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Forget the west LRT — Edmonton needs bus rapid transit, argues city councillor

WATCH: An Edmonton councillor wants to postpone the west leg of the LRT, just as construction is set to get rolling. Tim Cartmell said that instead he wants the city to focus on bus service. But as Breanna Karstens-Smith explains, the mayor is not on board.

One year after calling for the west Edmonton LRT extension to be halted, Ward 9 city councillor Tim Cartmell is once again saying the city should defer the line indefinitely and redirect money to a better bus network, including bus rapid transit.

On Tuesday, city council will delve into a new Edmonton Transit Service plan, which has promised to include more frequent service in return for longer distances to walk to bus stops, and provision of a secondary service to provide “First-kilometre, Last-kilometre” access.

READ MORE: Edmonton Transit Service to formally introduce redesigned system

Cartmell will be putting forward a motion to defer approval of the bus network redesign until budget discussions in December, so councillors can discuss the transit system design within the context of all spending priorities.

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Cartmell said it’s important to look at all of the options as a whole.

“To make one set of decisions on transit without having a full picture of all of the resources available for all of transit — LRT, bus, first kilometre, last kilometre — I think it makes sense to have one discussion about all of it at one time, and that time is budget.”

The new bus network plan, unveiled earlier this month, suggests during peak hours, there would be five-minute frequency on routes that are in demand, with 15-minute service in off-peak hours.

The old maximum distance to walk to a bus stop would increase from 400 metres to as many as 600 metres or, in some rare cases, 800 metres.

Transit ridership in Edmonton is around 13 per cent and it hasn’t changed in decades. Last week, Coun. Andrew Knack said, based on surveys he has read, the lack of convenience and time it takes to get anywhere is what is keeping some people from taking transit.

READ MORE: Councillor sets ambitious target to get people to ride Edmonton Transit

Cartmell said the $2.4-billion pricetag for the west end LRT, which would extend the Valley Line from downtown to Lewis Farms across the Henday in the west end, might be better spent on a less expensive BRT network.

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“I think when we talk about what is the next best thing to fund in transit — what is that?” Cartmell said on Sunday, after putting out a blog post Friday detailing his ideas.

“If we did have some more resources for the bus network redesign, we could add some more fixed routes — particularly in those neighbourhoods that are losing fixed routes.”

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Cartmell said Edmonton should invest in reliable and convenient BRT to the outer reaches of the city like Ottawa has.

Edmonton councillor wants to hit the brakes on west LRT expansion
Edmonton councillor wants to hit the brakes on west LRT expansion

According to the city, BRT is a high-priority, bus-based transit system similar to LRT. It has dedicated lanes, stations typically aligned to the centre of the road, and off-board fare collection similar to current LRT stations.

Cartmell suggests a city-wide BRT system, extending from downtown to Lewis Estates, from the University of Alberta to Windermere along Terwillegar Drive, from downtown to northwest Edmonton. He said it should incorporate park-and-ride to allow vehicle drivers to begin migrating to a mass-transit system.

“We are talking about a fundamental redesign of the network and conceptually, I think that there is a lot to be gained there,” he said about the bus network redesign.

“But it does leave a lot of the neighbourhoods I represent without service: neighbourhoods that had service are going to lose it, neighbourhoods that need service, would like to have it.”

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His proposed halt to building the west LRT is getting a lot of pushback from a large chunk of city council.

“I’m a bit frustrated that this continues to come up when council has been resolute that we want to move ahead with this project,” Mayor Don Iveson told reporters over the noon hour Monday.

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“Council has already invested considerably in design and land acquisition. We’ve worked hard to ensure the federal money will continue and I’ve had assurances of that even today that the feds are still there. And the province continues to insist that they are supportive and will fund it, albeit on a delayed basis. So I think we have everything in place to move ahead.”

Iveson said he had a phone conversation with newly-sworn-in federal infrastructure minister Catherine McKeena on Monday morning.

READ MORE: Transit satisfaction still pretty good but declining among Edmonton riders

This would be the second time Cartmell has tried to put the brakes on the west LRT project.

West end councillor Sarah Hamilton responded over the weekend on social media.

“Fixed-rail transit gives people confidence that the route isn’t going to change one day. That means increased investment on private lands adjacent to these sites, which means increased property values all the way around,” she posted on Twitter.

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Ward 1 councillor Andrew Knack also added that development potential is at stake. He said Rio-Can will be before city council in either January or February to get the Jasper Gate property at 149 Street rezoned. He said he’s had feedback from the company, in the past year, after Cartmell first raised the idea of shifting from LRT to a less expensive bus rapid transit model.

“They’re still very supportive of moving forward their project, particularly because of the LRT piece,” Knack said.

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“We chatted a bit about bus rapid transit because I knew there had been conversation raised about it. Their response at the time was a little more hesitant to proceed with something at that scale if you don’t have the certainty that I think some folks look for.”

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Cartmell said he hasn’t talked to Rio-Can specifically, but has heard feedback from other potential developers.

“There’s this notion that only rail is permanent enough to support development,” he told Global News. “That is not the feedback I’m getting consistently. If it is a permanent transit corridor then development would like to see that happen.”

Iveson said too much interest in development is happening now to turn back.

“The 12,500 construction jobs, person years of employment that will be created by moving ahead with it are important,” he said.

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“I think there’s a rezoning coming with in the next few weeks for transit oriented development right along the line which can be hundreds of millions more, potentially billions in private investment,” Iveson said, referring to the West Jasper Gate proposal.

He also mentioned WestBlock is being completed by Beaverbrook at 142 Street, as well as many families purchasing homes along the west LRT corridor, anticipating the project going ahead.

READ MORE: Councillor says Edmonton Transit audit shows need for culture shift

The network redesign removes 100 routes and redirects buses to achieve high-frequency service aimed at cutting commute times.

To fill the first kilometre, last kilometre gap, transit is looking at “on-demand” services similar to Uber or taxi. Cartmell said in order for an on-demand model to work, the routes and vehicles for the entire network must be adaptive and be able to slip in and out of the on-demand areas and fixed routes.

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In his blog, Carmell said there could be periodic high demand for service in a typically low-demand area: a neighbourhood that needs two or three large buses in the morning and in the evening, but where throughout the day the on-demand service with a small bus is sufficient.

“In other areas we might see low but consistent demand that requires a smaller bus but more frequently,” Cartmell wrote, adding the city should buy a number of different-sized vehicles that can serve a multitude of service modes anywhere in the system.

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“I don’t think that delivers a very good message to, on the one hand, say we want people to use a robust transit network but at the same time, telling people that have actually used that network, have actually used that service — that they’re no longer going to have a service to use.”