Rookie councillors critical of Valley Line West LRT

Edmonton’s transit system continues to be a hot topic going into 2019, and first-term city councillors are looking forward to having more of a say in future decisions.

'I'm not convinced that in its entirety the West LRT is a prudent, practical decision'

A city rendering of a stop on the Valley Line West LRT. (City of Edmonton)

The Valley Line West LRT is forging ahead despite ongoing criticism from many Edmontonians and four first-term city councillors. 

Three of Edmonton's rookie councillors elected in October 2017: Tim Cartmell, Sarah Hamilton, Aaron Paquette voted in favour of the route and design for the 14-kilometre stretch of the Valley Line between downtown and Lewis Farms in the west end. 

But they still have issues with the controversial project. 

"I'm not convinced that in its entirety the West LRT is a prudent, practical decision right now," Coun. Carmell said in a year-end interview with the CBC in December.

Cartmell says mass transit will be crucial as the city prepares to support a projected population of 2 million people by 2050. Based on 2016 census data, Edmonton has about 930,000 people.

Since council approved concept plans for the Valley Line LRT in 2012, the city has held several open house consultations and worked on the preliminary design. 

Community members appealed to city council several times over the past year with concerns about safety, losing local businesses and a lack of park-and-rides in the suburbs.

"We need to be thoughtful on what our constituents want us to spend money on now," Cartmell said. "What outcomes are we trying to drive and is this the most effective way to drive them?"

Coun. Jon Dziadyk voted against funding the next stage of the Valley Line West LRT.  The city won't know how badly intersections along the southeast portion of the line, from Mill Woods to downtown, will be affected, he argued. 

"We are replicating the design across the whole city," Dziadyk said, adding that he supports mass transit west and north. 

"We have to make sure that we do it right and not rush projects that are incredibly expensive and that have tremendous impact on the lives of Edmontonians."

Most of us, when we go to other cities, we use public transit- Coun. Sarah Hamilton

Aaron Paquette, also an advocate of public transit and LRT, doesn't agree with some council decisions on the Valley Line West.

"I am one of those folks who had concerns about the route," Paquette said, also in a year-end interview. 

Paquette believes that as a first-term councillor, he's watching a project that's been debated and discussed for over a decade "reach its final stages."

"The can basically got kicked down the road to us, and so we're dealing with it rather than continuing to pass the buck to the next generation."

The Stony Plain factor

A key decision was made by council's urban planning committee last fall, which agreed to keep Stony Plain Road a two-way street between 149th Street and 156th Street.

Approving the Stony Plain leg of the line was necessary for the design to be considered final. 

Before the vote, Mayor Don Iveson noted that the city has earmarked $136 million for Valley Line West LRT design and land acquisition — two elements that were prerequisites for the provincial and federal governments to commit to funding.

Edmonton city council approved the Valley Line West LRT route, a 14-km line from 102nd St. downtown to Lewis Farms in west Edmonton.

Iveson asked staff to confirm that provincial money hinged on this decision. Adam Laughlin, manager of LRT projects, said that was the case.

The day after the committee approved the Stony Plain portion, Iveson met with Premier Rachel Notley, who announced $1 billion for final design and construction.

Sarah Hamilton said it was difficult to vote against the Valley Line West LRT because so much money had already been put into it or pledged. 

"When you have funding cued up and when you've left room within our debt financing to fund something and you're getting matching funds from the province — provincial and federal governments, it's really hard to say, 'please take your multi billion dollars back. We're not going to do this.' "

As a councillor, she'll continue to be critical about LRT projects, she said, to try to make sure it's useful to people in decades to come. 
First-term councillor for Ward 5 Sarah Hamilton in her office at city hall after council passed the 2019-22 operating and capital budgets. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

"Most of us, when we go to other cities, we use public transit. It's easier to get around," she said. "I think it could be a value to Edmonton but only if it works properly and only if it it serves citizens." 

City council has been discussing procurement — how the Valley Line West LRT will be built and by whom — in private meetings. Council is expected to decide on a contractor sometime this year.

The project is the second phase of the 27-km urban-style Valley Line stretching from Mill Woods in the south to Lewis Farms in the west end.

After a contractor is chosen, it's estimated to take another five to six years to complete construction.



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