Edmonton city council to debate LRT future priorities

Edmonton city council will consider whether to prioritize LRT extensions to the north or south this week, a debate that has divided councillors and has the potential to steer transit development for years to come.

Report recommends extension to the southwest over northwest

A city report recommends Edmonton councillors prioritize an LRT extension to the southwest over the northwest. (Codie McLachlan/CBC)

Edmonton city council will consider whether to prioritize LRT extensions to the north or south, a debate that has divided councillors and has the potential to steer transit development for years to come. 

A report coming before council on Monday recommends the city prioritize an extension from Century Park to Ellerslie Road over a northwest extension from Blatchford to Castle Downs. 

Both project designs are done, the report says, but the Capital Line south extension has a leg up when it comes to construction timelines. 

Coun. Bev Esslinger says she is "extremely disappointed" since the recommendation could mean her constituents in the northwest, the last quadrant of the city without a funded LRT line, are left waiting indefinitely.

"For me it's about fairness and equity, to allow every quadrant of the city to have access to a city amenity that we're all paying for," she said. 

Extending the Metro Line north to Castle Downs, adding four new stops along the way, poses a number of project challenges. An agreement with CN to build across the Walker rail yard has not been finalized. The city also needs to acquire 35 properties to make way for the line along Castle Downs Road.  

Even if funding was approved, the report says construction could start in 2023 at the earliest.

Coun. Esslinger says she plans to press city administration on why it hasn't resolved those long-standing project hurdles. 

"I hoped we would've been able to solve some of these issues already," Esslinger said. 

Meanwhile, the report says construction on the Capital Line south extension could begin as early as next year. 

$1 billion price tag

The line would run through land already owned by the city or the province, extending south from Century Park station and over Anthony Henday Drive, adding a stop to the northern edge of Heritage Valley, a growing southwest neighbourhood with opportunities to develop around the LRT. 

But Coun. Tim Cartmell says it's premature to talk about LRT expansions given the economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic — even if it paves the way for additional transit in his southwest ward.  

"Given that this is very narrowly a choice about whether to go south or whether to (go) north, it makes sense to me that we should go south," he said.

Cartmell, a longtime LRT critic who has vied for council to consider Bus Rapid Transit instead, is concerned about the city taking on more debt to cover future construction costs. 

Renderings of a 650-metre long bridge to carry the Metro Line LRT across Walker rail yard were unveiled in 2018. Almost two years later, the agreement with CN to cross the yard has yet to be finalized. (City of Edmonton)

Both extensions are estimated to cost roughly $1 billion. Councillors expect the lion's share, about $700 million, would come from the $2.94-billion federal and provincial government investment in LRT, which has largely been committed to the Valley Line West and Metro Line extension to Blatchford. 

But the city would likely have to spend at least $200 million, Cartmell says, and service the associated debt for years to come. 

"That to me is the crux of the matter," he said. 

'We all want a good, well-connected city' 

Council is not expected to make any funding decisions at Monday's meeting, but Coun. Andrew Knack does expect a fierce debate as councillors make the case for both extensions. A priority will be set, but Knack says it doesn't mean the other should be put on hold.

Knack says the city can take a lesson from 2016, when council debated whether to prioritize the Valley Line or Metro Line north extension to Blatchford. At the time, councillors decided to prioritize the Valley Line, but still pursue the Metro Line expansion. Four years later, and despite some setbacks, the Valley Line is under construction and funding has been secured for the Metro Line extension.

"I don't look at it so much as south versus north. I look at this as south and north both needing critical mass transit infrastructure to suit their needs," Knack said. "We all want a good, well-connected city. Let's make sure the system that's in place allows us to achieve that." 

If council decides to prioritize the Capital Line south extension, the report says the next steps would be to secure the remaining $700 million in LRT funds from other orders of government and prepare a funding package for council's consideration in the fall. Meanwhile, the city would continue to push for more public dollars for further expansions on either the Capital or Metro lines as it continues discussions with CN on the rail yard crossing.