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Quebec wants more say over how cities spend transit funds

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Quebec's transport minister said she is prepared to make a second offer to cover the Greater Montreal region's transit deficit, but wants the province to have a bigger say in how transit agencies manage government funds.

Geneviève Guilbault came out of a meeting Friday with Montreal-area mayors who had launched an urgent, public appeal for the province to up its offer to cover this year's approximate $424-million deficit of the region's transportation agencies, including the Société de transport de Montréal (STM).

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante entertained the idea of ending the city's Metro service at 11 p.m., among other service cuts, in the face of the funding shortfall.

But as the mayors pleaded for more transit funding to plug the holes in their budgets, Guilbault said Quebec has already paid its fair share after spending $2.1 billion in emergency funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, when revenue from ridership took a nosedive. The province also gave the Greater Montreal regional transport authority (ARTM) $440 million to make up for last year's deficit.

"We pay for a lot of things that are not taken into account by the people I've been hearing from for the last 10 days," Guilbaut said at a news conference after the meeting.

Quebec is already paying into the new REM light rail system, to the tune of about $400 million per year, as well as the metro's blue line extension, and new electric buses, she said.

The province is not involved in the operations of transit agencies since they are the experts, she added.

"They don't call us and say, 'Should I do that? Should we do that?' No. And if I called them to say 'Here is what I think about your operations,' what do you think they would say? 'Mind your own business.' But when it's time to pay they ask us for money. There's something that doesn't function in that, but we'll manage that," she said, adding that the creation of a new committee would find better ways to manage transit agencies' finances.

"We have to sit down together and address this matter because it is more complex than an article in the media or a clip in a scrum. We have to reflect on that together and to find durable solutions."

Calculations show a cumulative shortfall of $2.5 billion in five years if nothing changes between now and then. In recent days, Guilbault has reportedly offered to cover 25 per cent of the deficit, a far cry from what they're asking the province to pay: 75 per cent of the deficit.  

Michel Leblanc, the president and CEO of Montreal's chamber of commerce, says it is a big ask, but cutting transit would hurt business.

"It affects the productivity of the economy. It has an impact. We will want to have a functioning system. We need a system where the clients go where they have to go and the workers go where they have to go," he said Friday.

Guilbault said she will make another offer at the beginning of next week but declined to provide further details with reporters.

"I'm trying to preserve the process and do that in private," she said. 

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