The Regional Metropolitan Transport Authority (ARTM) swears to have heard the scathing message sent by Quebec. The organization, criticized from all sides for its shortcomings in planning, promises a real “prioritization” among dozens of sites valued at more than 57 billion. It will file a new strategic plan by next summer, but will have to make up for a shortfall of 500 million in the meantime.
This was explained by the ARTM’s director general, Benoît Gendron, during a long interview granted to The Press this week. He admits to feeling strong “pressure” from the Legault government, in particular to advance the new version of the REM de l’Est, a project withdrawn from the hands of CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt, to pass into the public fold. .
“The pressure is healthy at the moment and it is for the benefit of the client,” he says. For me, as long as the pressure goes in that direction, I have no problem. »
It must be said that criticism has been coming from all sides towards the ARTM for about a year. This organization was created by a provincial law in 2017 to carry out four specific mandates: plan, organize, promote and finance public transport in the metropolitan area. These responsibilities were previously divided between the various transport companies such as the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), the (Réseau de transport de Longueuil) RTL or exo.
However, Quebec believes that the ARTM has failed in its task as a conductor. The government refused its strategic plan tabled in 2021, which presented a long list of projects at different stages of progress, such as reserved corridors for buses and extensions of the REM, without any real prioritization.
Benoît Gendron recognizes that the ARTM must do a better job of establishing precise planning for projects over a horizon of 5, 10 or even 25 years.
We will have a new strategic plan by spring or summer, to give ourselves a vision of public transit on the 2050 horizon. We will prioritize projects based on spinoffs. And then, it will be to say: if we choose number 4 instead of number 1, the fallout will be less. But it will be an informed decision.
Benoît Gendron, director general of the ARTM
To date, the ARTM’s shortfall for next year is estimated at around 500 million dollars out of a budget of 3.2 billion. This deficit is caused by the loss of ridership — we are at around 75% of the pre-pandemic level on average in the metropolis —, but also by the lack of structural maintenance of infrastructures and the commissioning of the REM on the Rive- South, which generates expenditure of approximately 75 million.
Reducing fares or offering free admission for certain categories of users, as is done elsewhere in the world, would be difficult to say the least in the context of a marked drop in ridership, estimates the director general of the organization. “I’m missing 500 million, and if I give free, I’m down to 1.5 billion. But would it be worth investing 1.5 billion at the government level? I’ll be the first to say “hooray!” “, he illustrates.
And since most public transit revenues come from users, the future is not all rosy. The ARTM expects to “return to growth of 2 to 3%” in its traffic per year. It could therefore take ten or even fifteen years before we return to the level before the pandemic, recognizes Benoît Gendron.
Until then, “we will have to start several projects simultaneously, both in the pre-feasibility and planning stages, the opportunity file or the business case, in short everywhere, so that the pipeline is always mature and that projects come to fruition. “The problem we have is that sometimes we take them one at a time,” he concedes in response to criticism of the poor coordination of the actors.
Relaunch the Eastern REM
The relaunch of a new version of the Eastern REM will be a crucial test for the leadership of the ARTM. This second phase of the REM, which had been developed by CDPQ Infra to serve the east of the metropolis, was withdrawn from the hands of the Caisse de dépôt by the Legault government in May 2021 to be transferred to public sector managers.
Leaders of the ARTM, the City of Montreal, the STM and the Ministry of Transport and Sustainable Mobility will have to agree to try to create a new version of this light rail network, including elevated concrete structures had aroused fear in several districts of the metropolis. Their committee will reuse the studies already done by CDPQ Infra (paid 100 million) and will order other analyzes in the coming months.
François Legault indicated last spring that he would not have much “patience”. He asked that “this project be carried out as soon as possible”, that is by 2029. The Prime Minister will not hesitate to make other “changes” to the management of the ARTM if the project does not not moving forward quickly enough, he added after appointing Patrick Savard as chairman of the organization’s board.
So as not to repeat the scenario of the extension of the blue line (in the making for 40 years) or the rapid service by bus on boulevard Pie-IX (announced 13 years ago and partially entered service a few days ago), Benoît Gendron is asking Quebec to grant the ARTM “similar powers” to those granted to CDPQ Infra for its REM.
To the public, there are many deadlines that the Caisse de depot does not have, thanks to its powers of expropriation. With similar privileges, the public could very well find ways to get things done faster.
Benoît Gendron, director general of the ARTM
REM or not, the next five years will be “quite busy” in terms of transport projects of all kinds. “There is not much room left in terms of financial capacity and achievement. You have to take into account the market’s ability to do all that too,” said Mr. Gendron, also citing the work to come on the blue line, on the Metropolitan highway and in the Ville-Marie tunnel.
Upcoming technology enhancements
The ARTM is continuing its discussions with BIXI, Communauto and Uber with a view to creating a mobile application that, by 2024, would make it possible to pay once a month for all public or active transportation services in Montreal based on its use.
“We feel that there is interest from the private market, that’s clear. It will now be a question of finding how much it will cost and identifying the amount that we will pay to the private operator in relation to that,” confides Mr. Gendron.
In terms of technology, the world of public transit “will change a lot,” he says. Within a year, the ARTM notably plans to launch “remote recharging” of the OPUS card. The following year, the organization also hopes to have delivered its open payment project, which would allow people to pay with their phone or bank card when entering the metro or the bus.
New terminals have already been installed in the Montréal metro in preparation for the implementation of this measure.
Finally, a carpooling platform pilot project must still see the light of day by the beginning of 2023 in order to offer one more option to motorists in the wake of the partial closure of the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine tunnel. This will also be a mobile application.
Next year, the ARTM also wants to “address closely” the issue of social pricing, which has already been tested. Considered more “opportune” than free, this type of pricing consists of offering prices according to the income of each person. In the short term, the organization is counting on an advertising campaign to try to encourage residents of Greater Montreal to use public transportation more.