blue line Montreal metro

Photo by Shane Seguin (

Billions more for the Blue Line, but my bus won’t run on time

“The Blue Line is, in nearly every way, a constant reminder of our provincial and federal governments’ incoherent transit policies, and unfortunately, the City of Montreal has little recourse but to play along.”

What happens to public transit in our city when all the money gets spent entirely on infrastructure and far too little of it on the user experience? I’m concerned I’ll one day find myself living in a future version of this city where the province and federal government are building a high-speed rail line between the airport and the proposed Royalmount Aquarium, but the metro just runs at rush hour and bus service has been limited to only the most attractive neighbourhoods.

Recent news is that the governments of Quebec and Canada have come to an agreement on about $2.7-billion for an infrastructure development fund, which in turn will be spent on the Blue Line, a tramway for Quebec City and (of course) a highway extensions in Laval. What there was to debate between the two levels of government doesn’t seem clear to me — it’s “free money” after all — but I suppose the Legault administration can’t be seen as too eager to accept federal funds for transit projects, lest it alienate its voter base.

I have some well-documented mixed feelings about the Blue Line. While I would advocate nearly any aggressive program of metro construction, the only sensible way to build expensive subway systems is to keep building them and hope to achieve some savings through economies of scale. It probably seemed insane to build a 26-station metro system in the mid-1960s, right as the city began losing residents to the suburbs, but — credit where it’s due — that aggressive construction program wound up benefitting us immensely. We don’t plan that way anymore and it winds up making things a lot more expensive. The Blue Line extension was originally set to cost $4.5-billion but is now estimated at $6.4-billion, and that sum will likely increase.

I digress. What’s decreasing is the quality of the service offered to citizens, and this is a really inopportune time given the negative impact the pandemic has had on commuting and public transit use in general. In the era of the climate crisis, governments need to be doing all they can to encourage public transit use. 

Unfortunately, government tends to have a “if you build it, they will come” mentality to public transit, thinking — incorrectly — that car users need to be cajoled into using transit by way of fancy new trains. The actual problem is that the quality of the service is declining and has been on the decline in our city for some time (with some massive cuts having occurred during the early part of Denis Coderre’s reign of terror), and this is what’s keeping people away from transit. 

The Blue Line is, in nearly every way, a constant reminder of the government’s incoherent transit policies, and unfortunately, our municipal government has little recourse but to play along for fear of losing out on additional funding. In the grand scheme of things, the Blue Line extension is a good idea, but in the near term, all that money really should be going to bringing transit back up to pre-COVID levels. This is almost an impossible task given the near-constant demand that public transit be operated on a for-profit basis, something it isn’t designed to do. In order to get people back into transit in a world still wary of enclosed, cramped spaces, and to make transit competitive with the convenience of cars, we need to be running a greater number of buses and trains, at a higher rate of operation, and for pretty much the entire day. No bean counter will ever sign off on that.

The Blue Line has a bad history of being a bit of a money pit, and recent announcements by the Plante administration indicate even more money will be thrown down the well. Rather than redress budget shortfalls, money is being prioritized to increase efficiency on the least used metro line.

Mayor Plante’s Jan. 23 announcement that about half a billion dollars — including at least $65.6-million from the city — will be spent on a new control system for the Blue Line is another reminder that our transit priorities don’t make much sense.

Major service cuts were announced by the STM to help it deal with a $78-million budget shortfall for 2023, including the elimination of the 10-minute-max express service on certain key bus lines. Transit advocates argue the elimination of this service on 31 bus routes will result in a decline of transit service of over 11%, hardly a step in the right direction during the climate crisis.

While Plante has described the new Blue Line computer control system as an “investment” in transit, and commended the Quebec government for its “engagement” in Montreal’s public transit system, it isn’t clear why the province prioritizes new signaling systems or metro line extensions over express bus lines used by many more people. I don’t want to be overly cynical, but it seems like the province is way more interested in spending our money on shiny new capital projects and “high tech innovation” than maintaining or improving standards of operation for basic transit systems. I’ll concede there’s not much political capital to be made (and a bad precedent set) with promises to make the “trains run on time.”

Evidently, topping off the STM’s $78-million budget deficit — which would allow it to bring back the 31-bus 10-minute-max service — would be an important investment in transit, as well as a better demonstration of the province’s engagement in our city’s transit system. And yet, it’s equally clear that addressing operational budget shortfalls isn’t a priority for either the federal or provincial governments. It was Ottawa and Quebec City that decided $2.7-billion would be handed over for transit infrastructure — I don’t think Montreal was invited to participate in those discussions. Ultimately, whether money gets spent to extend the Blue Line has much more to do with the unending provincial-federal pissing contest than what our actual needs are.

The specifics of the new Blue Line signaling system — the half-billion-dollar improvement to the metro line least in need of it — strike me as more than a little odd. For one, the province has an estimate of how much it will cost for this system to be trialed on the Blue Line, yet no estimate for what it might cost to equip the whole metro system with it. The province also announced what it intends to spend just as they issued the official call for bids. I have a general idea about what I would spend to buy a new car, but I wouldn’t walk into a car dealership and loudly proclaim exactly how much money was in my bank account.

What’s also strange is that there’s so much interest in improving service on this particular line of the metro. While testing out a new train control system on the least used line may make sense in that, if the new system fails, the disruption it causes will have the least impact overall, on the other hand, because the Blue Line has been the historically least used line in the system, its testing conditions may be suboptimal and a poor reflection of average usage on far busier lines. 

To really put this new control system through its paces, it’s going to need to be tested on the most used line, at rush hour traffic levels. 

Or, if testing conditions don’t actually matter, why not test it out during off hours?

And while I can appreciate that it may be difficult to get new equipment to service a 50-year old metro control system, is spending a half-billion dollars on a new system really such a fiscally prudent idea? Couldn’t you find a source for all those hard to find parts with half that amount of money? Or even a 10th? 

And again, I’m still not entirely convinced metro service needs to be “improved” given we’re still dealing with a transit usage deficit caused by the on-going pandemic, still widespread working from home and service cuts to the STM caused by its budget shortfall. The province and the federal government have billions to spend on extensions and improvements to infrastructure, but nothing to help make sure that all of what they’re spending it on actually gets used.

It isn’t so much that service needs to be improved as much as it needs to be restored to get ridership back up to pre-pandemic levels. A new control system for the Blue Line won’t get us there.

Neither will running fewer buses per hour on bus routes that offered a 10-minute service up until just three years ago. In order for passengers to feel safe and secure in the pandemic era, transit systems can’t be constantly full (the inevitable result if you run fewer buses or trains per hour). Paradoxically, in order to increase use, availability has to constantly exceed demand. How else will people sufficiently maintain distance? The era of being crammed in like sardines on mass transit ought to be over, if for no other reason than to prevent outbreaks of communicable diseases and viruses that risk further disruption to transit services (if not the economy in general).

Another pandemic could destroy the economy — it might be worth the money running enough buses and trains that they’re all only ever half full.

Properly funding transit — with an explicit goal of drastically reducing car use and the city’s carbon footprint — ought to be the first and only priority of a Projet Montréal administration. A well-funded and comprehensive transit system offering a level of service that can compete with individual car ownership is crucial to any city’s goals to drastically reduce its carbon footprint, to say nothing of the inherent fiscal responsibility of promoting mass transit over car ownership.

To that point, it would certainly be better for the environment, and arguably fiscally more prudent, to borrow money to shore up the STM budget than to attempt to save money by cutting transit service. Transit cuts mean more cars on the road, more congestion, more pollution, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc.

Consider that, just five days before the big “metro brain improvement project” was announced, the city issued this press release stating it was seeking to borrow $76-million to realize its urban forest plan. 

I’m a big fan of trees — they increase property values while decreasing the carbon footprint — but why is it that the city can borrow $76-million for trees but not $78-million to top off the STM’s operating budget?

If we were to create a balance sheet of the benefits of $78-million spent on the STM to maintain its service offering, versus $76-million spent on trees and tree maintenance, the ecological benefit of spending that money on transit would far, far outweigh what a similar sum spent on trees could possibly do for the environment. 

Or consider another example that doesn’t sit well or make much financial sense: Mayor Plante rubber-stamped a $63-million budget increase for the SPVM in the same year that the police overspent their budget by at least $50-million. The cops blew their budget, and were then rewarded with the single largest budget increase in all of Canada, in the city that already has more cops per capita than any other municipality in Canada. Why do the police get to play by a set of economic rules that aren’t applicable to any other government department or agency? Why the special treatment?

Public transit benefits far more people living in Montreal than the police do — it’s a far more important municipal service, that even benefits people from other municipalities. If any municipal agency should be able to overspend — and then get a bonus the following year — it ought to be the STM.

Put another way, wouldn’t a municipal party that was built by a transit advocate who promoted a vision for Montreal of walkable urban neighbourhoods built on an infrastructure of comprehensive mass transit have much more to lose by under-funding the city’s transit agency than asking its police to respect their already inflated budget?

It is an unfortunate reality that the federal and provincial governments can be counted on to focus their attention primarily on big ticket capital projects, since that’s what makes them look good. This is why they’re spending $600-million of our money on an airport connection for the REM rather than on several hundred new electric buses. Or why they’re extending the Blue Line rather than building a tram for downtown Montreal. They’re not spending money on transit to make transit better, improve your lives, or take a significant bite out of our carbon footprint. It is, and has only ever been, about projecting the image of doing something meaningful. If anyone actually benefits, it’s practically an afterthought. This is how we get into weird situations like spending billions of dollars to extend and improve service on the least used metro line while simultaneously cutting express bus service to hundreds of thousands of people.

Projet can still be our advocate, but they need to be a little less timid when it comes to how public money gets spent on transit. We’re the second largest city in the country, yet all too often I feel our leadership acts as though we were much smaller and far less important. Projet was supposed to be the party that would fight back against nonsensical government legacy project spending and advocate for what Montrealers actually want and need. But practically every major spending announcement concerning major transit projects in our city of late have not really been geared at the bread and butter problems faced by the Montrealers who actually use transit. 

So get ready for meticulously spaced out metro trains when you’re travelling from Acadie to Anjou 10 years from now. Just don’t expect a bus to get you to the station on time. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.