Montreal Quebec - The new administration at city hall is not interested in reassessing the controversial $6 billion light rail project for Montreal, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Valerie Plante.
A court challenge to the Reseau Electrique Metropolitain (REM) last week and the election of Projet Montreal have raised opponents' hopes of derailing the suburban train, scheduled to go into operation in 2020.
Those critics say Montrealers urgently need better transit but warn that in its present form, the 67 kilometre rail link linking the South Shore and West Island to downtown Montreal will fuel urban sprawl, privatize public transportation, and end up costing taxpayers heavily, while doing little to increase ridership.
In December 2016, Plante wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call for changes to the REM, saying it "does not respond adequately" to Montrealers' transit needs.
But a spokesperson for Plante indicated the incoming administration is not interested in revisiting the rail plan.
"We're not in the business of stopping the REM, we want more public transit options, not less," Marc-Andre Viau, Plante's press secretary, told the Montreal Gazette.
During the campaign, Plante proposed a $6 billion Pink metro line from Montreal North to Lachine, which she claimed could be built in addition to the REM.
When asked whether the new administration will press for changes to the REM, Viau responded, "It's not our project!"
Initiated by the provincial pension fund, the Caisse de depot et de placement du Quebec, it will be the region's biggest public-transit project since the metro opened in 1967.
The federal and provincial governments are each contributing $1.283 billion and Montreal has pledged $100 million.
Viau added the new administration would not undertake a comprehensive review of public-transit needs or call for public consultations on the REM, saying that transit planning comes under the urban planning department's Division de la planification des transports et de la mobilite, and that it was up to Quebec's environmental-review agency, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement, "to hold such public consultations."
The BAPE held consultations on the REM in the summer of 2016.
In a 323 page report released in January, it refused to greenlight the project, raising concerns over its impacts on urban sprawl, car traffic, and natural habitats.
Viau's comments came as a bitter disappointment to opponents of the REM, whose court challenge to the rail project was heard last week in Quebec Superior Court.
"We're really surprised that Projet Montreal is making a statement with this kind of position before the court has actually rendered its decision," said Lisa Mintz, a co-founder of Trainsparence and Projet Montreal militant.
Justice Michel Yergeau took the matter under advisement Friday, after three days of hearings.
Coalition Climat Montreal argued in court that the Quebec government sidestepped laws on sustainable development to ram through the REM.
A lawyer for Quebec's attorney general argued that the environmental group's demands "have no foundation in fact."
"They are all just hypotheses, suppositions, and fears that are not supported by evidence," Nathalie Fiset told reporters on Tuesday.
Mintz ran for the Projet Montreal nomination in the Loyola district, losing by two votes, and worked for the party during the campaign.
"I understand that all of a sudden you're in power and it's a whole different ballgame," she said.
But creating the best possible public transit system for Montrealers is a pillar of the municipal party's program, she said.
"We obviously want to see a good transportation project that costs the least amount of money and moves the most amount of people, and the REM isn't that. And it needs to be seen for what it is," she said.
Maja Vodanovic, Projet Montreal's newly elected borough mayor of Lachine, said she intends to raise the issue at the party's first caucus meeting Monday.
Vodanovic campaigned on public transit, calling for changes to the REM project, which she said should go directly from Trudeau airport to downtown, via Lachine, rather than taking a roundabout northern route through the St-Laurent borough.
"Transportation and mobility are important and we have a new element on the drawing board, which is the Pink line, which is something that Montrealers voted for," Vodanovic said.
"To me, it is central, it is crucial, it is why I ran and why I won," she said.
Vodanovic noted that putting the REM under the jurisdiction of the Reseau de transport metropolitain is a plank of Projet Montreal's program.
"Public money is being invested, Montreal is investing money, the Quebec government is investing money, and the federal government is investing money, and it has to work for everybody," she said.
Ahmed El-Geneidy, an associate professor in McGill University's School of Urban Planning, said there is still time to reassess whether the REM is the best way to improve public transit in Montreal.
"I don't think it's too late. I hope it's not too late," he said.
Before going ahead, authorities should develop a comprehensive transit plan and hold public consultations on it, he said.
"The best way to do these choices is to keep politics out of the planning and let the planners do a full plan for the entire region," El-Geneidy said.
"This is a very big commitment for future generations," he said, noting that taxpayers will have to make up deficits if the REM fails to meet ridership expectations.
Matt Siemiatycki, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Toronto, said a change at city hall could be an opportunity to re-evaluate the project.
"We've seen in Canada that there are examples where projects that were pretty far down the path will then be reversed or cancelled, in some cases even at considerable cost," he said.
"Given how scarce the resources are, and given how big the needs are, we can ill afford to be spending resources on projects that aren't going to meet expectations and aren't going to move considerable amounts of people."
Jean-Vincent Lacroix, director of media relations for CDPQ Infra, said the REM has already been submitted to public consultations and endorsed by all levels of government.
The project responds to transportation needs and has significant public support, he noted.
"In this context, our intention is, of course, to ensure that this major transit project for Greater Montreal can continue to move forward," he said.
Lacroix said planners are in the final stages of preparing calls for tenders.
He would not elaborate on a statement Friday by Quebec government lawyer Nathalie Fiset that whatever the outcome of the court case, the schedule for building the REM would not change.
"However, our intention, as we have said in writing, is obviously to ensure that this great public transit project for Greater Montreal goes ahead," he said.