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Commuter rail between downtowns and airports a priority, Alberta government says

Click to play video: 'Could Edmonton get a commuter train from downtown to airport?'
Could Edmonton get a commuter train from downtown to airport?
The Alberta government is signalling a renewed interest in a commuter train linking Calgary and Edmonton's downtowns to their airports. As Sarah Komadina reports, it comes in the form of a mandate letter from the premier to the transportation minister – Jul 11, 2023

Commuter rail services connecting Edmonton and Calgary’s downtowns with their respective airports is a priority for the Alberta government, according to the provincial transportation minister.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith tasked Devin Dreeshen with exploring a commuter rail system around Alberta in a mandate letter Tuesday that outlined a number of priorities relating to transportation.

For starters, Dreeshen has been mandated to conduct a feasibility study of commuter rail service using heavy rail on the Canadian Pacific rail line between downtown Edmonton and the Edmonton International Airport (YEG), and between Airdrie and Okotoks.

“With Edmonton and Calgary, I think it’s important that our airports are connected to our downtown core,” said Dreeshen.

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Alberta government announces it will match federal funding for transit

The minister mentioned Vancouver, one of two Canadian cities with a rail link to an airport.

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“When you look at Vancouver, when they finally had a connection between downtown and the airport, it helped out with tourism, with regular British Columbians using the airport and being able to easily commute throughout the province and around the city,” he said.

Puneeta McBryan, executive director of the Edmonton Downtown Business Association, said the downtown-airport train line is a “big city idea.”

“You look at Toronto and Vancouver, it’s just a given – you just expect to have that direct connection between the airport and downtown.”

Dreeshen said the study would first look at the upfront cost of building the service and yearly operating costs, and if the economic benefits would be enough.

“We want to make sure … that the economics work out on it,” said Dreeshen.

Click to play video: 'Would a train connecting airport to downtown Edmonton boost economy?'
Would a train connecting airport to downtown Edmonton boost economy?

McBryan said organizers have chosen to not hold their conferences in downtown Edmonton because of the inconvenient location of the airport, and that those conferences can infuse the local economy with millions of dollars.

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“When you think about what makes the city attractive to major conferences, major events, even for businesses to invest and locate in a downtown, having a direct airport connection is huge,” said McBryan.

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It’s going to be a costly project, whether it’s a commuter rail or LRT, said consultant David Cooper.

“The challenge with commuter rail that we have here in this region is that the government doesn’t own the corridors, so we’d be working with third parties, looking at synergies potentially sharing the corridor to bring those investments in,” he said.

It would also take an “engineering feat” to cross the North Saskatchewan River to connect the airport with downtown Edmonton, he added.

The connection is something that needs to happen though, Cooper said.

“In two to three years, Edmonton and Calgary will be the only major cities without connection to the airport,” he said.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi is in favour of the LRT expansion, saying it’s one of the city’s next big projects to expand the line from downtown west out to St. Albert.

As for an expansion to the airport, he said the city’s been talking about it for decades, but now they finally have resource support from the province to make it happen.

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“It’s a good start for us to explore these options,” he said.

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New incentives offered to attract business to downtown Edmonton

The mandate letter said the service would be run similarly to Metrolinx, a Ontario provincial Crown corporation that operates regional transit in the Greater Toronto Area. This includes models like GO Transit, the commuter bus and rail network that runs between Toronto and nearby regions.

Metrolinx also runs the UP Express, a train service that connects downtown Toronto to Toronto Pearson International Airport.

The study should include the use of hydrogen-powered trains, the letter said.

The earliest that construction could start – providing funding is there and it is deemed economically feasible – is in three years, Dreeshen said.

Smith also tasked Dreeshen with exploring cost-sharing agreements – with the private sector and/or municipalities – for downtown-airport connections, as well as transportation projects that would better connect regional communities to Calgary and Edmonton, and Calgary to the province’s Rocky Mountains parks.

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The letter said the connection to the Rocky Mountains would first require the Blue Line on the CTrain network to be connected to the Calgary airport.

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Alberta government shows support for hyperloop shuttle between Calgary, Edmonton

Other directives in the letter

The premier also tasked Dreeshen to expand major highways in the Edmonton and Calgary areas, including the Anthony Henday Drive and Deerfoot Trail.

She also directed Dreeshen to implement the First Nations Regional Drinking Water Tie-In Program, a program aimed at improving drinking water for Indigenous communities.

Smith wants the minister to focus on expanding economic corridors across the province and country including corridor agreements with provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to Hudson Bay, the Pacific and the Arctic.

She also directed Dreeshen to prioritize interprovincial infrastructure projects with the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and B.C. governments.

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