Montreal metro blue line extension

The Blue Line to nowhere: Montreal metro extension and magical thinking

A short history of empty promises, skyrocketing budgets and how the city lost control of transit.

Recent news that the expropriation costs of the proposed metro Blue Line extension were wildly underestimated is paradoxically both surprising and entirely to be expected. Though the proposal has been on the books and studied for five decades, the Quebec government — which is solely responsible for transit infrastructure development in Montreal — has consistently underestimated the cost of major infrastructure projects. It happens so frequently it’s hard to believe it could possibly be accidental.

Work underway for the Montreal metro Blue Line extension

The cost of the Blue Line is now so much higher than originally estimated, it’s possible that the entire project will be scrapped. That or the Quebec government will fully commit itself to completing the project, cost be damned. Or, third option, some alternative plan that doesn’t quite meet expectations will be completed, such as fewer stations or a REM instead of a metro (forcing people to switch from one type of train to another). Literally anything is possible, to the point where if construction actually begins we’ll be so happy something’s being done that most of us will likely look the other way when it comes to the obvious flaws. (I fear the same is already occurring vis-à-vis the REM, but for the moment I digress.)

This isn’t a sustainable practice: Montreal and Quebec have wasted a lot of money and time building nothing while the climate emergency gets worse with each passing year. Our metro not only moves massive quantities of people around the city at high speeds, it does so while reducing roadway congestion and carbon emissions as well (bonus points: it uses a renewable power source, too). And yet, despite over 50 years of excellent service and the obvious necessity for more, Montreal struggles to develop the metro any farther. Even though politicians of all stripes and at all levels often campaign on the promise of more metro, nothing gets done.

Mid-1970s

Planning for a metro line that would access St-Michel, St-Leonard and Montréal-Nord dates back to the early 1970s. In fact, the original Blue Line was planned to run from Ville St-Pierre (now part of Lachine) through the West End to Snowdon, pick up the trail of the line we know today and then would have worked its way east and north before terminating in Montréal-Nord. This line was planned alongside an Orange Line with a western branch that would have run as far north as De Salaberry in St-Laurent, and a Green Line that would stretch from Angrignon Park to Honoré-Beaugrand. All of this was planned circa 1970-71, to be completed by 1978, at a total cost of about $430-million (or just over $2.9-billion adjusted for inflation). The Montreal Urban Community (MUC — predecessor of today’s Urban Agglomeration Council) secured a $430-million loan, backed by the Quebec government, to finance the construction of the Orange and Green line metro extensions planned by the Bureau de transport metropolitain, the MUC’s transit planning office. The crosstown Blue Line was estimated to cost $1.6-billion in 1975, and at the time, costs were expected to be shared equally between the city of Montreal and the province. 

It’s worth taking a minute to consider the sheer number of infrastructure megaprojects that were being built simultaneously in Quebec in the early to mid 1970s. Aside from the aforementioned metro expansion, the province was busy building the massive James Bay hydro-electric plants, Mirabel Airport and the venues for the 1976 Olympics. Adding to this problem was that costs were spiralling out of control, particularly with the Olympics, largely due to extreme corruption in the Quebec construction industry. Moreover, in the 1970s Montreal found itself squarely in the middle of a three-way political tug-of-war between three competing interests. Quebec nationalism was transforming into an ascendant sovereignty movement at around the same time Montreal began losing ground to Toronto as Canada’s largest city and commercial metropolis. Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was keen to maintain Montreal’s position as a bastion of Canadian federalism and a Liberal Party stronghold while then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa sought to make Montreal more accountable to Quebec City. Neither liked each other much, and both had reason to be wary of then mayor Jean Drapeau who was often more popular than either of them. Construction sector corruption slowed Olympics-related projects down so much that at one point the city was at risk of missing the 1976 deadline entirely — an alleged 11th-hour backroom deal between Bourassa and the FTQ construction union allowed the venues to be operational in time for the opening ceremonies. In addition to the ballooning Olympics bill, the cost of the Orange and Green line extensions had shot up to $1.6-billion (or $7.96-billion in current dollars), leading Bourassa to enact a moratorium on metro extensions. 

1983

Despite these efforts, Bourassa was out of office in November of 1976 and suddenly there was an entirely new political and economic reality facing Montreal. The new Parti Québécois government spent the rest of the 1970s preparing for the first referendum as Montreal continued losing its population (and tax base) to suburbs and points farther afield. The full cost of major capital projects, such as the Olympics, was potentially going to be absorbed by an independent country whose largest city was governed by an autocrat with often unrealistic visions of grandeur. The Lévesque government partly lifted the moratorium on metro construction in the early 1980s to complete the Orange Line’s western branch and the central third of the Blue Line, but also began the process of having the provincial government gradually take over transit planning for Montreal. By 1983, a new provincial government agency was looking at developing a “métro de surface” that would use the city’s ample disused railway network to run trains at metro frequencies. That project fell through and was replaced by the commuter rail network which is now partly being replaced by the REM (a light rail system that runs at metro-level frequencies but which requires completely rebuilding the old railways, rather than adapting to them).

If it seems like we haven’t gotten very far in the last 40 years, it’s because we haven’t. The second Bourassa government promised a major expansion of the metro in the run-up to the 1989 election, but nothing came of it. In February of 1990, the MUC approved a billion-dollar loan to extend the Orange Line into Laval, the Blue Line to Anjou and to build a new White Line under Pie-IX, and that plan fizzled as well even though an over-confident STCUM (the predecessor of today’s STM) printed new metro maps outlining the new routes. These lines were revisited again in 1993 but nothing came of that either, even though the project had the support of the Quebec government at the time. Money has been made available, set aside or otherwise promised for a Blue Line extension — or spent to study the extension — in 1998, 2001, 2002, 2010, 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020. The $3-million 2002 study estimated the extension to Anjou to cost $700-million ($987-million adjusted for inflation), a figure that climbed to $1.5-billion in 2013 ($1.7-billion today) and then $3-billion in 2016 ($3.28-billion today). The most recent estimate, at $6-billion, is a massive cost increase explained by anticipated expropriation costs, but whether this is an accurate reflection of true costs or just the cost of doing business in Quebec is really anyone’s guess. Adding insult to injury, the province had already issued notices to property owners back in the 1970s of where they’d likely need to expropriate for the construction of the metro, but these notices expired after five years.

Montreal metro Blue Line extension 2021

It almost makes you want to cry. Adjusted for inflation, the original Blue Line, which stretched from Lachine all the way to Montréal-Nord along 24 stations, would have cost about half what’s estimated for the current four to five station extension from Saint-Michel to Anjou.

There’s no clear way out of the mess we’re in. While building more Metro is the single most effective way to cut down on emissions and eliminate the need for car ownership in the long term, it’s also the most expensive solution. Even with global warming inching ever closer to the point of no return, politicians tend to be woefully ill-equipped to deal with big-picture problems and consider the needs of people 10, 20 or 30 years down the line. The economies of scale would likely provide savings if Montreal embarked on a truly massive expansion of the metro (like doubling the size of the system), but this would be a 20–30 year project that would require accomplishing important steps — like expropriations — early on. Politicians in this province haven’t demonstrated much in the way of foresight when it comes to transit matters. Either way, with property values at unsustainably high levels and persistent speculation that Canada’s housing bubble will burst any minute, now might not be the best time for expropriations. Crucially, any major future transit expansion shouldn’t be subjected either to political interference or any funding disruptions, but so far this kind of thinking has only led to the REM, a system that’s blown deadlines and budgets, is overly dependent on public funding and is almost entirely focused on potential profitability over actual public transit needs.

So obviously, the powers at be are going full steam ahead on more REM, even though phase 1 still isn’t complete. With $15-billion worth of transit projects either proposed or in various stages of development, this may be a golden era for Montreal public transit. That, or we’re about to have our expectations severely managed. Recent news that the government of Quebec is providing the regional transit planning agency $20-million to study the western branch of Mayor Plante’s proposed Pink Line already seems to be strongly suggesting — before the completion of the study, mind you — that what was originally pitched as a metro line, and then downgraded to a possible REM extension, may in fact become a surface tram.

Plus que ça change… ■

Read more articles by Taylor C. Noakes here.