Under the threat of job losses in a potentially strategic riding, Quebec's Liberal government is pushing the Montreal transit agency to speed up its purchase of new Metro cars from a Bombardier factory in La Pocatière, Que.
The government is seeking an agreement with the STM, the City of Montreal and Bombardier that would bump up plans to replace Montreal's existing stock of Metro cars, according to Radio-Canada.
On Friday, Premier Philippe Couillard confirmed the plan was among the options the government was exploring in order to prevent layoffs at the La Pocatière factory, where Bombardier's rail and subway cars are made.
Bombardier warned the Quebec government that as many as 300 people — half of the factory's workforce — could lose jobs after it lost a lucrative contract to build cars for Montreal's new light-rail transit system, a $6.3-billion project.
The project is being headed by the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, the province's pension fund manager, but with sizeable investments from the provincial and federal governments.
The Caisse's call for tender did not have a made-in-Quebec clause. It awarded the contract to a consortium involving Alstom Transport Canada and a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin.
After Bombardier's bid failed, local politicians and union representatives urged the Quebec government to take measures to prevent the layoffs.
"We think that it's a critical time," said Yvon Soucy, who heads the Kamouraska regional authority.
"If nothing is done, that's 300 direct jobs that will disappear from the Bombardier factory in La Pocatière."
The factory's long-term prospects have been in danger for some time. Bombardier also lost a major bid last year to build cars for Montreal's commuter rail network.
The China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation won that competition when Canadian content requirements were lowered.
Currently, the La Pocatière facility is wrapping up production on an order of AZUR cars, the model that is replacing the MR-63, the oldest version of a Montreal Metro car still in operation.
But facing budget constraints several years ago, the Montreal transit authority opted to delay the replacement of the rest of its stock — 423 of the newer MR-73s — until 2036.
Work on the AZUR is slated to be completed in November, just a few weeks after the next provincial election.
Along with possibly bumping up the order for new subway cars, the Quebec government is debating securing work for La Pocatière through the long-awaited expansion of the Montreal Metro's Blue Line.
"We are exploring many possibilities," Couillard said during a visit to Washington, D.C.
"The subway in Montreal has been mentioned. New round of new cars for the subway has been mentioned," he said. "It is something we're looking at and other things at the same time."
The La Pocatière factory is located in the Côte-du-Sud riding, currently held by Norbert Morin, the Liberal's deputy whip. Though Morin coasted to victory in the 2014 election, he is expected to face stiff competition in this fall's contest.
It is one of many ridings outside Montreal where the Coalition Avenir Québec has made gains as the Liberals slip behind them in the polls.
Earlier this week, CAQ Leader François Legault visited La Pocatière, where he promised to renegotiate the LRT contract to ensure the local Bombardier plant gets a share of the work.
He said the Liberal government was wrong not to insist the Caisse de depot include a local content requirement in the contract.
"If we had required Quebec content in the call for tenders, Alstom would have no choice but to build in Quebec," Legault said during his visit.
Liberal cabinet ministers have called that promise irresponsible, saying it would be costly and harm the Caisse's business model.
But Couillard seemed to suggest on Friday that price would be no obstacle to the government's efforts to save jobs in La Pocatière, pointing out that government coffers are flush.
"We'll do whatever is needed," he told reporters. "You're right to point out the fact that my financial situation is very healthy. Therefore, if we need to do something, we have room to manoeuvre."
Couillard is expected to table his final budget before the provincial election sometime next month.