How Do We Get a Handle on Our Big Projects?

I continue to become increasingly concerned with how the City of Edmonton manages its big capital projects. The residents I have the privilege of representing have pretty hard questions about how their money is being spent, and so do I.

On June 11 City Council will be discussing capital budget adjustments - addressing emerging issues, cleaning up completed projects and approving the start of new ones.

But I suspect this topic won’t be where Council’s attention and focus lies. They will most likely be chasing an operational audit of the police, which is a bone so far out of our governance lane it should be barely visible.

The only thing that we should be prioritizing for an audit is our Integrated Infrastructure Services Branch- based on more news of LRT cost overruns- rather than never ending petty grievances with the police.

The adjustment causing me the most distress is a recommendation to increase funding by $242M for the South LRT extension across Anthony Henday Drive to Heritage Valley. This will bring the total project cost to $1.34B, With $423M in federal and $331M in provincial funding, Edmonton’s contribution is $585M. 

4.5 km of track, 2 Stations, 2 bridges, a maintenance facility and a few new train cars. $1.3B.  $310M / km. 

The City could build 2 bus garages and fill them with buses for that money, and give premium transit service to EVERYONE, not just the few people that live close to these two stations.

What really bothers me though, is that Council doesn’t know the costs of all the different elements that make up this number. 

I am not inclined to question the work of design professionals when it comes to the technical details. If an engineer or architect tells the city that it costs this much to build that thing, then I believe it.  

What I am not sure of is what guidance or restrictions are put in place by City Administration before those experts are engaged.  

If I ask an engineer or architect the cost to put brick siding on a wall, that expert will tell me and I can take that to the bank. But unless I ask for the costs and effectiveness of brick siding versus vinyl siding or stone siding or metal siding, all I get is the cost of the brick.

Did we ask for expertise? Or did we just ask for cost estimates?

What will the bridges look like, and are there less expensive alternatives? Are we overpaying for aesthetics?

Are there different alignments that would result in shorter bridges?

How elaborate are the stations? What is the level of finishes? Are we using versatile materials easily sourced? 

Have we traded functionality along the line to pay for more expensive materials or less efficient designs? Will the new line effectively connect and coordinate with local trails and roads?

This extension was headed for the South Edmonton Hospital, a project recently cancelled by the Province. Is there still enough demand to justify the cost? The most recent ridership projections were developed before the pandemic, before work from home, before a more decentralized Edmonton economy.  

Should we be considering a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternative instead, similar to what is being built in southwest Edmonton? The $585M in City funding alone would easily pay for a BRT route to south Edmonton, and probably another route too. (And spare me the reference to the 2018 Administration report that somehow says a railway is the same cost as a bus route. That report was flawed in too many ways to outline here).

The SLRT line may serve as a connector to the airport. But the Province is also talking about a rail connection between the airport and downtown. Are we talking about the same line, or two different lines? Will this extension end up being redundant? Maybe we should know that before making this funding commitment?

We need the answers to all of these questions. But the truth is that the extension was already approved, in private, and all we are really talking about on June 11 is the funding bylaw to support that decision. 

I support mass transit. I supported this extension in the beginning. This is the Rapid Transit line, not the tram to the west end. This LRT works.

But I also support sound project and financial management. Without answers to these questions, I cannot support this spending.

We need a different process that allows Council to deliberate on design options - fully informed by the expertise of our in-house and third party professionals - long before we are faced with high tenders and looming deadlines. 

I know that is diving into management and operations. But when it comes to LRT projects and major capital projects generally, Council must have that opportunity.  

Because Council has lost the trust of constituents. They don’t think we have their financial challenges in mind when we make these decisions. They want us to make sure we can take care of and operate the infrastructure we have before we build more. They want us to make sure that a particular project is absolutely necessary and isn‘t some sort of vanity project. 

These are fair questions that deserve proper answers. We need to find a way to give people the answers they want. Which means giving Council the chance to ask those questions on their behalf.

Maybe it's time for an external audit, or third party review, or to engage industry experts in a different way.

Because when it comes to these big projects, things just don’t add up. 

Timothy Cartmell


Honoured to be the City Councillor in Edmonton's Ward pihêsiwin. #yegcc #Wardpihêsiwin