Edmonton mayor says LRT money in provincial budget big win for city

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is checking one item off his wish list from the province: $1.5 billion for the proposed Valley Line LRT in west Edmonton. But should he?

But Transportation Minister Brian Mason says funding not a done deal

This is the type of car that Edmonton will see on its Valley Line LRT. (CBC)

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is checking one item off his wish list from the province: $1.5 billion for the proposed Valley Line LRT in west Edmonton.

But should he?

In the 2018-19 provincial budget released Thursday, $3 billion over 10 years is earmarked for LRT lines in Edmonton and Calgary. Of that, $1.5 billion will go toward Calgary's Green Line.

The budget document does not specify a specific amount for Edmonton.

Nevertheless, Iveson praised the province for the funding.
Mayor Don Iveson talks to media following the provincial budget release Thursday. (CBC News)

"In effect, we have now secured an announcement from the provincial government with enough money in it to know we can go ahead and build the west line."

But Transportation Minister Brian Mason said the mayor is getting ahead of himself on funding for the Valley Line.

"We want to see a finalized plan, we want to see an alignment, we want to see a budget, we want to see construction costs," he told CBC News.

Mason said he's made it clear to both of Alberta's biggest cities that these criteria are needed before the money starts to flow.

"That is not a blank cheque," he added.

Mason said he's been watching with interest as the public hearings were held this week at city hall.

At a hearing Wednesday, nearly 50 people criticized various aspects of the proposed design for the western portion of the Valley Line, delaying a vote to move the project forward.

In September 2016, council agreed to update the Valley Line west portion design even though the preliminary plan for the leg stretching from downtown to Lewis Farms was approved back in 2013.

Council directed the city's LRT team to consult residents, landowners and developers about the impact of the train at busy intersections, including 149th Street at Stony Plain Road and 178th Street at 87th Avenue. 

City administration came back with design amendments — and a higher price tag to build the train. The cost estimate is now at $2.24 billion, up from the previous estimate of $1.8 billion

Despite the lagging timeline, Iveson expects council to finalize the scope of the project this week.

The design still needs a final vote.

Infrastructure help from MSI fund

In the provincial budget, Edmonton will receive $190 million this year from the province's Municipal Sustainability Initiative, or MSI, a fund that helps hamlets, towns and cities build infrastructure.

In the past, these funds have been used for the Fort Edmonton footbridge, upgrades to Louise McKinney Park, a fire station and snow storage facilities.

The province's $11.3-billion MSI fund, established in 2007, is expected run out by the 2021-2022 budget cycle.

That means Edmonton will see $61 million less in each of the next three years than it receives in 2018.

The province says it's working with municipalities to replace MSI with a new grant program with a "funding formula based on revenue sharing."

Iveson said the new program will be more direct and reliable because it will allow municipalities to be partners with the province.

"We'd be able to plan and predict if provincial government revenues were going down," Iveson said. "The point is if they go up because the economy is growing, then cities would have finally some return in helping to contribute to that economic growth."

In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the changes to the MSI program are one of the things giving him pause in what he called a "mixed bag" budget.

"Winding down MSI is worrisome, taking that cut is difficult," Nenshi said. "That cut of $91 million is going to hurt."

The Alberta budget includes just over $620 million over five years for Edmonton to build a new hospital, and $290 million to upgrade the Norwood Long Term Care Facility.

Cannabis hopes up in smoke

Iveson was also counting on the province to allocate a percentage of cannabis revenues to municipalities but that was missing from the provincial budget document.

Under the federal plan to legalize marijuana this July, provinces will receive 75 per cent of the revenues from a federal 10 per cent tax on cannabis while Ottawa will keep the rest.

Prior to delivering the budget, Finance Minister Joe Ceci said it's too early to say how much the municipalities will get from legal pot.

Iveson and other municipal mayors say they need money to cover the cost of increased policing and enforcement when weed becomes legal.

"We're going to have to work with some urgency," Iveson said "It would have been nice to get resolution today."

He said the city was looking for either a share of the cannabis revenues or a grant to help deal with the transition costs.

Legalizing marijuana is estimated to cost the city $4.5 million for direct costs plus between $5 million and $7 million for increased policing.

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.

With files from Sarah Rieger, CBC Calgary