Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante ran on a promise to involve citizens more in city planning, but her recent decision to close Camillien-Houde Way to traffic has critics questioning her commitment to that promise.
The opposition claims ignoring the findings of one of the most contentious, heavily attended public consultations in the city's history is just one example of Plante making decisions against the will of the people.
And this isn't the only example of the mayor going against popular opinion, according to Aref Salem, leader of Ensemble Montréal.
But when it comes to Camillien-Houde way, the Plante administration contends it is following most of the recommendations made by the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) — recommendations Mayor Plante promised she would abide by.
Plante's administration argues that closing the road is a decision made for the greater good of the community and environment — replacing a busy street with greenery, trees, a pedestrian path and bike lane while boosting public transit in the area.
"The OCPM didn't give us a game plan," said Sophie Mauzerolle, executive committee member in charge of mobility and transportation.
"There were like 17 recommendations and we are following the vast majority of them."
She described it as an ambitious but necessary decision to make to improve safety. She said the decision is backed by many key organizations and residents who see the value in expanding the park's green space in an age where climate change is a global threat.
She said the Plante administration wants people to be able to safely access and enjoy the park rather than use it as a shortcut.
And by delaying the project to 2027, there is time for the city to properly plan this project to best meet the needs of the community, she said.
Sophie Mauzerolle, executive committee member in charge of mobility and transportation, says the public is demanding more be done to fight climate change. (Jérôme Labbé/Radio-Canada)
While there may be some opposition to the project, the public is also demanding more action on climate change, and her administration is responding to that demand throughout the city, she said.
In this case, some 10,000 cars are passing over the mountain daily, and 80 per cent of drivers are using it as a shortcut, she said.
But that doesn't mean all those cars are going to clog surrounding the streets and pumping exhaust into the air, because the city is increasing access to public transit, according to Mauzerolle.
Closure spurred by death of young cyclist
Plante's announcement in early September came as a surprise to anybody who has followed the Camillien-Houde Way drama since Clément Ouimet, an 18-year-old cyclist, died when he collided with a U-turning vehicle in 2017.
In 2018, through access was closed as part of a pilot project. Then a public consultation was held.
The OCPM, which was headed by Dominique Ollivier at the time, determined the closure caused congestion on surrounding roadways. It also created the perception that getting to the mountain was harder.
The OCPM's findings reflected the voices of roughly 40,000 people who signed an online petition opposed to the pilot project.
In this 2020 photo, bollards dot the centre line of Camillien-Houde Way to prevent motorists from making illegal U-turns — a manoeuvre that killed a cyclist in 2017. (Isaac Olson/CBC)
Before and after that OCPM report was released, Plante insisted her administration would follow its recommendations.
"We intend to follow the recommendations of the OCPM," she said in 2019, vowing to make Camillien-Houde safe for all users.
She said it would stay open all year but would no longer serve as a highway.
Then, during the 2021 election campaign, her party promised a policy of public participation in decisions.
On Projet Montréal's website, it says, "Montrealers themselves must be at the heart of the innovative projects that are shaping the city."
Opposition says Plante isn't listening
The leader of Ensemble Montréal may head the city's official opposition nowadays, but Salem has been in office since 2009 and was responsible for transport on Montreal's executive committee from 2013-2017.
Back then, he managed to get 220 kilometres of bike paths installed without nearly the same ire in the community, he said.
He did this by going door to door and working with residents and business owners, he said.
When it comes to closing Camillien-Houde, the administration is ignoring the very first recommendation by the OCPM, which is to secure the route for cyclists, Salem said. That won't be respected until Plante's $90-million project is completed several years down the road, he said.
Salem said this isn't the first time Projet Montréal has ignored the demands of residents. He cited the recent decision to raise curbside parking rates and increase pay hours downtown despite widespread opposition. Plante's administration has also come under fire for creating pedestrian streets, reconfiguring roads and installing bike paths without talking to the community first, he said, and this has created anger such as he has never seen.
"There is something going wrong with this administration," he said. "They are not respecting their commitments."
Even the mayor isn't doing what she promised to do, he said.
"This is really disrespectful for the people of Montreal. This is really disrespectful to the 10,000 people who participated in the public consultation," he said.
Former staffer says politicians elected 'to lead'
However, Daniel Sanger, a former journalist and staffer with Projet Montréal for nearly a decade, says the party has always led by making drastic administrative decisions to improve the community, testing out concepts and adjusting on the fly. All this without consultations, he added.
Sanger, who has since published a book about Projet Montréal, said former borough mayor Luc Ferrandez was famous for making drastic changes in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal long before Plante came to power.
"At a certain point, we know what needs to be done," he said.
Ferrandez took lots of heat for his decisions, but Sanger explained, he was doing what he was elected to do — administer.
A tramway used to go up Mount Royal where Camillien-Houde Way is now. (Submitted by the STM)
Montrealers have developed this expectation of public involvement in administering the city, as if they are all backseat drivers, yet making decisions without consultation is nothing new, he said.
Previous administrations have made drastic changes to the city without public input, and those decisions have become so ingrained in the community that people forget there was once controversy.
He recalled how de Maisonneuve Boulevard was once a busy commuter route that cut right through Westmount Park. Nowadays, it's a heavily used green space and bike path.
"Politicians are elected to lead as well as to administer," said Sanger.
"I think you need to have your ear to the ground, but you also have to have the courage of your convictions."
Ultimately, if Montrealers don't like the Plante administration's plan for Camillien-Houde Way, they can kick the party out in the next general election in 2025, he said.
That's before the project is expected to take shape.
Ultimately, he concluded, the real public consultation takes place on the first Sunday of November every four years.