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Edmonton budget talks Day 1: West LRT funding, Lewis Farms rec centre postponement debated

2020 budget deliberations put Edmonton projects under microscope
WATCH: With the pressure to reign in spending, 2020 budget deliberations are underway at city hall. As Vinesh Pratap reports, they put two major projects - the West LRT and Lewis Farms Rec Centre - under the microscope.

Edmonton city council dove into the first of three days of budget deliberations on Wednesday, brainstorming ideas to keep costs low, including the possibility of deferring a new rec centre and putting a hold on West LRT funding.

The city is currently dealing with nearly $185 million less in infrastructure funding because of provincial cuts.

READ MORE: Edmonton councillors will have to find $26M in savings to keep tax increase at 2.6%

Councillors asked questioned about several construction projects since some were going to be supported by a provincial grant that was cut in the United Conservatives’ October budget.

READ MORE: Alberta Budget 2019: What’s in it for Edmonton?

Acting deputy city manager (finance) Adam Laughlin said if the city filled the gap by borrowing money, it would mean a 0.43 per cent tax increase on a sliding scale over a four-year cycle that would start, if approved, in 2021.

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READ MORE: Edmonton city councillors looking for cuts ahead of 2020 budget talks

Council would like to keep the property tax increase at the original 2.6 per cent mark for 2020. There is even talk it could be reduced if more programs are cut.

West LRT Line

Councillor Tim Cartmell suggested replacing the West LRT with bus rapid transit.

“I would like to have us reconsider the funding for the West LRT line,” he said.

Cartmell was ruled out of order because he previously voted against the city borrowing $2.4 billion to build the line, which the majority of council voted for.

“No rails and steel wheels, rubber tires on asphalt, which we can do very well, for a lot less money,” Cartmell said.

Councillor calls to postpone LRT construction in favour of bus service
Councillor calls to postpone LRT construction in favour of bus service

He said the bus approach would accomplish the same transit goal at half the cost.

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“It is still a dedicated alignment, dedicated lanes for buses, stylized bus vehicles, that would look very much like LRT cars [and have] stations at the same station points,” Cartmell explained. “When you add those numbers up, based on other projects we have done or are doing, I get about $850 million. But even if I’m wrong by half, even if it’s $1.2 billion… that’s still 50 per cent less of what we would spend on an LRT approach.”

READ MORE: Mayor mulls Edmonton’s West LRT future amid ‘uncertainty’ in province’s Bill 20

But his proposal faced opposition and was ultimately voted down. In a vote of 10-3, council decided to stick with the plan for the West LRT project.

“I fundamentally believe that there is no better investment in the future economic growth and prosperity in the city of Edmonton than the West Valley Line LRT,” Councillor Sarah Hamilton said.

“I cannot think of a single project that better affirms Edmonton is open for business, that in the short-term provides surety and stability and in the long-term will contribute to connecting Edmonton and turning it into a modern, major metropolitan area.”

Lewis Farms rec centre

Another idea to trim cost was to defer funding for the Lewis Farms recreation centre.

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“This isn’t the end; this is a pause,” Hamilton said, adding that pausing the project would mean the vision that west Edmonton residents helped develop would stand.

READ MORE: Budget crunch: how much is too much when it comes to Edmonton rec centres?

Under this proposal, borrowing to continue this project would be pushed to 2023-2026.

“If fortunes change —and I fundamentally believe in the prosperity of this city, that we will recover from this downturn, and I think we will recover faster than we are considering at this time — that project would be ready to go,” Hamilton said.

READ MORE: Edmonton City Council approves $321M budget for Lewis Estates rec centre

She said this position was a compromise that most councillors felt was a middle ground.

“It’s something in the long-term Edmonton needs, but in the short-term, we need to signal that we’ve heard the calls for restraint and I think that there are projects which are a higher priority, that are more important to growth, that we need to focus on as a city.”

Lewis Farms rec centre questioned ahead of Edmonton budget
Lewis Farms rec centre questioned ahead of Edmonton budget

Councillor Andrew Knack wondered if the Lewis Farms project could be scaled back at all to save money.

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“If we start taking shortcuts on other things related to building finish, building boxes, pre-fabricated, we’re likely not going to get the same efficiency, we’re likely not going to get the same life expectancy,” said Jason Meliefste, acting deputy city manager of integrated infrastructure.

No decision on the rec centre time frame was made on Wednesday.

— With files from Scott Johnston