I support opening the River Valley to more recreational opportunities, especially for those who have mobility challenges. The currently-under-construction funicular, known as the River Valley Access, is good in principle, but lacking in common sense.
The funicular is a railcar that transverses along the steep slope from near the Fairmont MacDonald Hotel to the boardwalk area, at the river’s edge. I am very familiar with this area of Edmonton, as Karly and I have walked our dog here many times, mostly in Louise McKinney Park. The place is so special to us; we also decided to have our engagement photos taken in this area. This place is beautiful, and I am proud that it’s part of Edmonton. I want as many people as possible to enjoy it. But I am writing about this space for different reasons.
As is the trend with recent City of Edmonton procurements, the scale and scope of the project is overblown, and at the expense of the taxpayer. A reporter from The Edmonton Examiner describes the artistic portions of the project as “meant to reflect the surrounding environment, blending in with nearby trees as much as possible. Artistic benches mimic the river’s rolling waves and the stairs and pedestrian bridge surfaces are made with lots of wood.”
“The river’s rolling waves”? Is this reporter from Edmonton? She also says that use of the wood is an attempt to be “culturally sensitive.” I won’t try to unpack that for fear of being misinterpreted.
Currently, the project is slated at $24 million. I predict that it will end up costing more. I would be willing to bet $24 million that it will cost more than $34 million.
My lack of faith comes from multiple telltale signs of civic waste. Apparently, the ‘design team’ visited other funiculars around the world. Quebec City has a famous funicular, which provides access to probably the most famous of Fairmont hotels, the Chateau Frontenac. Yet the Edmonton crew went international. Did they go to Paris and spend at least three working days, or did they go to multiple other locations? I bet they went to Switzerland, where they ordered the railcars from. How many employees went on this ‘fact finding’ mission? Where are the real journalists to examine this? I am merely a blogger.
A quick digression: I am aware that an executive from the Edmonton Zoo went to Japan to examine a single piece of anti-bird-collision glass that cost thirty thousand dollars. The cost cited is for the glass alone. I am not going to comment on whether the glass was worth that price to save some birds, but did the zookeeper need to see it on the Japanese factory production floor? Is this type of travel the norm for municipal bureaucrats?
Beyond providing River Valley access, the reporter also says that the funicular will provide opportunity for “quiet reflection.” I cite this part of the piece to emphasize that every buzz word possible has been thrown at this project. How will a piece of public transit infrastructure be able to provide quiet reflection?
Now the good part, or the bad part, depending on whether you value taxpayer money, is that this expensive piece of civic infrastructure will be completely free of charge, with no user fees. My intuition is that the City fears that the funicular will be as empty as the LRT on a Tuesday night, if it is not completely free. Perhaps they think that a $2 user fee would be discouraging. If that is the case, then how much do people really want this funicular?
And so the $34 million is for construction only. How much will it cost to operate per year? I honestly think that free dedicated cabs or Ubers, running 24/7 from the top of the hill to the bottom, ad infinitum, would be substantially cheaper than this project, which has already bulldozed trees and is a visual blight to those who have valued the protection (up to now) of the river valley slopes.
This funicular will connect to the boardwalk, which is notoriously empty (ironically, that is one reason why Karly and I like it so much). I fear that no one will use the funicular, but then, that would mean that my cherished boardwalk would remain untarnished. Really it will just be a free perk to the guests of the Fairmont, and yet that company did not contribute, and those guests have money.
And the boardwalk cost millions, too. Edmonton is in need of a tourism beacon, but this is obviously not it. I fear that we are throwing good money after bad.
North Side Journal
(photo adapted from the City’s)