On December 15th, it will be 10 years since the Valley Line West LRT route was approved. I remember that Council meeting well as I was attending on behalf of the Meadowlark Community League and as a local resident who lives within a block and a half of any of the three routes that were being considered. After a lengthy engagement process that included one of the largest community public meetings I attended, the Meadowlark Community League was unable to provide support for any of the three routes because our community was split almost equally between the three routes.
Due to that position, I took the opportunity to use my five minutes and express my desire for City Council to pick whichever route they feel is best and then get moving on building the West LRT. West Edmonton had been waiting decades for LRT and there was never going to be consensus on the route because each of the three options had pros and cons. Instead, it would be better to work with the communities along the route to try and mitigate any concerns to ensure this would be the best system possible.
When I ran for Council in 2013 and 2017, I made a commitment to secure the funding necessary from the other orders of government so that we could start building a critical piece of infrastructure that has been needed since the city first started building LRT four decades ago. Ensuring all parts of our city are connected by proper mass transit such as LRT are necessary to provide choices for move throughout our city. This also allows different housing options to be developed close to the LRT which is important as we think about what our city will look like when we have 2 million people.
There has been a lot of conversation about the Valley Line West LRT over the last 12 years. This project has likely gone through more review and scrutiny than any other project in our city’s history. That’s important for such a significant project. I’ve contributed to that review through a number of different motions to explore things like additional grade separation, different roadway operations, and an analysis of emerging transportation technologies. Each of those motions helped to improve the route from what was first approved a decade ago and gives confidence that we have examined as many variables as possible.
In the last few weeks, there has been a suggestion by one of my colleagues to halt the Valley Line West LRT and instead invest those resources into a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system with any savings to be applied to other dedicated transit infrastructure (ex: bus lanes, additional buses, etc.). For context, the suggestion being made is that we would build a BRT system similar to Ottawa’s Transitway. The Transitway is similar to the LRT in that there is a completed dedicated right of way built for the buses to travel along. No other vehicles use the Transitway and similar to the low-floor LRT, the buses would receive partial priority at the busiest intersections and full priority at the less busy locations.
I’ve had the chance to write about this topic in the past and would encourage you to take a few minutes to read through this post from January 2018 when a motion was passed to complete a thorough comparison of BRT and LRT. This motion provided some initial numbers that I will expand on below. I also want to include a blog post from earlier this year which provided a summary of a number of different topics related to the Valley Line West LRT.
As you will have read, I think our city needs to invest in BRT. There is a lot of value in a proper BRT system and I think it would help increase ridership on our transit system. As noted in my January 2018 blog, while there would be savings on the capital side, there are a few different concerns I have that I’d like to expand on below.
The BRT/LRT comparison report from March 2018 shows that we would expect about a 25% savings by building an Ottawa-style BRT system. When it comes to operating a BRT system and LRT system, the cost is dependent on how many people are riding the system. Our ridership estimates for our LRT have typically been low. That means that more people end up riding our LRT than what we originally expected. Using those conservative estimates it is expected that we would need to run 7 buses (approximately 80 passengers) for every two-car LRT (approximately 550 passengers). Until we move into a world of fully autonomous vehicles, that means we must have drivers on every bus. The average lifespan of an articulated bus is 12 years compared to 35 years for a light rail vehicles. Those factors translate to a 20-30% higher operating cost for a BRT network with the projected ridership.
Property Value Increase and Development Potential
As the March 2018 report states, there was a comprehensive review (150 studies) of land value and public transport literature. This business case reviewed various case studies and data sources regarding uplift factors for BRT, LRT and other transit technology. When these factors combine – LRT is shown to attract higher levels of transit oriented development and higher system ridership volumes, resulting in an increase in assessable properties and higher assessable property values.
Property Value Uplift
Land Use BRT LRT
Residential 2-4% 10-25%
Office 2-4% 10-50%
Retail 1-2% 10-50%
Potential to Reallocate Funding
Approximately $2 billion is being funded by both the Provincial and Federal governments. This funding was specifically allocated to the Valley Line West LRT. If we were to convert the West LRT to a BRT system, we have no guarantee that the approximately $500 million in potential savings would be able to be used for other transit projects. I would not want to assume that the funding will be allowed to be transferred to a different transit project. While I wouldn’t want this to be the only reason to continue with LRT, I believe it’s important to identify this as a possible risk.
While they represent a minority of the people I’ve spoken with over the years, when I meet people who do not believe we should be investing in LRT at all, the primary concern raised is impact to those who still need to drive. As you can read in more detail in the links above, the Valley Line West LRT will operate using partial priority at the busiest intersections (ex: 149th Street/Stony Plain Road). That means that at the less busy intersections (ex: 156th Street/95th Avenue), the LRT will be given full priority.
How might that impact an intersection like the previously mentioned 156th Street/95th Avenue?
While I provided the point that we would need to run 7 buses for every 1 LRT, let’s use a more conservative estimate. For this example, let’s compare running 5 buses for every 1 two-car LRT. During rush hour, the LRT will be running every 5 minutes in one direction. This means that there is the potential that the LRT will get priority of the traffic signal every two and a half minutes as we have to account for the LRT coming in the other direction. The primary traffic flow at that intersection is for the vehicles travelling north/south. Because the traffic that is travelling east/west is lighter at that location, giving the LRT full priority would not have a significant impact on those travelling east/west as that timing is more than the current traffic signal timing that currently exists.
If we run 1 bus every 60 seconds in one direction and give the buses the same priority that we would give LRT, which is the suggestion being made by moving to an Ottawa-style BRT, there is the potential that an intersection like that would now fail. The intersection could be required to consistently give full priority to the north/south signal because if we assume that buses are spaced out equally, that could result in a signal change every 30-60 seconds.
To be clear, if we proceed with the suggestion to build a BRT system that is built just like the LRT, many of our less busy intersections along the route would now be compromised and create significant congestion for those who will still be driving.
I’ve been the first to support reviewing various aspects of the Valley Line West LRT. By introducing motions such as the worldwide review of emerging transportation technologies, I have shown that I have been more than willing to explore mass transit alternatives. I’ve never been set on a specific technology but rather I’ve been set on getting proper mass transit out to the west end of Edmonton.
We are about a year away from construction beginning on a project that is decades in the making. I have always been interested in gathering as much information as possible and as long as we aren’t delaying the procurement process which will begin next year, I would happily support a request for any additional information that we haven’t already reviewed. There haven’t been any new requests for new information in the last year but any member of Council has the opportunity to bring forward a motion at every Council meeting.
Is it possible that new information could be brought forward and change the type of technology that we use to provide mass transit to the west end of Edmonton? Yes. But review after review after review over the last decade has continued to show that LRT is the right solution at this time. While I find it hard to believe that there is something that hasn’t been reviewed after so many years, I would never oppose asking for new information to help inform what is one of the most important projects for the entire city.
After decades of talking, it’s time for action. We have to build the infrastructure that will serve our growing city. When it comes to transit, I believe that means a complete rail network that reaches each part of our city along with a robust bus system that can reach those areas where ridership does not quite reach the threshold to justify LRT. We know those choices are necessary to attract and retain people and I look forward to the formal construction beginning in early 2021.