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.

Sign of progress

The new South LRT extension has been the hot topic at water coolers throughout the city this week:

Edmonton Sun

Edmonton Journal

CBC

When was the last time that so many Edmontonians were talking about the LRT? Nothing like a little controversy to bring a topic to the forefront. I’ve almost heard more people talking about the delays at 51 Avenue than about the downtown arena! And you know what they say, there’s no such thing as bad press…

Yes it sucks to wait at a traffic light. The City will get the issues sorted out though, I’m sure of that. In the meantime, we should capitalize on the discussions that are happening! Explain to Edmontonians that we’re forging ahead with new LRT extensions and that we’ll learn from this experience.

And wouldn’t you know it, since I started writing this post I received a notice that Bob Boutilier, GM Transportation at the City of Edmonton, will be addressing strategies and challenges associated with fast tracking the NAIT, southeast, and west LRT lines at a news conference tomorrow morning. Excellent!