Not worth $220M to elevate Valley Line LRT, critic says

Plans for a neighbourhood-friendly commuter train running at street level through Bonnie Doon could be at risk if Edmonton city councillors entertain a new proposal to change the Valley Line LRT design.

A report released Thursday presents the option of elevating the track along 83rd Street, east of Bonnie Doon mall, from north of 90th Avenue to south of Whyte  Avenue at a potential cost of $125 million to $220 million.

Neighbouring communities that would be affected the most by an elevated train include Idylwylde, Holyrood and Strathearn.

The current plan is to build a 27-kilometre low-floor tram-style train running at street level from Mill Woods in the southeast to Lewis Farms in the west.

"One of the goals is to have it integrated with the neighbourhoods where you can just walk up to the station and catch the train," Dave Sutherland, civics director with the Holyrood community league, said Friday.

"Elevating it changes that perception to a metro system where it's fairly disconnected from the community," Sutherland argues.

A raised track would look similar to Vancouver's SkyTrain and create a visual and psychological barrier, Sutherland said.

"It wouldn't feel like it's a neighbourhood streetcar anymore, it would feel like you're getting on to a major metro system."

The raised track would speed up LRT trips by about one minute and shorten wait times for vehicles at intersections, according to the report.

"The wait times they're looking at would only vary by 20 seconds or 30 seconds," Coun. Ben Henderson said.

"For that we would be spending up to $220 million." 

Henderson recognizes the ongoing headache of heavy congestion at intersections such as Whyte Avenue and 83rd Street.

"I don't think we can make that go away by raising the LRT," he suggested. "I think that's in the nature of the amount of traffic that tries to go through there at rush hour."

A big reason to build the LRT, he pointed out, is to give people an easier way to get around the city and reduce the number of vehicles on Edmonton streets.

He suggested only a portion of the track should be raised around the heaviest intersection at Whyte Avenue, not for seven or eight blocks.

"What they're proposing right now seems like overkill to me."

Learn from past mistakes, avoid delays

It's safe to say nobody wants delays and technical problems similar to those that beset the Metro Line, which opened two years after the initial deadline.

Henderson said he wants the city to get the Valley Line right.

"I suspect they're being extra cautious after the Metro Line decision was made, which was made without good information," Henderson said of the recent report.

Building the $1.8-billion southeast portion of the Valley Line between Mill Woods and downtown is expected to take another two years.

Adding an elevated track would drag out construction for at least another six months, Sutherland pointed out.

"Plus it would be much more intensive construction, with building piers and overhead stations and things like that," he said.

The option to raise the track alongside Bonnie Doon mall is not in the original budget for the project.

The company building the line, TransEd, said if the city decides to go ahead with the grade separation at Bonnie Doon, the company could finance it and increase monthly payments on the 30-year period.

City councillors are scheduled to discuss the report at a committee meeting Tuesday.