V-S REM: Stupid not to extend


IAT plan 2.JPG
Technical summary of Ile aux Tourtes bridge reconstruction. Note unassigned grey lanes in the centre, logical placement of double LRT line — possibly but not necessarily the REM.

Last week I attended a Ministry of Transport briefing on plans to replace the Ile aux Tourtes bridge by 2031.  In the 12-year meantime, the MoT proposes to keep the 55-year-old span open for the 86,000 vehicles a day it carries (their estimate). The new bridge will be built to accommodate a light rail commuter system down the road. Extending the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) to Vaudreuil-Soulanges was not part of the agenda. Encouraging off-island residents to use existing public transit was.

As currently configured, the 26-station automated electric light rail transit (LRT) system will begin service in 2021 and extend the western line to Ste. Anne de Bellevue two years later. The $6B network will link Montreal, Laval, the north and south shores — but not Vaudreuil-Soulanges and its 160,000 residents.

Our meeting was with Chantal Rouleau, the junior minister of transport as well the minister responsible for Greater Montreal in François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec cabinet.  She’s new to the National Assembly but she’s known in Montreal municipal politics, both as Pointe aux Trembles borough mayor and for her involvement in east-end sustainable development initiatives.

I was there to represent the Town of Hudson. Beside me were a representative of Greg Kelley’s Jacques-Cartier riding office, someone from Vaudreuil MNA Marie-Claude Nicholls’s office, Senneville’s general manager and Louise Craig, co-founder (with St. Lazare councillor Genevieve Lachance) of the Le REM dans/in Vaudreuil-Soulanges Facebook page.

While the West Island has been a part of the bridge discussion for some time, Vaudreuil-Soulanges is new to the table. And late. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say the future of Vaudreuil-Soulanges will increasingly depend on fast, convenient public transit, both for 74% of the 160,000 residents who commute onto the island and for potential employees looking to commute to Vaudreuil-Soulanges to work. The Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital has been promised by the end of 2026, creating 4,000 good jobs. 

We all know off-island and island traffic congestion is worsening.  INRIX, a global traffic-metrics provider, estimates the average commute into the city takes 75 minutes in optimal rush-hour conditions and often tops three hours both ways. The cost in lost hours of productivity is evidenced by the number of trucking firms relocating to Vaudreuil-Soulanges, strategically located at the junctions of highways 20,30 and 40.

For me, the idea of extending the REM to Vaudreuil-Soulanges is the logical thing to do.  Three years ago, I asked former Hudson councillor Tom Birch whether he thought the MTQ would include an LRT line in the design for the new span. “They’d be stupid not to,” Birch said. (Read Will Hudson miss the train again? WP blog June 27/17)

“Stupid not to” became the rallying cry for the creators of Le REM dans/in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, the Facebook page now approaching 1,000 followers. A series of radio, TV, print and online stories that resulted from St. Lazare’s adoption of a motion of support for extending the REM generated enough pressure to convince Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC mayors to adopt unanimously a resolution to that effect. On Monday last, Hudson became the second MRC municipality to pass a motion similar to St. Lazare’s.

The CAQ government’s reaction to all this pressure was delivered at the March 6 briefing and news conference we were attending. On the minister’s side of the table were Soulanges (and Hudson’s) CAQ MNA Marilyne Picard and half a dozen MoT staff. A technical sheet on the bridge replacement was handed out. Rouleau described it as a concept, not a final plan. Eight lanes of traffic, two for buses only three in the direction of rush-hour traffic) and a re-engineering of both approaches to the span so that buses have priority. On the bridge’s north side (toward Vaudreuil-Dorion) a walkway will provide cyclists and pedestrians a lake view.

IAT bridge plan 1.JPG
IAT replacement critical path will include two public hearings March 18, March 27, followed by an environmental impact study. Public participation at this stage will determine what will be on the table at environmental impact hearings.

A REM extension to Vaudreuil-Soulanges via the new bridge didn’t come up until we asked. The replacement bridge, Rouleau told us, will be designed and built to carry “heavy public transit” — trains. She conceded it could be the REM — or it could be another technology adapted from one of many countries wrestling with the same traffic congestion. Until then. the minister added, “the bus is the best means we have” to move people to and from the REM terminal in Ste. Anne.

Rouleau was questioned on the logic of expecting a parent to rush his or her child to daycare, then drive to the bus station, park, then take a bus to the REM. Off-islanders need their vehicles anyway, so they’ll put up with traffic congestion instead of jostling for a seat. She was pushed on what will be done to expedite the flood of off-islanders wanting to board the REM, especially now that Ste. Anne’s mayor has insisted on fewer parking spaces and no interest in seeing her town’s streets clogged with new traffic.

The minister would hear none of it.  Our shared objective should be to turn drivers into riders before the REM opens and she urged us to start the ball rolling. “Your work will be to convince people not to use their cars…our roads can’t take more.”

At least she assured us her government has no plans to charge tolls.

Rouleau would not venture a date for an LRT line on the bridge. Before that happens, she said, this  government plans to encourage drivers to use public transit through exo, the agency now operating all train, bus and metro lines in the Montreal Metropolitan Community. Rouleau suggested additional trains on the Hudson/Vaudreuil line and more express buses like the A40 service between the Vaudreuil exo station and the Côte Vertu metro.

Feeling strongly about the REM and the future of public transit in Vaudreuil-Soulanges? The Ministry of Transport has scheduled two public consultations over the next two weeks. The first, next Monday March 18 is at the Centre Multisports, 3093 boul. de la Gare in Vaudreuil-Dorion between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. The second is scheduled for 4-8 p.m. Wednesday March 27 at Senneville’s George McLeish Community Centre, 20 Morningside Ave. 

Technically, it’s not asking a lot to plan and build the new bridge to be able to carry an LRT line at some point in the future. They’re having to replace the old bridge anyway; it opened in 1965 and will be well past its 50-year lifespan by the time the new bridge is ready. While MoT insists it’s safe, maintenance is costing too much.

Politically, I can see that promising an LRT line to Vaudreuil-Soulanges as part of the new bridge may present a problem for the CAQ.

This government’s heartland straddles Montreal’s North and South shore past Quebec City.  It’s the reason Dev V-S, Vaudreuil-Soulanges’s economic development arm, is said by some to be beating its head against the wall for a transport-oriented industrial park in the county. Bécancoeur wants exclusivity and it’s part of the CAQ heartland. So are a dozen other fast-growing municipalities with traffic congestion, long commutes and fewer public transit options than Vaudreuil-Soulanges.

The CAQ inherits its political DNA from the Parti Action Démocratique, co-founded by Mario Dumont and Jean Allaire in the early ’90s. The ADQ was hyper-local, attracting its share of colourful candidates but not many votes as it wandered in the political wilderness. As the Coalition Avenir Québec, and with a pragmatic leader in François Legault, the party has moved the ball in every election before scoring a majority government a year ago. There’s no time to waste in acknowledging those years of support from regions where CAQ loyalists kept the party alive.

Clearly, it doesn’t hurt that Soulanges is represented by a CAQ candidate. (Legault himself made the announcement of Marilyne Picard’s candidacy at l’Auberge des Gallant last fall.) So far, Legault’s CAQ has been good for Vaudreuil-Soulanges. A 404-bed $1.5B regional hospital, promised by a succession of Liberal governments for a decade, was hurriedly announced by then premier Philippe Couillard and his health minister Gaètan Barrette immediately prior to last year’s election after Louise Craig talked Legault’s people into scheduling a news conference the following week at Whitlock Golf and Country Club. 

I asked Rouleau to confirm the new bridge project will be subject to hearings conducted by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE). She said it would. My theory: the MoT decided to announce the LRT-capable bridge because its people knew extending the REM via the bridge would be an issue in environmental hearings. (Over half of the participants in a public consultation last fall told the provincial environment ministry they want to see a REM extension made part of the environmental impact assessment process. (Extend the REM, public consult urges, Feb. 5/19).)

There’s another question unanswered: once the REM extends to Ste. Anne, will exo and its ARTM overseers maintain the Vaudreuil-Hudson line in operation?  The REM’s electric trains will start at 5 a.m. and run until late, every 2 1/2 minutes during peak hours, every 5 minutes in between. Its financial model depends on moving full trains from the outset. I can’t see exo keeping that line in operation once it starts losing riders to the REM.

This is where Vaudreuil-Dorion and Hudson part ways. Mayor Guy Pilon, while voting in favour of the MRC motion in support of a REM on the bridge, expressed concern over how costs would be shared. Pilon is playing his own game. The other week he showed me how easily the REM could be extended to his city so that shuttlebuses from all over the region could pick up or drop off passengers without getting hung up in boul. de la Gare traffic. He keeps bugging me about getting Hudson to close the rail line between Vaudreuil and Hudson and turn it into a walking/cycling corridor. I remind him that the train a day each way is Hudson’s only negotiating tool as exo sets out to reorganize the MCC’s public transit networks and Pilon looks to make Vaudreuil-Dorion the region’s transit hub. We’re grandfathered, just like Vaudreuil-Dorion is grandfathered. 

At this point the V-S REM has been diverted to a siding. Rouleau, by kicking the REM can down the road, buys her government 12 years of not having to bother with the file while transferring responsibility to hapless Vaudreuil-Soulanges commuters to find their own solution. Given the fickle nature of the Vaudreuil-Soulanges electorate, I don’t think it’s an orientation with legs.