In 1978, Edmonton’s population was just over 478,000 and – with great fanfare surrounding the Commonwealth Games – we became the first city in North America (with <1 million people) to build light rail transit. With yesterday’s Statistics Canada announcement, our population now sits at 932,546, making us one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. And we still have just that one single LRT line.
Since City Council set the full build out of the LRT network as its number one infrastructure priority, we have made some progress in completing our vision, including breaking ground on phase one of the Valley Line LRT from Millwoods to Downtown. But there is still a lot of work ahead of us. In the lead up to their budgets, we are asking both the federal and provincial governments to give us funding certainty as we plan and complete these city-building projects, starting with next phase of the Valley Line LRT, going west to Lewis Estates.
Building the west LRT line would be transformative on a number of counts:
- First, it would provide a vital connection between west Edmonton and our growing list of downtown attractions like Rogers Place, the new Royal Alberta Museum, and growing post-secondary campuses at Norquest and MacEwan.
- Second, travel routes to and from the west end are some of our city’s most congested, especially during peak hours, so building this line will help give people more options to get downtown and beat the traffic.
- Third, building west LRT will allow us to continue growing our transit-oriented development opportunities along the line, including down Stony Plain road – a critical component of the Urban Shift our council is leading.
I’ve committed to ensuring we build better LRT, including raising or lowering the train over more key intersections to keep pedestrians, commerce, commuters, and buses moving. I also think it’s time to get more sophisticated in looking to incorporate stations into development plans with air rights, especially if we’re taking the train over or under major roads nearby.
The projected cost of our full LRT build-out over the next 25-40 years is estimated at $9.8 billion (in 2016 dollars). For decades, cities like Edmonton have struggled under the old ‘one-third each’ federal/provincial/municipal funding formula. This approach did not recognize the significant contributions municipalities make – far beyond a one-third contribution – when the entire costs of operating and maintaining rapid transit are considered. As a result, our efforts to make a meaningful dent in building our LRT network have stumbled due to sheer fiscal capacity.
No-one is saying municipalities shouldn’t have ‘skin in the game’ in the design and build process, but a model where the provincial and federal governments help with 90% of the capital costs would respect the relative fiscal ability of the three orders of government to get the work done – especially when you figure that local governments only collect around 10 cents of your tax dollar. With sustainable, predictable and significant funding from the orders of government who hold the other 90 cents of your tax dollar, we can afford to build transit right and in a timely manner.
I know that this is a difficult time and both the provincial and federal governments are working to manage large deficits and lower revenues. We want to be part of the solution. Having a high performing transit service supports increased productivity, reduces traffic congestion, achieves our shared environmental goals and stimulates economic activity. For example, we know that building Phase 1 of the Valley Line alone will generate over $3 billion in total economic output.
Every day, Edmontonians take over 400,000 transit trips, and every year ETS provides about two million hours of service. With our city growing at three times the national rate, and an anticipated 170,000 new residents arriving over the next decade, now is the time to start building for the future.
I’m interested in your thoughts on this topic. What are some of the ways we can improve our current system? What would you like to see before, during and after the build out of these projects? I’ll host a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, February 15th at 7:30 p.m. on this topic and invite you to tune in and chat with me about where LRT really can take our city.