Tracey Lindeman is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa where she writes about technology, transportation and business.
A newly elected center-right party could put the province in ideological opposition to its biggest city, a left-leaning metropolis with a mayor that has promised better public transit, social inclusion, and sustainable development.
Montreal is holding its breath as a new provincial government that campaigned on a pro-highway, anti-immigrant platform comes to power.
The election of the center-right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government could put the province in ideological opposition to its biggest city, a left-leaning metropolis that itself recently elected a mayor that promised better public transit, social inclusion, and sustainable development. Those municipal promises include a badly needed Metro extension in downtown Montreal—an ongoing project the new provincial leader has publicly opposed.
Now mayor Valérie Plante and her council are calling on the new provincial government to go along with the city’s plans to improve sustainable mobility.
“I think there’s a new government just getting organized, so give them time to organized, but I think they understand—as much as every any government in Quebec has ever understood—that Montreal’s economy is absolutely central to the well-being of Quebec economically, and one of our biggest challenges right now is mobility,” says Craig Sauvé, a Montreal city councillor, the vice-president of the Montreal transit agency (STM) and the city’s executive-committee member on transport.
Sauvé says he hopes Quebec’s new premier, François Legault, comes to the same conclusion the previously skeptical Liberal government did: That Montreal’s Metro is having a major capacity crunch, and that the proposed Metro extension—in combination with new bus routes, bus rapid transit, and light rail projects—is “an elegant solution” to some of those problems.
One of North America’s oldest cities, Montreal is struggling to cope with aging, neglected infrastructure. The consequence is grinding traffic and an almost comical number of road closures throughout the city, and on roads leading to and from the island. Its congestion issues may not be unlike that of most big cities, but they are amplified compared to the rest of Quebec.
Sauvé says the city is hopeful Legault can be converted, pointing out that the new premier is interested in extending transit solutions off-island and to the eastern reaches of the city, which have long been a transit desert.
An urban-suburban divide
The Oct. 1 election saw the CAQ—a seven-year-old political party that has never formed a government—dominate the province, winning a majority in the province’s parliamentary system. For Quebecers, the result faintly mirrors the recent election in Ontario, which led the populist, right-wing Doug Ford to power.
When the CAQ was founded in 2011 by Legault, it was written off as an outlier in a province polarized by the federalist Liberals and the Parti Québécois, a separatist party that nearly led the province to sovereignty twice since the 1980s.
In this election, people in Montreal voted either Liberal or for the left-wing Québec Solidaire. But a look at the results map sends the message home: the election, in which 66 percent of people voted, was overwhelmingly decided by people living outside of Montreal.
Yet Montreal is the economic and cultural heart of Quebec. The city itself has two million residents, but with the suburbs on the north and south shores, it doubles to more than four million—about half the number of people who live in the entire province. This election is the latest development in an enduring battle between the city, its suburbs, and the more sparsely populated regions beyond.
Sauvé says that these divisions can’t stand anymore as Montreal’s sprawl worsens. “We don’t want to ever try to be in opposition with the suburbs, because we’re partners,” he says. “We need them to develop the same public-transit projects that we are proposing because we want people to use public transit. We want them to encourage their citizens, if they’re coming in to Montreal, to use the same public transit project.”
He notes that the mayor of Montreal is also the president of an organization representing the interests of the entire metropolitan region, which united may be a formidable foil to the province’s plans.
Montreal will wait and see
Still, the CAQ has also promised to widen and prolong several suburban highways leading to the city. Christian Savard, the director of Vivre en Ville, a public-interest group focused on Quebec urban affairs, says that’s a worrisome priority. “This is concerning, because it’s a question of budget. [Financially speaking] we won’t be able to do public transit projects and all the highways he promised,” says Savard. “We will need to make choices.”
Juan Torres, a professor at the University of Montreal’s School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture, says he’s worried the province won’t move the needle on the city’s mobility woes. “I’m scared that we’ll promote projects that only solve congestion in the short term,” he says.
According to Torres, more needs to be done to make transit more equitable and efficient in the eastern parts of Montreal, which are popular areas for immigrant families but which are also very poorly connected to the Metro. Ultimately, he’d like to see a better orchestration between real-estate development and transit planning, ideally creating a constellation system that makes neighborhoods more self-sufficient and demands less cross-city travel.
By all accounts, it’s too soon to condemn the CAQ on urban planning and mobility. Savard says the CAQ has made some progress on its transit dossier in the past year: “Before they were only promising to expand the road network. Now they have a platform that supports a number of mass-transit projects, such as the Blue Line [metro extension] and tramways on the South Shore.”
He says organizations like his will be waiting to see if Legault actually fulfills these promises, or if he caves to the car-riding public.