LRT Expansion was never just icing on the Edmonton EXPO 2017 cake

Allow me to begin with a passage from the executive summary of The Way We Move, the City of Edmonton’s current Transportation Master Plan:

We are building a 21st century city, shaping an Edmonton that will meet the needs of our diverse and growing urban and regional population. Growing environmental concerns, acknowledgment of the ongoing investment needed to maintain our transportation infrastructure and the rapid growth of our city demand a shift in transportation priority setting. It is a shift from single passenger vehicle use to more public transit; from building outward to a compact urban form. From an auto oriented view of transportation to a more holistic view of an interconnected, multi-modal transportation system where citizens can walk, bike, bus and train efficiently and conveniently to their desired location.

The City of Edmonton is working to achieve this vision through the LRT Network Plan, as well as other initiatives. This vision does not ignore automobiles, but it certainly places greater emphasis on public transit.

At the top of the list of benefits that EXPO 2017 could have brought to Edmonton was funding for infrastructure. Was it the best way to try to get higher levels of government to commit to funding something that Edmonton so desperately needs? Perhaps not. But make no mistake about it: funding for LRT expansion was never just icing on the EXPO 2017 cake. Expanding our LRT network is vital for Edmonton’s future. Here’s what Councillor Don Iveson wrote nearly a year ago:

Projects like this require the alignment of at least two and, properly, three orders of government. It will require the relentless pressure of citizens on Councillors, but more particularly on MLAs and MPs.

He was right then and still is today. Our quest to be Canada’s host city for EXPO 2017 might have failed, but we cannot allow our plans for LRT expansion to fail as well.

At a news conference yesterday, Transportation GM Bob Boutilier questioned why Edmonton had not received the same level of federal support as Toronto has when it comes to funding for public transit, saying “I just think we’re owed. It’s time.” But he also suggested that LRT expansion plans would be delayed by a year or two now that EXPO is no longer in the picture, something that would potentially save money.

This is unacceptable.

It’s unacceptable that the expansion is being delayed, and it’s unacceptable that it’s Boutilier and not Council questioning the federal government’s support.

Why would LRT expansion have been fast-tracked with EXPO 2017 but not without it? Back in April, Boutilier said that meeting the deadline of 2017 was “do-able” with some creativity, noting that “we cannot use the conventional approach to building transit that we’ve used in the city up to this point.” A few weeks later, he suggested a board of directors to oversee the construction as a way to speed up the project. At the time, the cost of the expansion was pegged at “more than $3 billion”. It has since been narrowed down to $3.4 billion. So either it was going to cost significantly more than Boutilier was letting on, or the cost savings of delaying by a year or two are negligible.

I think Boutilier has one of the toughest jobs at the City of Edmonton, overseeing one of the most vital and controversial parts of the business, so I don’t envy the tough decisions he has to make. Boutilier should definitely be willing to make noise about the lack of resources he has, but in the same week that we lost EXPO, I would have liked to have heard some Councillors speak up for LRT as well. Instead, that job has been left to Boutilier and to EXPO bid committee chair Tony Franceschini. I’ve seen only Councillor Ben Henderson comment, saying “I personally don’t want to see us slow down.” Councillor Kerry Diotte also remarked on funding, “With the feds these days, who knows?”

I want my City Council to stand up for The Way We Move. If there’s a window of opportunity with regards to the federal government as a result of the EXPO decision, take advantage of it. Ask Administration to keep going, not to slow down. Make some noise. Show some of the emotion that Mayor Mandel showed on Monday.

The loss of EXPO shouldn’t be an excuse for us to slow down with LRT expansion. It should be a catalyst for increased pressure to get the job done.

5 thoughts on “LRT Expansion was never just icing on the Edmonton EXPO 2017 cake

  1. I think you know why it would have been fast-tracked had the Expo bid gone forward (assuming we’d have won it, that is); with an event like Expo, purse strings get loosened more than usual, especially when you can justify the need to move large numbers of people around. When you don’t have expo, you may have the same amount of money to allocate, but the pressure is off. Now, every dollar spent on LRT is a dollar not spent on something else. That’s not unacceptable, it’s just harsh reality.

    Even if everyone stood behind the TMP, not everybody will agree that LRT is the priority over, say, BRT or improving the system we’ve got. Plus, the TMP emphasizes public transportation but not exclusively, and there will always be a road that needs building or fixing, a bridge that needs replacing, and so on.

    The main reason that no Expo means longer timelines comes down to something that someone much smarter than once said: in any project, you can have quality, cost, and speed, but you only get to pick two. Nobody’s willing to compromise on quality, so you either pay more to build faster or pay less to build slower. Without the additional money an Expo might have pried from various orders of government, without the incentive that a deadline provides, it’s really hard to justify the added costs that would see things arrive 2 years sooner. Remember – the TMP you quoted isn’t a 7-10 year plan; it’s looking out to 2040.

  2. All fair points Chris, thanks for the comment. The idea that we can only get more money with a package like EXPO is specifically what I am calling into question. We shouldn’t have to “throw a giant party” to fund LRT expansion. We shouldn’t need the incentive of an artificial deadline.

    And it sets a bad precedent. “Oh that plan looks to 2040 so what’s another two years?” You can bet that if we allow that to happen, further delays are almost a certainty.

  3. I agree with Boutilier’s comments as paraphrased by CBC a few days ago:

    “A delay of a year or two on full completion of the line could actually help because the city would incur fewer overtime costs, Boutilier said. But he believes extending the deadline any longer is not acceptable.”

    If I am reasonably assured that a delay of a “year or two” will mean completion no later than 2019, and the cost savings will be significant, I’m willing to go along with it. Furthermore, one major benefit of major infrastructure projects like this, particularly during an economic slump, is that they create jobs. I’m not saying that we should drag them out for its own sake, but aiming for a reasonable timeframe rather than racing to completion means a longer period of employment, potentially providing a smoother transition as things wrap up.

    You raise an excellent point in that Boutilier is speaking to the press too much, by choice or by necessity. This sort of issue should be addressed head-on by City Council. They’re already missing a huge opportunity, which is to go to the federal government and say, “You’ve denied us funding for Expo. We’re not happy and our citizens (your constituents) are not happy. Here’s how you can mend bridges.” That would have made great news headlines, but the mayor and planning committee spent the time bellyaching instead, albeit understandably so.

    Chris, I agree with you in general, with a couple of exceptions. First, your comment:

    “[…] in any project, you can have quality, cost, and speed, but you only get to pick two. Nobody’s willing to compromise on quality, so you either pay more to build faster or pay less to build slower.”

    If no one was willing to compromise on quality, the entire line would be underground. I know that’s not economically feasible, especially in Suburbiaville, but we’ve already made that compromise.

    As well, I understand your comments about the TMP and BRT, and obviously not everyone is going to agree on anything. I support LRT as beneficial over BRT (a lesson Ottawa is slowly learning despite its enviable BRT system) and agree with the TMP on principle, but even if the TMP proposed an extensive BRT network instead of LRT, my main priority is that we stop wasting time and start moving. We’ve argued about these issues for decades, and all the while our need has been growing and the cost has been skyrocketing. As Mack says, let’s just “get the job done.”

  4. If I know my politics, Prime Minister Harper is a Calgarian and so he might be bringing his Calgary-Edmonton rivalry to his office. This is just a thought, not fact.

  5. Harper’s home riding is Calgary Southwest, but he has bigger things to worry about than caring about the needs of people in his riding. There is no one worse represented than the residents of a first minister’s riding. I’ll never understand why people vote for them.

    However, we’re considering running a Pirate Party candidate in his riding in the next election. It’s always nice to strike at the heart, even if we have little chance of winning.

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