Thu. Feb 29th, 2024

Analysis | Transport in Quebec: move backwards

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Transport companies are suffering financially, and Quebec has accepted to absorb part of their deficit.

  • Gérald Fillion (View profile)Gérald Fillion

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If we want to make the transition successfully in order to move away from fossil fuels, to take up the spirit of the agreement reached at COP28, we must resolutely continue and accelerate investments in public transport. However, on this level, Quebec is moving at a snail's pace.

I would even say, as it is written on the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) buses: Move backwards! We do not at all have the impression that the Legault government has fully understood the emergency and that a structured, clear, ambitious and, above all, rapid plan is being deployed.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">The REM de l'Est in Montreal has been canceled and we are still wondering what the project could possibly become. In Quebec, the third Quebec-Lévis link, with its latest version of public transport, was canceled, as was the tramway. We are waiting for the analysis from CDPQ Infra in 2024. Consultation work on what looks like Mayor Valérie Plante's pink line in Montreal is suspended.

And we learned a few months ago that the commissioning of the new section of the blue metro line, which includes five stations, is postponed for at least a year, which brings us to 2030. And the only consortium that could dig the tunnel to extend the blue line threatened to withdraw until recently. The consortium would have made various requests to the STM to reduce certain costs. The tender period had to be extended again.

Transportation companies are suffering financially, while ridership has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Quebec agreed to pay part of the companies' deficit, or $265 million. But this is only 70% of this shortfall.

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Companies are therefore condemned to cut their budgets. In Montreal, 255 positions will be eliminated and $86 million in spending reductions have been announced. The STM also plans to find savings of $100 million over five years.

If the STM tries to be reassuring by asserting that it will not reduce not the service, it is clear that in compression mode, it is difficult to envisage adding lines or more frequent passages.

So, a fundamental question arises: what is the Legault government's vision for public transportation? For five years, Quebec has canceled, postponed, transformed, withdrawn then brought back transport projects. Public statements are contradictory, estimates are approximate, projects are condemned as soon as costs seem too high.

In the 2023-2033 Infrastructure Plan, Quebec plans investments of $31.5 billion in the road network compared to $13.8 billion for public transportation. Nearly 70% of investments go to the road network. And almost a quarter of the amount planned for the road network represents an increase in the envelope. Is that the priority?

However, according to a CIRANO report, prepared by researchers Marcelin Joanis and Pierre-Carl Michaud, the Legault government should invest in maintaining its road assets rather than adding new ones. The amounts planned in the infrastructure plan are not sufficient to take care of the current deficit in asset maintenance over the coming years, according to experts.

The asset maintenance deficit is $3,600 per capita in Quebec, while it is only $1,100 in Ontario, they write. Currently, the asset maintenance deficit represents 6.5% of GDP. At the current rate, it will be 14.4% in 2037-2038 and 33.3% in 2047-2048.

This is untenable and it is unsustainable in terms of public finances. Based on this data, it is clear that the Quebec government must direct its investments towards the maintenance of what already exists and concentrate its financial improvements on public transportation. Isn't it time to start this shift?

In addition, it is clear that mobility in Quebec is less and less fluid. Here we are five years after the election of the Coalition Avenir Québec and we are still looking for a credible plan to develop mobility in the region. Not only are public transportation projects not moving forward, but we recently learned that interurban transportation is only a shadow of itself.

According to the Institute for Socioeconomic Research and Information, since 1981, the number of weekly departures has fallen by 85%, from 6,000 to just 882 per week. And in the last six years, a third of departures have disappeared.

The lack of public funds for interurban transport is clearly shown finger, while this sector receives less than 1% of the envelope intended for public transport.

The Legault government also announced the end of the Assistance Program for the Maintenance of Essential Regional Air Services, which aimed to support regional carriers battered by the pandemic. In response, Pascan Aviation decided to put an end to direct flights between Mont-Joli and major centers. Since December 4, the company has only offered two weekly flights to Wabush, Labrador.

Quebec has also reduced by 30% the number of $500 plane tickets available as part of its Regional Air Access Program (PAAR) for the year 2023-2024, a program which has not seen the expected success. It does not respond sustainably to the challenges of regional air transport in Quebec, whose activities are continually shaken and threatened.

Of course, urban transport infrastructure, regional bus journeys and air flights between the regions of Quebec are three distinct issues, but they all raise a central question: is there not a major issue in regarding sustainable mobility in Quebec?

How can we explain the inability of this government to advance and operate projects that should facilitate the travel of citizens in urban regions and between regions of Quebec?

The reality is that we talk a lot, but the actions are modest and lack coherence. There is of course the REM which was launched this year in the greater Montreal region. But this project was introduced by Philippe Couillard and was led by the Caisse de dépôt, which continues to defend it despite problems and delays.

Transport must be at the heart of the solutions to succeed in our energy transition. It's urgent.

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