How Uber supports Edmonton’s transportation strategy

Uber launched in Edmonton on December 18 last year, and it has been operating here illegally ever since. Now the City has put forward a draft bylaw that aims to provide a framework within which Uber can operate legally, but in a lot of ways it has just become a fight between taxis and Uber. I think this fight has shifted focus away from the bigger picture.

taxis
Taxis on the way to City Hall to protest, photo by Lincoln Ho

Edmonton’s transportation system should always be evolving to meet the needs of Edmontonians. There’s a place for taxis, but there’s also a place for new approaches to transportation like Uber.

The Way We Move, our city’s Transportation Master Plan, states:

“How easily we move through our city, the distances we must travel, the transportation choices we have and how readily we can move between different transportation modes profoundly affects our relationship with the city, the environment and each other.”

In general the strategy focuses on “mode shift” which “is about adding more walking, cycling, car-sharing and transit in Edmonton’s transportation mix.” There’s a consistent goal of offering Edmontonians more options for getting from point A to point B without needing to use their vehicles. The strategy identifies seven goals to help achieve this. Let’s look at how Uber might fit in with those.

Transportation & Land Use Integration

This goal encompasses building so-called complete communities, where people can live, work, and play, reducing the need for driving. It also highlights transit-oriented development and making it possible for people to live closer to great transit service that can get them to where they need to go.

I think carsharing services like Pogo are probably a better fit with this goal, but Uber can play a role too. In fact, they wrote about this earlier in the year:

“What we discovered is that 36% of trips started or ended within 400m of an LRT stop. Of the trips that start or end close to an LRT stop, almost 90% pick up or drop off in an area that isn’t conveniently served by public transit.”

We have a great vision for the LRT Network, but it’s a long way from being completed. Taking a train and Uber together could be a great option until more of the LRT is built out.

Access & Mobility

This goal deals with addressing the transportation needs of a diverse urban population.

“An accessible transportation system addresses the transportation needs of a diverse urban population regardless of mobility challenges or vehicle ownership.”

Believe it or not, Uber does have a story to tell here. The company often talks about the accessibility of its mobile app, which includes features for those with audio or visual impairments. In some cities, they also have UberACCESS, which “offers access to wheelchair-accessible vehicles through partnerships with fleet owners.”

Uber has also started to bring other options to Edmonton, launching uberXL earlier this year which offers spacious, high capacity vehicles.

Regulation will probably be required for this goal more than most, but Uber can play a role in ensuring Edmontonians have accessible transportation options.

Transportation Mode Shift

Though The Way We Move talks primarily about shifting transportation modes from driving to transit and active modes of transportation (cycling, walking), that can be a big shift for people to make. We know that the majority of Edmontonians agree we need to drive less, but they’re somewhat less willing to make the shift themselves.

“In recent research, 84% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Edmontonians need to reduce driving’. however when this general desire is applied specifically to individuals, the population is essentially split 50/50 into two groups, those who are totally committed to driving and those who are potential experimenters.”

Uber, Pogo, and other services could offer a stepping stone from to the other. Why stay shackled by your car? Take an Uber to get somewhere, but then consider walking or taking transit for your next short trip. It’s incredible how stressful driving is after you haven’t had to do it for a while.

Sustainability

The City has long supported carpooling because it not only can help you to save money, “it’s also an efficient and sustainable way to help reduce road congestion and CO2 emissions.”

Taking Uber still means there’s a car on the road of course, but being a passenger rather than a driver is a step in the right direction (and could mean you’re more likely to use a combination of transportation modes). Uber is not really a rideshare or carpool service, though it does offer a Split Fare feature which can make it even more cost effective and which makes it possible for even more cars to be taken off the road. And that’s important:

“In 2005, the total distance travelled daily by car drivers on the Edmonton region road network was 13 million — this is projected to increase to nearly 50 million kilometers by 2044. by providing less energy intensive transportation options, we have an opportunity to reduce Edmonton’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

I think UberX is a way for us to use our vehicles more efficiently. When discussing the Sustainability goal, the TMP states:

“Promoting the reuse and redevelopment of underutilized facilities that already exist will rejuvenate our neighbourhoods and help to optimize use of infrastructure, including investments in the transportation system.”

Considering that our cars sit parked more than 90% of the time, I’d say they count as “underutilized facilities that already exist”. Why not reuse some of them to drive each other around?

Health & Safety

Obviously Uber isn’t going to do anything for emergency vehicles, nor does it do much to encourage more physical activity. This goal seems to highlight safe walking more than anything.

But on the topic of safety, there has been a lot of discussion about what’s required to ensure Edmontonians are safe taking Uber. The company does highlight background checks, vehicle inspections, and having appropriate insurance. And last week it announced a partnership with Intact Insurance here in Canada.

As I wrote when Uber launched in Edmonton, the company has attracted a lot of controversy. Clearly they have room to improve. But I wonder how many safety incidents happen in taxis all around the world that we never hear about, simply because they’re all so isolated? A safety incident in one city is going to make the news in other markets that Uber operates. I think that greater awareness and visibility into safety issues will result in safer rides for everyone, not less.

Well-maintained Infrastructure

Reducing the number of cars on the road will have a positive impact on the City’s financial sustainability:

“Encouraging fewer single occupant vehicle trips reduces the pressure on the roadway system and reduces the need for increased roadway investment.”

Edmonton’s road network is already more than 4,500 km long. We have about 170 bridges. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting all that infrastructure. Any reduction in stress on those assets is a good thing!

Economic Vitality

Whether we like it or not, Uber, Lyft, and similar services are growing in popularity throughout cities all over the world. It’s easy to think that the advantage of Uber is just the app, and while that is part of it, I think the connection to a bigger network is also an important advantage. If I can use Uber in other cities I visit, why not here?

That mode shift report also discusses this idea:

“We are following the lead of today’s successful cities and creating urban environments that provide a high quality-of-place experience and quality of life for residents in order to attract the best and the brightest to their city. This includes providing the type of sustainable transportation choices that align with international preferences.”

We need to provide a range of options:

“Diversifying the transportation options and more effectively using our current infrastructure are critical to attract businesses for the sake of the economic development of the city as well as to allow an effective exchange of goods and services.”

I think Uber’s claims of job creation are questionable, especially with all the negative press they have received for not looking after their contractors. That said, there are plenty of stories of drivers who have made a positive financial change in their life thanks to Uber.

Wrap Up

The discussion about Uber in Edmonton lately has focused primarily on the fight between taxis and Uber, understandably. Lots of Edmontonians have horror stories to share about taxis, and there’s no question that competition from Uber will have a positive impact on the industry.

But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Uber and other transportation network companies can positively contribute to Edmonton’s transportation mix. We should do what we can to allow them to operate here legally.

Coming up at City Council: September 14-18, 2015

The big news this past week was of course the decision by Council to fire City Manager Simon Farbrother. “This decision is not the result of any one project,” Mayor Don Iveson wrote. “Instead, this is about setting our administration on a new path to manage the next chapter in this city’s growth.” The search for a new City Manager is expected to last into 2016. In the meantime, Community Services GM Linda Cochrane will be the interim City Manager.

This coming week Council is back to Committee meetings. Below are a few highlights from the week’s agendas with links to the reports and more information.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Vehicle for Hire Bylaw 17400

Wednesday afternoon will be focused on Uber and the City’s proposed new Vehicle for Hire Bylaw that aims to give “transportation network companies” a legal way to operate within Edmonton. The City seems quite proud of the fact that “no other Canadian jurisdiction has passed new bylaw provisions to accommodate “ride sharing” providers within a vehicle for hire framework.”

The current bylaw was passed on March 1, 2008 and regulations have remained “substantially similar” ever since the mid-1990s. It was in 1995 that the City capped the number of taxi vehicle licenses. Since then however, technology has changed significantly giving rise to services like Uber. Now the laws need to change in order to catch up.


Photo by Moments in Digital

The proposed new bylaw would:

  • Allow technology-based companies like Uber that use mobile app dispatch services to operate.
  • Standardize all vehicle for hire class requirements to include mandatory criminal record checks, proper class of provincial license, proper insurance, and yearly mechanical inspections.
  • Make fees for all classes of vehicles for hire the same.

The five classes would include taxi, accessible taxi, limousine, shuttle, and private transportation provider. The latter is where Uber drivers would fall. Intentionally, the bylaw does not attempt to regulate “matters that are more appropriately governed by the market or the industry itself” like driver training.

Calling the proposed bylaw “an important step forward” Uber was nonetheless unimpressed and said the company would be “unable to continue operating in Edmonton” if it is passed. Considering they are already operating illegally, I’m not really sure that’s a viable threat. Unsurprisingly, the United Cabbies Association of Edmonton is also opposed to the proposed bylaw changes, saying “there will be a flooding of taxis in the city.”

Uber is holding a rally at Churchill Square on Wednesday at 11:30am and I would not be surprised to see the taxi drivers make a scene as well. It should be an interesting week!

Impact of Bad Construction Practices on Mature Neighbourhoods

There has been a lot of discussion this summer about infill development and the potential negative impacts of that construction on neighbours. This includes noise and cleanliness, but also potential damage to surrounding property caused as a result of the construction. We know that infill makes up only a tiny piece of Edmonton’s growth, but it should increase in the years ahead which means tackling this problem now is a good idea:

“Over the last five years (2010-2014) 8,475 new infill housing units have been added to Edmonton’s mature and established communities. In 2014 alone, the City approved over 12,000 new housing units city-wide, and over 2,000 of these were new infill homes (a combination of low, medium and higher density forms).”

Currently when conflicts arise from infill, complaints are forwarded to the appropriate department and investigated to determine what steps are to be taken. Before the City will take any enforcement action, contact is made to encourage best construction practices and voluntary compliance. If that doesn’t work, they can issue a warning or a violation ticket. This is how it works in greenfield, suburban development too but as you might expect complaints in those areas are much less common.

Can you tell the difference?
Photo by David Dodge

To address this issue, the City has made a number of changes to the process:

  • Visible and easy to understand signs about approved development permits are being developed and are scheduled to be in place for Q2 2016.
  • The penalty for offences is incredibly low compared to other municipalities at just $400. Calgary has a penalty schedule that ranges from $1,500/day to $3,000 per day, for instance. A proposed change will be brought forward in November.
  • A new development completion permit is being added as a requirement for new construction projects, starting in Q2 2016.
  • An acknowledgment form that development permit applicants will sign to ensure they are aware of regulations and best construction practices is being developed.
  • Beginning in 2016, the City will request business license reviews for builders that do not conform to approved development permits or that continually disregard other bylaw requirements.
  • Pre-application meetings will be expanded to residential development applications in mature and established neighbourhoods.
  • In response to requests for a point of contact, the City is going to establish a Mature Area Development team that will act as conduits into all City processes regarding infill.
  • Action 5 of Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap was the publication of a Good Neighbour Guide, which happened in the spring. This fall, a public engagement process will take place to help improve the guide’s content. The City will also continue with other communication & engagement activities, such as a local Infill Tour.

Additionally, these potential changes are currently being evaluated:

  • Requiring an agreement between neighbours and/or neighbours and the builder, even though the City would have no ability to enforce such an agreement.
  • Implementing a letter of credit or performance bond to guarantee the completion of a builder’s work and to repair any damage caused as a result.
  • The certification of specific builders, though this may be considered an endorsement by the City.

Hopefully these changes will help to smooth the issues with infill development so that it continues to be an attractive, viable option. We need growth to occur in mature and established neighbourhoods too, so removing any potential barriers is critical.

There’s a separate report that provides more information on the Mature Area Development Team. I gather it is meant to be kind of like Civic Events – a one-stop shop for everything City-related, in this case for development rather than events. It’s a great concept, and I support trying it. But care needs to be taken to ensure authority is still clearly understood and that the team does not just add yet another step to already cumbersome processes. In a lot of cases Civic Events is just the middleman, and everything goes more slowly as a result.

Autonomous Vehicles

At the Transportation Committee meeting this week, Council will receive a report on autonomous (self-driving) vehicles, something Uber has been working on also.

“In preparing for autonomous and connected vehicle technology, the most prudent action that the City can take is to continue to focus on enhancing the transportation system as defined through the corporate outcomes.”

The report acknowledges that autonomous vehicles will provide an alternative to driving, but notes “they do not remove the urgent case for mode shift to transit and active transportation.” The City is seeking additional perspectives from researchers, other governments, and industry, and the report highlights the ACTIVE-AURORA research project as one learning opportunity.

The report concludes that “adoption of driver-less vehicles will likely require changes in provincial legislation” and that cities will need to work with the other levels of government on liability and safety issues. The City is currently undertaking “a future-oriented assessment of the implications of automated vehicles.”

Joint Road Traffic Safety Strategy

If Council decides to approve the 2016-2020 Road Safety Strategy, Edmonton would become the first Canadian city to adopt Vision Zero – zero fatalities and major injuries from motor vehicle collisions. The strategy is expected to cost at least $11 million annually on top of all currently approved operating and capital programs, and the City proposes funding it through the Traffic Safety & Automated Enforcement Reserve and cost recovery.

“The City of Edmonton will become the first major Canadian city to adopt Vision Zero, a global initiative to save lives and eliminate major injuries from motor vehicle collisions. A key component of this strategy will be the adoption of the Safe Systems Approach. Central to this approach is a shared accountability between road users and those who design maintain and operate all parts of the road transportation system. The safe system depends on understanding and implementing guiding principles.”

The strategy highlights a number of metrics and measurement criteria for collision reduction from 2016 to 2020. These will relate to four proposed road safety priority categories: Community Traffic Safety (neighbourhood shortcutting and school safety), Roadway Engineering Countermeasures (right-turn re-designs and protected left-turn controls), Speed Management (automated and manned enforcement), and Pedestrian Safety (pedestrian controls). Specific targets are still under development. The strategy also talks about “the fundamental road safety pillars of the five E’s”: Engineering, Enforcement, Education, Evaluation, and Engagement.

Heads Up Edmonton! Pedestrian Safety Campaign Launches
Photo by City of Edmonton

You can read the nicely-designed strategy in PDF here.

Design Guidelines & Regulations for Signage in the Civic Precinct

With the new arena and surrounding district, the City is anticipating increased demand for digital signs downtown but the current regulations “are not sufficient to ensure that digital signs are sensitive and sympathetic in design” to the arts and culture of the Civic Precinct area. Digital signs are fine around the arena, but need to be restricted around City Hall, for instance.

The Civic Precinct is the the area between 99 Street and 100 Street from 102 Avenue to 103A Avenue. It includes City Hall and Churchill Square. The area is “to be developed as the urban heart of Edmonton with a unique mix of cultural, commercial, and civic developments” all connected to the Square.

The proposed amendments to the Capital City Downtown Plan and Zoning Bylaw would effectively prohibit digital signs within the Civic Precinct. Admin is also going to complete a city-wide review of digital sign regulations and will present any potential amendments to Executive Committee sometime next year.

Other interesting items

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

Coming up at City Council: September 7-11, 2015

Monday is a holiday so the public hearing will take place on Tuesday and the Council meeting has been pushed to Wednesday. It looks like it’s going to be a finance-heavy week!

Untitled

On Friday the City announced a new proposed Vehicle for Hire Bylaw, intended to give companies like Uber a way to operate legally. You can download the PDF to read here and be sure to fill out this survey by September 10 with your feedback. The results will be presented along with the bylaw at Executive Committee on September 16.

And tomorrow, Sunday, September 6, the Metro Line LRT will finally open to the public. It’s not going to be operating as expected, with slower trains, manual signals, and big delays, but it’s a start.

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Projected Year-End Operating Financial Results

As of June 30, 2015, the City is projecting a loss of $10.6 million for the year, or 0.4% of the overall expense budget. This is being blamed on higher than expected costs for snow removal, pothole repair, and vehicle maintenance, plus greater than expected losses on tax appeals and other tax adjustments. It could have been worse though, as the City has saved a lot on fuel costs across the board and also on personnel due to the delay of the Metro Line LRT which delayed hirings.

Under the heading “potential impacts to be monitored”, the report highlights the following:

  • Police Association and Senior Police Officers Association contracts expired last year and are currently under negotiation.
  • Snow and ice control costs are weather-dependent and difficult to predict.
  • Fluctuating fuel costs have historically impacted results, even though the City buys half its annual fuel at a fixed price.
  • The exchange rate could make parts for vehicle maintenance more expensive.
  • The general economic downturn could have an impact.

Here are the Municipal and Consumer Price Index projections:

price index updates

For an update on inflation, employment, and other economic indicators in Edmonton, check out this report.

Reserves

As required by City Policy C217B, Administration is currently reviewing the City’s reserve and equity accounts, with a report to be presented to Council in October. The last review was completed in October 2012. Our current or year-end projected reserve balances are as follows:

  • Financial Stabilization Reserve – $90.9 million
  • Current Planning Reserve – $28 million
  • Traffic Safety & Automated Enforcement Reserve – $25.3 million

CRL Updates

From the report: “Community Revitalization Levy revenue and/or expense variances may change throughout the year as work progresses and financial impacts become more certain.” Here’s the status of our three CRLs:

  • The Belvedere CRL is projected to end 2015 with a deficit of $0.4 million and a cumulative deficit balance, since inception, of $5.8 million. It’s not expected to have an annual positive net position until 2023.
  • The Downtown CRL is projected to end 2015 with a deficit of $4.6 million and a cumulative deficit balance, since inception, of $8.2 million. The Downtown CRL is expected to have an annual positive net position from 2019 onward, but we’ll still be playing catchup until 2022.
  • The Quarters CRL is projected to end 2015 with a surplus of $3 million and a cumulative deficit balance, since inception, of $5.9 million. The report says the Quarters CRL is “performing better than forecast” in the original plan, and should be in a positive position as of 2024.

You can learn more about CRLs here.

Debt Update

There was a lot of discussion about Edmonton’s municipal debt during the municipal election back in 2013, which I wrote about here. At the time, our debt stood at about $2.2 billion or 53.4% of the MGA-allowed debt limit.

According to the latest figures, Edmonton’s debt currently sits at just over $2.9 billion and is expected to top $3 billion by the end of the year, which would be 59.3% of the MGA-allowed debt limit. Our debt servicing, which includes annual principal and interest repayments, is expected to reach 33% of the allowed limit for the year. The City has set more conservative limits than the MGA does:

“For 2015, debt servicing is projected to be 53.6% of the debt service limit for all borrowing and 70.6% of the limit for tax-supported operations, as defined under the City’s policy.”

The report notes that “the percentage of the debt servicing limit utilized increased significantly in 2015 and will increase again in 2017 due to the repayment of $60 million of short-term borrowing in each of 2015 and 2017.” Those repayments are for $120 million that was borrowed to fast-track capital expenditures for projects that were ultimately funded through MSI or the provincial fuel tax.

Capital Finance Update

This report provides an update on financial results for the first six months of the 2015-2018 Capital Budget. Because we’re so early still in the four-year plan, most projects should be on-time and on-budget. The approved budget value is $7.9 billion, which includes carry-forward from 2014 and approved expenditures beyond 2018. The City has 448 active profiles with planned expenditures in this budget cycle.

As of June 30, 2015, the six month spend was $321.6 million. Of the 85 significant capital projects identified (meaning they have costs greater than $20 million), 77 have been classified as green, two are categorized as yellow and 6 are flagged as red.

You can see the complete breakdown of project status here, but I’ve summarized the high profile ones as follows, sorted by size of budget:

Project Status Planned Completion Projected Completion Approved Budget
Valley Line LRT Green December 2020 December 2020 $1.8 billion
Metro Line LRT Red April 2014 September 20151 $665.8 million
Blatchford Redevelopment Green December 2038 December 2038 $631.9 million
Downtown Arena Green December 2017 September 2016 $605 million
Neighbourhood Renewal Green Annually Annually ~$452 million
Westwood Transit Garage Yellow December 2017 March 2018 $201.5 million
Walterdale Bridge Red December 2015 December 2017 $154.8 million
Northwest Police Campus Yellow December 2017 March 2018 $106.9 million
River Valley Alliance Projects Red December 2014 December 2017 $76.1 million
41 Avenue/QEII Interchange Green Fall 2015 Fall 2015 $72.5 million (City)
$205 million (total)
Milner Library Renewal Green December 2018 December 2018 $62.5 million
Great Neighbourhoods Red December 2018 March 2020 $60.4 million
The Quarters Phase 1 Green December 2015 September 2015 $52.1 million
The Quarters Phase 2 Green December 2018 September 2018 $43.2 million
102 Avenue Bridge Red December 2015 October 2016 $32.0 million

1 – Yes the Metro Line technically opens tomorrow, but it’s not what we were expecting.

Committee Recommendations

Recommendations that have come forward from Committee include:

Bylaws

There are a number of bylaws on both agendas. Here are a few highlights:

  • Bylaw 17298 makes amendments to the Community Standards Bylaw regarding backyard fire pit use, and is ready for three readings.
  • Bylaw 17297 makes amendments to the Public Places Bylaw to prohibit the use of e-cigarettes, and is ready for three readings.
  • Bylaw 17353 makes amendments to the Procedures and Committees Bylaw to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision prohibiting prayer at Council meetings.
  • Bylaw 17361 would rezone the property at 10349 122 Street NW in Oliver from RA7 to DC2, to allow for high density, mixed-use development. Plans call for an 11 storey residential building. I hope they don’t interfere with the beautiful boulevard trees on that street.
  • Bylaw 17347 would allow for the development of a grocery store at 403 McConachie Way NW.
  • Bylaw 17359 would rezone the property at 13218 102 Avenue NW in Glenora from RF1 to RF2, to allow for the existing house to be replaced with three new single detached homes. A notice was sent to surrounding property owners and the Glenora Community League, and in response the City received 8 letters and 23 emails of concerns and opposition. Such is the state of infill in Edmonton.

Other interesting items

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

Coming up at City Council: August 31 – September 4, 2015

Council is back to Committee meetings this week. Below are a few highlights from the week’s agendas with links to the reports and more information.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Metro Line Update – Testing Results

The report is not yet available, but Council is slated to receive an update on the results of testing at the Transportation Committee meeting on Wednesday. The City is planning to open the Metro Line LRT on September 6 using a modified approach (slower trains, line of sight operation, etc). Last week Council discussed the auditor’s report.

Wildlife Management

A response to an inquiry by Councillor Walters provides some information on the management of coyotes within the city. Here’s what we learned:

  • 311 received 3600 inquiries/complaints about wildlife in 2013, 4500 in 2014, and 2500 so far in 2015. “It is estimated that coyote-related issues represent the majority of these calls.”
  • The City has started tracking coyote-specific inquiries in June 2015.
  • Research shows that coyotes are the top animal predator in an urban area. They help to reduce the abundance of “pests” like mice, rabbits, and grasshoppers, but they can get too comfortable around people and then become a nuisance.
  • Coyotes are considered a nuisance if they attack a human or animal, pose a risk to public safety, loiter in “safety sensitive locations”, establish a den in residential neighbourhoods, or are sick or incapacitated in residential neighbourhoods or parkland.

Coyote
Coyote near Elk Island Park, photo by Shawn McCready

“While most of the existing and future plans seek to enhance and protect wildlife habitat diversity and reduce human wildlife conflict, there continues to be a growing need for a faster enforcement response, improved educational effort and more support for wildlife research and rehabilitation.”

Project Watch

UPDATE: This item has been moved to September 3.

Project Watch is “a collaborative initiative between the City of Edmonton and Province of Alberta to ensure safe housing conditions for vulnerable individuals and families that are temporarily housed in commercial accommodation.” Mayor Iveson made an inquiry about the program back in June and the report being discussed this week provides background and an update on what Administration has done to help.

Here’s how the City has been involved:

  • Research, inspections, and enforcement for infractions to the Zoning Bylaw 12800.
  • Review of business licenses.
  • Coordination and assistance from the Landlord and Tenant Advisory Board and Housing Programs.
  • Enforcement of the Community Standards Bylaw 14600, to address “any exterior aesthetic deficiencies, including nuisances on land and on buildings.”
  • A Fire Prevention Officer attends all Project Watch inspections and provides public safety and awareness.
  • Inspections and enforcement for Building Safety Codes.

Administration is working to “develop clear communication protocols” with the Edmonton Police Service and the two will continue meeting to support the initiative.

While additional budget is not being requested, Administration is assigning one full-time employee to the project.

Valley Line LRT Street Closures

Wednesday’s Transportation Committee meeting will include a non-statutory public hearing for 38 different road closure bylaws. These closures are intended to “promote the safe interaction of trains, vehicles and pedestrians along the Southeast to West LRT (the ‘Valley Line’) alignment.” The associated documents say that “construction of the Valley Line is scheduled to begin in 2016 and will result in changes to various streets and vehicular access points along the alignment.”

Implications of the Alberta Wetlands Policy in the Edmonton Region

Implementation of the Alberta Wetlands Policy began on June 1, 2015, but there are still plenty of details yet to be released. Council previously recommended that the Mayor write a letter to the Province outlining concerns with the policy. The Province responded acknowledging the concerns and committed to working with the City to address them.

The report identifies a number of implementation issues, including a risk that “if the Province maintains current compensation rates it may result in further loss of wetlands in the City.” Other potential issues include “hydrological impacts that make it difficult to sustain natural wetlands,” “an increased number of wetlands regulated by the Province within the City of Edmonton,” and “the transfer of compensation funds collected in Edmonton and spent on wetland restoration/conservation projects outside of Edmonton represents a flow of money from one municipality to another municipality without any benefit to the citizens of Edmonton.”

Whitemud Wetland
Whitemud Wetland, photo by Kurt Bauschardt

Administration has identified three options for addressing recommendations of the Wetland Task Force (which was formed in 2014 to consider the impact of the new policy). The first is to advance work with existing resources, the second is to add a full-time employee and spend $500,000 on “external services” over two years, and the third is to add a full-time employee and spend $700,000 on external services over two years.

Other interesting items

  • The Community Services Advisory Board 2014 Annual Report and the City of Edmonton Youth Council Annual Report will be discussed by Community Services Committee on Monday.
  • Bylaw 17297 will amend the Public Places Bylaw to prohibit the use of e-cigarettes in the same manner as tobacco products.
  • Bylaw 17298 will amend the Community Standards Bylaw to “formalize the creation of a nuisance condition related to backyard fire pit activities.”
  • A response to an inquiry from Councillor Knack provides information on the Home for Life Initiative, part of Age-Friendly Edmonton, “focused on promoting home design features that allow seniors and people with varying abilities to live in their homes independently.”
  • The first Neighbourhood Structure Plan (NSP) with the Decoteau ASP is being developed. Currently identified as the North Neighbourhood, it will include parks, roadways, and sewers as you might expect, but will not include a library, fire station, or police station. Development is slated to start in 2020.
  • A new report outlines the authority of Administration to grant variances as part of Development Permit applications.
  • Bylaw 17353 is an update to the Procedures and Committees Bylaw to ensure compliance with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on prayer at Council meetings. “On April 15, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in Mouvement Laique Quebecois v. Saguenay (City) 2015 SCC 16, 2015 CSC 16. The court ruled that municipalities must be neutral in matters of belief and non-belief.”
  • Amendments to the Zoning Bylaw are being considered to reduce parking requirements for minor eating and drinking establishments.
  • Currently you don’t have to be a resident of Edmonton to be appointed to civic agencies, but a new report details a couple of options to change that. Many other municipalities require residency but allow Council to make exceptions.
  • Council will receive a private update on the Vehicle for Hire bylaw on Tuesday. We must be getting close the proposed changes for Uber. UPDATE: This item has been moved to September 3.
  • The only item on the agenda for the Performance Evaluation Committee is a verbal report on Consulting Firm Interviews.

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

Who or what is to blame for Edmonton’s Metro Line LRT delays?

Why was the Metro Line LRT delayed and when will it become fully operational as designed and intended? We still don’t know the answer to the latter question, but the reasons for the delay have become more clear thanks to the latest report from the City Auditor.

Metro Line LRT
A train! On the Metro Line!

The Auditor’s report found that project management roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined or understood, opening dates targeted were unrealistic, status reports were not written down or communicated effectively, contract management practices were inadequate, and Council was not sufficiently kept informed. Incredibly, “Council did not receive formal updates on project progress until December 2013 when construction was supposed to be complete.” The report makes three recommendations, all of which Administration has accepted.

The Metro Line is a hot topic in Edmonton right now, and Edmontonians are not happy about it. Lots of folks are looking for someone to blame, and for good reason – the project is more than year behind schedule and we still don’t know when it’ll be “done done” as opposed to “done but”. And while I think holding Administration accountable is going to be a critical part of restoring public confidence in the City’s ability to manage large projects, what’s less clear is who that blame should fall upon.

Dorian Wandzura
Dorian Wandzura

Dorian Wandzura started as the GM of Transportation Services on September 3, 2013. He took over from Bob Boutilier, who retired from the role on July 31, 2013. Formerly a deputy GM with the Toronto Transit Commission, Boutilier was credited with getting “80% of Edmonton’s long term Light Rail Transit network has been designed, planned or constructed” during his tenure. He may now also be credited with leaving the Metro Line project in a state of disarray. While Wandzura has made some mistakes along the way, it’s pretty clear now that he inherited a mess. And not just one actually, as he’s also having to deal with the Walterdale Bridge and 102 Avenue Bridge delays, among other projects.

Bob Boutilier
Bob Boutilier

What about Charles Stolte, the former GM of ETS who was fired in June? It’s not clear exactly why Wandzura let him go, but there’s some suggestion it was because of philosophical differences rather than as a result of delays to the Metro Line. He would no doubt have been involved in the signalling work, but it’s unlikely that he was primarily responsible for the debacle.

ETS Execs
Charles Stolte, right

Then there’s Wayne Mandryk, who has been in charge of LRT Design and Construction since 2008. Until the last major city reorganization in June 2011, his branch was part of a separate department known was Capital Construction. Since then it has been part of Transportation Services. The branch “manages contracts for design and construction, identifies and evaluates project delivery strategies, and coordinates construction with other city departments and utilities.” Until the spring, it was most often Mandryk that handled public communications about the Metro Line. Now Wandzura has been handling that himself. But it doesn’t appear that switch has anything to do with confidence in Mandryk as he’s currently filling Stolte’s role as well until a replacement is found.

Wayne Mandryk
Wayne Mandryk

The Auditor’s report seems to place quite a bit of blame on both Boutilier and Mandryk:

“Schedule risks emerged as planning and procurement activities progressed. However, we found no formal documentation from LRT Design and Construction to the Transportation Services General Manager advising him of emerging issues and potential delays. We were advised by LRT Design and Construction that the culture at the time was to provide verbal rather than written reports.”

Mandryk’s department didn’t provide written reports when they should have but Boutilier would have been most responsible for allowing a culture of verbal updates to flourish.

Simon Farbrother
City Manager Simon Farbrother with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi

So up we go, to the top. City Manager Simon Farbrother started at the City of Edmonton in January 2010. That’s after the Concept Plan for the Metro Line was approved, but before the contracts were awarded and long before work began. Certainly he’s going to have to answer some difficult questions from Council next week, and I expect he’ll be ready to make some changes, but it’s hard to find fault with Farbrother in this case. Throughout his first five years with the City, a key initiative of Farbrother’s has been changing the culture. He’s led a transformation that has made the City more open, creative, and aspirational. Additionally, Boutilier had already been in charge of Transportation for three years by the time Farbrother joined, and so far hiring Wandzura seems to have been a smart move.

Still, the comment Councillor Andrew Knack made this week suggests Farbrother could have done more:

“For such a major city project, there should be a desire for those in the highest (positions), especially if they haven’t heard anything, to get a status update. That’s the discouraging part.”

He’s right. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect the folks in charge to ask for updates. Except that Council doesn’t seem to have asked for updates either, at least not in an official, there’s-a-paper-trail capacity. There were about ten agenda items from mid-2011 through until mid 2013 related to the NAIT LRT, and none of them were about project status.

Mayor Iveson wrote on Monday:

“Not only were the city’s senior managers seemingly out of the loop when contractor performance started to slip in 2011, but City Council was left totally in the dark until late 2013 – which made it all the more difficult for us to hold staff accountable and explain to the public what was going on.”

All of this begs the question, what the heck happened between 2011 and 2013? Why were senior managers and Council so out of the loop on the Metro Line LRT?

Well, there was one thing that pretty much consumed Council and CLT’s attention during that same period of time: the downtown arena.

New Edmonton Arena Construction
Rogers Place rises next to MacEwan LRT Station on the Metro Line

Think about it. The arena debate dominated attention across the city throughout 2011 and 2012. It also included a lot of secret, private meetings between Administration, the Katz Group, and City Council, which plenty of people picked up on and criticized, myself included. That could have contributed to the culture of verbal reporting.

Here’s the timeline:

Most other attention-hogging projects were done by the time problems with Metro Line project started. The Quesnell Bridge expansion was completed in September 2011 and the 23 Avenue Interchange opened the following month. The winter of 2012/2013 was a particularly bad one for potholes and that did attract a lot of attention and criticism, but we have potholes every year.

I’m not saying the downtown arena project is to blame for the Metro Line delays. Correlation does not imply causation, of course. And that project is currently on time and budget because of solid project management, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. But the timeline above fits together just a little too well, doesn’t it?

As Paula Simons wrote in her column on the auditor’s report, “there’s no smoking gun in this audit – just smoke and murk.” There are also a lot of assumptions being made in trying to explain the delays – the splitting of the contracts, the inadequate project management practices, Thales missing deadlines. Maybe the simplest answer is the right one: the City and Council were distracted.

My slightly more complicated take? The arena distraction didn’t help but the biggest issue was that the culture of Transportation Services needed to change, which is happening now that Boutilier is gone and Wandzura is in.

We’ll find out more on Monday afternoon as Council discusses the auditor’s report.

Coming up at City Council: August 24-28, 2015

Council really hit the ground running on Monday with a big discussion on the Metro Line LRT. That topic looks set to dominate the news next week too, as Council discusses the City Auditor’s report on the delayed project. The other topic you’ll probably hear some grumbling about is the report on what to do with our city’s entrance signs. Replacing them could take two years and cost up to $2.5 million!

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Metro Line LRT

As it was last week, the biggest item before Council will no doubt be the Metro Line LRT. On Monday morning Council will start with a special Audit Committee meeting, to discuss the City Auditor’s report on the issue.

Metro Line LRT
Metro Line LRT testing on August 21, 2015 at 106 Avenue and 105 Street, photo by Sharon

There are some pretty shocking things in the report, including the fact that senior management at the City seemed to be completely in the dark about potential delays until late 2013, as Mayor Iveson wrote about. Delays in planning were identified as early as January 2010 and construction delays were identified as early as August 2010, but these delays were not adequately communicated.

One of the key issues identified was the decision in February 2010 to split the Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) signalling contract and the civil construction contract. This meant that the construction activities were not coordinated and that contributed greatly to the delays. On top of that, the contractors involved seem to have agreed to timelines that were unrealistic and unlikely to have been met even if everything else had gone smoothly.

In addition to identifying a number of lessons learned, the Auditor made three recommendations:

  • “That the General Manager of Transportation Services ensure that for all major projects consistent principles and methodologies of Contract Administration are adhered to including quality assurance and quality control activities.”
  • “That the General Manager of Transportation Services ensure that project roles, responsibilities, lines of communication, management of working relationships, and decision authority levels are clearly defined, assigned, and communicated for all major projects.”
  • “That the General Manager of Transportation Services in conjunction with Financial Services and Utilities’ and the Corporate Centre for Project Management staff develop a standard corporate reporting methodology for major capital projects which includes schedule, scope, and budget status as well as overall risk assessment and quality management.”

City Administration did accept all three recommendations. They’re still going to get grilled hard by Council though.

Entrance Signs

The other item I’m betting will have lots of Edmontonians talking is the update on our city’s entrance signs. I wrote about the history of our current entrance signs here and discussed some thoughts on how they should change here.

Edmonton Entrance Sign

As Council previous directed, all the “City of Champions” placards have been removed. So the signs just say “Welcome to Edmonton” now.

The report identifies four options for changing the signs, ranging from low cost to high cost:

  • Option 1 would range from $150,000 to $175,000 and would replace the existing signs and flower beds with an internally designed sign.
  • Option 2 would place a new facade on the existing sign base, which could be developed internally or externally. The cost could range from $500,000 to $600,000.
  • Option 3 would completely replace the signs with an open competition for the design of the new signs. The cost could range from $1.2 million to $2.5 million, and it could take up to two years for the project to be complete.
  • Option 4 is a hybrid recommendation, where some signs could be cheaper and others could be more expensive.

In part to facilitate construction of Anthony Henday Drive, some signs have been removed over the years, and the report says it could be an option to look at adding some of those back.

Where would the money come from? For option 1, existing operating budgets would be enough to cover it. For any other option, an increase of funding or a delay to other projects would be required.

Employees or External Consultants?

One of the reports on the Utility Committee meeting agenda compares the incremental cost of City employees to the cost of hiring consultants. Here’s the key table:

employee vs consultant
(CEA is the Consulting Engineers of Alberta)

As you can see, the hourly incremental rates for City employees range from 42-51% of the hourly rates for external consultants. The report states that based on the above comparison, “increasing internal capacity could be more cost effective than retaining external consultants.” But not in every case, apparently. “There are situations and specific value to retaining external consultants,” the report says.

The report concludes: “Drainage Services will continue to be vigilant in hiring internally while practicing due diligence when retaining external consultants.”

Jasper Place Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP)

The Jasper Place ARP, Bylaw 17260, is ready for three readings after the public hearing has been held. The ARP covers the neighbourhoods of Britannia Youngstown, Canora, Glenwood, and West Jasper Place, as well as portions of the Stony Plain Road BRZ. Developed over the past two and half years, the Jasper Place ARP “provides guidance on future land use and City investment in Jasper Place, and will help to guide change and growth over the next 15 to 20 years.”

In order for the ARP to become the established planning document for the area, the Britannia/Youngstown Neighbourhood Planning Study, the 100 Avenue Planning Study, and the September 1980 resolution known as “Newman’s Resolution” will all be repealed. Newman’s Resolution states:

“Whereas the large majority of home owners have previously expressed a strong desire to remain single family area, therefore, I move that the area from the lane west of 149 Street to the lane east of 156 Street between 95 Avenue and 100 Avenue remain RF-1, which is the equivalent zoning to what presently exists in the area.”

That’s Kenneth Newman, the last mayor of the Town of Jasper Place. When the town amalgamated with Edmonton in 1964, Newman was elected as an alderman. He retired in 1983. The park at 10802 150 Street is named after him.

jasper place arp

The Jasper Place area will eventually receive three new LRT stations as part of the Valley Line LRT, which provides a great opportunity for transit-oriented development. Other goals of the ARP include: “enhancing the Stony Plain Road commercial corridor as a vibrant, mixed use pedestrian shopping area”, “increasing housing choice by introducing more housing options”, and “providing adequate infrastructure now and in the future.”

Committee Recommendations & Bylaws

There are 11 committee reports on the agenda for Tuesday’s Council meeting, including:

  • Community Services Committee recommends that $1.5 million be transferred to the Whitemud Equine Centre for arena replacement and rehabilitation work. Related to that, the committee recommends that the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre Association be allowed to seek facility naming rights.
  • Community Services Committee recommends that $1.8 million in funding be approved for the Fort Edmonton Park Catering Kitchen Project.
  • Executive Committee recommends that Edmonton’s Community Energy Transition Policy C585 be approved.
  • Transportation Committee recommends that the revised Capital Profile for LRT Escalator & Elevator Renewal be approved. This is not a change in funding, just in approach.

There are 28 bylaws on the agenda for Tuesday’s Council meeting, most of which are for the closure of vehicular access. Others include:

  • Bylaw 17256 – To authorize the City of Edmonton to finance the Francis Winspear Centre for Music parking structure with up to $25 million.
  • Bylaw 17257 – To authorize the City of Edmonton to lend money to the Francis Winspear Centre for Music, which is necessary for the previous bylaw!
  • Bylaw 17154 – To rezone from RF1 to UCRH at 14035 and 14039 106 Avenue NW in Glenora to allow for the development of row housing. Interesting because there has been a lot of opposition to infill in Glenora.

Other interesting items

  • Three city networks – C40, ICLEI, and UCLG – have come together in a worldwide effort called the Compact of Mayors aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for the impacts of climate change. According to a report on the issue, “The City of Edmonton is well-positioned to participate in this initiative.” Participation would not cost us anything, but a separate strategy coming forward during the 2016-2018 budget process would have funding requirements.
  • There’s a recommendation that Councillor Caterina be appointed as the City of Edmonton representative on the AUMA board.
  • There’s a pending motion from Councillor Henderson called Councillor Absence from Regular Council Meetings.
  • There are a bunch of private reports on the agenda for Tuesday, including: an update on Northlands, an Intergovernmental Update on the City Charter, and an update on LRT Advocacy. The report on the Communications Plan for LRT Funding has been delayed until Q1 2016.
  • On the agenda for Monday’s public hearing is an amendment to the Calgary Trail Land Use Study, “to close an undeveloped portion of the east side of Gateway Boulevard immediately between 34 Avenue NW and 38 Avenue NW and to rezone of the lands from (AG) Agricultural Zone to (CHY) Highway Corridor Zone.” This will allow for “the existing berm to be removed and the land to be developed for highway commercial uses.”

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

Coming up at City Council: August 17-21, 2015

The Fringe is underway and Council is back to work on Monday which means summer in Edmonton is winding down. Next week we’ll hopefully learn more about the Metro Line LRT, now slated to open with modified service in time for the start of the school year. Council will also be discussing some other contentious topics like Park & Ride at Century Park and the Traffic Shortcutting trials currently underway in Prince Charles and Pleasantview.

Below are links to the meeting agendas for the week as well as some highlighted items and notes.

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Metro Line LRT

Council is slated to receive an update on the Metro Line LRT project on Monday afternoon (it’s a verbal update on the agenda, so no report to look at). It follows news today that the Metro Line LRT will open to public service on September 6:

“Testing a modified approach to Metro Line operations has already begun and ETS training starts Monday,” said Transportation Services General Manager Dorian Wandzura. “We are confident the Metro Line will be carrying passengers for the start of the 2015 school year.”

The line will open with modified service: “line of sight” operation, a 25 km/h speed restriction, headways of 15 minutes between Churchill Station and NAIT Station, and a decrease in capacity along the existing Capital Line. Instead of getting from Churchill Station to NAIT in 7 minutes, it’ll take 14 minutes.

Dorian Wandzura
Transportation Services General Manager Dorian Wandzura

Shortly after the news conference this afternoon, Mayor Iveson cautioned that interim service is “no cause for celebration”:

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This news should make Monday’s meeting more productive, in that Council can focus on what went wrong and how to get the line to full operation rather than spending a bunch of time expressing disappointment that the line still won’t be open. At least I hope that’s the case.

On July 31, the City announced that it had initiated an independent safety audit of the Metro Line signalling system. The audit, to be conducted by Rail Safety Consulting, is supposed to provide confidence in the safety of the system as well as certification in order to open the line. The City is still blaming Thales, saying that “Thales has failed to provide some essential documentation required for the City to accept Thales’ safety certification.”

There has been a lot of concern about the quality of the infrastructure and workmanship of the Metro Line LRT, but the City has said issues are just part of doing business and are dealt with during the warranty period. A separate report on warranty periods for transportation contributed assets says “a warranty period of two years is applied to both City and developer-constructed transportation infrastructure to ensure the construction material utilized and the associated workmanship are performing in accordance with City standards and expectations.”

On a somewhat related note, the City is currently running a survey on “how to make Edmonton’s transit system greater in the future.” You can fill it out online, or look for the street team at events around the city (like the Fringe).

Recreation Centre Security

This report comes to us in response to an inquiry made by Councillor Nickel back in April. He wanted to know more about crime in relation to our large recreation centres. Here’s what the report says:

  • “In general, calls for service to major Community Recreation Centre facilities have been relatively stable year-to-year since 2011, with predictable increases corresponding to the opening of new facilities.”
  • The situation is a bit worse this year, however. “Calls for police response to recreation facilities have more than doubled in 2015.”
  • Why? “The increase in calls for service for 2015 is driven almost entirely by calls to Clareview Recreation Centre.”
  • City staff have also reported an increase in security incidents this year, but say that “these increases can be attributed to the opening of Clareview and the Meadows Recreation Centres and the increased attendance.”
  • The report says that we’ve seen this before, with the Terwillegar Community Crecreation Centre in 2011: “there was a similar surge of incidents, followed by declining incident rates in 2013 and 2014, as facility staff implemented changes to improve facility security.”
  • Which begs the question – are the security incidents taking place at the new centres all different than the ones we saw at Terwillegar?
  • So what’s being done about this? As you might expect, “a strategic planning exercise is currently underway to improve facility security and public safety.”
  • An external security audit for the Clareview Community Recreation Centre has also been initiated.

It doesn’t seem like there’s cause for concern here, just growing pains associated with running such large facilities.

Options & Incentives for Preserving Trees on Private Residential Properties

Mature trees are critical for environmental quality and biodiversity and, as the City says, they “contribute to the livability of our neighbourhoods.” But sometimes they need to be removed, such as “when they conflict with the location of utilities or are unhealthy (diseased/dying).” The question is, can we do anything to preserve them?

“There is no requirement to plant trees or shrubs for low density residential development, thus there is no incentive to retain existing vegetation on site,” the report says.

Mature Residential Trees
Mature Residential Trees, photo by City of Edmonton

There are three options put forward by the City to try to address this:

  1. Create a Minimum Planting Requirement for All Low Density Residential Zones
  2. Develop Planting Ratios and Require Mandatory Landscape Plans
  3. Include Tree Protection in the Zoning Bylaw

Those three are roughly in order of complexity and impact. Option 2 would go beyond the minimum requirements outlined in Option 1, while Option 3 offers the greatest certainty about existing mature trees. The removal of any tree over a certain size would require a development permit, under Option 3.

The City recommends Option 1, “as these changes can be implemented quickly and are supported by stakeholders.” The suggestion is to have landscaping requirements similar to the RF4 and RPL zones, which is one tree and two shrubs per dwelling. “This would allow development officers to encourage the retention of existing vegetation as a way to meet the minimum landscaping requirements.” It would not prevent the removal of existing trees, however.

Century Park Site Park & Ride Options

The current lease agreement between the City and Procura Development (which owns the Century Park Park & Ride site) expires in 2020, so the City needs to decide if its wants to build its own park & ride facility or extend the lease on the existing Century Park site. The original lease with Procura was for five years from 2010 to 2015, with an option for an additional five, one-year renewal terms. The proposed park & ride facility would be located at Ellerslie Road and 127 Street and would be operational by the fall of 2019. It is known as the Heritage Valley Park & Ride.

  • The current site has 1,300 parking stalls, 1,000 of which are leased from Procura.
  • One third of the funding needed for the Heritage Valley Park & Ride was approved in the 2015-2018 Capital Budget.
  • Discussions are underway with the Province to secure land for the site that may fall within the Transportation Utility Corridor.
  • City Policy C554 on Park and Ride states such facilities should be “located primarily at sites where more intensive development is not possible or feasible such as the Transportation Utility Corridor or other major utility rights of way or where such development is not expected to occur in the immediate future.” Since we want to make Century Park a TOD site, having a park and ride site there is inconsistent with this policy.
  • Procura is apparently not interested in extending the current lease, but has been open to discussing various options with the City.
  • The Century Park lot “gets 98% full on weekday mornings” with approximately 1,500 people parking there between 6am and 9am to get on the LRT. It gets to 85% capacity by 7am! Those passengers make up 29% of the total passengers who board the LRT during the morning peak period.
  • Looking at all eight park & ride locations in Edmonton, “the average utilization of park and ride sites on a typical weekday is 97% at LRT stations and 60-70% at Transit Centres.”
  • The proposed Heritage Valley Park & Ride would require a shuttle bus service, which would cost $2.1 million annually after five articulated buses are purchased for $4 million.
  • The City also anticipates an increase in bus usage if the Century Park Park & Ride were to go away, which would require another $1 million annually plus the purchase of ten new 40-foot buses for $6 million.
  • The City does own some land at Century Park where a parking structure could be built but an assessment found that “the high cost of construction would require unreasonably high parking fees or significant subsidies from the City in order to recover the high capital and operating cost.”
  • A position paper developed by the City found that “over 50% of park and ride users come from within 8 km of a site” and are “only willing to back track up to 3 km to a park and ride facility.”

Century Park Station & Park and Ride
Century Park, photo by City of Edmonton

The report does not make a recommendation on what to do. Moving the park & ride from Century Park to Heritage Valley is aligned with the City’s existing policies and future direction, but the question is how to pay for it. The remaining funding required for the Heritage Valley Park & Ride is assumed to come from other sources, but the City says Green TRIP is not an option.

Other interesting items

  • The Edmonton Heritage Council’s 2014 Annual Report is available and talks about the City Museum project. The Heritage Council has focused on “building an audience” rather than acquiring a building thus far, but “anticipates a full business case going forward in 2018 in consideration of the 2019-2022 City of Edmonton capital cycle.”
  • The City recommends that $1.8 million be approved to fund the Fort Edmonton Park Catering Kitchen Project.
  • Utility work on Phase 1 of the new Louise McKinney Riverfront Park project is expected to begin this summer, with construction completed by the end of 2016. Phase 1 includes a new accessible pathway and staircase, while phase 2 consists of a full service restaurant and upgrades to existing facilities, coinciding with completion of the Valley Line LRT.
  • The next priority of Edmonton’s Infill Roadmap is “to conduct the review of the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay.” The City also anticipates updating Residential Infill Guidelines when the new MDP is updated in 2018.
  • The City is recommending that Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy and Policy, which I wrote about back in March, be approved, that an Energy Transition Advisory Committee be established, and that the Mayor write a letter to the Province to “explore issues through an enhanced Provincial/City working relationship.”
  • PCL Construction Management Inc. is the construction manager for Rogers Place, and the City is recommending that Council approve consolidating previously approved adjacent construction projects under the same agreement to “provide efficiencies” and “coordination and scheduling of the work.”
  • There’s a report on the Feasibility of Re-Establishing a Natural Channel between Mill Creek and the North Saskatchewan River. Basically in order to build freeways in the 1960s we destroyed many streams and creeks resulting in “water pollution, flooding, erosion, and loss of ecological services.” Now we are looking to mitigate these impacts through a practice called “daylighting”.
  • The overall reliability of escalators in LRT stations in 2014 was 85%. ETS has set a goal of 90% by 2016, with at least 87.5% to be achieved for 2015. As of June 30, 2015, the City says overall year-to-date escalator reliability in LRT stations was 89.3%.
  • An update on traffic shortcutting issues, and in particular the trials underway in Prince Charles and Pleasantview, says that a City Policy for Community Traffic Management will be considered in June 2016. The City says that “the short turnaround time anticipated with this new Traffic Shortcutting pilot project will constrain typical public engagement strategies in favour of faster implementation of traffic management measures to better respond to concerns voiced by the communities.” The next report on the trials is expected to go to Transportation Committee on October 7.

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

Edmonton needs to keep pushing for LRT funding

With major funding announcements over the last few weeks for public transit in Toronto, Ottawa, and Calgary, many Edmontonians are wondering when our election handout will appear. Some are even suggesting that Edmonton is being shortchanged by the federal government when comparing previous funding commitments to the most recent ones. Mayor Iveson tweeted “no worries” and promised that City Council is “not done asking” for more LRT funding.

Einstein's Train
Photo by Mark Iocchelli

Let’s recap the funding announcements

The total cost of Stage 1 of the Valley Line LRT (Mill Woods to Downtown) is about $1.8 billion, with $800 million coming from the City, $600 million coming from the Province, and $400 million coming from the federal government.

The first federal contribution of $250 million from P3 Canada was made back in March 2013. Nearly a year later, the new Building Canada Fund was introduced which is expected to cover the additional $150 million needed from the federal government. Then in March 2014, the Province committed its $600 million contribution to the project. It consists of $250 million in GreenTRIP funding, $200 million in an interest-free loan, and $150 million to match the federal government’s Building Canada contribution.

In April 2015, the federal government unveiled its budget, called Economic Action Plan 2015. The budget included a new Public Transit Fund that would provide $750 million over two years starting in 2017-2018, and $1 billion annually thereafter.

“Large cities in Canada depend on public transit infrastructure to facilitate the mobility of people and goods and support economic development. Strong and efficient public transit networks help get people to their jobs, students to class and all citizens out in their community to see family and friends. Public transit also helps to reduce overall urban congestion, which helps to get goods to markets faster and supports productive and growing cities.”

Further details were released in June:

“In order to be eligible for support under the PTF, projects must have a minimum of $1 billion in total estimated eligible costs. Federal contributions under the fund will be up to one-third of the total eligible costs and will lever the expertise, ingenuity, and financing of the private sector and alternative funding mechanisms.”

They also announced that federal support provided through the P3 Canada Fund “will increase from 25 to 33.3 per cent of eligible project costs on a go forward basis.” This is why some feel that Edmonton is being shortchanged compared to other cities – the funding commitments we received were made before this change took place.

At the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the federal government would contribute one third of the costs of Toronto’s SmartTrack proposal, which equates to about $2.6 billion.

On July 22, the federal government announced a pledge of $1 billion from the new Public Transit Fund for Ottawa’s “Stage 2” plan. Like Edmonton’s plans, the $3 billion project anticipates each level of government covering a third of the cost.

And then most recently, on July 24, a $1.53 billion contribution to Calgary’s $4.6 billion Green Line LRT was announced, also from the new Public Transit Fund, and again covering one third of the total cost.

Public Transit Fund: strings attached

Canadians should be disappointed that it takes an election to prioritize funding for public transit. City Councils across the country have made it clear that public transit infrastructure is critical for dealing with growth and congestion. According to the Canadian Urban Transit Association, $3 of economic activity is generated for every $1 spent on transit. And they say that from 2006 to 2013, public transit ridership increased by 21% in Canada.

Are the Conservatives just trying to buy votes? “The sudden spending announcements across the country merely highlight the total inadequacy of funding for public projects in non-election years,” said Joel French, Director of Communications and Campaigns for Public Interest Alberta, in a statement yesterday. “Rather than reducing our cities to the role of simply hoping for electioneering handouts, we absolutely must fund our urban centres in ways that will allow them to meet the growing needs of city residents in a fair, just and sustainable manner.” Some say it’s this sporadic approach to funding public transit that has caused Canada to fall behind on public transit.

Another concern is that the Public Transit Fund is being administered by P3 Canada. That means that any public transit project funded through the program will need to be a P3, whether it suits the project and context or not. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has previously stated that “the real problem is that the only dedicated federal funding at this moment is through P3 Canada” and felt that a P3 didn’t make sense for Calgary’s transit expansion plans. Evidently that’s no longer the case.

And you can’t blame him – he’s going to take what he can get. Whether we like it or not, the Valley Line LRT extension here in Edmonton will be a P3 project because that’s the only way we could secure the required federal funding.

There’s a lot more LRT left to build

While the Public Transit Fund is a step in the right direction, it’s not the solution to Canada’s transit infrastructure needs. Cities across the country have plans for LRT that will require billions of dollars of investment and they need to be able to plan for that.

South Campus LRT
Photo by Mark Iocchelli

Here in Edmonton, the Valley Line LRT is just one part of the long-term LRT Network Plan which will require significant investment over the next 35 years. A full build-out is going to be required if our population forecasts prove to be accurate, with 2.2 million people living in the Edmonton region by 2044 and daily ridership of nearly 500,000 passengers.

I hope the federal government does top up its contributions to the Valley Line LRT, bringing their portion to the same one-third that other major cities are now getting. But even if they do, we’re not done. We need to keep pushing for stable LRT funding.

Frustration abounds and public support for future LRT projects in Edmonton is at risk

It has been made abundantly clear that LRT is a key priority for this Council. They reiterated that point again during Tuesday’s update on the delayed Metro Line LRT (the extension to NAIT) and they made it clear to Administration that they’re not happy about the delays, nor about being kept in the dark on progress. “This has been an embarrassment,” Councillor Esslinger complained. “It’s embarrassing to say the least,” added Councillor Sohi. Earlier this week, Councillor Nickel called it “a boondoggle” and Councillor Oshry described the project as “a s**t-show”.

Metro Line LRT

The Metro Line was supposed to open most recently on Sunday, July 5. That follows failed attempts to open on June 7, and May 31, both of which follow countless previous delays. “We are still not in a position to announce an opening date,” Transportation GM Dorian Wandzura told Council when pressed yesterday. The reason? According to the City, there are still issues with the signalling system and Thales is to blame.

Thales claims they’re not the hold up and feel that trains could be operating along the line. They’re still here working on the line, but say that further work consists only of “additional functionality that was not needed for initial revenue service.” We still don’t know why the City and Thales appear to be on such different wavelengths, but there’s speculation that this is all just posturing for a coming legal battle between the two.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, on Monday the Journal revealed that it had acquired a leaked report from 2013 that outlined a number of construction issues plaguing the Metro Line. The report prompted speculation that perhaps there was more to the delayed opening than the signalling system issues the City has consistently cited. Council hammered away at this report during Tuesday’s meeting, and it was clear they were caught off-guard and had not been kept apprised of the situation in previous private updates.

It turns out the leaked report is just one of 80 total reports commissioned by the City on the project. Of the dozen issues identified in that report, nine have been closed and four are live issues that are still outstanding. There’s no word on how many deficiencies were reported and are outstanding from the other 79 reports.

“There are always deficiencies,” Wandzura said. “It’s a normal process that some of those issues are not resolved on opening day, they are dealt with in the warranty period.” Trying to provide context, City Manager Simon Farbrother explained that “every single construction project going on in this city has deficiencies, and that’s normal.” Wandzura added, “if you had a construction project with zero deficiencies, I’d be very concerned.” He reiterated a couple of times that the issues identified in the leaked report “have been or are in the process of being resolved” and that they did not contribute to the delay in opening the line. The City still feels that Thales is to blame for that.

Despite all of this bad news, Brad Smid, project manager for the line, told the Journal that he thought “the project has gone very well.” Yes, he really said that.

Is the City really being made whole?

I get the point that there are always deficiencies. In my world, if you shipped a software product and didn’t find any bugs, that’d be a clear sign that your testing processes are broken. There are always bugs. Still, attempting to reassure Council and the public by explaining that every one of our multi-million dollar projects has problems may not have been the best strategy. It’s clear that not all deficiencies are created equal, but the ones identified in leaked report were discussed as if they were all critical.

“Our objective is to get what we pay for,” said Wandzura during Tuesday’s meeting, adding that the City takes actions “to make the City whole” when deficiencies are found. This could be accomplished by some sort of remediation, financial compensation, or in the worst case, litigation.

Councillor Caterina in particular hammered away at this, suggesting that the City has accepted lower quality work because of mistakes made by the contractors. Pipe that was a smaller gauge than originally specified may have been accepted in exchange for some form of financial compensation, for instance.

The problem with that is any financial amount rendered today is likely far less than what it’ll cost if any work needs to be done in the future. I can envision the news now at a future Council update. There will be some sort of project that a future Council wants to implement, maybe running new cable to take advantage of some future technology, and they’ll be shocked when the price tag comes in significantly higher than expected because this pipe needs to be replaced with the appropriate gauge.

DSC_0803
Photo by Bill Burris

On the signalling contract, the City is holding back some of the payment until the work is done. The contract with Thales states the City can hold back 40%, which is about $19.8 million. Currently 49% of the contract has been paid. Responding to comments from Council that the amount is small to a big company, Farbrother said that “perhaps it’s not seen as punitive, but they are in the press every day” taking heat for the delay.

What these approaches don’t take into account is the wider impact of deficiencies and delays. What about all of the students and staff at NAIT who still can’t take the train? What about the numerous pedestrian and vehicular closures and detours that have added time to commutes and caused endless frustrations? What about the shattered confidence of the public in a year where we’ve had delays with nearly every major public project?

There’s too much in-camera & too little communication

City Council was scheduled to get an in-private update on the Metro Line yesterday. Thankfully, Mayor Iveson requested that the item be discussed in public instead. He wrote:

“Frankly, hearing yet another discussion of yet another private report does nothing to give the public confidence that this city council is getting information and in turn the public is getting information that we all need to determine what is going on with this project.”

“Too much of the discussion around this has been in private so I would like a public report and an opportunity for members of council to ask questions of Administration at least pertaining to these latest issues of deficiencies on the line, so there may be an airing of what is going on. At least any issues that can be clearly communicated to the public there is an opportunity to do that.”

While we didn’t come away with any major revelations during the update (aside from perhaps the number of reports commissioned on the construction) I think it’s critical that the discussion took place in public. Council did have a private update with Administration later in the day, but there’s no reason that everything needs to be done behind closed doors.

For one thing, Council desperately needs to restore the public’s faith in this project and going in-camera is not going to accomplish that. “The trust is gone, let’s just be honest about it,” said Councillor Nickel. “We need to restore people’s confidence,” said Councillor Sohi.

Kingsway/Royal Alex Station
Photo by Kurt Bauschardt

Unfortunately, it seems as though Administration’s first instinct is to go in-camera. For instance, when discussing the report on deficiencies, they attempted a few times to delay the discussion to the private session. “I’m a little disappointed that everything keeps getting reverted back to, ‘this is the normal course of construction’,” said Councillor Caterina. “At what point do we do something different?” asked Councillor Oshry, to which Administration replied, “That’s a perfect thing to discuss in private.”

This desire to go in-camera is a symptom of a much larger communications problem facing the City. Council was caught off-guard by Monday’s leaked report and is eager to prevent that from happening again. “Going forward, we’re going to want to know everything about everything,” Councillor Caterina told Administration.

To bring the discussion yesterday to a close, Mayor Iveson put forward a motion to have Administration “develop and immediately implement a public communication plan” and to prepare a report that outlines “any significant deficiencies with this project.”

“I want to be able to tell the public with confidence” that these issues “have been fully digested,” the mayor said. “The instinct to stop giving dates – we have to move past that, and just report on a regular basis,” he added. “We need to be zealous in our transparency and communication on this project.”

There doesn’t appear to be enough accountability

One thing lacking from the discussion yesterday was any accountability on the part of the City. Councillor McKeen and his colleagues did suggest a few times that the City and Council are ultimately responsible for public projects like this, but Administration seemed content to blame contractors. The public is calling for heads to roll, at least on Twitter, but there’s no sign that that is going to happen.

I’m reminded of that overused cliche about the definition of insanity. The Metro Line has been delayed again and again since December 2013, and yet the same people are in charge using the same contractors. If the inputs don’t change, how can we expect the outcomes to?

Clearly building an LRT line is a major endeavour and integrating it with an existing one has proven to be even more challenging. But it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that so many other cities have successfully (from an outsider’s point-of-view) built even more complicated transit projects. That may not be a popular perspective within the city because it’s like comparing apples and oranges, but that’s absolutely what the public is thinking.

We’re 18 months past the first delay, and we still don’t have an opening date. How much farther down the current path do we go? We’ve heard from the City that changing contractors now and starting over on the signalling would be too costly, but that is beginning to sound an awful lot like the sunk cost fallacy. Maybe it would make more sense in the long-run to cut our losses and start over. We may not be paying Thales anything more, but we’re also not getting any closer to the end of the project.

I don’t think its wise to fire someone just to have a scapegoat, but it would go a long way toward restoring the public’s confidence in the City if some accountability measures were taken.

What impact does all of this have on the Valley Line LRT?

Understandably, Council had some questions yesterday about the impact of all of this on the Valley Line LRT. Councillor Sohi asked what, if anything, has been learned that could be applied to that project. The response? The importance of communication. Administration cited the establishment of five Citizen Working Groups as proof that things are improving with each project.

At one point, Wandzura tried to explain to Council that different procurement models result in different outcomes. The suggestion was that because the Valley Line will be built using a P3 model, we should expect things to be different. Different, yes. Better? Not necessarily. There are big concerns with the P3 model and the only reason we’re even going down that route is because it was the only way to secure federal funding. The Valley Line could very well turn out to be worse.

On the other hand, maybe expectations have been lowered so much with the Metro Line that the City will be able to exceed them with construction of the Valley Line.

When will we have an opening date for the Metro Line LRT?

Mayor Iveson asked yesterday if there’s any chance the line would be open by the start of school in the fall, to which Wandzura said he believed it would. Farbrother added that they didn’t want to suggest a date which could cause communications and public opinion to deteriorate even further. So the fall is City’s best guess, but at this point there’s no reason to have any faith in that time frame.

MacEwan Station & Rogers Place

As Paula Simons wrote, the stations and line look finished, yet they “just sit there, ghostly and pristine.” Right next door construction on Rogers Place continues, apparently on-time and on-budget. “Like a desert mirage, the promise of the NAIT LRT is always just out of reach,” Paula wrote. It’s looking increasingly likely that the new area will open before the Metro Line does.

In a private follow-up late yesterday afternoon, Council voted to hold a special meeting on the Metro Line LRT on August 17. They also made a private motion that “will move things forward” but of course we don’t know what that is just yet. An auditor’s report on the project is expected to be discussed by Council on August 24. That’s the most appropriate time for a retrospective, Farbrother suggested.

So for now we wait, with more questions than answers, and still without an opening date.

Coming up at City Council: July 6-10, 2015

Time for another Council update, this time for the week of July 6. There are a number of private reports slated for Tuesday’s meeting, including an update on the Metro Line LRT. Will it be delayed again, or will we finally get a date for the opening? Let’s hope it’s good news. Another private item is on the Communications Plan for LRT Funding.

Below you’ll find links to all the meetings and some highlighted items that I found interesting or otherwise wanted to make note of.

City Council Swearing In 2013-2017

Meetings this week

You can always see the latest City Council meetings on ShareEdmonton.

Food Truck Alley on Whyte Avenue

Last summer, a so-called “food truck alley” was proposed for the lane beside Tutti Frutti on the north side of 82 Avenue just west of 104 Street. Well now it looks like it might actually happen.

Bylaws 17278, 17279, and 17280 will be considered at Monday’s public hearing. If approved, these bylaws would close the lane permanently, would amend the Strathcona ARP accordingly, and would rezone the area to allow for “public amenity and temporary commercial space that respects the heritage character of the surrounding buildings and area, while providing pedestrian connectivity between 82 Avenue NW and the rear, east-west lane.”

No permanent structures would be allowed, and the area would need to remain publicly accessible to pedestrians at all times, but allowable uses would include park space, carnivals, restaurants, and general retail stores.

I take that to mean that food trucks could be welcome!

District Energy in the Downtown

Interesting item on a so-called “district energy system” which is basically a more environmentally-friendly way to get hot water delivered to buildings within a specific area. The idea is to use biomass (like waste), solar, natural gas, or waste heat to provide hot water, which could be used as water or in the heating of spaces. Obviously this works better in denser areas.

Here’s the heart of the report:

“Administration has been working with EPCOR, ENMAX, FVB Energy and the Holmes Group since 2012 to develop a feasible scenario for a District Energy System in the Downtown. Initial scenarios for a District Energy System focused on The Quarters Downtown, and in 2012 construction began on a small scale District Energy System to serve the Boyle Renaissance Phases I and II. ENMAX is in the final stages of commissioning a cogeneration plant in the Boyle Renaissance Tower which will be ready to serve the 90 unit senior’s facility in 2015. This plant has the capability to generate heat and electricity for Renaissance Tower and heat for the YMCA Melcor Welcome Village. Electricity generated in excess of Renaissance Tower requirements goes back to the electrical grid for resale.”

The idea is that the City provides building connections, ENMAX owns and operates the thermal generation and would sell to customers directly, and EPCOR build, own, and maintain the distribution system. The proposed system is “estimated to result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 17,080 tonnes per year in early phases and 63,000 tonnes per year at full build out.”

If Council gives the go-ahead, then Administration will prepare a business case for Executive Committee’s review in the fall. They’d also provide an update on the viability of a district energy system in Blatchford.

Valley Line LRT RFP Questions & Answers

I have found that Q&A documents are often the most enlightening of all City documents, so I was very interested to take a look at this one. There’s a total of 98 questions and answers in the document, so there’s a ton of useful information if you’re willing to read through it all.

There are a number of questions about public engagement, which the City often answers by saying that a number of Citizen Working Groups will be established. As of June 25, five Citizen Working Groups have been established based around different zones of the project. You can see the list of members here.

A few other highlights include:

  • The P3 contractor must accommodate special events, so festivals like the Edmonton Folk Music Festival will not be impacted. Access to both the Muttart Conservatory and Edmonton Ski Club will also be maintained.
  • “A relatively small amount of green space will be lost during construction,” but the City says “the vast majority” will be returned to parkland after construction is complete.
  • Apparently there are beavers living below the footbridge, and the City says that if they are still living there when construction begins, “the P3 contractor will be responsible for relocating them.”
  • There will be a wildlife underpass at Connors Road that will “help to maintain access for wildlife to and from Mill Creek Ravine.”

You can keep up-to-date on the Valley Line LRT here.

95 Avenue Bike Lane Removal

At the City Council meeting on June 23, 2015, Councillor Oshry moved that the bike lanes on 95 Avenue between 149 Street and 189 Street and on 189 Street between 87 Avenue and 95 Avenue, be removed. The motion on the floor was postponed to Tuesday’s meeting because Council ran out of time.

Since then, Councillor Walters has indicated he’d like to see the bike lanes on 40 Avenue and 106 Street removed also and he has a motion pending for Tuesday’s meeting. Commenting on the story, Councillor Oshry told the Journal that “Administration has a hard time admitting that (these bike lanes) are not working, that they’re a mistake.”

Mayor Iveson is against removing the bike lanes, suggesting that doing so would send the wrong signal to the public. Could be a close vote!

Committee recommendations

Here are some recommendations from Council’s committees that will be voted on this week worth highlighting:

  • That Administration prepare a policy for Council’s consideration to require vegetarian or vegan food for all catered City Council meetings “to support environmental sustainability.” This one comes from Youth Council, which has already adopted vegan-catered meals for its meetings, and says the meals have a significantly lower environmental impact than meals with meat. I’d rather see a requirement for local food, which I understand a working group convened by the City along with Northlands is investigating.
  • That Administration prepare a policy on traffic shortcutting that would include, among other things, “ways to address traffic shortcutting in a proactive manner.”
  • That $4.2 million in Cornerstones funding be approved for the construction of a seniors’ housing project called Sakaw Terrace and that the Sakaw surplus school site be sold for $100,000 for the project.

Other interesting items

Wrap-up

You can keep track of City Council on Twitter using the #yegcc hashtag, and you can listen to or watch any Council meeting live online. You can read my previous coverage of the 2013-2017 City Council here.

UPDATE: Since I posted this a Special Executive Committee meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday. One of the key agenda items is an update on the Implementation Plan for The Way Ahead. Council will be discussing 23 “transformational initiatives” that are expected to help achieve a significant number of the strategic outcomes by the end of 2018.