Funding the West LRT is Not a Prudent Decision

 

I love to build things.  From the first shovel cutting the earth to move-in day, watching your project rise out of the ground is an amazing experience.  The process is (mostly) fun. And frustrating and maddening and challenging.  It involves conflict and resolution, camaraderie and collaboration and teamwork, imagination and problem-solving.  I love every part of it.

And I love effective transportation systems. I have had the privilege of travelling to larger cities with effective mass-transit and I understand how good public transportation can help make a city great. When Edmonton built the first LRT lines, I was a huge fan. When the LRT finally crossed the river, I was able to complete a master’s degree at the U of A while working downtown. That might not have happened without our LRT.

So, I want to say yes. I want to support this project. As part of my job as a Councillor, I want to find ways to build the things Edmontonians want and need.

But I also want us to get it right. My concern is that proceeding with THIS project, at THIS time, is just not prudent.

The provincial government recently announced $1B in grant money to support West LRT. But announcements aren’t the same thing as actually sending us the money. We have a provincial budget coming in the spring, and a provincial election sometime soon after that. Alberta’s economic situation is not good, and Jason Kenney has promised to kill the “levy” that provides the money for this grant. What happens if the promised West LRT funding doesn’t survive that budget, or the election, or the next budget? What happens if, a year from now, our LRT funding dries up?

If city council backs the West LRT, and funding support evaporates, the West LRT could become the only project we can afford to build for many years. If the City has to go it alone on the West LRT, it will consume all of our available borrowing capacity and we won’t be able to build much of anything else.

So, the prudent question is, should the City build the West LRT if it is the only thing we can build? If there were no other reservations about this project -  if it were universally accepted, if it were a sure-fire winner -- then it might be worth the gamble.

But there ARE concerns. There ARE reservations.

 


 

The West LRT route was chosen to encourage new development around the stations. But we have not seen the LRT result in much of that type of development along existing lines. There are some potential new developments along the SE Valley Line, and I am hopeful that we will see them built - but none are under construction yet. It might be prudent to wait and see if these developments pan out, before we build another line.

How much density / infill / redevelopment is needed to justify the cost of West LRT? How much new property tax must we collect to make this worthwhile? I haven’t seen the math. Do we need high rises? 4-6 floor walk ups? More skinny houses? And do the neighborhoods around the new stations really want that development?

That begs a bigger question - should our transportation system be aimed at encouraging private sector development or at moving people?

Even strong proponents of the West LRT admit that it will severely constrict vehicle capacity from the west and southwest parts of Edmonton. Motorists going downtown from Riverbend, Terwillegar and Windermere have no mass-transit alternative, and no active transportation alternative. They must use cars. The City has not developed a plan to mitigate the effects that building this line will have on these commuters.

 


 

Another issue is that we don't have a very good track record of building LRT. South LRT created traffic crossing concerns that still exist many years later. The Metro Line was a new approach to LRT - mass-transit, but not rapid transit. And that project is still struggling to get to full capacity.  The Valley Line, of which the West LRT will be part, uses another approach. Low floor, mixed with traffic - not rapid transit, but more like a streetcar. I hope it works great - but wouldn’t it be prudent to wait and see how it turns out in the southeast before committing to extend it west? Shouldn’t we understand the operating impacts and unintended consequences of low-speed, traffic integrated streetcars before we build another line?

On top of these concerns, many transportation thinkers are cautioning cities on investing in centuries-old rail technologies when the future might belong to in-road sensors and driverless electric busses. In the near future, technology could make public transit rail systems, with their massive infrastructure costs, completely obsolete. Are we there yet? Will we be there in 2027, when the West LRT is supposed to open?

Proceeding today is a real gamble. If the funding dries up, then this becomes the only project we can build. A decision to commit to the West LRT might end up being a decision NOT to build so many other things we need - recreation centres, fire-halls, libraries, and critical roads.  It might mean closing recreation centres that might otherwise remain open.

If we can only build one project, this isn’t the project.

We need to defer this spending decision, at least until we understand the funding situation after the next provincial election, and preferably until after the SE LRT is up and running. We need to understand the implications of deciding to spend this much money on one project - and by default, what projects we are choosing NOT to spend money on.

I want to build things in Edmonton. When the City spends your tax money to build things we need, we get things we need. But being prudent means thinking about ALL of the things we need, which is why I can’t support taking a gamble on the West LRT.

 

- Tim