Visionary or delusional?

June 24, 2008: Day trippers pour off  the train chartered by M&M for the Hudson Village Theatre for the launch of their summer season. Early showgoers could attend the matinee, then hang out in Hudson while the later crowd took in the evening show after a day strolling through town.

Hudsonites may remember this. For a town struggling to reverse the demise of its Main Street retail, the sight of a trainload of day trippers spending a vehicle-free day shopping, dining and playgoing was all it took to launch talk of a resurgent local economy. (Many visitors said there wasn’t enough to see or do to fill the time, but that’s another issue.)

The idea of train travel generates a lot of feel-good baggage, especially for we who  grew up with a dozen daily trains and the Sunday-morning Hangover Special. Old photos are a reminder of what Hudson has lost as service dwindled to a single commuter train weekday mornings and evenings and shuttlebuses, collectively costing taxpayers roughly $270,000 a year.

One of Hudson’s perennial debates is whether subsidizing public transport is worth it. The late mayor Steve Shaar used to quip it was cheaper to buy a car for every one of those taking the train. Since then, I’ve realized the extent to which the taxpayer  subsidizes the use of the car (and the driver doubly so). I’m running into more and more people done with a three-hour commute, traffic and lost personal time. I’m also meeting Millennials who reject car ownership and the illusion of personal freedom it conveys.

Is there a social shift underway in Vaudreuil-Soulanges? With a population topping 150,000 and 15% growth between censuses, is it sustainable enough to attract investment in an hourly light-rail shuttle between Rigaud, Hudson’s heritage stations and the bus/rail terminus in Vaudreuil? Will the new Réseau express métropolitain (REM) line terminating in northern Ste. Anne de Bellevue eventually cross the Ottawa River via the Ile aux Tourtes bridge replacement planned for 2028? Shouldn’t we be planning now for what will happen a decade away?

Hudson’s current administration has just begun its second year in office. Council’s orientations include a planning exercise that may or may not result in changes to  transport-oriented development (TOD) established by the previous council. Under current densification designations and Hudson’s 10-year-old master plan, the town has limited control over the size and social impact of multi-unit developments within the current one-kilometre TOD zone. It’s another of those inherited headaches we’re having to deal with.

AMT morphs into EXO: Beginning in 2018, locomotives, railcars, ticket operations and everything else of an operational nature will be rebranded. Why? Because.

It was with these thoughts that I headed to Trois-Rivières last Friday for the Nov. 9 Forum municipal sur le transport ferroviaire sponsored by the Union des municipalités du Québec. Alone and by car, onto the island on the 40, off the island via the 13 to the 640, to the 40. There is simply no other means getting to and from Trois-Rivières in less than 24 hours — the amount of time it took by steamboat 150 years ago.

The forum drew some 150 participants from throughout the province. During that afternoon’s interactive online survey, we learned that 96% of us arrived by car —most by ourselves. (I confess to not having made an effort to carpool with Hudson mayor Jamie Nicholls and Rigaud’s Hans Gruenwald.)  I met mayors, prefects and councillors from among the 500 Quebec municipalities transected by at least one operating rail line. Most of those I spoke with said their priorities were public security and moving freight. Public mass transit wasn’t at the top of most attendees’ lists of priorities despite UMQ president and Drummondville mayor Alexandre Cusson’s opening remarks warning us the planet is at a turning point, that sustainable transport is an essential next step and we, the municipalities, have to sell this to our residents.

The 2013 Lac Mégantic oil train explosion has become an essential component in every discussion of rail safety. Have skinflint branch-line operations been made safer as a result? We have Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s word.

With Lac Mégantic mayor Diane Morin in the audience and Transport Canada’s role in creating conditions for the 2013 oil train explosion fresh in many minds, federal transport minister Marc Garneau concentrated on vaunting his government’s doubling of the number of Transport Canada inspectors and investment in level crossing safety. He was followed by Infrastructure and Communities Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who touted the many areas in which the feds and the provinces can partner on rail transport projects.

Quebec’s new CAQ government declared itself behind whatever François Legault promised during the election campaign. In his maiden speech as transport minister, François Bonnardel touched on everything from passenger service in the Gaspé to developing Contrecoeur, on the South Shore downriver from Montreal, as Quebec’s new containerport and intermodal terminus. He noted how the premier is involved “haut et fort” in Via Rail’s plans to double service to Quebec’s smaller population centres — like Trois-Rivières. Again, Bonnardel’s emphasis was on the need to partner with Ottawa and municipalities and to let citizens know what’s happening.

Corporate interests were heavily represented by lobbyists and the forum’s panelists. VIA Rail CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano shared a glowing report (below) of VIA Rail’s blue-sky expansion plans for eastern Canada. CN executive president Sean Finn delivered a jolly hundredth-anniversary cheer for CN’s Quebec operations (2,038 miles of track, eight major clients across Canada) and a bold mission statement: we’re ready to help you move goods while removing trucks from Quebec’s highways. He made it clear people-moving isn’t part of CN’s mandate.

V-D CP train.JPG
CP mixed-freight train chugs past Vaudreuil-Dorion development. Transport Canada has added more than 100 inspectors. Is that a guarantee of zero risk when municipalities have no way of knowing what is being transported before the fact?

Stéphane Forget, chairman and CEO of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, was alone in mentioning Montreal’s Réseau express métropolitain (REM) light rail transit system due to start moving Greater Montreal residents in 2021. The big challenge in building new lines or reviving old ones, he added, is finding the financing.

Last up at the podium was Martin Soucy, CEO of the Alliance de l’industrie touristique, who tried to convince the crowd Quebec rail tourism can become world-class if enough money is thrown at it.

  • La présentation de monsieur Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, président et chef de la direction de Via Rail;
  • La présentation de monsieur Sean Finn, président exécutif des services corporatifs et chef de la direction des Affaires juridiques du CN;
  • La présentation de monsieur Stéphane Forget, président-directeur général de la Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec;
  • La présentation de monsieur Martin Soucy, président-directeur général de l’Alliance de l’industrie touristique;

The forum produced a formal declaration, the Déclaration de Trois-Rivières, creating a UMQ’s rail transportation committee dedicated to making rail transport safer, more competitive and more convenient. Like the day’s event, I found the declaration to be vague and flabby — deliberately so. Is the focus on moving freight more cheaply,  more safely and conveniently? In that case, what happens on lines where passenger rail schedules are forced to mesh with freight? Greater Montreal’s commuter lines — and their users — pay the price in dependability and frequency.

Environmental concerns got the requisite lip service. The UMQ commissioned a CROP poll which found nearly nine out of 10 Quebecers (87%) use their cars for trips of 100 or more kilometres, compared to 4% who take the train. Fewer than one in four (22%) use the train as an alternative to driving. At the same time, more than a third (37%) of those polled think government should invest in public transit by rail because it’s the best existing alternative to the car. One in four (28%) say it’s because rail transit reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, a significant percentage of those who say we need more rail transportation aren’t using it now.

In one aspect, the Forum was an incredible success. Everyone with business in rail was there and available. I walked into a conversation between La Megantic’s mayor Diane Morin and François Rebello, a former PQ-turned-ADQ MNA who now lobbies on behalf of municipalities looking to resurrect disused rail lines for freight and passenger service. Morin told me her town’s chief concern is ensuring its industrial park has punctual freight service. What about passenger service? The line is too old and bumpy to allow passenger trains.

We talked with Jean Bouchard, the mayor of Mirabel, a sprawling suburb north of Montreal. Like Hudson, Mirabel is part of the 82-municipality Montreal Metropolitan Community and Bouchard sits on the board of the Réseau de transport métropolitain (RTM), the organism responsible for developing MMC public transit policy. Despite being crisscrossed with old rail lines, Mirabel has no rail commuter service. A new station is planned as part of Exo’s St. Jerome commuter rail line, but there’s no hard completion date.

Bouchard explained how the RTM is responsible for policy, while Exo, the aptly named melange of ARTM, AMT, STM and a half-dozen other public transit entities, oversees operations. Most of the conversation centred on the dog’s breakfast of schedules, services and bad decisions the RTM is having to work its way through in creating a single public transit structure that will guarantee the same level of service throughout the MMC.  It wasn’t encouraging, but I took some relief from knowing Quebec’s best entrepreneurial minds are on the job.

As I made the 150-minute drive back to Hudson via the 40, 640, 13, 40 and 342 in steadily worsening Friday-afternoon traffic I wondered what it will take to break Quebec’s addiction to personal transportation. Ever-longer commutes won’t do it, because for many, the commute by public transit is still longer and less convenient. Either deliver on promises such as those made at the UMQ Forum, or continue to pretend there isn’t a worsening public transit crisis.


Maxxum’s maxims

Water leak at the top of Lower Maple: According to Hudson’s newly adopted infrastructure intervention plan, preventive replacement of  rusting water connections comes before repaving Main Road through the downtown core.

Finally, Hudson has a Quebec-approved plan to address the municipality’s notorious infrastructure deficit. Council unanimously adopted the final version of the intervention plan at the Nov. 5 meeting a month after receiving MAMOT approval.

It’s taken almost 11 years to get to this point, but for most of that time, most Hudson residents, myself included, never knew the town needed an intervention plan in order to qualify for municipal infrastructure funding. It works like this:

Back in 2005, Ottawa created the Federal Gas Tax Fund, a permanent source of funding for municipalities to build and revitalize public infrastructure across Canada — roads, bridges, water, energy, public transit and solid waste management systems. Conditions applied. Quebec being Quebec, it wanted a say in how the money got spent. So it created TECQ, funded by the feds but managed by Quebec’s municipal affairs ministry. MAMOT attached its own strings. TECQ grant applications had to cover four years and address Quebec’s list of priorities, beginning with drinking water and sewers. Municipalities could fund road repairs with their TECQ money only after potable water, stormwater and wastewater needs were met. Before it could apply for TECQ funding, a municipality had to submit to MAMOT an up-to-date intervention plan — an inventory of the town’s capital assets and their state of repair.

Engineering consultants Maxxum were hired in the summer of 2017 to work with Town managers to draft a preliminary intervention plan. It was submitted to MAMOT Nov. 9/17. On Feb. 23/18, MAMOT engineering staff replied with comments which required a response. MAMOT received the Town’s response Aug. 14 and replied Oct. 4 — after the Town’s 2018 paving program was completed.

My summary of the final Maxxum report: 

The Town of Hudson contains 82 km of water mains, 12 km of sewers, 2.6 km of storm sewers and 76 km of roads. The town is fortunate insofar as its water mains and most of its sewers and storm sewers are relatively new and have plenty of useful life left.

That doesn’t mean they don’t need continuing investment to keep them that way. Our aqueduct network requires $1.875M ANNUALLY. Sewers and storm sewers also require annual investments of $115,400 and $67,600 respectively.

The biggest problem with the aqueducts is that while we began collecting data on water main breaks in 1983, the historic excluded service entrances, corporate stops and “poteaux d’incendie.” Experience has shown these are the source of most of Hudson’s water leaks.

Roads are another story. Maxxum recommends that the town invest $9.1M in integrated upgrades (water + sewers + storm sewers + roads) to bring the road network up to a minimum sustainablity standard. Just keeping the roads as they are will require a minimal ANNUAL investment of $2M +

Once one understands how the plan is laid out, interesting factoids jump out.

Example: a 227-metre segment of Main Road between civic #s 302 and 322 will require water main remediation and repaving totalling $377,610. It was the most expensive segment I could find.

I counted more than 100 segments of road with RMC (réféction majeure de chaussée) designations. Almost all had 4 and 5 ratings — bad or very bad.

Of the storm sewers, the stretch on Cameron between Main and St-Jean has expended 82% of its expected lifespan. Of the 2.6 km of storm sewers, 1 km will turn 50 within the next 10 years, meaning that when that stretch of Cameron is due to be repaired, the storm sewer should be part of the total.

That’s the takeaway from the Maxxum plan. If we’re fixing the town, let’s do it right the first time and according to the intervention plan.

Ask most people how they want their tax dollars spent and they’ll say “better roads and sidewalks.” A longtime Hudson resident moved to St. Lazare because his wife was sick of her car getting beaten up on Windcrest. Cyclists tell me they won’t ride on Main Road because they’re risking life and limb. They can’t understand why we don’t just repave Hudson’s streets, starting with Main Road.

So there was serious confusion when this summer’s $2 million paving blitz included side streets in far better condition than a number of major arteries. Back in September, a District 5 resident requested a schedule of roads to be resurfaced in 2018, those to be done in 2019 and how priorities were decided, “for instance why a low traffic road like Lower Whitlock would be a priority over the far higher traffic volume Main Road.”

I wrote him back with the following:

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To answer your first two questions, the document above is the schedule and original estimate for 2018.
It was to be funded by Bylaw 670.1, adopted by the previous council prior to the 2017 dissolution.
The current council was informed that (a) the schedule did not follow the hierarchy of needs set out in the draft intervention plan required by MAMOT to govern infrastructure expenditures, and (b) that the 2018 cost of resurfacing these streets was $470,000 more than the 2016 estimates.
As regards the cost overrun, MAMOT allows a loan bylaw to be revised on this basis.
So 670.1 was revised from $1.5M to $1.97M.
This is reflected in the refinancing resolution we approved in September.
Concerning the intervention plan, council will be approving the final version shortly.
The 2019 repaving schedule will be priority-based as established by the intervention plan.
To answer your last question, it was decided in absence of a final intervention plan to repave according to two criteria:
1) Refrain from cosmetic repaving wherever a road needs serious infrastructure work (drainage and culvert replacement, aqueduct/sewerage remediation);
2) To repave streets where a coat of asphalt will prevent further degradation.
Example: In the late ‘80s the town dug up Main Road between Cote St. Charles and Beach Rd. to install new aqueducts.
The piping itself is in remarkably good condition but the mild steel saddles and corporate stops have rusted to pieces wherever they’re in clay.
This represents roughly 85 addresses.
We saw the result at the exit to the IGA parking lot last winter and more recently, the breaks next to the former Habib’s and Legg’s.
These breaks necessitated digging up the pavement (and in some cases, the sidewalk) and installing bronze saddles.
Former technical services director Trail Grubert counselled the town to replace them all in one go and force recalcitrant property owners to connect to the sewer network before investing in new sidewalks and repaving. (These represent roughly a quarter of the 700 addresses that CAN connect.)
As councillor for District 5, it bothers me to see arteries in need of serious remediation, like Lakeview, Oakland, Elm and Maple, neglected while less-travelled streets got a fresh coat of asphalt.
But as a councillor representing the Town of Hudson, I see the necessity of balancing cost and needs.
I apologize for rattling on, but as you can see, this isn’t a simple matter of heeding the squeaky wheel.
I’ll have news of the 2019 repaving program shortly and welcome your comments.

For those still with me, here’s some deep background I compiled in January 2018 and shared with Council:

Back in 2005, MAMOT produced its first Guide d’elaboration d’un plan intervention. The idea was to oblige municipalities to apply standard measurement tools to the task of determining how federal, provincial and municipal tax dollars should be spent on infrastructure. In 2013, MAMOT revised the Guide to include storm sewers and the roads above underground installations.

In 2011, Quebec adopted its Strategie d’économie d’eau potable. It obliged municipalities to establish water consumption baselines, which meant towns like Hudson had to get serious about collecting consumption data and using the information to design a program to identify and repair leaks in the system. It also required water meters in non-residential buildings as well as in a sampling of residences for comparison and made some infrastructure grant categories conditional on data thus gathered.

In 2015, MAMOT came out with the Rapport sur le coût et les sources de revenus des services d’eau. Besides putting a 2012 dollar figure on the real cost of water — $2.26 per cubic metre, roughly a penny a gallon — it extended the cost and revenue streams for water services to include all water services — potable water sourcing, treatment and distribution as well as wastewater collection and treatment.

The $2.26-per-cubic-metre figure is now the baseline for all future calculations regarding water infrastructure. That number is regularly adjusted in light of research on the life-cycle replacement costs as well as escalating service costs and salary increases.

The Rapport sur le coût et les sources de revenus des services d’eau was never meant to deal with how these services should be financed or taxed. Since then, however, Quebec has come to realize the real cost of drinking water also includes maintaining, replacing and refinancing all infrastructure related to water. Not just potable water, but wastewater, storm water and the roads and sidewalks above. It also includes the cost of preparing for, and dealing with the cost of climate change.

Last December MAMOT published its Portrait des infrastructures en eaux des municipalités du Québec (PIEMQ). Compiled by the Centre d’expertise et de recherché en infrastructures urbaines, the PIEMQ presents a province-wide analysis of the current state of municipal potable water, wastewater and storm water infrastructures as well as the roads above.

Besides compiling a municipality-by-municipality picture of the current state of our aqueducts, sewers, treatment plants and roads, PIEMQ provides indicators to MAMOT of medium-to long-term maintenance and replacement costs.

The report divides municipal water infrastructures in Quebec into two basic categories — linear, as in major population centres, and sectorial (ponctuel) as we have in Hudson and most semi-rural municipalities where only certain sectors can access services.

The 577 larger, more centralized municipalities with linear systems collectively represent 30,000 km of water pipes with a replacement value of $30 billion, 25,000 km of sewers (replacement value $31 billion) and more than 13,000 km of storm drains (replacement value $17.2 billion.) Some 25,000 km of roads above these systems would cost $28.9 billion to replace.

PIEMQ found urban infrastructures to be in relatively good shape compared to their smaller counterparts (such as Hudson). Almost half (48%) of the 4,153 sectorial infrastructure installations are at a high to very high risk of failure while the rest range from low to moderate.

The numbers attached to this small-town infrastructure deficit are mind-boggling: 3,400 km of water lines, 2,600 km of sewers, 400 km of storm sewers, 11,800 km of roads, 1,700 potable water installations and 2,450 wastewater treatment systems require “more or less short-term intervention.”

The report stresses its ratings should be used as a measure of time left in a life cycle rather than as a risk assessment.

The cost of repairing or replacing infrastructure assets in Hudson and 822 other Quebec municipalities rated as having a high to very high risk of failure is roughly $29.5 billion.

What we need to take away from PIEMQ is the awareness that infrastructure investment is a constant budgetary priority that rockets out of control if councils are distracted by the need to please a fickle electorate with nice-to-have expenditures.