Tracey Lindeman is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa where she writes about technology, transportation and business.
A proposed “Pink Line” would connect some of the poorer and more densely populated areas to downtown. The incumbent mayor is shrugging off his opposition’s idea.
A Montreal political party vying for mayoralty in the upcoming November 5 election is promising a badly needed extension of the city’s rapid transit system.
Led by Valérie Plante, Projet Montréal’s candidate for mayor this year, the party has campaigned on a left-leaning, pro-transit, pro-housing, and anti-pit bull ban platform. The party is presently locked in a close race for control of the city with incumbent mayoral candidate Denis Coderre.
On the surface, Projet Montréal’s Pink Line proposal is a campaign promise with actual merit: A winning solution for working-class voters who’ve for generations been poorly served by public transit in Montreal.
“When you calculate the distance to downtown, it’s short—but the transit time is really long,” says Sylvain Ouellet, a Montreal city councillor up for re-election with Projet Montréal, when describing the transit-desert areas that would be newly hooked up to the Metro. “Sometimes the buses take 30 or 45 minutes just to get to the Metro station. It’s hard for those people.”
The proposed line would connect some of the poorer and more densely populated areas to downtown. Some of those areas include the historic Italian-Canadian enclave of St. Léonard; Montreal North, where 40 percent of the population is composed of immigrants; and the fast-growing Rosemont area, as well as the edges of the city’s southwestern corner. Currently those areas are primarily served by city bus routes and, in some parts, commuter trains. The Pink Line would link them by cutting diagonally across the city through downtown.
Projet Montréal commissioned the research chair on mobility at the Université de Montréal’s Polytechnique engineering school to run 1,000 possible simulations. Pierre-Léo Bourbonnais, a civil engineer who worked on the project, says he was given 70 locations around the city to see how far people could get in 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes using a similar scheduling frequency as the existing lines.
The party says the line would produce 250,000 new Metro riders, but the Metro may not be able to handle that many more people.
The Greater Montreal Area has just over 4 million inhabitants, and Metro—opened in 1966 and expanded in multiple phases since—is one of the busiest in North America.
The most recent extension, opened in 2007, brought the upper part of the Orange Line into the southern edge of Laval, a mostly suburban municipality north of Montreal.
Today, the network’s four transfer points are under notable duress, particularly downtown’s Berri-UQAM station, where three lines merge. As a passenger, it’s not uncommon to find your whole body pressed up against the door, or another person, when a Metro leaves that station during rush hour—if you’re lucky enough to get on at all.
Berri-UQAM is already operating at beyond capacity, says Ouellet. “You cannot add more people. You can add more trains, but the station can’t handle the people.”
That assertion is backed up by Pierre Barrieau, a consultant and lecturer in transportation planning at several universities in Montreal: “The current network is crumbling under the current levels of ridership.” (The Montreal transit authority, STM, says it will not comment on hypothetical Metro projects.)
Projet Montréal says the pink line would reduce congestion at Berri-UQAM by connecting people directly to the downtown core without a transfer. The line would also add additional transfer stations to the network. However, according to Barrieau, introducing so many new Metro riders to the network wouldn’t really alleviate strain. “It would be a short-term solution—5 to 10 years—as ridership growth would mean the same levels of people at Berri-UQAM at a later date,” he says.
Also central to Projet Montréal’s plan is to use a tunnel boring machine (TBM) rather than the traditional (and disruptive) cut-and-cover approach. A TBM could dig under existing infrastructure without too many expropriations, and it could build the platforms inside of the tunnels, as Barcelona did for its Line 9 project. The latter scenario would mean the platform could easily be extended as ridership increases in the years to come.
TBMs aren’t a silver bullet though, says Matti Siemiatycki, a geography and planning professor at the University of Toronto. “The upside of TBMs is that they’re underground... there’s a sense that they’re less disruptive, but on the [other] side, the tunnels have to be deeper,” he says. They’ll still also be cut points at the surface to give elevator access to the tunnel, and those holes will likely be dug at major intersections.
Siemiatycki also pointed out that if the TBM was to suddenly jam, or hit something, it could costly and time consuming to dig down to check it out. Still, a TBM could be a good solution in a construction-fatigued town.
The Pink Line is a worthwhile project for a growing city where the Metro is most people’s chief mode of transportation. Projet Montréal estimates that it’d take 11 years to complete the line, starting with four years of studies and consultations, followed by years of digging and building.
But it’s a campaign promise, and incumbent Coderre has shrugged off the Pink Line entirely. He’s said Projet Montréal leader Plante’s claim that the line would cost $6 billion CAD (of Provincial and Federal infrastructure money) is unrealistic. A Blue Line extension, which will add five stations in the eastern part of the island by 2025, is projected to cost at least $300 million CAD per stop. “We know it won’t work,” Coderre said while campaigning in October. “So why perpetuate false hope? People deserve better.”
Siemiatycki, too, is wary of the timing of the Pink Line proposal. “I would say my general comment is that major transportation projects proposed during elections are highly risky and likely to be over-promised… and under-scrutinized,” he says.
The Pink Line would add 29 stations across 18 miles, with the western portion running above ground on existing rail lines. Canadian Pacific Railway, the corporation that owns the rails and right-of-way in question, tells CityLab that no formal request has been made to use those lines. It wouldn’t say whether it’d entertain such an idea, either.
However, it’s feasible: Projet Montréal intends to use off-the-shelf rolling stock, steel wheels and standard track gauges instead of Montreal’s current—and expensive—bespoke Azur cars, which run on rubber tires. This, plus the use of existing tracks, is why the line’s estimated $6 billion CAD price tag is lower than other extension projects.
Is the Pink Line enough to solve Montreal’s transit woes? “It’s absolutely necessary to have a relief line for the system and have that connectivity,” says Craig Sauvé, city councillor and Projet Montréal’s transit critic. He’s also up for reelection on November 5. “If we don’t do something today, in 25 years we’re headed for big problems in terms of basic functionality.”
However, other scenarios could be much more useful to Montrealers in the shorter term, says Barrieau. These include making Champ de Mars station (one stop west of Berri-UQAM) into a transfer station for Longueuil’s Yellow Line, and potentially even extending that Yellow Line into the downtown core. A line running under major downtown artery Réné Lévesque Boulevard would also be ideal. So would building bigger stations with more exits, turnstiles, and ticket machines.
Montreal needs to build capacity faster than ridership growth, Barrieau concludes. And that, he estimates, would cost at least four times what Projet Montréal is proposing.
A recent online poll commissioned by CBC/Radio-Canada suggests the race between Plante and Coderre will be much closer than originally expected, with 39 percent of Montrealers supporting the Projet Montréal leader, compared with 37 for the incumbent. About 80 percent polled identified public transit as an important issue and 47 percent said they support the Pink Line.