Headed to Montreal

Bienvenue à Montréal!

A delegation of about 130 people from metro Atlanta will be attending the 2023 LINK trip in Montreal, Canada, from Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 15, to Saturday morning, Aug. 19.

It will be the 26th LINK trip — a program started in 1997 to bring together regional leaders on a search for best practices in regions facing similar challenges to Atlanta. It will be the third LINK trip out of the United States. The other two trips were also to Canadian cities — Vancouver and Toronto. And this will be the first trip to a city where English is a second language. The most common language in Montreal is French.

A nighttime view of Montreal’s skyline. (Wikipedia.)

In a preview conversation with the Atlanta Regional Commission, which organizes the LINK trips, two major themes will be explored in Montreal — transit expansion and climate change goals.

“I would say those two things were the top things that had us leaning toward Montreal,” said Anna Roach, ARC’s executive director. 

She has been impressed by how much Montreal is investing in transit, and she believes it might give metro Atlanta some insights on how it can invest money from federal infrastructure spending. She also is in awe of how the Montreal region has come together to set ambitious climate change targets.

“I don’t think we are anywhere near where they are in terms of being prepared to set the types of climate goals that they have set,” Roach said, adding she is interested in learning more about their journey to setting those goals.

Kerry Armstrong, chair of ARC’s board since 2013, said in a statement that the Montreal region offers so much for the Atlanta delegation to explore.

“It’s a dynamic, innovative place that holds more in common with metro Atlanta than you might think,” Armstrong said. “I’m particularly interested to learn about Montreal’s transportation investments and the region’s efforts to build resiliency.

The LINK trip brings together regional elected leaders — including the chairs of the major counties in the region, who all have signed up for the Montreal trip. Click here for a complete list of who will be on the 2023 LINK trip.

“The LINK trip helps to build relationships with metro Atlanta leaders in the public and private sectors,” said Michael Thurmond, CEO of DeKalb County, in an interview. “Regionalism is the key to our future growth and prosperity. A visit to a thriving metropolitan area like Montreal allows us to gain first-hand knowledge and expertise of best practices in the areas of transportation, affordability and public safety.”

Map of the Montreal region. (Wikipedia.)

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who went on the 2022 LINK trip to Austin, also is going. He will be introducing the Mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, Wednesday morning when she’ll be addressing the delegation.

The mayor of Montreal represents 1.78 million residents of that metro area’s population of 4 million people — nearly half of the region’s population. By comparison, the City of Atlanta has about 500,00 residents in an 11-county region of about 5.2 million.

An example of Montreal’s influence in the region is that the mayor also presides over its version of ARC, the Communauté Métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM). In fact, it is stipulated that the region’s largest city chair that board. 

By comparison, the mayor of Atlanta has never chaired the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Roach said the governing council or executive committee of CMM is comprised of the mayors from the next tier of major cities — providing an urban framework for how the region is governed.

“I think this is an opportunity for them to learn from us,” Roach said about the way ARC is structured. “All cities and all counties, regardless of size, coming together and have a meeting of the minds around the priorities for the region.”

The 2023 LINK delegation will be the largest ever. Historically, the number of people who could attend was limited to two big buses or a total of 120 people. This year, LINK will not be able to bring big buses to the center of Montreal, so it will have several smaller shuttle buses, allowing organizers to invite more people.

Planning mobility for the delegates also is more challenging because the central area of Montreal closes 10 major streets to cars during the summer months.

Again, that’s a testament to Montreal’s priorities of providing alternatives to transportation so there’s less dependency on cars to move around.

Transit envy
Montreal’s heavy rail system, which the region continues to expand. (Special.)

Upon seeing Montreal’s investment in transit — particularly heavy and light rail — it’s highly likely several members from Atlanta will suffer from transit envy. Montreal is considered to have one of, if not the most ambitious transit expansion programs in North America.

Although Montreal is smaller than Atlanta, its heavy rail system dwarfs MARTA. And the region continues to expand its investment in heavy rail.

In addition, Montreal also is building a 45-mile light rail network in the region over and above the heavy rail. The major difference between the Atlanta region and Montreal is that the provincial government of Quebec provides substantial financial support for transit operations and expansions. The province is footing the entire bill for the light rail system.

By comparison, MARTA receives little to no operating or capital funding from the state of Georgia. That has limited its ability to expand its transit operations — particularly when it comes to rail investment. The only rail project currently underway is the extension of the Atlanta Streetcar to the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail and up to Ponce City Market.

Jim Durrett, a longtime MARTA board member, said he’s especially looking forward to three sessions while in Montreal.

Expanding light rail
Montreal’s new light rail transit system that is under construction with the first leg opening July 31. (Special.)

“The first one has to do with urban redevelopment in a post-Robert Moses world,” Durrett wrote in an email. “The second has to do with how the Montreal region approaches transportation generally. And the third has to do with light rail construction.”

Mike Alexander, ARC’s chief operating officer, said Montreal’s transit approach includes land-use planning — particularly transit-oriented-development.

“As the second largest metropolitan area in Canada, they’re thinking about transit in a way… that allows you to increase your housing supply and provide mobility that scales well with the housing,” Alexander said. His counterpart in Montreal called it “intelligent density.” Unlike Vancouver and Toronto, Montreal is not looking to develop tall skyscrapers. Instead, it wants to “do intelligent design with good transit.”

The land use pattern in Montreal is more European because it seeks to protect the rural areas. Development tends to be more urban than suburban, another stark difference with metro Atlanta.

Roach is most interested in finding out how Montreal was able to establish such ambitious targets for climate change.

“They are very proud of the climate targets they set,” Roach said, adding Montreal has a dashboard to keep track of how it’s meeting those targets. The regional planning folks are willing to invest time and resources in the communities trying to meet those goals rather than punishing them if they’re struggling.

For Roach, she believes there’s an opportunity for Atlanta. The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill has funding priorities for climate change projects.

“We have an incredible opportunity as it relates to climate change because our federal government prioritizes it as the way in which they’re going to allocate funding across the United States on transportation projects,” Roach said. “When we have the conversation about climate change… I do want to know what their journey looked like.”

The 2023 LINK trip, unlike previous LINK trips, will be a day longer. Part of that was to accommodate the Montreal Mayor’s schedule, and part of that was to offer Atlantans more options to fly into Montreal. This is the first time the LINK trip has taken place in August. Most have taken place in May, with one exception — when LINK made went to Chicago in October 2021, a schedule change that happened because of the COVID pandemic.

The itinerary for Montreal also will have more field trips than previous LINK trips, partly because there’s so much to see in the region. Click here to download the entire schedule.

For a list of the cities LINK has visited since 1997, please click here.

Note to readers: I have been on every single LINK trip save for the trip in 2008. Unfortunately, I will not be attending the Montreal LINK trip because I was not invited. But because I believe these LINK trips are so important to our region, I’m going to do my best to cover the Montreal trip from Atlanta.

A real transit system
Montreal’s extensive transit system with is primarily heavy rail and light rail. (Special.)

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. It’s fine to talk about climate change, but what struck me on a recent trip to Montreal are the small things: how easy it is to access the transit system and how affordable and convenient it is; how clean and relatively attractive their staqtions are; how they take back their streets for pedestrians–and not just in tourist areas, but throughout the city; how they promote bicycle transportation and commuting–even though their summers are so short. I was also struck by how many architecturally interesting buildings in strategic locations were vacant and in disrepair. In Atlanta those would be deployed to respond to our intense housing shortage. What about that?

  2. If anybody wants to know how it feels to be truly disenfranchised, ask any of the Montrealers, who have left Montreal to move elsewhere because of the language, laws and other restrictions on being an Anglo phone

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