Construction on a funicular in Edmonton's river valley has begun, with the clearing of trees and shrubs near the Hotel Macdonald downtown.

"It's actually going to be quite spectacular," said Rob Marchak, the city's director of Strategic Projects, during a Monday morning interview on CBC radio's Edmonton AM.

Although approved last June, the $24-million Mechanized River Valley Access project finally garnered the necessary environmental approvals last month.

The project includes a funicular to carry passengers up and down the slope, a sweeping staircase with outlooks and a pedestrian bridge over Grierson Hill Road.


The new funicular will operate much like an elevator, taking up to 20 people at a time down the banks of the valley. (City of Edmonton )

"It's something to get into and out of the river valley, and it's actually part of a large series of projects," Marchak said.

"The funicular has been one of those really exciting parts of all of those projects ... . It really is an inclined elevator. The banks in that area are 45 metres high, so it's hard to get down and over those. So this whole program with the River Valley Alliance has been [about] increasing accessibility and connectivity into the river valley."

Rob Marchak hands heritage piece

Rob Marchak, Director of Strategic Projects and councillor Ben Henderson celebrate the ground breaking. This heritage piece will be incorporated into the new design. (John Robertson/CBC Edmonton )


Construction was funded with both federal and provincial grants, but the cost of operation remains unclear; a disconcerting prospect for the mayor, many councillors and some residents.

"To me, it seems like a waste of money. I think the stairs are good enough. And the rest of it doesn't really make any sense to me," said Edmonton resident Jeremiah Kowalchuck.

"This doesn't need to be achieved through a funicular. There are other ways to get down to the river valley that don't require a multimillion-dollar funicular to be built on our river bed."

Construction is scheduled for completion by fall of 2017. In the meantime, the staircase connecting McDougall Hill Road to the top of the riverbank will be closed, as the existing wood staircase is refurbished.

Grierson Hill and McDougall Hill Road will experience temporary traffic disruptions throughout construction, including a temporary lane closure at the top of McDougall Hill Road for approximately six months. 

"I'm very disappointed," said Edmonton resident Janet McKernan. "It's a huge inconvenience. There is mostly [people exercising] on this stairway, so we're likely not going to be using the stairway, which seems like a big waste of money in this economy."


New renderings from the city illustrate plans for the funicular. (City of Edmonton )