Equitable and Responsible: A proposal for proper public transit funding

Par Raymond Beshro le 18 mai 2012

 

The public consultation currently underway on the financing of public transit (PT) will draw out specialists on new methods and sources of funding, and will generate recommendations for the Transport Commission of the MMC (Montreal Metropolitan Community).  This article seeks to bring to the forefront the notions of equity and responsibility in the allocation of public funds, more specifically for the funding and development of West-bound PT projects.

Montreal’s Greater Southwest (Sud-Ouest borough, Verdun, LaSalle, and Lachine) is the sector of the Island of Montreal through which the Saint-Jacques escarpment, the Lachine Canal and the Aqueduct Canal all traverse.Another large neighbourhood, typically referred to as theWest-End (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Hampstead, Côte-St-Luc and Montreal West) sits just north of the Greater Southwest.  The presence of the Turcot interchange makes it the MMC’s central transportation hub.  Furthermore, it’s the main entrance to Montreal, whether it be by plane or by car.  Tens of thousands of residents from the West Island,the West Shore (Montérégie Ouest) and the North and South shores commute daily to and through the sector.

INADEQUATE TRANSIT FOR THE WEST

The City of Montreal’s Transport Plan was adopted in2008 and it heavily favours PT projects on axes due North, South and East of downtown, over any measures that could effectively improve the PT offering for communities to the West, some of which are quite densely populated.  

Montreal’s vision became the canvas for MMC’s Metropolitan Plan, and both bodies do not seem preoccupied by equity and by cost-effective increases inmodal share for PT as they neglect our communities to the West.  Two examples support this assertion.

1. The current vision favours a subway extension in proximity to the Saint-Hubert airport, omitting to plan for an extension towards Trudeau airport. Both sites are equidistant from downtown with the corridor leading toDorval having a substantially higher population and employment density. 

2. The first phase of the new Tramway, riding parallel to the subway, will increase the PT offering for existing users and tourists rather than drawing in new users,living or working in central neighbourhoods that are currently underserviced.

The creation of reserved bus lanes on Notre-Dame West and Saint-Patrick is the only notable measure taken for west-bound transit in recent years.  These lanes, open since November 2011, are rarely used by STM buses, but may in fact serve their purpose during the major works of the Turcot Complex reconstruction.  Beyond the Saint-Pierre interchange to the west, and beyond highway 15 to the east,the buses still have to compete for lane space with single-occupancy vehicles.  The problem remains unresolved for the planned bus lanes in the Turcot Complex as they too will be isolated between the St-Pierre and Turcot interchanges.  It’s hard to conceive that commuters will abandon their cars if they cannot avoid traffic anyways.Users will only switch over to public transportation when the bus lanes will occupy an entirely dedicated and uninterrupted corridor from Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue all the way to the subway network.

WEST-BOUND RAIL TRANSIT

Quebec’s Transport minister has confirmed that theTrain de l’Ouest would see the day to improve the transit offering on the commuter train’s Rigaud line. Initial projections estimate that the line would handle 9 million annual passages and that the project would cost 876 M$.  

As other needs exist on the west-bound side, two other rail projects are being studied. The airport shuttle will establish a direct link between downtown and Trudeau Airport.  The Quebec government recently committed to fund a portion of its construction, to the benefit of certain travellers, tourists and airport employees.  Lachine’s tram-train, currently under review, is set to use existing tracks to link the borough to downtown.

Give or take a few hundred meters, these three transit lines would have the same trajectory.  Given that the current consultation deals with PT funding for all of the MMC, it would be most irresponsible to undertake three projects in the same right-of-way, instead of favouring a single and complete rail infrastructure that could service the majority of Greater Montreal’s population west of the Decarie.  The greatest challenge lies in finding consensus between the various stakeholders, who must set their differences aside and focus on objectives based solely on the public good.  This consensus must be reached quickly and a PT link on rail infrastructure servicing the West-End, Lachine, the airport, the West Island and the new Turcot neighbourhood must become the first priority for public transportation investment in the MMC.

FUNDING

The current consultation on PT funding is a worthwhile exercise, provided that we grant priority to and only carry out those projects seeking to increase PT’s modal share for trips with destinations or origins are based in existing and well-established communities that are currently underserviced.  It is unfortunately on this matter that MMC residents should be concerned.  The MDP encourages the development of new TOD neighbourhoods(transit-oriented development) as a strategy to limit urban sprawl.  As such, public funds favour new households in relatively distant suburbs, where the availability of vacant land allows for a substantial increase in land values, indirectly offsetting a portion of the development costs ofPT, an essential component for TODs.  This policy undermines residents in the West-End, LaSalle, Lachine and in the West Island communities.  These tax-payers based in dense, urban and central neighbourhoods remain neglected. Economic activity in the West is capital on themetropolitan scale, forming the second largest employment hub in Quebec after Montreal’s downtown.

Thanks to a well-defined urban planning policy and thanks to a booming real estate market, Montreal`s downtown has undergone a positive transformation over the last decade; numerous public and private development projects have strengthened our downtown core.  As Mayor Tremblay likes to remind us, our downtown is one of the most populated and dynamic centers in North America.  But how was Ville-Marie’s renewal funded?  Largely by the boroughs and reconstituted municipalities.  Our downtown’s faring quite well and several other projects are on their way; it is now time to equitably focus resources elsewhere.  

First of all, the City of Montreal must institute a balanced fiscal policy with its boroughs, rather than returning meager shares of their own revenues.  It must also promote and finance PT projects in other central neighbourhoods.  Even if the City of Montreal has neither the resources nor the authority to pilot a west-bound rail transit system by itself, it must respect its obligations towards the boroughs and reconstituted municipalities that fund it. If they had annual budgets that were morereflective of their development and existing tax bases,boroughs and reconstituted municipalites could afford to maintain existing municipal services, which they could notin 2012.  They would also have the means to supportimminent development and densification, to draw in newinvestments, to consolidate and maintain existinginfrastructure and to better adapt public space PT stops and stations.  For many households, these neighbourhoods are more attractive than downtown; accommodating their growth also means supporting the sustainable developmentobjectives contained in the MDP and in the City of Montreal’s planning documents.

The biggest project underway is the Train de l’Est andaccording to the AMT’s most recent figures, its development cost per passenger is approximately 121 000$(665M$ ÷ 5500 passengers per day).  On the other hand,preliminary figures for the Train de l’Ouest approximate a development cost per passage of 67 000$ (876M ÷ 13 000passengers).  If the Train de l’Ouest (or any other project in its place) sought to service the communities on its path such as the east of Lachine, the cost per passenger would be even lower.  When one also factors in the rapid growth in Vaudreuil-Soulanges, this solution is further justified.

The merits of this project will become most evident once local municipalities, the MMC, the various agencies with jurisdiction on matters of transportation and other stakeholders have sat at the same table to promote a visionbased on the public good, on equity and on a cost-effective increase of PT’s modal share.  The quest for new methods of funding would then become secondary.  The sharing of the development cost by the three levels of government should not be problematic, as the cost would only represent a portion of that for the three west-bound rail projects, all while offering a service that is equivalent to that of the three projects put together (Lachine tram-train, Train de l’Ouest, Airport shuttle).  Transit users will contribute to the operating costs and the private sector can certainly contribute on various levels.  Cancelling certain redundant bus routes and linking the bus network optimally to this new east-west corridorwill bring forth new savings, all in the spirit of responsible and equitable investment.

PROTECTING AND SERVICING THE GREATER SOUTHWEST

The Greater Southwest and the West End are home to nearly 400 000 residents, as well as to numerous commercial, institutional and industrial establishments.  Its main streets undergoing revitalisation, the Lachine Canal and Lac Saint-Louis make it attractive to newcomers and existing residents alike.  The road network is however littered with obstacles (railroads, interchanges, Saint-Jacques escarpment and the Aqueduct Canal) that negatively impact mobility and connectivity between neighbourhoods.  The Greater Soutwest greatly lacks proper land-use and transportation planning.  The high capacity PT project that will eventually service the area and the majority of communities in the western half of the MMC must absolutely be respectful of the existing neighbourhoods on its path, ensuring to preserve and enhance local quality of life by connecting neighbourhoods,through the addition of green spaces and by promoting safety in residential sectors.

The quality of life in the area is quite threatened.  Adequate public transit is the most pressing need. Itsimplementation must not destroy neighbourhood life.  An obvious example is the trench or tunnel that will be absolutely necessary to accommodate an increase in train passage frequency at the Westminster and Elmhurst level crossings.  The reconstruction of the Turcot Complex brings other needs to light, but also brings an opportunity to address them, with new transportation corridors and new connections between neighbourhoods.  West-End residents remain hopeful that the long awaited completion of Cavendish Boulevard will limit traffic overflow on residential streets.  The debate on residential developmentof the Meadowbrook golf course must also come to an end with a firm commitment by our elected officials to convert it to an eco-territory of regional interest. Meadowbrook’sfragile ecosystem will be protected as a result, and the destruction of green space in the Greater Southwest will be slowed, as will the urban heat island effect that plagues it.

CONCLUSIONS 

The lack of consensus on the funding and nature of west-bound PT projects is delaying any form of solution.  By adequately servicing the West, we would increase public transit’s modal share in a manner that is more cost-effective than other projects underway, all while surpassing the sustainable development objectives contained in the MDP and the various planning documents prepared by the City of Montreal.

A single, high-frequency, west-bound PT project on rail infrastructure must be devised and it will service all the target markets of the 3 projects under review, all while respecting existing communities in Greater Southwest andin the West-End.  If nothing more than secondary measures, such as reserved bus lanes, can be promised to communities in the West, they must be implementedcorrectly, meaning that all interchanges along highway 20 and 720 are passed in an entirely dedicated corridor all the way to the subway network.

The matter of funding for public transit must not be treated as cash-hungry quest for new methods of funding.  We must rather focus on the review and selection of projects likely to increase PT’s modal share for trips in the MMC’s territory, and do so with responsible management of public funds.  If the City of Montreal can respect its commitment to improve its fiscal policy for its boroughs and reconstituted towns, we will see favorable conditionsfor the implantation and optimisation of PT.

Public transit will continue to be primarily funded by municipalities, by the Quebec government and by its users.Exploring how the federal government and the private sector can better contribute is certainly worthwhile, but an equitable distribution in the selected investments and establishing priorities based on equity and on cost-benefit analysis will, in my opinion, best address funding issues.

Raymond Beshro is a Montreal urban planner


 

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