The Coalition Avenir Québec, leading in the polls ahead of October’s provincial election, recently released its “Traffic Reduction Plan” for Greater Montreal. Or so went the marketing pitch. Yet with the bulk of the plan’s $10 billion in proposed investments aimed at suburban ridings where the party is hoping for breakthroughs this fall, the CAQ’s announcement rode in on a toxic air of old-school clientelism that was most notable for the lack of an attempt at even masking the odour.
Here was a plan to win an election rather than a serious transportation plan, and it was delivered with an ethical insouciance that should set alarm bells ringing.
Indeed, the CAQ’s plan, announced by party leader François Legault, is most noteworthy for what it studiously omits: the dense central districts that are the beating heart of metropolitan Montreal, and where both road and public transit networks are most strained — and CAQ supporters most scarce — are almost completely forgotten.
Out with new metro lines. In with expanded road infrastructure, extended light-rail lines reaching ever deeper into the suburbs, and two new tramway lines conveniently located in CAQ-friendly territory. A transit expert examining the plan would pull their hair out trying to grasp at the rationale. A political strategist, on the other hand, would seize it in a heartbeat.
Back to the good ol’ days of pork-barrel politics
One year ago, the new Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM) was born, the fruit of a hard-won battle to remove transit decisions from the hands of politicians, and replace the short-term logic of electioneering with those of neutrality, expertise and long-term planning in the public interest.
So Legault’s comments at the press conference raised a bright red flag that gave up the game: not content to merely propose plans to pass through the ARTM’s filter (as other parties do), the CAQ leader will grant himself the right to “veto” the ARTM’s decisions. Legault’s breezy dismissal of Mayor Valérie Plante’s Pink metro line project flows in the same direction — namely, top-down — and only adds to the troubling signs of things to come.
If Legault views an independent transit body and our local representatives as obstacles in his quest for power, we should all be asking the vital question: why?
The concern is real, as the CAQ’s posturing harkens back to the time of father-knows-best provincial governments that routinely bulldozed, often literally, the will of local communities. Remember: the Pink line proposal was the signature policy behind Mayor Plante’s landslide victory in November with over 50 per cent of the vote. A Léger poll released during the municipal campaign found no fewer than 83 per cent of Montrealers in favour of new metro lines.
That glaring absence in the CAQ’s plan thus signals a high-handed contempt for local democracy, and exposes a rust-worn vision of governance that is bathed in pork-barrel politics, and swims against the tides of growing municipal autonomy.
Legault’s dangerous game
The corrosive cynicism at the heart of the CAQ’s electoral calculus is plainly apparent, reflected as much in the party’s transportation plan as in Legault’s increasingly divisive rhetoric of recent months that has sought to pit off-island suburbanites against Montrealers in a shameless play for votes.
The CAQ’s pathway to power, as viewed in Actualité’s latest seat projections, winds invariably through Montreal’s North and South Shore suburbs. This is where Legault is pledging to extend the Quebec pension fund’s highly contentious Réseau express métropolitain (REM), at the risk of further aggravating suburban sprawl and privatizing our public transit network, and potentially wiping out ever more of the region’s dwindling agricultural lands.
The CAQ’s greatest chance for breakthroughs on the island, meanwhile, are in the two east-end ridings of Bourget and Pointe-aux-Trembles, where the CAQ just so happens to be promising one of its new tramway lines — a necessary project, but its only major proposal for the island. The other tram line is in Longueuil.
In fact, you can practically superimpose the map from the CAQ’s transportation plan onto QC125’s breakdown of the party’s most winnable ridings. It is this same cynical electoral arithmetic that explains why the CAQ is vowing to restructure metropolitan-level governance and financing arrangements, always with the aim of weakening Montreal’s clout within the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal and shifting the balance in favour of the outlying suburbs.
Power before principles
Voters, including those being so crudely courted by the CAQ, should be wary of a party that flaunts so naked a thirst for power. A party so willing to place its own self-interest ahead of the public’s, after all, is often one that deals in snake oil.
It is little surprise, then, that experts who have looked at the CAQ’s plan say its billions of investments will do little to reduce traffic congestion. How could it? Study after study have demonstrated that expanding highways and building new roads, as the plan promises to do, invariably does the opposite by encouraging more people to drive. It’s been called the “fundamental rule” of traffic congestion.
In the wake of yet another shattering of heat records across the globe, and when rising car emissions are already the chief obstacle to reducing our greenhouse gases in Quebec, a policy that spurs further demand for fossil fuels can only be characterized as egregiously irresponsible, destructive, and immoral.
No, the CAQ’s transportation plan will decrease neither car congestion nor greenhouse gas emissions, and it doesn’t even contain targets to achieve either. Normal, really, as this plan was designed for other purposes.