Like a train crash in slow motion

The project was as daring as it was controversial. It was about reviving a dying neighborhood in downtown Montreal. And to fix the mistakes of the past.


Twenty years ago, the Quartier international de Montréal did not look like much. Scarred by the Ville-Marie highway, bled by serial expropriations, shunned by real estate developers, it was a no man’s land, asphalted paradise of surface parking lots.

Then came this edifice. A horizontal skyscraper, built like a bridge over the Ville-Marie highway, like a link between Old Montreal and downtown. And the neighborhood started to breathe again.

At the beginning, the project caused some discontent. It would cost way too much, they said. A real waste. But, little by little, everyone rallied. Everyone praised the vision of the owner of the building, whose construction served as a driving force to revive the neighborhood.

The owner in question? The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), which made its head office of this architectural gem, since baptized Jacques-Parizeau building.

Its main designer? The architectural firm Daoust Lestage.

The irony of this story is that 20 years later, this same firm gave up the millions of the CDPQ. In February, she withdrew from the Eastern REM project because she refused to be associated with it.

She refused to participate in an error which would again disfigure the heart of the metropolis.

***

It may be a high speed train project, but we don’t really feel like we are moving forward with the Eastern REM.

Rather the impression of witnessing, helpless, a slow motion train accident.

Worse, we have the impression of going back to a past that we believed to be over. That of interchanges that suffocate cities, infrastructures that crush them, highways that tear them apart.

Today, millions are spent to heal these urban wounds, to correct these concrete aberrations from another era.

So, how can we explain, in 2021, that we are preparing to pierce the heart of Montreal with gigantic pylons, to pass an aerial train?

How can we explain that we are going full steam ahead, when just about all that Quebec has to architects and urban planners warns us against this announced urban disaster?

***

In Vancouver, where work to extend the SkyTrain began, they didn’t even think about it. No aerial train would cripple the city center.

“For us, it was clear from the start that it would be underground,” said Rob Fleming, British Columbia Minister of Transport, to my colleague Maxime Bergeron, reporter for economic surveys.

Read Maxime Bergeron’s article

It was clear, because an aerial train would have been disastrous. The noise, the vibrations, the ugliness of the pylons, the negative impacts on businesses, on residents…

Obviously, they held public consultations. Everyone agreed: we had to bury the rails. As has been done in New York, London, Chicago and elsewhere.

Why not in Montreal?

***

Why not ? Because the skyscrapers would risk collapsing, warns CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of the Caisse which is piloting the 10 billion project.

No kidding. Don’t even think about it, the city center would crumble like a house of cards, she says. On the basis of which analyzes, which scientific studies? She refuses to reveal them. Take her at her word.

Another major obstacle: metro lines and old water pipes that an underground train would have to bypass. It would seem to be far too complicated.

Also, too, too, an underground train would drop the expected ridership from 10% to 26%, according to the subsidiary. It’s that passengers, you see, would not have the courage to use elevators or escalators to get to stations buried underground …

Admit it’s hard to believe. But once again, we must trust the word of CDPQ Infra, which stubbornly refuses to make its studies public.

***

It is all the more hard to believe that the experts interviewed in Maxime Bergeron’s report are unanimous: yes, an underground train in the city center, it is done. Technically, it is done.

The proof is that it has been done in many other cities, also equipped with metro lines and water pipes. It is done everywhere, as long as you pay the price.

There it is, the real crux of the problem. The apparently insurmountable obstacle.

Digging in the city center would represent a bottomless pit for CDPQ Infra. It just wouldn’t be profitable. There is no need to look any further. Skyscrapers have nothing to fear.

The woolen socks of Quebecers, more.

***

The Eastern REM is not a bad project, on the contrary. It is important for the environment, since it would contribute to the reduction of 35,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.

It is important to the hundreds of thousands of Montrealers in the east of the island, who are underserved. It is high time to allow them to get around without a car. And without disfiguring the city center.

But that is expensive.

***

How much would it cost, exactly, to bury the rails in the city center? The big boss of CDPQ Infra, Jean-Marc Arbaud, affirms that this option is “not quantifiable”.

Again, it’s hard to believe. CDPQ Infra commissioned studies before announcing the project in December 2020. For 18 months, it evaluated various scenarios. She must have a little idea of ​​the costs …

The group promised that the studies which governed its choice would be made public … in the coming months. Why not now ?

Everything is happening as if CDPQ Infra wanted to confront Quebecers with a fait accompli. As if she’s trying to save time and unveil these studies when it’s too late to back down.

Ah, we have indeed created a committee of experts, responsible for commenting on the architecture and urban integration of the Eastern REM. But this committee will have nothing to say on the choice of the route, and especially not on the fact that the train will be aerial, or will not be.

It gives terribly the impression of a puppet exercise, intended to endorse what we are already being sold as an extraordinary “signature project” in Montreal.

But it may be in crystal, this train, with golden pylons encrusted with precious stones, it will remain an aerial train in the city center. Massive. Devastating.

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