Light rail to MTL’s suburbs just got real

The province has come up with a genius way to finance public transit projects connecting Montreal with the West Island and the South Shore.

Train de l'ouest
The once mythical train de l’ouest
The Philippe Couillard government is making a smart move by endorsing a proposition by the province’s pension fund to finance two major public transportation projects.

Despite the blathering opposition of the Parti Québécois and Coalition Avenir Québec (which are probably just angry they didn’t think of it first), the move announced Tuesday by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec that it will get involved in financing and managing public infrastructure projects such as the West Island train and a light-rail system over the new Champlain Bridge is good news all around.

Why? Let’s start with the fact that major projects like these usually involve the government borrowing lots of money and paying it back with lots of interest to banks and other private investors. By having the Caisse bankroll it, the money stays in the pockets of Quebecers, more specifically in the pockets of future generations of retirees whose pension fortunes are tied up with the Caisse.

Secondly, the Caisse will be looking at these projects as investment opportunities. That’s a big distinction when compared to the perspective of governments, which see major infrastructure projects as huge new expenses to be placed on the province’s credit card. That’s a major part of the reason why the West Island train project has been so often delayed over the years and why, until this week, Quebec was unwilling to commit to putting light-rail rather than buses on the new Champlain Bridge.

Now both projects are on the verge of getting green lights and concrete construction schedules and, unlike many other government projects, are much more likely to be completed on time and on budget.

The Caisse had already been involved in similar projects around the world, so why not Quebec? These types of major transportation projects are usually considered safe investments and previous projects have earned the Caisse an annual 17 per cent return over the past five years, according to Michel Nadeau of the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations.

Then there are the huge benefits of getting these more environmentally sound projects off the ground, including reducing pollution and the use of private vehicles to get downtown.

There are risks, of course, but as long as the Caisse is allowed to make its own judgments about which projects to get involved in, financing Quebec infrastructure should be no more risky than the investments the province’s pension fund manager had made all over the world.

In fact, it was Caisse CEO Michael Sabia who has been pushing for this change — which will require government approval — for the last three years. So it can hardly be claimed that the government is foisting its own political agenda on the Caisse.

In the end, we will be provided with:

• public infrastructure that did not add to government debt;

• much of the profits from financing and operating these projects returning to the collective pockets of Quebecers;

• a much more decisive approach to approving and executing major projects

• better control over costs and construction deadlines.

The expression “win-win” has often been used a little too loosely (and falsely) in political circles to describe private-public partnerships, but this is one occasion where it may even be appropriate to add a third category of winner: taxpayers and transit users.
Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.