All Aboard: West Valley LRT
The plans for the proposed West Valley LRT line have been the subject of a contentious and spirited debate both inside and outside of City Hall. A week long discussion in Council Chambers came to an end in the evening of March 23rd, when Council voted to proceed with the proposed design.
The Valley Line is the first completely new LRT route in Edmonton since the Capital Line was constructed in 1977. The new line runs from the southeast through the west of Edmonton. The Valley Line is a part of the long-term LRT Network Plan, which will see 6 lines extending into: the northwest, the northeast, southeast, south and east parts of Edmonton.
The Valley Line will consist of 2 parts: the Valley Line Southeast and Valley Line West. The southeast portion, which would run from the Mill Woods Town Centre through 102 Street downtown, is already under construction. The Valley Line West proposed design, which would run from 102 Street downtown to Lewis Farms Transit Centre, was the subject of many hours of debate and public hearings in Council this past month.
By The Numbers:
- 14 km – the distance of the proposed West Valley LRT, which will extend from 102 Street downtown to Lewis Farms Transit Centre (199 Street NW and Webber Greens Drive NW).
- $2 billion – the estimated costs for the project. The City of Edmonton has secured federal and provincial support to cover the costs.
- 16 stops – the number of proposed stations: 14 will be street level (including transit centres at Jasper Place, West Edmonton Mall, and Lewis Farms) and 2 will be elevated stations (Misericordia Hospital and West Edmonton Mall).
- 30 minutes – the total projected travel time from the downtown location to Lewis Farms.
- 6, 600 people – the maximum number of transit-users that the West Valley LRT will transport in a one hour period during peak hours.
- 67 sessions – the total number of public engagement sessions the City of Edmonton hosted during the preliminary design phase, which includes 17 formal drop-in sessions and 50 targeted formal meetings with community leagues, major business, and key stakeholders.
Urban Concept Plan and Design
Unlike the Capital Line and the Metro Line which all have elevated stops, the West Valley Line is expected to primarily operate on low-floor LRT. This will allow for street-level boarding off and onto the LRT. In addition to the step-free boarding, low-floor LRT also allows for smaller stops and minimal infrastructure.
The low-floor system is classified as an urban approach to LRT design and operation, as it is geared to fit into existing neighourhoods. The LRT line would continue to operate on the dedicated right-of-way and with priority. However, with the lowered tracks this design better balances traffic flow, while promoting transit oriented development along the LRT corridor.
The smaller-scale stations allow for stations to be located closer together, and provide greater pedestrian connectivity. With the integration of step-free boarding, the LRT will be easily and fully accessible for seniors, those with mobility concerns, and young families. Of the proposed stops for the West Valley LRT, 14 of the 16 stops will be located at street level. The 2 stops that will include elevated stations are the stops at the Misericordia Hospital and West Edmonton Mall.
With stops at the Misericordia Hospital and West Edmonton Mall, the West Valley LRT will increase public transit to key public health institutions and landmarks. In addition, with the 102 Street downtown stop, the West Valley Line will ensure greater and easier access to other key health and education institutions, including the University of Alberta health facilities, the Royal Alexandra, Grey Nuns, MacEwan University and NAIT.
Most Recent Changes
The concerns voiced by the speakers during the City Council Public Hearings mainly focused on the proposed underpass on 149 Street and Stony Plain Road. This amendment, introduced by City administration, was a deviation from the original proposed design which kept the LRT running at street level at 149 Street. The proposed underpass would lower travel time but increase cost of construction, with a $160 million price tag.
After hearing from speakers and considering the cost-effectiveness of the proposed underpass, Council voted against building the proposed underpass at Stony Plain Road and 149 Street.
In addition to scrapping the underpass, Council approved a design amendment which would include a raised platform at the 178 Street and 87 Avenue intersections. Located in the southwest corner of West Edmonton Mall, the 178 Street and 87 Avenue crossing would go over the roadway in an effort to minimize the impact on traffic at this busy intersection.
Designs for the location of the 156 Street LRT station have been amended, as well. The LRT station will be located on the same side of the 156 Street as the existing Jasper Place Transit Centre. As a result, the West Valley LRT will turn a block further west. This will allow for the new LRT station to better integrate with the Jasper Place Transit centre, which already serves as a bus transfer point for transit users.
My Considerations: The Balancing Act
There were some reservations I held about the concept for the West Valley LRT line, which included accessibility and funding.
Balancing Funding Opportunities— LRT networks are necessary but costly endeavors. As a Councillor, I understand that the revenue through which Council funds the many programs and services provided to Edmonton comes from tax-paying residents like you and me. While the City of Edmonton will likely shoulder a healthy portion of the cost, there is an expectation that the provincial and federal government will assist with funding.
This was certainly the case with the West Valley LRT. The federal government has committed infrastructure funding for Alberta, a portion of which Edmonton will receive for the purposes of LRT construction. In addition, in the recently tabled budget, the Government of Alberta committed $1.5 billion in LRT funding. With upcoming provincial and federal elections, there is no certainty that new governments will continue to honour the funding commitments of previous governments. Furthermore, the funding provided from both the provincial and federal government were designated toward infrastructure projects. The total $4.8 billion from the federal and provincial government must be allocated to infrastructure projects (planning, design, engineering, construction, and operation).
There are many different positions that need to be balanced with the expansion of the LRT line. If it was possible, it would have been a preferable option to have momentarily paused on the continued expansion for the West Valley Line. Given the concerns related to the Metro Line, it would have been great to wait until the South Valley Line had been constructed and in operation. This would have provided Council the opportunity to assess the usability and operation of the line before fully committing to any future expansions. However, this is not an option available to us at this time. Given that we had the funding available to compensate for the construction costs of the West Valley expansion, it was prudent that we approve the design and move forward with the expansion.
Balancing competing perspectives – among all the concerns expressed to me during the course of the LRT network expansion debate, all had one underlying sentiment: “do it right.” As much I would love to achieve success in one fell swoop, this is an impossible task for many reasons. For instance, what is “right” is entirely dependent on what you believe the role of the LRT is. Some argue that its role is to get people from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. This is the approach that was taken with our existing LRT lines, both the Metro Line and the Capital Line. These LRT networks do well to move people over large distances in a relatively short period of time.
However, there are concerns with the current LRT lines that centre on the lack of accessibility of the platforms and stops. That is to say, the stops are infrequent and stations are far apart. With the Urban LRT approach, there are more frequent stops and stations are closer in distance. This will allow the LRT network to service more Edmontonians more easily and in more areas than the Capital or Metro LRT networks.
Balancing traffic and community – With any large-scale infrastructure project, the disruption to present environment is inevitable. The question is not if there will be disturbances to the community during construction and operation, but rather how much disturbance? These considerations are important when it comes to balancing the impact of LRT expansion for the communities it will service. There are a handful of variables that these considerations touch on, ranging from accessibility to serviceability and cost.
It was in the vein of accessibility that I carefully considered the future of the proposed underpass on 149th Avenue and Stony Plain Road. The control of the flow and mobility of the traffic is an important consideration when designing the concept and plan for the LRT network. Residents from around the City tend to prefer that the LRT network run either above or below street traffic. However, with this particular underpass, the impact that its construction would have on the community was too great and the impact it would have on traffic was too small.
The addition of the underpass would expropriate dozens of businesses in the area that residents use, including seniors and families. The underpass was introduced as a measure to minimize impact on traffic for an already busy intersection. However, after reviewing the cost and the plans, the price tag associated with the underpass did not appear rational or feasible. The disruption of construction and the expropriation of local businesses to shave off a total of 30 seconds off of travel time for motorists didn’t make sense. This is the most significant reason why the underpass was scrapped by Council.
The Conversation Doesn’t End Here…
Ultimately, it is important to recognize that Edmonton is a growing city and is in need of modernizing to better adapt to the changing demographics and landscape. The approach for future LRT lines will be that of Urban LRT, actively integrating infrastructure into the existing residential and commercial environment. The result will be improved accessibility for Edmontonians and minimization of disruption to communities and neighborhoods.
With Edmonton’s future LRT network having already been fully mapped out, and ranked in order of priority, Council and residents have a clear picture of what to anticpate with our infrastructure goals and commitments. The proposed network will connect all corners of Edmonton, providing access to the northeast, northwest, west, southwest, south east, and east portions of Edmonton. This strategic plan is an important step in planning and budgeting future transportation projects across a growing Edmonton.
There is no doubt that infrastructure investments are both costly and timely. But they are also necessary; it is important that the City of Edmonton remain an urban centre that is accessible and sustainable. This is why all future approaches Council and City Planners will be taking for transit development will align with our Transit Strategy. Sustainability, mobility, and accessibility will be the guiding principles moving forward, and I am committed to working with Edmontonians as we work towards achieving that.
For now, the West Valley Line is chugging forward, full steam ahead.