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Does the Caisse de dépôt et placement have all the virtues that governments have attributed to it?

Analysis | Public transport: the panacea that is not a panacea

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CDPQ Infra says it wants to focus in particular on the reliability of the South Shore antenna of the REM. (Archive photo)

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Immersed in controversy, François Legault saw in the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) an escape route last fall. His government gave him the mandate to review the entire transportation file in Quebec, tramway and third link included, but this paradoxically had the effect of highlighting the limits of the institution.

10 years ago, Philippe Couillard also saw in the CDPQ a way out allowing him to realize his electoral promises. Quebec was then in full deficit. The government had great ambitions for public transport, but above all did not want to increase its debt. The CDPQ, for its part, wanted to diversify its portfolio and invest more in infrastructure projects. Chance sometimes does things well.

No project is perfect, but we must recognize that the first phase of the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) got underway with a speed that we had not seen for a long time in Quebec for this type of project. The Caisse de dépôt et placement presented it in 2016; two years later, Philippe Couillard broke ground, in time for the 2018 elections.

Having promised, during these same elections, numerous public transportation projects, the CAQ also turned to the CDPQ to help it achieve its objectives once installed in power. What happened next, however, proved much more difficult.

After devoting two years of work to the REM de l’Est project, the Caisse ended up throwing in the towel in the controversy. And while the operation of the existing network puts the institution under pressure, due to multiple breakdowns, the latter now chooses to withdraw from the structuring transport project expected along Taschereau Boulevard, in the suburbs of Montreal. A project on the South Shore would require mobilizing teams which are not currently available, the institution commented on Monday evening. In other words, the Caisse has its hands full with the numerous projects that have already been entrusted to it.

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In 2022, the government of Quebec excluded the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec from the Eastern Express Metropolitan Network (REM) project.

This is without taking into account that the Caisse, in the case of the REM de l'Est, was confronted with the same obstacles that public administrations face in the planning of major public transport projects.

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Many citizens and organizations have complained about the chosen route and the consequences that the establishment of a new surface infrastructure would have on the urban fabric. Urban planners and economists have questioned the merits of the project and its possible profitability, both economically and environmentally. Added to this are all the doubts expressed about the very involvement of the CDPQ. Does the institution have the legitimacy to be so heavily involved in the development of public transportation, even though mayors complain of not being able to make their voices heard?

In short, miraculous solutions do not exist, even if governments are sometimes tempted to believe so. Despite all the virtues attributed to it, the Caisse is not immune to the risks that afflict too many public transportation projects. The fact that the mayors of Longueuil and Brossard so strongly desired and welcomed the withdrawal of the institution clearly shows its limits.

While it is true that the Caisse managed to successfully complete the project entrusted to it on the Samuel-De Champlain Bridge, the professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Montreal , Jean-Philippe Meloche, however underlined Tuesday on the program Midi info that the context had been particularly favorable.

We kind of ordered everyone to submit to the planning of REM-1, then we benefited from the structural infrastructure already in place. There were already people in Brossard who wanted to receive heavy public transport, there was already a deck on the Samuel-De Champlain bridge, there was already a tunnel under the mountain, summarized the expert.

While recognizing that the Caisse was at the origin of the most important public transport project since the construction of the Montreal metro, the Minister of Transport herself pleaded Tuesday for another model: It makes no sense to be dependent on external organizations over which we do not have direct control to deliver our public transportation projects, explained Geneviève Guilbault. In short, we blow both hot and cold.

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Minister Geneviève Guilbault in the press scrum at the National Assembly

Here as elsewhere, we especially deplore the fact that public transport projects are taking more and more time to come to fruition, while being more and more expensive. To reverse the trend, the minister will soon announce the creation of an agency responsible for planning and carrying out major public transport projects.

To Like the reforms we have seen in recent months, both in health and education, the objective is to ensure the government has better control of the levers available to it to carry out the projects of its choice. . We bet that we will talk a lot about accountability and accountability during the upcoming announcement.

If the Caisse is not the ally that the government had initially imagined for the realization of its ambitions in terms of transport, the new institution that will be created risks however, to be faced with similar obstacles. The most important of these is undoubtedly that after several years of procrastination, we now want to carry out a host of projects, in the four corners of Quebec, in a context of time, budget, manpower and extremely limited expertise.

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