Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante climate change crisis CLEAN50

Projet Montréal platform review: Some great ideas, too timid on climate crisis

“This is Montreal — we want bold, we want forward-thinking. Projet needs to remind itself that it got elected promising big ideas driven by grassroots activism.”

I’ll start off by saying that this isn’t a complete line-by-line review of the Projet Montréal platform. I mostly focused on their environmental and housing policies as these are the sections of the platform that matter the most. They’re also the areas where I have the most criticism and where there are also some of the better ideas. Projet Montréal came out with what’s probably the easiest to read platform, and I feel it’s the responsibility of Montrealers to know what their municipal governments are doing. So I encourage you to click here and read the platform for yourselves so that you can make an informed opinion. Below is my own.

To begin with, a commitment in 2021 to carbon neutrality by 2050 is a lot like a 30-year-old heroin addict saying they plan on kicking their habit at least by the time they start thinking about retirement.

I didn’t once vote for Projet Montréal for a tepid environmental policy: I wanted a municipal party with the stones to tell it like it is (the world’s on fire and we’re on the verge of a cataclysm we won’t recover from) and take some of the radical actions needed to give our city something of a fighting chance. Luc Ferrandez provided an outline of what’s needed in his resignation letter back in 2019, and while the party has made some modest efforts on the environmental front, it’s still woefully insufficient given the gravity of the situation. It’s a strange situation to be in, but what Montrealers need most is a municipal government that would actually be ready and willing to risk losing some support (and endure a lot of heckling from the media and opposition parties) in order to deliver long-term environmental solutions. Ferrandez argued the gamble would be worth it—and I agree with him. Mayor Plante and Projet Montréal won in 2017 largely based on the strength of the base they had cultivated, not because they were a big tent party with broad appeal. 

What I find so frustrating about Projet Montréal is that they don’t need to govern towards the centre or appeal to anyone other than their base in order to get things done, and yet have spent four years being far too timid on social justice issues, economic inequality and especially on environmental matters. 

I’ll start my assessment of the party’s platform with its environmental section, because this is really all that matters. No one city is going solve the climate crisis, but that’s not the point—cities right now need to be pulling out all the stops to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as possible, in addition to the more arduous task of environmental retrofitting. We need cities to get the ball rolling on protecting their populations, anticipating the likely disasters and disruptions coming our way and working towards finding solutions that can mitigate them. Buying the land to build the Grand Parc de l’Ouest was an excellent step forward in the right direction, but it’s not the same thing as building a network of swamps, dykes and ditches to prevent the ‘100-year floods’ that struck the West Island twice in the past five years.

The party’s environmental platform starts out poorly by suggesting that the party has had any role in planning transit in Montreal. No Montreal political party or mayoral candidate has had anything to do with the REM—the provincial government decided to hand transit planning in Montreal over to the provincial pension fund (CDPQ), which has zero experience building, managing or operating mass transit projects. They are making all the major decisions about transit in our city, and it should come as no surprise that that isn’t working out very well. The REM isn’t just over-budget and late being delivered, it a multi-billion dollar experiment in astroturfing and privatization of public transit that was supposed to make use of existing infrastructure and wound up requiring a complete and unnecessary re-build of an otherwise perfectly usable commuter railway system. In sum, the REM is the transfer of public assets to serving private profit, and I fear Montreal’s going to suffer for it. 

We needed Projet to wrestle this project out of the hands of the CDPQ to ensure it served the common good and our need to reduce the number of cars on our streets, not to provide the CDPQ with a 10% annual return on investment. 

Instead, Projet under Mayor Plante has largely done what Denis Coderre did, which is to say nothing. The CDPQ remains the driving force behind new transit development, which is to say they’re moving ahead on highly visible development-oriented transit projects without any real interest in the transit needs of Montrealers. What’s particularly egregious about Projet’s platform is that they claim to be leading in not only the REM de l’Est, but the extensions of the Blue and Orange lines as well. Both of these extension projects have been on the books for decades, and both are entirely dependent on the provincial government, as Montreal isn’t permitted to plan or construct metro extensions without provincial government interference assistance.

The platform also mentions the Pink Line in the context of the party’s demonstrated ‘leadership’ on transit issues, even though Mayor Plante has said the project is all but dead and it wound up being nothing more than a pink line drawn on a map of the city.

Other parts of the transit plan are fine, though timid. 300 new buses? Okay… this sounds a lot like the 300 new buses that were already planned, a purchase that stems from a four-year-old election promise. And why aren’t we buying electric buses? Continue rolling out reserved bus lanes? This isn’t a bad idea, but it’s also something I think most Montrealers would assume to have already been the case. Making all metro stations universally accessible is certainly well-intentioned, but it’s an expensive improvement to the infrastructure that doesn’t do much to increase the total passenger capacity of the transit system, and that’s really the bottom line. All transit planning in our city needs to focus — nearly exclusively — on permanently removing cars from our roads, given that it is the automobile that is the number one source of pollution, emissions and general environmental degradation in our city. 

Improving extant infrastructure or service offering without first drastically expanding capacity is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Exceptionally, I think PM’s plan to establish a rapid bus service on Henri-Bourassa is a step in the right direction, given that it’s a relatively straightforward plan in a part of town that could use better transit service. That said, I’m not sure why PM isn’t proposing a more expansive network of Bus Rapid Transit service, especially given their proposal to increase reserved lanes.

What we really need is a new surface mass transit system for the urban core, something that would complement the metro and allow buses to be redeployed outward to the suburbs. A new tram could accomplish this goal, and help PM achieve a ‘zero carbon zone’ for the city centre within 10 years, but right now the party is only proposing a tram line to Lachine, which kind of misses the point about what trams do and how best to use them. Amazingly, even though PM supporters have been keen on trams for over a decade, there’s no tram plan — astonishing actually, since building a tram is probably the only kind of big mass transit project Montreal would actually have the authority to do on its own.

Timidity abounds in the electrification of transport section as well. While I won’t argue with acquiring more electric buses, most of the party’s plans revolve around small incentives for electric car owners (though no incentives to get Montrealers into electric cars). The proposal to have paid, reserved on-street parking for electric vehicles is unintentionally ironic, given fossil-fuel burning vehicles have had access to free street parking for decades. Moreover, as well intentioned as this particular plan may be, has anyone calculated the emissions and pollution released by all those cars circling the block looking for the parking spots they no longer have access to?

We’re at the stage of the game where the city needs to be insisting all property owners retrofit their homes with electric charging stations at their own expense, and possibly offering an incentive in the form of modest discounts on the installation. Unfortunately, Projet’s electrification initiative seems to be stuck in first gear—mandating that only new construction with parking will be required to install the recharging gear. In Montreal, most of the housing we’ll ever have has already been built. Downtown condos don’t need electric vehicle charging stations nearly as much as suburban homes do.

The cycling section is another disappointment: it all sounds good until you realize there are no clear objectives, no quantifiable goals. Yes, we need more people to use their bikes to get around, but how many more? What kind of growth do we want, year over year? Yes, I absolutely want more bike lanes, and more lanes like the REV (which, credit where it’s due, seems to be an important success for the party). So why are there no clear numbers on how much more REV the party wishes to build over its next four years in office? Adding bike parking around bus, train and metro stations is all fine and good, but this too falls in the ‘aren’t we already doing that?’ category of Projet’s platform points. Again, much like public transit, the goal here should be about increasing capacity with clear set goals. Instead, the party has provided some vague statements about increasing bike culture and upgrading the extant network to be more comfortable. Where’s bike lane plowing for winter cycling? Where’s our first network of no-car, bikes-only streets?

More credit where it’s due, adding 2,100 new bikes to the Bixi fleet, with an aim to provide better coverage across the city, is welcome news.

It’s unfortunate that Projet chose the meek and mild approach in yet another domain where it could have been rewarded for bold, aggressive proposals. Sure, some people in NDG didn’t like it when a bike lane inconvenienced them. So what? Projet has all the proof it needs to know that Montrealers love bikes and will happily use them more and more often if given the infrastructure. From the platform, it’s almost as if PM is proposing cycling infrastructure for the very first time.

On matters related to green buildings, the proposal to eliminate fuel oil heating from all buildings by 2030 seems like a very long time to accomplish something relatively straightforward (and where more immediate action would go a longer way to helping us hit more aggressive emissions reduction targets sooner). Implementing an energy rating system for large buildings? Fine, but to what end? What purpose does this serve and how will this encourage more green buildings? Will building owners with low ratings be shamed into improvements? Making energy efficiency a priority for residential renovation subsidy programs? Energy efficiency retrofitting programs were being done back during the oil crises of the 1970s — frankly I’m surprised this isn’t already the case. 

Pertaining to waste management, only two of the four bullets in this section actually have anything to do with waste management (the point about having a design competition to come up with an iconic design for new public trash/recycling bins that will help people sort what goes where gives me a queasy feeling that public recycling bins up to this point have essentially just been more trash bins). Cutting waste going to landfills to half the 2015 rate by 2030 sounds like a good idea, but if Montreal is anything like any other city in the world, the amount of trash we produced six years ago is probably far in excess of what we should be producing.

The ban on single use plastics is a solid idea and I’m glad Projet plans to move forward on it — but they already announced this several months ago and there are no additional details nor any expansions on the idea.

On the general greening of the island, finally things start to look up. Half a million trees to be planted by 2030 is a good goal, and PM goes a step further by indicating they’re looking for 25% tree cover and will further focus on planting new trees in neighbourhoods with a high risk of the heat island effect. My only quibble here, and it’s a minor one, is that the goal is perhaps too modest and over too long a period of time. Consider that just one professional tree planter may plant as many as 15,000 trees a week, and some plant as many as 100,000 in a single season. Unless Projet’s plan is to plant mature trees, the goal, while laudable, isn’t overly impressive. And while attaining 25% tree cover seems impressive, we need to ask ourselves how much tree cover we’ve lost since the end of the Second World War, when the city began cutting back trees to make room for street parking. Further, how much tree coverage do we need to make a noticeable difference to annual CO2 emissions? The party’s plan to ban pesticides works for me, as does creating a mini-forest in each borough (likelier easier to actually say than do). The proposal to green parking lots is odd — we need to prioritize new construction on these lots — while the plan to increase access to the waterfront (with beaches and docks and promenades) seems like it might be at odds with flood control and prevention efforts (though if beaches factor into that equation, I say build them everywhere, the beach in Verdun is a hit). 

Bucking the trend of timidity, the section on urban agriculture is heavy on steady, simple, workable ideas that could be fairly easily implemented, and even though it doesn’t say so explicitly, increasing urban agriculture is certainly going to help both improve food security and play an important role in reducing GHG emissions and other kinds of pollution. The proposal to increase the amount of cultivated land in Montreal by one-third strikes me as a bit peculiar, because for the life of me I can’t figure out where in Montreal land is still cultivated — if I had to guess, maybe Ile Bizard? There’s nothing really astonishing here, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s well-developed and well-considered nonetheless. 

Turning now to the section on better governance—yes to more listening, more consultation and more input from the citizenry. The whole section is verbose in the same kind of way human resources tends to drone on and on about maintaining the work-life balance and personal wellness (and never get to what matters most: more money, better benefits and more paid time off), but in sum the party built on grassroots activism and encouraging citizen participation wants to stay the course.

That said, the best item in this section is actually about having postal voting for all future municipal elections and making it much easier to register for municipal elections, which is obviously smart policy that will earn no rebuke from yours truly. Don’t take the right to vote in Montreal municipal elections for granted — it wasn’t too long ago that only property owners had such a right.

On the issue of an annual participatory budget? Great!

Limiting that participation to just $60-million of the budget? Less great (but a fine way to avoid having the populace participate their way into slashing the SPVM’s operating budget). 

The subsection titled “cooperating to develop the city of today and tomorrow” is chock full of feel-good buzzwords without really specifying anything. Yes, I want citizens to take a role in shaping our city, but the party hasn’t clearly articulated where it wants the city to go. Do we need to update the urban development plan from 17 years ago? Sure, why not. But to what end? I’m all for reducing inequities between neighbourhoods, but again, there’s nothing specific, no how or why or even what we’re aiming for. As for maintaining the cultural primacy of the French language, or the centrality of Mount Royal, these are peculiar platform points. Shall they maintain the primacy of breathing air or the centrality of the Montreal Canadiens as well?

Shifting gears, the party’s proposal regarding worksites, mobility and the challenges of repairing our infrastructure deserves high marks. Montreal’s maintenance deficit is so bad and so long-standing, it’s very nearly a part of our cultural heritage. It’s why we have orange cones all over the place, why traffic is snarled nearly citywide every summer. We’re dealing with a work backlog that’s decades long, in addition to the fact that geological, geographical and climatological conditions produce extreme wear and tear on our city’s basic infrastructure. 

Even though Montrealers love to complain about this, there’s almost nothing to be gained by addressing the problem head on and laying out a comprehensive plan for how to deal with it. Here we have something that gets pretty close. First, the party is looking to other cities for good examples worthy of being emulated — something that I support given our unfortunate tendency to function as though we’re the only city on Earth. Projet has proposed a green infrastructure research and development unit to make sure our infrastructure is both adaptable and resilient in the context of the climate emergency, a winning idea if I ever heard one. Several points focus on bringing interested parties together to coordinate their construction and maintenance efforts, and the party further proposes data-driven solutions to plan and facilitate maintenance work. The party also intends to take advantage of planned roadwork to bring about major improvements to roadways, as well as increasing the monitoring of work sites to ensure compliance with regulations and safe practices. Moreover, they’re also proposing 24-hour worksites in areas where such work can be done without negatively impacting residents’ quality of life. All in all, the 10 proposals of this section are well thought out and demonstrative of a city government that is thinking proactively about improving the management and outcomes of the least politically attractive aspect of what municipal governments are expected to do. 

On the subject of housing and living in an affordable city (grouped together under the banner ‘Choosing Montreal and staying here’), Projet opens by listing their commendable efforts and modest accomplishments in cooling down the city’s overheated housing market. Projet proposes to build 60,000 new social and affordable housing units as quickly as possible, namely by building first on land the city already owns, or on land owned by the federal government, and by using about $800-million to acquire land for the purposes of this aggressive and ambitious housing proposal. Projet also states they’ll guarantee the affordability of these new housing units for 40 years, which sounds a lot like they’re proposing to build 60,000 rent-controlled apartments. That’s not a bad idea. Neither is the party’s plan to help non-profits acquire buildings for social housing purposes and to remove them from the speculative housing market. The party also proposes adding $100-million over the next decade to acquiring land for social housing, new emergency funding to the OMHM to renovate social housing and to seek new funding and financing arrangements with other levels of government to accelerate social and affordable housing projects. On the whole, Projet has come up with some good ideas on the housing front, though closing the exit clause for the 20/20/20 bylaw (which Mouvement is proposing) is also needed if Montreal is to secure not only more social and affordable housing, but a greater housing mix as well.

On the matter of making life easier for families, Projet has one really solidly good idea: introducing the baby box, based on the successful Finnish model. This is one of those ideas that the other parties should have committed to doing as well, and it’s the kind of thinking that I most appreciate and want to encourage among political parties: relatively easy to implement ideas that can make a big difference. North Americans are basically operating at a Neanderthal level when it comes to maternal and neonatal health, and the baby box program has demonstrated its effectiveness for many years in Finland and elsewhere. We need to give new moms all the help they can get, irrespective of income or social status. If this program helps even a 10th of the 20,000 or so babies born in Montreal each year (and their moms) start off on the right foot, the program will have been completely worth it. This is the kind of outside the box thinking I want to see so much more of from PM, and it’s almost a good enough reason by itself to hand Valérie Plante the keys to city hall for another four years.

In closing, I’m generally disappointed by what I think isn’t a nearly aggressive enough environmental policy, but I think Projet Montréal has some stronger ideas on housing. There’s a lot of buzzwords, a lot of feel good, vague language, but buried within all that are a few genuinely good plans that Projet could easily implement (and which would bring about some thoroughly positive results). The party has to get over their timidity, take a serious second look at Ferrandez’s resignation letter, and stop peddling watered-down crap for a middle of the road audience. This is Montreal — we want bold, we want forward-thinking. Projet needs to remind itself that it got elected promising big ideas driven by grassroots activism. Now isn’t the time to ignore what got it elected in the first place. ■

For the complete Projet Montréal platform, please click here. For more on the Montreal municipal election on Nov. 6–7, please visit the Élections Montréal website.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.