Allison Hanes: Public transit must be a priority for Quebec

The Coalition Avenir Québec must invest in transit to both bolster the economy and address climate change. But it’s spinning its wheels.

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Quebec politicians have found themselves in trouble in recent months after dropping some inconvenient truth bombs.

Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s Minister of the Economy, Innovation and Energy, caused a commotion last summer when he said the only way to meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets by 2050 is to ensure there are fewer cars on the road, not just replace all the existing ones with electric vehicles.

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Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault likewise found himself in hot water last month for telling a gathering of transit advocates in Montreal that Ottawa won’t be funding any new highways from now on because EVs are a “false utopia” that won’t address climate change on their own.

They’re both right, of course. And they both provoked a backlash by telling people things they don’t want to hear.

A quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are from tailpipes. The largest share of Quebec’s are from transportation — over 40 per cent. Even if the province has the lowest emissions in the country, there is a lot of work to be done.

While weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and electrifying transportation are key components of a low-carbon future, simply swapping every gas-combustion engine on the road for a lithium-ion-powered electric model will only create clean congestion — and we know how bad traffic is already.

Besides, those batteries have their own environmental cost, between mining precious minerals to build them and disposal after they wear out.

And though Quebec is blessed with an abundance of relatively clean energy from its hydro electricity, that supply is not endless. Hydro-Québec faces a delicate balancing act in the coming years between expanding the grid and conservation of energy to meet growing demand, much of it from transportation.

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Even with Fitzgibbon leading the charge to position Quebec into an electric car battery powerhouse in North America with the arrival of Northvolt, he’s surely read the studies that say the growing number of vehicles on the roads is not sustainable, EV or not.

The only path to a clean, prosperous future must involve massive investments in expanding public transit.

This isn’t even just a big-city issue anymore, as illustrated by a plea from 50 mayors from across Quebec last week, including Montreal’s Valérie Plante.

Mayors from the Gaspé to Granby, as well as Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and Quebec City, signed a letter issued by the Union des municipalités du Québec calling on the government of Premier François Legault to make public transit a priority in its next budget and forever after.

The letter lamented how some small villages aren’t permitted under the law to operate their own bus fleets, while other medium-size towns simply don’t have the means to fund and operate services.

The united front counters the myth that residents of smaller centres prefer to rely exclusively on their personal vehicles for every excursion. It’s not a choice to drive so much as a necessity because there are no other options. Municipalities and their mayors increasingly recognize the value of walkable communities — and want to connect them internally and to major centres through public transit.

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Citizens, too, want viable alternatives, so they don’t have to spend so much time in traffic jams.

The Coalition Avenir Québec must invest in public transit to both bolster the economy and address climate change. Although it was elected on a misguided platform to build more roads and highways, it has shown openness to transit expansion in recent years.

Unfortunately, the government is spinning its wheels.

At the conference where the federal environment minister made his controversial but essential remarks, advocacy group Trajectoire Québec denounced the Legault government’s sorry record on developing new transit projects as it enters the midway point of its second mandate.

Legault’s vision of a REM de l’Est for east-end Montreal ran into roadblocks that caused the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s infrastructure arm to pull out. The project was then conferred to the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM), which first proposed an “unrealistic” $36-billion métro-like network, before revising it to a $13-billion tramway.

CDPQ Infra also decided not to participate in a transit project for Longueuil after the Legault government handed it the file to analyze on the stalled Quebec City tramway. Oh, and by the way, the pension fund is also now looking at the on-again-off-again political hot potato known as the Troisième Lien, which started as a tunnel for cars, morphed into public transit and is now switching back again. Maybe.

Laval also wants an extension of the Orange Line of the métro on the Côte-Vertu side. Residents of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Chambly and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu want the REM prolonged to their neck of the woods, too.

There’s no shortage of demand for public transit and there’s no doubt that the investments to create it will be enormous.

But as Fitzgibbon and Guilbeault clearly recognize, it’s the right way to go.

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