, plans to update existing structures in more conservative ways. “Instead of expending a lot of money, there’s already a plan from STM that we should put forward,” he said.
According to Bergeron, the number of cars in the Montreal region jumps by about 35,000 each year – an unsustainable pattern, he said.
He insisted that keeping traffic flowing would be “impossible” when taking into account the massive rehabilitation projects needed on major thoroughfares such as the Turcot interchange, and required substantial investments in transit encouraging Montrealers to choose public transport.
Côté retorted that “bashing the automobile” wouldn’t solve congestion, and that “the cheapest and fastest” way of improving transit would be to create dedicated bus lanes – a project for which the provincial government has already set aside $75 million.
Tapping into commuter frustration at lingering, empty construction sites, he quipped, “Montreal is the orange cone capital of the world,” and promised several times to expedite public construction by making workers come in on weekends.