We didn’t abandon REM de l’Est, Plante says; ‘we saved the project’

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Montreal’s mayor tells the chamber of commerce the light-rail project was “heading into a wall.”

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Monday’s decision by Quebec and Montreal to take back management of the REM de l’Est will ensure that the controversial light-rail project eventually gets built, Mayor Valérie Plante said Thursday.

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“I consider that we didn’t abandon the project. We saved the project,” Plante said during a lunchtime discussion hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, when asked about the REM de l’Est. “In its initial form, the project was heading into a wall.”

Quebec and Montreal announced Monday they were taking over management of the REM de l’Est after CDPQ Infra, the infrastructure unit of the $420-billion Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, backed out of the venture.

CDPQ Infra’s proposed $10-billion, 32-kilometre light-rail project had angered citizen groups and heritage organizations alike — in large part because of the line’s elevated section and the potential for the concrete pylons to disfigure swaths of Montreal.

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From now on, four parties will be in charge of planning the REM de l’Est: Quebec’s Transport Ministry, the City of Montreal, the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain and the Société de transport de Montréal.

Skepticism among Montreal merchants and entrepreneurs over the fate of the eastern leg of the Réseau Express Métropolitain remains high. “Nobody” in the business community believes that the REM de l’Est will be built rapidly, Chamber of Commerce head Michel Leblanc told his audience during the exchange with Plante.

A much simpler project — the express bus service on Pie-IX Blvd. — has taken a long time to happen, he noted.

“You are right in saying that we need to deliver,” Plante acknowledged.

Still, the recent track record of the four organizations now overseeing the REM de l’Est bodes well for the future, she argued.

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“We’re taking the leadership of a project that in its current form couldn’t get done,” Plante said. “Yes, there are things to firm up, but I’m very confident that this is the thing to do. This is the way that we can unlock this transportation project.”

She pointed to the recent progress achieved in securing financing for the long-awaited extension of the métro’s Blue Line as proof that the four organizations can succeed.

“In the last six months, we unlocked the Blue Line,” Plante said. “This is a major achievement. It had been years and years, and we couldn’t find the right twist. We found the solution. I don’t want to minimize the complexity of getting all of these people to sit at the table. Let’s remember that the STM built the Montreal métro. The ARTM, which is a young organization, has a great opportunity to show what it’s made of.”

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Plante discussed the REM de l’Est after a brief speech billed as an outline of her top priorities for the Montreal economy.

Housing, mobility and the transition towards a greener economy will all receive particular attention over the next four years, the mayor said. Quebec’s biggest city must also find ways of helping local businesses overcome an ever-worsening labour shortage, which poses a “colossal challenge,” Plante said.

Emerging neighbourhoods such as Bridge-Bonaventure and the area around the former Blue Bonnets racetrack offer vast potential for new housing, Plante said. Some 13,000 residential units could also be built along the extended Blue Line, according to the mayor. Plante said her campaign pledge to build 60,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years still stands.

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