After a meeting that covered multiple days, we finally have a clear picture of the additional improvements that will be made to the Valley Line West LRT. I want to start by thanking everyone that took the time to come out to speak at the Public Hearing. Also, thanks to those who couldn’t attend but took the time to share their feedback separately. I’ve spoken with thousands of people over the years and I know that the majority of people have been very eager to see this built to provide them with a new way to move.
I also know there were concerns raised about how this project might impact traffic for those that will continue to drive and so about a year ago, Council asked for a review of a number of key intersections along the route. I’ll provide a summary of those approved changes along with why I didn’t push forward with all the recommended changes. While I will include some of the information from the report you can access the entire report here. The report includes the specific traffic impacts at the key intersections in detail.
Crossing Assessments for West LRT
87 Avenue and 178 Street: Original Concept plan was an at-grade (street-level) crossing along the south of 87 Avenue.
Three options for the 178 Street intersection that performed the best against the assessment criteria are:
1) Elevated LRT guideway crossing over 178 Street along the south of 87 Avenue.
2) Elevated LRT guideway crossing over 178 Street along a median alignment of 87 Avenue.
3) At-grade LRT crossing of 178 Street along the south side of 87 Avenue.
The concept plan was amended so that the West LRT will now be elevated over 178 Street with the median alignment (Option 2). As noted at the beginning of the post, I heard from many people about this intersection and felt it was important to take some time to have a detailed analysis of the location before proceeding. Anyone that lives in the west end knows that this a very busy intersection throughout the day and I wanted to understand what the overall impact would be along with the cost to keep the LRT elevated over 178 Street. The report showed that the cost to keep the LRT elevated was in the range of $70-$80 million and there would generally be a positive impact on the flow of traffic compared to the at-grade crossing.
The traffic analysis looked at the current vehicle delays and compared those against vehicles delays in 30 years with the LRT crossing 178 Street at-grade or elevated. If the LRT was left at-grade, the increase in the average delay would range from -22 to 97 seconds. While a 97-second increase may not be significant over the course of 30 years, since the LRT station at West Edmonton Mall is already going to be elevated, the incremental cost to keep the LRT above 178 Street makes this a worthwhile investment. The other point is having the LRT cross using the median alignment versus the south alignment. The median alignment is projected to be $10 million less than the south alignment, it minimizes the impact to the properties on the south side of 87 Avenue, and the median alignment ensures we can keep the sidewalks along the south side of 87th Avenue. For all of those reasons, I supported the elevated LRT over 178 Street with a median alignment.
Stony Plain Road and 149 Street: Original concept plan was an at-grade crossing at 149 Street in the centre of Stony Plain Road (SPR).
The three options for the 149 street intersection that performed the best against assessment criteria are:
1) At-grade LRT crossing 149 Street with a centre alignment along Stony Plain Road.
2) Underground LRT.
3) At-grade LRT crossing with 149 Street passing underneath Stony Plain Road. (Road Underpass)
The concept plan was amended to an at-grade LRT crossing 149 Street with the alignment along SPR (centre, south, or north) to be determined (Modified Option 1). This was the most challenging of the decisions. I previously campaigned on the idea of grade separation at both 178 Street/87 Avenue and this location. I assumed that the traffic impact would be significant and felt it would be important to separate the LRT from traffic. What came forward in the study shows that the impact on travel times was far less than I expected and when you combine that with the cost of grade separations ($160-$260 million), I could not justify moving forward grade separate at this intersection.
As with the other intersection, the traffic analysis looked at the current vehicle delays and compared those against vehicles delays in 30 years with the LRT crossing 149 Street at-grade, underground, and the road underpass. If the LRT was left at-grade, the increase in the average delay would range from -37 to 133 seconds. The 133-second delay is for a very small turning movement approximately 36 vehicles so I want to focus on the largest impact which is a 97-second increase for the approximately 1,318 vehicles travelling westbound on SPR that turn onto 149 Street during the PM peak (3pm-6pm). Similar to the points raised about the 178 Street/87 Avenue intersection, I believe that 97 seconds over the course of 30 years is not ideal but it is also not an unreasonable increase. But where I felt I could support the incremental cost of keeping the LRT above 178 Street, the $160 million price tag makes this much harder to support for the limited amount of vehicle movements that would experience the biggest delay. The majority of the rest of the traffic would see a delay increase ranging from -37 to 68 seconds.
Price was not the only factor in making this decision. Thanks to the President of the West Jasper/Sherwood Community League (Irene Blain), many residents and businesses came together to share their concern with the likely loss of many businesses along the west side of 149 Street along with a three-storey apartment close to 102 Avenue. Their message was quite consistent, it is not the right decision to spend at least $160 million when those that live around that area will now be without their bank, pharmacy, dental office, coffee shop, etc. There are many seniors residences within a short walk of these businesses and if we were to remove them to build a road underpass for $160 million, these seniors would have a much harder time being able to age within their community. One of the key reasons the SPR route was selected back in 2009 is to help with the revitalization efforts along Stony Plain Road. To remove all of these businesses and a residential apartment building seems counter to what we are trying to accomplish in this area.
For the reasons above, I supported keeping the LRT at-grade across 149th Street and not proceeding with the road underpass. The one small modification is that I removed the reference to centre alignment. Over the past few months, the Stony Plain Road Business Improvement Area brought forward a suggestion to look at turning SPR west of 149 Street into a one-way road. This suggestion was presented after the traffic analysis had already started so there wasn’t the same amount of time to review this option. Attachment 6 of the report that is linked at the top provides a high-level review of the advantages and disadvantages of proceeding with the one-way option. What will happen from here is the City Administration will now work do some further analysis on this to determine if there is a possible traffic benefit by moving to a one-way road and they will also analyze how that may or may not help with the revitalization efforts. I see a lot of merit in this one-way option because it could retain a parking lane on SPR which could also be used as a flex space like we see on Whyte Ave. There are times where restaurants extend their patios onto the sidewalk and then the parking lane becomes the sidewalk. The one-way option would allow this to occur on Stony Plain Road. A final decision on that will be made with the input of residents and businesses and a report will come back to City Council once a decision has been made.
Stony Plain Road and 156 Street LRT Alignment Change and 156 Street LRT Stop Relocation
With the proposed concept plan amendment, the LRT alignment would travel along the centre of Stony Plain Road and turn 90 degrees to continue along the west side of 156 Street before transitioning back to the centre of 156 Street at 99 Avenue. The original plan had the LRT turning at a 45-degree angle across the southeast corner of 156 Street/SPR. The original plan also would have relocated the Jasper Place Bus Terminal to that same corner. The final plan will now have a 90-degree turn as shown in the picture above but as with the 149 Street/SPR intersection, there is no reference to a centre alignment so that the one-way option can be examined.
During the Public Hearing, a third option was presented by residents. They suggested a gentle curve turn be used at that intersection to try to minimize noise and to see if it is possible to retain the opportunity for northbound traffic on 156 Street to turn west onto SPR. I really appreciate the idea but as we had the opportunity to dig into that a bit further, I decided to support the 90-degree turn as noted above. The main reasons for supporting the 90-degree turn over the 45-degree turn is the impact to the properties on the east side of 156 Street, the opportunity for redevelopment at that southeast corner, and the connectivity for passengers between the new bus terminal and the LRT.
With the number of buses serving the area, the ability to move the bus terminal was not viable and a decision was made to keep it on the west side of 156 Street. If the 45-degree turn was used, the stop would have been on the east side which would mean that there would be a steady stream of people crossing 156 Street which would create traffic impacts. The loss of redevelopment opportunities at that corner is also a significant consideration since one of the main reasons for the SPR route is to encourage redevelopment. This option also allows the City to retain the parking structure at The Orange Hub (previously the MacEwan west end campus) and even explore adding parking for a park and ride. Finally, this option saves the City approximately $20 million as it would not require us to move the existing transit centre.
The gentle curve option would have allowed the LRT to take the turn a bit faster but since there is a stop on the west side of 156 Street, the difference in speed would be minimal. The bigger change would have been possibly allowing the turning movement noted above. When reviewing the most recent number available, the total daily turning movements onto SPR from 156 Street travelling northbound is 1,280. For reference, that’s fewer turns than listed above for the traffic travelling westbound on SPR onto 149 Street over three hours. There are more vehicles turning onto SPR from 163 Street travelling northbound (approximately 2,388). Recognizing that is a limited amount of vehicles, the reasons I was not able to support it is because the gentle curve would still require some of the property on the southeast corner of SPR/156 Street which starts to restrict opportunities for redevelopment. It also would result in additional restrictions on traffic when the LRT approaches the transit centre.
I realize that by staying with the 90-degree turn that it will inconvenience some drivers who normally make that turn, including me when I visit one of the businesses on SPR or head to Superstore. With that said, there will be an opportunity for traffic to use 163rd Street or they can travel two blocks further to use 102 Avenue which will have a new traffic signal. 102 Avenue will be watched closely to ensure that it isn’t being used as a shortcutting route but since it terminates at 163 Street, that should not materialize.
Lewis Farms Transit Centre
The image associated with this change can be found in the March 21st Council meeting report (Page 1 of Attachment 7). The two key changes here are that the number of stalls for the park and ride will be increased from 275 to approximately 900 – the number of stalls was supposed to be reduced from what was there today down to 275. An increased park and ride here is necessary for the short-term so that people can more easily choose to use the LRT. The other change is the LRT station will now be right beside the bus terminal which was not part of the original plan. There would have been a significant distance between the LRT and buses which is now eliminated.
One important consideration is that the area that contains the expanded park and ride is designated as a Special Study Area in the Potter Greens Neighbourhood Structure Plan (NSP). While the concept plan has been amended, there is a separate process that the City will now go through with local residents to develop a long-term plan for the area. Residents have been living in Potter Greens for as long as 25 years and they need to be consulted to develop what will happen with that space in the medium to long-term as a parking lot is not the greatest use of land. They developed a draft documented that showed a wonderful transit-oriented development and would help expand the type of housing in that area. The engagement for a NSP amendment is significant to those living in that part of Lewis Estates can expect a thorough process.
The Valley Line LRT is using low-floor LRT. This link has a brief breakdown of how it differs from our current high-floor LRT. One of the most important differences is that unlike the current LRT which gets full priority at every intersection, the low-floor system only gets partial priority at the busiest locations during the busiest times. That means as the LRT approaches the intersection of 149 Street/SPR, if the light is red for east/west traffic, it will stop at the red light. The only thing it can do is if it is approaching one of those busier intersections and it has a green light but it is going to turn red in 5 seconds, the LRT can hold the green light for a few extra seconds to make it through that intersection.
Emergency vehicles can drive onto the LRT right-of-way in case of an emergency. This means that if a road has a lot of vehicle traffic, it can use the LRT lanes during an emergency to respond as quickly as possible.
As mentioned above, the purpose of the meeting this week was to review detailed traffic impacts at the most critical locations along the West LRT. The locations were determined through the LRT Crossing Assessment Framework. This was not a rushed process because we wanted to ensure we completed our due diligence. There was extensive work done over the years, even before I first got involved in 2007, and all the reports, information, and public engagement completed is available on this site.
The capacity of this line was raised and it was suggested that only 6,600 people could use it per hour in each direction. That number is assuming we are only running LRT every 5 minutes and that there are 550 per two-car train. As we learned in the meeting, there are no technical reasons that prevent us from running the Valley Line in 2.5 minute intervals. We also know that during the peak times transit systems assume a ‘crush load’ since more people are looking to use the system. The two-car trains can technically hold up to 940 people but that would be using the Japan model where people would be pushed as close together as possible. A realistic crush load for our system would be around 700 people per two-car train. So with the ability to fit more people on the two-car train and run them more frequently, the system has plenty of capacity for opening day and long into the future.
Originally when I started writing this post I thought I would also take some time to discuss the actual route that was selected back in 2009. As this has become a lengthy post, I will simply extend an offer to anyone interested in discussing why Stony Plain Road was first selected as the route for the West LRT in 2009 but also why I still support it today. As someone that lives within about a block of the three routes that were being debated between 2007-2009, I was able to approach that discussion with the understanding that I would be directly impacted no matter which route was selected. This was the first major issue that got me engaged in municipal government and I’m always happy to discuss it with those that are interested.
As you can imagine, this was far from an easy decision. While I am confident that the changes made this week will only improve the West LRT, I know that no matter how much time we spend analyzing every aspect of the line, it will never be perfect. By taking the time over the last two years to refine the concept plan, I am certain that this system is better today than it was last week. We can analyze things forever and never make a decision or start a project. In the case of the Valley Line West LRT, there is no need to wait until the completion of the Valley Line to Mill Woods because we know how this technology works. This style of LRT has been used across the world, including in cities that get more snow than Edmonton. Even if we begin construction in 2019, the system would not be operating until approximately 2024/2025 meaning we will have seen how Valley Line Phase 1 has been operating for about 4 years and can continue to refine the system.
We know what happens if we do not build mass transit, congestion will increase significantly faster. Those traffic delays listed above will be far worse than we could imagine and we stand to miss an entire generation of riders in West Edmonton who will be ready to use the West LRT to attend high school and post-secondary. It’s very easy to never make a decision and we have been planning on building the West LRT for over 40 years.
The Valley Line West LRT will expand the opportunities to revitalize our mature communities, create a vibrant Stony Plain Road that becomes the envy of the rest of the city, and will efficiently move people across the city to major employment, education, and tourist destinations. As we get ready to become a city with over 1 million people, it’s time to move forward with this critical project and I look forward to the beginning of construction in 2019.