REM de l'est path dependency

REM de l’est: Contractor claims buildings will fall if we don’t do it their way

Overground rail in this climate is not the best use of $10-billion.

This report on the proposed REM de l’est endeavour is a follow-up to our previous feature about the problematic nature of the initial REM project.

Caution: tunnelling under city streets may result in buildings toppling over!

This is what CDPQ Infra head honcho Jean-Marc Arbaud would have you believe about the possibility of tunnelling under René Lévesque Boulevard: skyscrapers crumbling, metro tunnels collapsing and interminable construction.

There’s no other way, claims Arbaud: CDPQ Infra has studied their proposal from every conceivable angle and has determined an overhead REM is the only way to go. Every alternative invites total, unmitigated disaster. Arbaud was emphatic when speaking to La Presse: CDPQ Infra cannot build an underground REM.

Never mind the fact that Montreal’s metro was built by partly tunnelling under existing buildings, including skyscrapers, and no buildings collapsed. Never mind the fact that some of the tallest buildings in the city were either built over railways, highway tunnels or metro tunnels, and those tunnels never collapsed. Never mind that the CDPQ’s head office, or the Palais des Congrès, was built over the (formerly) open trench of the Ville-Marie Expressway and hasn’t collapsed either. And certainly, let’s not mind the fact that the REM — long promised to be a completely non-invasive project — has required closing the city’s most used commuter rail line and resulted in bottlenecks and prolonged zones of congestion all over the city.

Never mind all these inconvenient facts and just focus on a single point: CDPQ Infra is currently building two new REM stations, both flush against existing buildings, each requiring substantial excavations. In the case of the Edouard-Montpetit station, CDPQ Infra is building a REM station in a tunnel about 70 metres below the blue line. On McGill College, another station is building built next to skyscrapers, metro tunnels and the subterranean passageways of the Underground City. In case the point needs to be underlined, neither Place Montreal Trust nor the Eaton’s Centre has collapsed in on itself.

Arbaud’s absurd claims notwithstanding, it’s telling that Mayor Plante dismissed the concern and re-iterated her (and doubtless the overwhelming majority of Montrealers’) desire for the downtown segment of the REM de l’Est be buried.

Is there a significant engineering problem to burying the REM or not?

How is it that two people in key leadership roles can arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions about something as fundamental as whether the ground is in fact stable enough to support an extensive tunnelling or excavation project?

Does geology, engineering and physics work differently depending on whether you’re a politician or a CEO?

REM de l'est path dependency
REM de l’est and path dependency

Of course, we are quite definitely getting ahead of ourselves: the REM de l’Est is not funded, the original REM isn’t yet finished and the mayor of Montreal — irrespective of who wins this year’s election — will have absolutely no say in what happens.

But that’s not our most pressing concern. The main problem is that we’re debating the merits of overhead versus underground rail without even considering whether the REM de l’Est is a good idea in the first place, whether there are other modes of transport that may be more effective and less expensive, or whether there are better ways to spend $10-billion on public transit.

Our predicament is akin to what economists and urban planners call path dependence — i.e. when a feature of the economy is not based on current conditions, but a series of past actions. An apt example of path dependence is standard rail gauge, the standardized distance between the steel rails of a railway. Half the world (including Canada) uses standard gauge, as does the REM, even though broader gauges have been demonstrated to provide greater stability and allow for higher operating speeds and greater efficiency. We don’t use standard gauge because it’s the best gauge for a railway, but because a developer of railways in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century thought it was the best.

Our situation with the REM is somewhat similar: because of a pervasive belief that there had been no major transit infrastructure development projects in Montreal since the mid-1960s, and an equally pervasive belief that government is incapable of delivering such projects on time and on budget, we find ourselves in a situation where we only get to consider the CDPQ’s projects and no others.

We don’t have $10-billion to spend on public transit, we have a project that CDPQ Infra has already determined to cost about $10-billion, and we either build it exactly as they say or we get nothing at all. Because neither the STM nor the regional transit planning authority is involved in the REM de l’Est, there’s no comparison of different modes. Maybe we could move the same projected number of people with a fleet of electric buses and reserved lanes, or maybe using $10-billion to build a downtown-focused tram network would have the best overall impact on reducing emissions.

Developing mass transit infrastructure would be a lot simpler if we had an idea of what our end goals are, but even here neither the city of Montreal nor the province of Quebec nor CDPQ Infra has any clear idea what building new transit infrastructure is supposed to accomplish.

Is the goal to get as many cars off the streets as possible? Is it to reduce the metro region’s overall carbon footprint? Is it to decongest our streets and end gridlock? All of the above?

Not only should our city’s goals be clearly articulated, we should be analyzing projects like the REM de l’Est, the pink line, and/or the blue line extension according to whether they help us meet our goals or not.

On top of that, we need to ensure that whatever public money is spent on mass transit is the absolute most effective and efficient use of that money, and that brings us back to why Montreal opted to build an entirely underground metro 60 years ago. Excavating city streets to bury metro tunnels was relatively just as expensive and inconvenient back then as it would be today, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Among others, trains operating entirely underground wind up lasting for 50 years because they don’t have to contend with the corrosive effects of Montreal winters. That’s an incredible return on investment. They can also operate without fail regardless of what the weather is like outside, something that’s vitally important in a city that faces blizzards in the winter, floods in the spring and torrential rain in the summer. An elevated REM will have a comparatively shorter shelf life and will be prone to slow-downs (if not outright service interruptions) due to the weather. I’m curious to know how exactly snow will be removed from elevated tracks without negatively impacting driving conditions below, but I digress.

All the unresolved issues of the as yet incomplete REM, together with the anticipated problems of this new proposal, are all pointing in the same direction: Montreal’s not leading its own transit development, and there are no clear goals to work towards. There’s no question Montreal — like every other major city in the world — needs to rapidly expand its mass transit systems to substantially reduce its carbon footprint and alleviate congestion on its roadways, but our lack of direct control over transit planning is leading us to seriously consider projects of decreasing utility and potential. Increasingly, we find ourselves dependent on transit planning paths we haven’t chosen. If we’re not building transit to meet our needs, then whose needs are we meeting? ■

For the latest news updates, please visit the News section.