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High cost of east-end Montreal REM light-rail link raises red flags

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A new report commissioned into the east-end REM line was officially released Tuesday, recommending new stations in Riviere-des-Prairies and connecting the path to Laval and Charlemagne, but with a hefty price tag.

The proposals for the massive REM de l'est project would come at a cost of $36 billion — the most money ever spent on any public transportation project in the province, which is raising some red flags among critics.

The original REM de l'est was supposed to be above ground and cost $10 billion dollars.

Now, the latest study estimates the line will cost almost four times that amount and recommends it be put underground.

"When you add the environmental problems, crossing the railway problems, the power lines. This was just too much to justify to go forward with it," said Marc Dionne, Project Director of the Metropolitan Regional Transportation Authority (ARTM).

First announced in 2020, the 34-kilometre public transit line connecting the east end has been embroiled in controversy since the start.

Daniel Chartier is part of a citizen's group that fought against the project.

"The whole project was a failure. Now, they are trying to — not improve — to patch, here and there, a bad project," said Chartier, of the Collectif en environnement Mercier-Est, on Tuesday.

The only recommendation he says he likes is that the lines could be buried. Instead, he suggested the entire project should be re-imagined to better respond to the needs of citizens.

"We should spend that amount of money the best way to improve the public transportation system," he said.

However, the team of experts that made the recommendations said that was not part of their mandate.

"Our mandate was not to look at other options besides the automated metro," said Ludwig Desjardins, the ARTM's executive director of network modelling, organization and development.

In a statement to CTV News, the transport ministry wrote that, "For too long, the east end of Montreal has been neglected. We are committed to opening up the sector and we are going to do it … That said, it's clear that the proposal is beyond Quebecers' ability to pay."

The statement added the government will have to work to reduce costs when it analyzes the report in the coming months.

HIGH COST RAISES RED FLAGS

Still, some experts say with rising costs, this is a train that may never leave the station.

"I think that the improvement will not be enough and the number of people that we will transport with that new infrastructure will not be enough to justify the actual price that we expect to pay for it," said Jean-Philippe Meloche, a professor at the Université de Montreal's School of urban planning and landscape architecture.

The Montreal Chamber of Commerce supports the project for the city's east end, but also raised serious concerns about the high price tag.

"The proposal for a completely underground project is creating justified enthusiasm among the public and at City Hall. However, the announced cost of $36 billion is very high. There's a risk that the high price tag will derail the project," said Michel Leblanc, president of the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain, in a statement.

"The challenge will be to obtain the colossal financing required to go ahead. We understand that the Mayor of Montreal is confident of succeeding, and we will support her in her efforts."

If the project gets the green light this year, the minimum delay would be 13 years. That's without any hiccups like the ones currently delaying the opening of other REM lines.

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