It’s only prudent to look at the big picture with any major infrastructure decision. I am first going to discuss inefficiencies in our current LRT system. While I am critical of past decisions, I only make my points so that we can learn from our mistakes. Rapid LRT expansion in Edmonton has presented many challenges. I fear we will repeat our mistakes if we don’t take a moment to reflect upon them. I want an efficient transit system for all of Edmonton.
Secondly, I will provide some insight into the proposed (but indefinitely delayed) north Metro Line LRT extension. I would like to see some changes to the proposal to better reflect our needs.
There are soft and hard costs associated with LRT construction. The hard costs are those involved in construction, expropriation of private land, operation and maintenance of trains, tracks and signals. Never is an LRT exclusively contained to an existing road right-of-way. Business and home owners are bought out. The tearing up of roads to lay tracks and stations with public art installations are all quite expensive.
The true cost of LRT construction is always much higher than disclosed to the public due to fuzzy accounting practices. The costs that are directly related to LRT construction are often billed to ‘other projects.’ For example, if a whole intersection will be reworked for LRT tracks, significant associated costs are sometimes hung on separate ‘roadway or neighbourhood rehabilitation projects’ in order to make the actual amount of money spent on the ‘LRT project’ seem more palatable. In this instance, the cost of tracks and signalling would go to the LRT project, but the pavement, curb and gutter, and sidewalk restoration costs would be billed separately and coded to another project.
If a sewer or storm line needs replacement near a proposed LRT route, the area will be rehabilitated and prepped for LRT construction, while the whole project will be billed as non-LRT related infrastructure.
An infamous accounting tactic to make LRT costs more digestible is for Council to initially propose a modest route, but when it comes closer to the time of construction, the City contemplates a more realistic yet multi-million dollar addition to make the train run better, such as was recently discussed in Bonnie Doon (raising the track at the traffic circle). The dilemma arises: do you now spend additional money to make transit more convenient for everyone, or do you keep it as is while knowing everyone will be frustrated, forever? Why can’t Council be clear about the true cost of a project from the start? Let’s get the facts for the best possible route up front.
As the LRT mainly shares existing roadways, the real kicker in hard costs is the signalling system: the arms and lights that control traffic. The signalling system is the gift that keeps taking, as it requires perpetual maintenance (including the outdoor heating of switches on the track, which I wrote about in Hot Air LRT). The coordination of the signalling arms is extensive, and the system often does not work, such as we can see all along 111 Street (south side), and on Kingsway Avenue (north side).
The incalculable soft cost of the LRT is the inconvenience factor for everyone that is held up while an empty train passes. Generally, I am in favour of more underground LRT, even if that means that we can afford fewer overall kilometres of track. Properly imaged bus routes need to be an integral part of the system, and I will write about that in my next post.
I work near the Kingsway LRT station. The location of that LRT stop is just inconvenient enough that users of the Royal Alexandra Hospital and the Kingsway Mall find it too far away to use. That stop was misplaced and perpetually snarls traffic.
Traffic on Kingsway is stopped when a train is anywhere in the vicinity of the road, even when it might be over a minute before the train crosses Kingsway. Cars are held up prematurely. When the train approaches the station, cars are commanded to stop. Cars remain idling while people are loading/unloading at the station. The only saving grace is that, since this station is rarely used, the loading/unloading procedure happens fairly quickly.
As to the chosen location of this station, it should have been placed to either serve the mall or the hospital, not both. In this case, I’d vote for the mall. Being too close to the hospital complicates access to the Emergency Room.
Too often, I see ambulances waiting for a train to pass. Generally, ambulance routing has now been altered to go the long way around the tracks. What this means is that a patient has to wait longer for treatment, and we all know that every minute is important in emergency situations. Have babies been born in the back of cabs en route to the hospital while waiting for the LRT to pass? Tragically, I see that the Mill Woods line will likely impact the Grey Nuns hospital similarly.
What is the cost to our economy when our roads are at artificial gridlock to accommodate a LRT passing through with no one on it? When there are only a handful of riders on the train and 100+ cars idling waiting for it to pass, one can see that the LRT is actually worse for the environment.
A significant soft cost of the LRT is human frustration, for both the train riders and for those in cars that are waiting. Effects on our mental well-being should not be discounted when we factor in the total impact of an LRT project. The classic example is when signalling arms raise for a moment and then quickly close again because a train from the other direction is coming. Being late for a date or for soccer practice because of unexpected LRT crossings can be frustrating, and it is possible that subsequent road rage, even if it happens several minutes later, could be the result of the frustration caused by initially encountering a crossing train. Although road rage is never excusable.
The LRT holds up pedestrians and cyclists, too. And I am not just referring to roadways. LRT routes create barriers that divide neighbourhoods. Central McDougall, just north of downtown, is now permanently divided by the fence protecting the Metro Line LRT tracks. We like to promote the walkability of a neighbourhood, but we just intentionally severed one. Many of the residents that once welcomed the LRT are now enraged at what the LRT did to their community.
But do the public art installations around stations relax everyone?
Did you know: The NAIT LRT station is a temporary stop built to a near full standard. I don’t know how much it cost to build that stop, but the whole thing is scheduled to be demolished and a new one will appear a few hundred metres into the old airport grounds, soon. I’m serious.
The Deceptive LRT Trick to Make it Appear More Used
In order to artificially make it appear that more people ride the LRT, the City has realigned old bus routes to make a leg on the LRT a mandatory part of most transit trips. What I mean is that one used to be able to take a bus up and down major streets. Now, to make the same trip, the City forces that transit rider into the LRT system, as all of the buses go there. This means that the person taking transit will now have to take a bus-LRT-bus trip, instead of just a bus trip (and be required to go up and down LRT station stairs).
If transit was more convenient, more people would take it. Let’s make it more convenient. Smart bus routes, in conjunction with the LRT, is the answer.
The NAIT to St. Albert Metro Line extension, as currently contemplated, is probably not the best answer for the north side. The 90 degree turn by the Castle Downs YMCA will permanently jam up that intersection. Why would we bring the train west on 153 Avenue to St. Albert when the people of St. Albert mostly do not want the LRT. The terminus station should be at the Castle Downs YMCA. Possible future expansion could see the train advance north along Castle Downs road, as it bends east, until it meets up with 97 Street (as the final stop).
But the current proposed turning of the train west on 153 Avenue, toward St. Albert, is excessive and not prudent. Instead we should vastly improve bus service on 153 Avenue. There is only one taxpayer and if other levels of government are handing out money for LRT, we still need to consider the overall cost of the project. As a City, let’s think for ourselves. And let’s take a holistic perspective. Going west on 153 will create a barrier between those living north and south of the avenue, such as was done in Central McDougall. LRT design should be more hub-and-spoke than being a giant spiderweb.
The current proposed terminus for the Metro Line LRT is on Campbell Road, where there is currently a wetland. In separate discussions, Council is considering spending billions of dollars or stormwater management infrastructure over the next few decades in order to prevent flooding. Well natural wetlands control flooding… All I am saying is we need to think about what we are doing. An LRT line, in part, is appealing for environmental reasons. So why pave over a wetland to build an LRT stop with a massive associated parking lot? Can we stop and think about that?
Also, the proposed LRT bridge over the Yellowhead should be designed to accommodate vehicular traffic, pedestrians, and cyclists, too. If we are building this, let’s do it right. Being solely designed for LRT (or interim buses) is short sighted. If it is only for trains, what about emergency vehicles?
The St. Albert Connection
I can understand why the residents of St. Albert, who currently take an express bus into downtown Edmonton as part of their daily commute, don’t want the LRT built. It is nice to have a direct bus link, but their commute time will likely triple when the LRT line replaces the express bus. The LRT is by no means a direct passage between downtown and St. Albert. If the LRT is built, I predict that those living in St. Albert who currently commute daily to Edmonton will start taking cabs, Ubers, or carpools. It will be the train line used by no one. But my priority is to the people of Ward 3. I don’t want a system imposed on Ward 3 that will make everyone (especially transit users) worse off.
The real solution to transit is high-frequency buses going in straight lines, which I will write about in my next post. The goal of transit should be to get people to where they are going. Buses work, and with some ingenuity, they could work even better. On the north side, the LRT line should terminate at the proposed Castle Downs location, and we need a City Councillor that can negotiate with the other councillors to ensure that the north is not ignored.
I am putting my name forward for the job. On Oct 16, vote Jon D for Ward 3.
North Side Journal