Edmonton's new LRT will run less frequently to start; councillors 'cautiously optimistic'
There is now a firm opening date for Edmonton's long-delayed and issue-plagued Valley Line Southeast LRT – prompting one city councillor to literally rejoice at city hall Tuesday.
"Hallelujah," Ward pihêsiwin Coun. Tim Cartmell said in a scrum with reporters.
"We've been waiting for this for the better part of three years. So, [I'm feeling] one part relief, one part excitement. I'm really pleased that we are finally going to be able to see some people on this very expensive new railway."
Service will start on Nov. 4, with trains departing both the Mill Woods and 102 Street stops at 5:15 a.m. – but they won't be running at the frequency initially promised.
The line will begin with trains departing every 10 minutes during peak times, not five minutes as planned.
"I'm not saying that it's 50 per cent [of intended frequency]. I'm saying that's running at 10-minute frequency, they're going to work towards five, and it will absolutely adequately carry the capacity," Edmonton's deputy city manager Adam Laughlin said when pressed by reporters.
He had no timeline for when the line will reach 100 per cent, but said the city is "holding TransEd accountable," referring to the private company that built and will manage the line.
"There will be things to work out and it's better to ensure that you're providing a reliable service, which is at the 10-minute frequency, than to force a five-minute frequency when the demand isn't there," Laughlin said.
A city spokesperson later stated that the line is "ready to run every five minutes" but the city has requested it run at 10 minutes "based on lessons learned from other municipalities, and the abundance of ridership capacity along the Valley Line Southeast."
A "precursor bus" will continue to run along the line until February.
TransEd is contracted to operate the line until 2050 and Laughlin said the company will be seen working on maintenance, completing landscaping and fixing any "deficiencies," which he doesn't expect to impact the running of the line.
Cartmell suggested he is OK with taking some time to gradually ramp up the frequency of the trains, citing LRT concerns in Ottawa.
Despite the issues, Laughlin called the new LRT a "transformational project" and a "game changer for how people move around the city."
He also confirmed there have been "settlements" between the city and TransEd related to the delays, but stated he could not disclose how much money was involved.
A Valley Line Southeast LRT enters the Muttart Station during testing in Edmonton on October 24, 2023. (Matt Marshall/CTV News Edmonton)
'SOME PEOPLE WOULD CALL IT A DEBACLE'
Ground was broken on the $1.8-billion project in the spring of 2016.
But a large concrete mass discovered in the North Saskatchewan River, cracks in piers and problems with cables delayed the line's completion. So, too, did absenteeism and supply chain issues during the height of the pandemic.
The line, which runs 13 kilometres from Mill Woods to Churchill Square downtown, was originally supposed to be finished in December 2020.
Coun. Sarah Hamilton said for about six years she's been hearing from residents who have been "really frustrated" with construction and delays.
"I think some people would call it a debacle. I don't know that I would call it a debacle, but I think there's a lot of lessons that we've learned about it," Hamilton said, including improving the way the city procures and manages projects.
She said it's great to have an opening date. Now she's praying it works properly.
"I'm still cautiously optimistic. I will be really excited in six months when we have regular service, when this is an essential part of Edmontonians' daily commute," Hamilton said.
"If you've been watching the testing over the last couple of months, you'll know that it'll take you on some pretty spectacular views of Edmonton."
Ward Metis Coun. Ashley Salvador said many in the city will be happy to see the trains running, including some who purposefully moved near the line.
"I've knocked on doors where people have been waiting for the day they can commute to downtown on the train. So this will be transformative for those folks," she said.
A Valley Line Southeast LRT crosses the North Saskatchewan River during testing in Edmonton on October 24, 2023. (Cam Wiebe/CTV News Edmonton)
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER HALF?
Construction on the second part of the Valley Line – from downtown to Lewis Farms on the western outskirts of the city – started in 2021.
Councillors said, as far as they know, that 14-kilometre stretch is on schedule. The cost of that section is $2.6 billion and is being built by Marigold Infrastructure Partners.
"It's really early in that project, in terms of delivery and that kind of thing," Cartmell said.
"Anybody that drives through that part of town, including me, can certainly see that there have been some hiccups. There's been areas segregated off for alignment of the west section and no real activity for months."
It's still too early "to speculate about an opening date" for the west line, a spokesperson for the city wrote in a Wednesday statement.
"There is still lots of work to be done, and all parties remain focused on progressing quality work," Sheila Keenan told CTV News Edmonton.
When asked whether or not he's confident completing the west section will go smoother than the southeast, he pointed out no one really knows for sure.
"Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, isn't it?" Cartmell said, rhetorically.
Hamilton has been holding bi-monthly "check-ins" with residents on the west line to address any questions or concerns arising from that half of the project.
A formal grand opening for the southeast leg will be held in 2024.
Between now and the line's opening, TransEd says it will be conducting "final operational exercises" to ensure operators and staff are fully prepared.
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nav Sangha and Alex Antoneshyn
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