Montréal’s plan to build the fourth-largest automated transportation system in the world right through the heart of the city has run into strong opposition, with doubts cast over its environmental impact and financial viability.

In April last year, Montréal announced the city’s largest public transportation infrastructure project since the Montréal metro – a fully automated, electric light rail transit system known as Réseau Électrique Métropolitain (REM).

Covering 67km, the REM is planned to include four branches with 27 stations, connecting downtown Montréal, South Shore, West Island, North Shore and Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. The system will slash through busy urban areas 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and on completion, it will become the fourth-largest automated transportation system in the world after Singapore, Dubai and Vancouver.

The project is sorely needed. Montréal is Canada’s most congested city, with drivers spending 52 hours in traffic jams during peak time periods in 2016, according to data from transport analytics company Inrix. Traffic is so bad that Mayor Denis Coderre recently suggested a congestion tax for drivers entering the city.

The REM system promises to provide 30 departures for Montréal at peak times, as there are currently five, and 120 departures for the rest of the day compared with the 17 at present. It also hopes to reduce up to 35,000t of GHG emissions annually.

However, in January 2017, Québec’s environmental review agency BAPE gave the project a highly negative environmental assessment, criticising its eco-friendly claims and casting doubts over its projected ridership, costs, revenue and governance.

Moreover, Green Party candidate Daniel Green also raised issues with a 5km tunnel that would disturb one of the worst hazardous waste sites in the province, and potentially causing contaminated water to spill into the river.

A strong case for the REM

The C$6bn project aims to build up to 67km of dedicated rail lines, with 50% of the tracks occupying existing rail corridors and 30% following existing highways. The system will integrate above ground, underground and overhead double tracks, and it will constitute Québec’s first public-public partnership project.

New climate-controlled stations will be integrated into the urban environment, allowing access for pedestrians, bicycles, cars and buses.

Construction woks are expected to start in the first half of 2017 and commercial operations are expected to begin in late-2020.

REM developer CDPQ Infra touts the project’s green benefits, promising to “accelerate Québec’s transition to a low-carbon economy”, by cutting emissions and reducing economic losses associated with traffic congestion, currently estimated at C$1.9bn annually in the Greater Montréal area.

Approximately C$5bn private real estate developments are expected along the route, and creation of more than 34,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction phase. CDPQ envisions a potential C$3.7bn boots to Québec’s GDP over four years.

Environmental groups cast doubts on the project

BAPE refused to give the project a green light in its latest report, published in January this year, following hearings held in August and September 2016. The agency raised numerous concerns, including complaints about incomplete documentation and lack of transparency from the developers.

The report states there is not enough proof to suggest that the current system running on the Deux-Montagnes line cannot meet the current passenger demand. REM promises to increase ridership on the Deux-Montagnes line by six times.

On the environmental side, the review board noted that “[CDPQ Infra] did not provide a complete portrait and a final analysis of the repercussions of the REM on natural environments”, and challenged the developer’s target of total reduced GHG emissions – down from 35,000t to 16,800t of equivalent CO2 per year.

“The REM promises to reduce up to 35,000t of GHG emissions annually.”

It also questioned whether the light rail system will be an attractive alternative to drivers and asked for further documents to prove how the project will be financed. Currently, investor and fund manager La Caisse is contributing C$2.67bn, and the Government of Québec confirmed an investment of C$1.28bn in its latest budget.

But BAPE isn’t the only body challenging the project.

In March, Trainsparence, a coalition of environmental groups, took La Caisse to court over the alleged failure to respect the public consultation process. Trainsparence maintains that the consultations took place “under conditions that disrespect the applicants’ rights to a genuine consultation on a project that presents serious risks of adverse impacts on health, the economy and the environment of the population”.

On its website, the coalition lists 15 reasons to oppose the project, including a threat to biodiversity and vulnerable species, use of the wrong technology, lack of transparency, the small number of stations in the plan and its impact on ridership.

Green also took issue with a 5km trench-style tunnel that would run from the southern tip of Pointe-St-Charles to south of Central Station in Griffintown, including 500m that would reach “one of the worst hazardous waste sites in Québec”, with the possibility of stirring up toxic sediment and causing contaminated groundwater to seep into the river.

Meanwhile, three environmental organisations – Équiterre, the David Suzuki Foundation and Vivre en ville – sided with the REM, describing it as “an excellent project”, while a public poll organised by research group Leger showed that 82% of residents of the greater Montreal area were in favour of the REM.

REM puts up a fight against critics

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CDPQ has put out a stout defence in response to critics.

In a statement on its website, CDPQ called the BAPE report “an analysis that overlooks facts and distorts reality”, accusing the board of making several omissions and errors concerning the REM.

The developer says it had submitted over 122 documents totalling more than 8,400 pages supporting its case. This includes more than 1,200 pages of documents addressing environmental matters, which the company alleges were overlooked in the board’s report.

Regarding the much lower figure of GHG reductions, CDPQ states that this corresponds to the preliminary estimate only.

“Contrary to the review board’s suggestions, CDPQ Infra has demonstrated significant openness and transparency,” the developer said in a statement.

“As part of the REM project planning process, CDPQ Infra has […] participated in hundreds of meetings with elected officials, municipal administrations, transit authorities, groups and citizens and organized 12 public open house evenings along the REM route, allowing for face-to-face meetings with over 3,000 citizens interested in the project.”

Addressing Green’s concerns about the contaminated space, a spokesman for CPDQ Infra confirmed developers were aware of the risks and “will take measures to mitigate risk and respect environmental norms”.

There is indeed vast information available regarding the project’s impact, including measures taken to minimise harm to the environment, made available to the public on their website.

“A team of close to 400 experts is contributing to this project, ensuring well-planned, efficient and effective integration with the other transit networks,” their website reads. “All sorts of elements are being considered, including the REM’s integration into the urban fabric and landscape, access to stations and impacts on the environment.”

Despite the opposition, Coderre refused to bend on the REM, or the “most important project in the last 50 years”, as he described it, promising that this is a project that will go ahead.