When the PQ government made a big-splash announcement that the blue line of Montreal’s metro would be extended toward the east, plenty of anglophones took the opportunity to once again complain that there’s no extension toward the west.
To them, the reason was simple: politics. The PQ is more interested in francophone voters in St-Léonard than anglophones in the West Island, they argue, and so the West Island will never get improved transit service as long as the PQ is in power.
The problem is that the logic doesn’t hold up.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of politics involved in high-cost consumer-oriented projects like this. And there’s plenty of politics involved in this particular announcement. But let’s set a few things straight before we come to incorrect conclusions:
1. The people served by this metro extension aren’t PQ voters or swing voters. They’re Liberal voters.
Anglos who have never travelled east of St-Laurent Blvd. might just assume that everyone on the east side of the island is a hard-core francophone separatist. But while the east end is certainly francophone, and more likely to vote PQ than, say, Beaconsfield, the ridings covered by this metro extension were all won by the Liberal Party in the last election.
Here, look at a map and see for yourself. Ridings on the south (east) side of the island — which are already served by the green line — are very strong for the PQ, but those on the north (west) side have been Liberal strongholds for decades.
Here are the four relevant ridings, the areas they roughly correspond to, and how much the Liberals got in the last election:
- Anjou—Louis-Riel (Anjou) (40%): This riding has been won by the Liberals with double-digit margins since 1998, though the PQ got 31% here last fall. A swing riding perhaps, but not the swingiest.
- Jeanne-Mance—Viger (St-Léonard) (65%): Liberal since 1981 (when it was just Jeanne-Mance). The PQ came third in this riding in the last election, with 13% of the vote.
- Bourassa-Sauvé (Montreal-North) (42%): Liberal since its creation in 2003, and the two ridings that merged to create it were Liberal since the mid-80s. The PQ hasn’t cracked 30% here in at least a decade.
- La Fontaine (Rivière des Prairies) (59%): The last time the Liberals didn’t get more than 50% of the vote in this riding was 1981.
Now, you can make arguments for other adjacent ridings, like Rosemont (solid PQ), whose northern border goes near where the metro line will be drawn (though I would expect most will still go south to go downtown), or eastern Laval’s Mille-Îles riding, which does swing and might have voters who would drive to an extended blue line.
But while these areas aren’t the same absolute fortresses of NDG and the West Island, they’re neither swingy enough for the PQ to buy their votes, nor PQ enough for them to be rewarding their supporters.
2. Politics is why this wasn’t done years ago.
Those complaining that the blue line is being extended first because of political reasons seem to forget that such an extension has been in the plans for decades. Metro maps used to include a dotted line because it was assumed that such an extension was eminent. (There was a similar dotted line for a line up Pie-IX Blvd.)
But instead the first extension given the green light since the 1980s was a three-station extension into Laval.
Why? Politics. Laval is filled with swing voters. Of its six ridings, only one (Chomedey) had any party get more than 40% of the vote in the last election. So it was a no-brainer that an extension of the orange line into Laval would be more lucrative politically than an extension of the blue line into St-Léonard. This was the case both for the PQ under Bernard Landry (which started the project) and the Liberals under Jean Charest (which finished it).
Of course, it’s easy to argue the project wasn’t successful politically. In 2003, after the project was announced by the PQ, the riding switched from the PQ to the Liberals. In 2007, weeks before the inauguration, the Liberals won again by a narrower margin. And in 2012, the riding went to the PQ’s Léo Bureau-Blouin.
Not that failure is going to stop either party from trying again.
3. The announced extension makes the most sense from a population density standpoint.
The Gazette has a detailed map of population density on the island, but it’s a bit too detailed to be useful here. Here’s a graphic
someone Faiz Imam did that takes population density and superimposes metro and train lines. Dark brown is more dense than light brown.
If you were to choose an extension based only on that graphic, which way would you go? To me the most logical conclusion would be to extend that short line near the middle toward those dark areas of the northeast. (Or build a new subway line to serve Rosemont, but that’s a different discussion.)
Now, the graphic also shows density in the NDG area. But it’s not as dense as the eastern side, and just as important, it’s not as large either. Remember that the metro stations won’t just be served by people walking to it, but people taking buses to it too.
Which brings me to my next point:
4. NDG/Côte-St-Hamp-West is a transit dead-end.
These three suburbs and half a borough have a lot of people in them. And those people deserve good transit service. But natural and artificial barriers mean a metro extension to this area will benefit them and only them.
This urban peninsula is bordered by the Décarie Expressway to the east, the Hippodrome area to the north, the Taschereau train yards to the west, and a big cliff to the southeast. Train lines with limited crossing points surround it on three sides.
The result is that only two STM buses leave this area by crossing something other than Décarie Blvd. The 90 and 123 both take Avon Rd., the former to Lachine and the latter to Lasalle.
There’s the perennial hope that the Cavendish Blvd. extension will finally happen some day. But even if it does, it will just connect to an industrial area of St-Laurent.
Building roads through the Taschereau yards is impractical for as long as those train yards are still in use. Nor is it practical to build from NDG that goes over the cliff that separates it from Highway 20. So there’s a physical limit on how useful this extension could be, unless it’s extended further through that narrow corridor toward Lachine.
5. A metro extension to the West Island would cost $12,500 per resident
The West Island, which for the purposes of this argument excludes Lachine and St-Laurent but includes all on-island areas west of there (and Île Bizard) has about 250,000 residents. If you include Lachine that jumps to about 300,000.
Fairview Shopping Centre, the place people want the metro extended to, is 15 kilometres from the Snowdon metro station, or 12.5 kilometres from the Côte-Vertu station. And that’s assuming a perfectly straight line that in the former case runs through a train yard and two airport runways and in the latter case runs almost entirely through industrial areas.
How much would that cost? Well, the Laval extension, which was just a bit more than five kilometres, cost $745 million, or just under $150 million per kilometre. Despite what the AMT says, that figure is way more than we were told it would cost when the project began.
Even so, the per-kilometre cost has apparently increased. Government officials now estimate the cost at between $200 million and $300 million per kilometre.
At $250 million per kilometre, a 12.5-kilometre metro extension would cost $3.125 billion. That would work out to $12,500 per resident (I’m not including Lachine here because it would make little sense for them to use these stations).
Remember that this is per resident, not per transit user. Lots of people would still end up using their cars to get to work. and yet, for this price you could buy everyone in the West Island a new car. (I am not, of course, advocating this.)
Even an extension to the airport, which is closer at only 10 kilometres from Snowdon, would cost more than $2 billion.
6. There’s no secret already-built metro tunnel in Hampstead
One argument used for a western extension of the metro is that the tunnel is already partly built west of Snowdon. This argument is a misunderstanding of how the metro system works.
Each line has tracks that extend beyond the terminus. Some, like the yellow line at Berri-UQAM, only go far enough so that the trains can switch tracks. Others, like Angrignon and Honoré-Beaugrand, lead into garages where trains can be stored when not in use or undergo maintenance.
Snowdon’s tail tracks extend 790 metres west of the station, which allows enough space for the two tracks to align vertically, enough space to store a train and enough space for a track connecting with the orange line.
Though it’s visible because of the emergency exit at Queen Mary Rd. and Dufferin St. (one block into Hampstead), this is little different from the tail tracks at other terminal stations. And any extension would require more tail tracks at the new terminus, so it doesn’t save any time or money to consider this in calculations.
7. Better bus service, reserved lanes and commuter trains would be a much more effective — and cheaper — solution to West Island traffic problems.
When the STM created the 470 Express Pierrefonds bus, I wondered why it took them so long. It was the first time the transit agency had thought to create a non-stop express between the Fairview shopping centre and a metro station. (Before that, people would take the 216, a rush-hour-only bus designed to serve businesses along Highway 40. And before that, it was the 215, which would take a 45-minute trip through the Dollard des Ormeaux and St-Laurent industrial parks.) Sure enough, the 470 was an instant hit, and was quickly upgraded to all-day service, then added evenings, weekend and weekend evenings. It’s still hugely popular.
I took West Island transit for more than 10 years, so I know how frustrating it can be. Things are getting better, and there’s still room for improvement. Highways 40 and 20 needs reserved bus lanes. Commuter train service needs to be improved, especially on the Vaudreuil-Hudson line. The AMT should look at reactivating the Doney Spur and creating a bus terminal in Pointe Claire serving it (or extending it to Fairview). And enough service needs to be added so there’s no hesitation to using buses to get around.
But all of these things are much less expensive than expanding a metro line to the West Island.
The STM spends $500 million a year on its regular and adapted bus services. The entire network, which provides 5 million hours of service a year. So for $3 billion, it could have 30 million hours of service. By my math, that’s enough to have more than 3,000 buses running 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a year. Or 300 buses for 10 years. Or 30 buses for 100 years.
Since the 470 takes a little over an hour and a half for a round trip, this would mean we could add buses running on that route every five minutes, 24/7, for 100 years, and still have a cool billion dollars left over.
When you put it in perspective, we’re starting to talk about real money here.
8. There are already two train lines to the West Island.
Those who argue that the West Island needs a metro seem to discount the already existing above-ground train lines that serve the area: The Deux-Montagnes and Vaudreuil/Hudson commuter trains. These lines are far from perfect, but the improvements necessary to make them work would cost much less than extending the metro.
The Deux-Montagnes line needs two things: A doubling of the track between Roxboro-Pierrefonds and Bois-Franc stations, and new cars to increase the frequency of departures. The former is in the plan, but nothing is moving on it yet. The latter has been announced.
Improvements to the Vaudreuil/Hudson line are more complicated. There, the AMT shares tracks with CP freight, so additional train runs need to be negotiated. The ideal solution would be to build an extra set of tracks dedicated to public transit. The so-called Train de l’Ouest project is advancing slowly, with news expected by the end of the year. But this project needs to be reconciled with a train shuttle to Trudeau Airport, and the parties involved still haven’t agreed on whether those trains should use CP tracks going to Lucien-L’Allier or CN tracks going to Central Station.
Having commuter trains running every 20 minutes (and more often during rush hour) on both lines, combined with a reasonable fare integration between the STM and AMT, would do wonders to improve transit toward downtown.
The AMT could also look at reviving the Doney Spur, an underused train line that runs from the Deux-Montagnes line to St-Jean Blvd. near Hymus. Many dream of connecting this to Fairview (which would require an overpass over Highway 40), but removal of tracks near St-Jean and development along Holiday Ave. have made the road to such a project more complicated.
9. The announcement of the blue line extension was very political, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
The PQ government is clearly in election-planning mode. Just last weekend it had four ministers present at an announcement about new reserved bus lanes, as if painting lines on pavement somehow required the cooperation of that many provincial government departments.
And the announcement wasn’t that they’ve begun construction. It’s that they’re commissioning a feasibility study. They don’t know where the stations are going to be, what they’ll be named, or what it’s going to cost. The study will look at that. So really there is nothing much to announce here, but they went all out anyway.
Whether or not metro extensions are the best use of public transit funding (many would argue they’re not), the issue is sexy because metro stations are tangible things that voters can see every day. Even those not in the affected area will note the presence of these new stations.
So it’s no surprise that the whole thing has been politicized from the beginning. Choosing the Laval extension first, even though it has a lower population density. Now contemplating a second extension in Laval, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s even needed. Coming up with a three-way deal in which Laval, Montreal and Longueuil each get metro extensions, as if the three are functionally equal from a public transit perspective. All of this is politics.
But the blue line extension to the east (perhaps not all the way to Anjou, but at least to, say, Pie-IX) still makes sense.
And sometimes, common sense can come out of even the most ridiculous-minded people.
There are arguments against the proposed extension, mostly based on its cost. Even some people who are solidly behind improved public transit argue that extending the metro would be a waste of taxpayer money. Among the reasons:
- The new line would run parallel to the eastern part of the green line, which in the east end is much closer to Jean-Talon St. In these areas, the two lines would be only five minutes apart by bus
- People taking the blue line to get downtown would need to take three metro lines, requiring two transfers, versus taking the bus to the green line and taking only one train (and probably having a seat for most of the run).
- Adding people to the blue line would increase the load on the Jean-Talon-to-Berri-UQAM leg of the orange line, already one of the most congested in the network.
- Improved bus service, including more buses and more reserved lanes, would make a much bigger difference for commute times. And buses are both cheaper and much more flexible.