Sabia Defends Caisse's REM Project?

Michael Sabia, president and CEO of la Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, wrote an op-ed for all the major Quebec newspapers including the Montreal Gazette, REM electric train: A Montreal of the possible:
There’s Lightspeed, whose software helps 40,000 businesses across the world manage their sales. Hopper, whose successful use of big data predicts the best time to buy a plane ticket. Rodeo FX, whose special effects in Game of Thrones have won Emmys. There are researchers like Yoshua Bengio, whose work is pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence. And Moment Factory, whose productions dazzle the planet.

Whether it’s big data or new media, artificial intelligence or virtual reality, Montreal is laying the foundations for its future, thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs and researchers who think and work differently.

Thinking differently is what we try to do every day at la Caisse. And our Réseau électrique métropolitain project is a good example of thinking differently in undertaking a major public transit initiative.

Why is this project important? Because it’s vital that Greater Montreal propel itself into the economy of tomorrow. Because if we are to succeed as a city, we need infrastructure that moves the city forward rather than slowing its progress. Efficient public transit is essential in enabling Montreal to become a metropolis as dynamic as its entrepreneurs.

As a city, we have a unique opportunity to build an electric train network that will change the face of Greater Montreal. It’s a big responsibility that matches the scale of this almost $6 billion investment.

No matter their point of view on specifics, I think everyone agrees on one thing: Montrealers have waited too long for a transit system that meets their needs.

Rain or shine, they want to get to the airport without worrying about missing their plane due to traffic on Décarie or Highway 20. They want to make the Brossard-Central Station trip in 15 minutes flat. They want trains to run every six minutes during their rush-hour commute from Deux-Montagnes to downtown.

That said, the REM is much more than an effective public transit network. The project will create some 8,500 direct and indirect jobs annually during the four years of its construction. It will inject $3.7 billion of financial adrenaline to boost the local economy. That’s over and above the $5 billion in real estate investments expected along the project’s route, including transit-oriented development within walking distance of stations.

At la Caisse, we estimate that the REM will increase the overall public transit budget for the Greater Montreal area by about 2 to 4 per cent. That includes all capital expenditures — that is a first for Quebec. Put another way, for a comparable annual budget, the Greater Montreal area gets the equivalent of a second métro system.


Because the REM is such a transformative project for Greater Montreal, it’s perfectly reasonable that the project be closely scrutinized, and the subject of lively discussion. It’s the opposite that would be surprising.

Legitimate questions are being asked. Our goal at la Caisse is always to find better ways to answer them and to work hard to find the best solutions we can. That’s why I think it is important for us to better explain our timetable and the way we’re working to deliver the project on time and on budget.

We have committed to put the first REM trains in service by the end of 2020. First, because we are absolutely convinced it’s doable. And second, because by getting on with the job, we can more easily integrate into the new Champlain Bridge and help relieve chronic traffic jams in Montreal.

Of course, in Quebec we have had more than our fair share of substantial delays and chronic cost overruns in major infrastructure projects. And that’s precisely why we’ve chosen a different approach for the REM — one that allows us to deliver the project in a much more efficient way. We’re working methodically, with utmost rigour, using a continuous engineering approach. What does that mean? It means we’re always listening to suggestions and working on improvements, non-stop.

So far, we have organized 12 open-door meetings where we heard the views of some 3,000 citizens. We’ve discussed the project with hundreds of city officials, transit administrators and community groups. Many worthwhile improvements have resulted from these exchanges.

To broaden access to the REM for all Montrealers via the main métro lines, we accelerated the opening of three new stations at Édouard-Montpetit, McGill and Bassin Peel. To protect wetlands, we decided to extend a tunnel under the Sources Nature Park. To preserve historical buildings in Griffintown, we will be using elevated tracks. And so on.

This openness has guided us since the beginning, and it will continue to do so in the months ahead. In that spirit, we are currently working with the Environment Ministry to follow up on the recommendations of the BAPE environmental review board, despite our differences on certain issues raised in the report.

We are also using a continuous improvement approach to encourage the bidders who have responded to our call for tenders to deliver their most innovative solutions and technologies. Our open and flexible call for tenders is designed to draw on the very best ingenuity that these consortia have to offer.

This approach, based on flexibility and continuous engineering, is in widespread use elsewhere in the world. It’s an efficient way to continuously improve a project, while ensuring it meets expectations. This way of working — collaboratively and iteratively — is inherent in how the new economy works. That said, it is different from the traditional ways used in Quebec to deliver infrastructure.

As our work continues, we will continue to work with municipalities, remain open and receptive to suggestions from the public, and keep you informed of the progress made as we’ve done in recent months.

The REM was never intended to solve all of Greater Montreal’s transportation problems. But it will make a difference. That’s why those of us at la Caisse are working hard every day to plan and build a transit network that meets the needs of Montrealers. Because, for la Caisse and for me personally, there is only one Montreal. A Montreal of the possible.
The French media in Quebec also covered this story. You can read articles in Le Devoir, Le Journal de Montréal, Canoe Argent, CBC Radio-Canada, and elsewhere but the message is the same.

So what's this "Montreal of the possible" all about and why is Michael Sabia coming out to publicly defend the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) project?

Now that you read the polite, politically correct version the president of the Caisse has eloquently penned above, let me give you the brutal raw truth and I won't mince my words one bit.

The media in Quebec are full of disgusting parasites always looking for dirt to sell their crappy newspapers. They see corruption everywhere and are being fed total garbage by some people at the STM, FTQ, and other organizations which are working feverishly in the background to discredit this project.

Why are they doing this? Because they view the Caisse and its infrastructure group, CDPQ Infra, as a real threat to their operations and some construction and engineering companies are unhappy because they can't grease their way into this mega project like they used to do in the old Québécois Wild West days before the Charbonneau commission exposed their crooked ways.

Now, truth be told, the Caisse is undertaking a major "greenfield" infrastructure project to revamp the transportation system in the city of Montreal, a first of its kind for any large Canadian and global public pension fund, so it's not surprising that critics will scrutinize their every move from A to Z.

But Michael Sabia isn't stupid. He knew all this going into this project which is why he entrusted it to Macky Tall (featured in picture above), the head of CDPQ Infra, and his team. Tall is a first rate infrastructure manager with the highest integrity and he hired people with solid experience in project financing and management, people with the highest integrity to oversee every aspect of this big project, including the calls for tender and understanding/ integrating the views and concerns from various agencies and concerned citizens.

Is CDPQ Infra perfect? Of course not, they will make mistakes along the way and that is normal for a project of this scale and scope. Name me one major infrastructure project in Canada or anywhere in the world that has never run into problems, it simply doesn't exist.

But if you read the garbage being written in Quebec's slanderous media, you'd think CDPQ Infra is run by a bunch of crooked, incompetent and inexperienced hacks. Total and utter nonsense which is why I stopped reading these articles, they only irritate me.

Again, and I want to emphasize this, the team at CDPQ Infra is word class, they are extremely competent professionals with tremendous experience planning, constructing, and operating major infrastructure projects. They are the best of the best to handle a greenfield infrastructure project of this magnitude and this is a key phase of the project where everything can derail, so it's hardly surprising the cockroaches are coming out of the woodwork.

I've said it before and I will say it again, if I had a choice of going back to the old ways we were building infrastructure in Quebec or have the Caisse overseeing this mega project with first rate governance and a material financial interest, there's no doubt in my mind I'd opt for the latter precisely because the Caisse has an interest in delivering this project on time and within budget.

Macky Tall and his infrastructure team at CDPQ Infra are getting a bum rap, all undeserved, but this is Quebec, the sewer of Canadian media (not that media outlets in other provinces are any better) so I've grown accustomed to reading sensationalized garbage which grossly distorts reality.

When all is said and done, I am sure Tall and his team will deliver the goods on time and within the budget allocated for this project. I can guarantee you that this wouldn't have been the case had we gone back to the old ways of doing things.

As far as Sabia and his "Montreal of the possible" article, he is right on many things, including how this project will create many direct and indirect jobs, but the reality is this city is so congested that it's starting to impact many businesses in a detrimental way. We desperately need this REM project to be completed on time and from what I am told, it will be positive for residential real estate on the outskirts of Montreal because people will be able to live there and easily come to the downtown core to work in a few minutes.

And while I am on this subject of congestion in Montreal, can the "geniuses" at Transport Quebec and the City of Montreal finally get it right with the l'Acadie circle near Rockland shopping center, the Decarie expressway, the Turcot interchange and countless other traffic nightmares in and around the city? We are living in third world conditions here and wasting precious time in horrible traffic jams that can be easily solved with better planning and engineering.

Montreal of the possible? This city, much like it's media and politics, is a sewer but what do I know, I'm just a grumpy old man who loathes endless traffic jams and countless pot holes.

Below, Michael Sabia speaks with Mutsumi Takahashi in the CTV News Montreal studios, on December 20, 2016. Listen carefully to what he says about the REM project, addressing the critics, and what he says about Quebec companies operating in global markets.

Also, CDPQ Infra met with over 3,000 citizens during 12 open house evenings on the Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM) project. These events gave the public an opportunity to ask questions, make suggestions and talk to CDPQ Infra experts. This clip presents a summary of these events (you can consult the documents presented at the open houses here).

Lastly, Michael Sabia, CEO of the Caisse, appeared on Le Téléjournal 18H last night to discuss his views on the REM project and addressed the critics of the project. Sabia stressed that they are listening closely to the views of people and they expect this project will be delivered on time and within budget and it will good for Montreal's economy.

Sabia also addressed geopolitical uncertainty around the world which extends far beyond Donald Trump and his administration's protectionist policies. You can view this interview (in French) here.