Calgary Edmonton Finance

Alberta Dedicates $2 Billion to Transit Programs

» Commitment will improve chances of new rail transit lines in Edmonton and Calgary.

In the United States, the federal government plays a very important role in the construction of new transit systems through the awarding of billions of dollars annually with the New Starts grants process. Over the past fifty years, virtually every new rail line and most new bus rapid transit lines have been constructed with most money coming from Washington.

In Canada, the federal government plays a similarly important role in many cases; Vancouver’s Canada Line is named as such because of the significant involvement of Ottawa when sources of financing were being established. Yet many other system expansions have been built thanks to the largess of provincial governments, which are more autonomous than U.S. states. Toronto’s huge Transit City plan, though now diminished in scale, remains principally financed thanks to the Ontario government. The announcement last year by Montréal that three new Metro extensions would be built over the next few years came after an agreement by the Québec government.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that Alberta has taken the primary role in advancing the capital programs of the transit systems in its biggest cities. This week, the government led by Premier Ed Stelmach cashed in on a tw0-year-old promise to invest C$2 billion in public transportation. The “Green Transit Incentives Program” — otherwise known as GreenTRIP — will require applicants to contribute at least a third of funds to any project approved after a review by the province.

By contributing a large source of the funds, the province is likely to play an important role in determining what projects will be built. In Toronto, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty exercised his influence to determine which light rail lines he would fund in face of opposition from Mayor David Miller. In Alberta, this could mean direct political control over which investments should be made in each city, though municipalities are likely to make their own decisions about how to prioritize which lines they submit for provincial grants.

For Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, and its largest city, Calgary, the money is a godsend, even though it won’t provide even close to the sum of funds required to complete the transit extension programs both cities have on tap. Both cities (and their respective suburbs) will receive C$800 million, with the remaining C$400 million going to the province’s smaller metropolitan areas.

Both Edmonton and Calgary have major transit expansion plans readied, with their respective mayors Stephen Mandel and Dave Bronconnier strong public transportation advocates much like the leaders of most major Canadian cities. Edmonton recently opened a light rail extension south of the city, and has several other lines planned. The money from Alberta will allow a 3.1 kilometer corridor reaching northeast of the city to open as planned in 2014. Calgary has a new light rail line (C-Train) currently under construction, though its C$1.6 billion Southeast light rail South Calgary Hospital line and its plan for regional commuter rail will still not be guaranteed for construction because of the limitations of the money from Alberta.

Yet a potpourri of funding sources — from municipalities, the province, and the federal government — could improve the chances of these lines seeing the light of day. There’s certainly nothing negative about a sudden big increase in available funds for transit.

For U.S. states looking to increase their influence and involvement in local transit expansion programs, Alberta’s investment could be a model to emulate. For better or worse, with increasing funding commitments come increasing political influence. For state governors wanting to demonstrate their interest in the quotidian commutes of their states’ inhabitants, a direct investment in new transit systems can’t be bad.

Image above: Calgary C-Train light rail, from Flickr user Robert Thivierge

Edmonton Light Rail

Edmonton Expands Light Rail Service South to Century Park

» Completion of city’s first transit expansion program since 1992 emphasizes attracting a suburban clientele.

Rapid transit systems can promote a variety of differing goals, from increasing the number of commuters choosing to ride public transportation during the peak hour to allowing for the multiplication of zones of walkable urbanism.

Many commuter rail systems have the stated purpose of pulling suburbanites into downtown business districts and often include hundreds of parking spots at stations to allow people who live in sprawling neighborhoods to drive right up to the station then jump on the train to make the final hop to work. At the other extreme, streetcar networks are designed for dense, inner-city neighborhoods in which most inhabitants are presumed not to have a car at all — the transit system is purely intended as a complement to a walking lifestyle.

Edmonton’s newest light rail extension, which includes two new stations and 5.6 kilometers of track, is set firmly in the first mode of thinking. With one station at a mall and the other surrounded by relatively low-density neighborhoods and a 1,200-space parking facility, its primary purpose will be to encourage commuters to get out of their cars for their daily journeys to work.

The new stations at Southgate Mall and Century Park, both of which opened for regular service yesterday, are only the most recent of the C$690 million South LRT extension program, which has been opening in short sections since 2006, when the city’s one light rail line was extended from the University of Alberta to the Health Sciences Station.  Now with 20.5 kilometers of track and fifteen stations, it will carry an estimated 100,000 daily riders, roughly double what the system was attracting two years ago.

Edmonton was the first North American city to feature modern light rail. It is currently plotting a major expansion program that could include four new corridors, several of which could be finished by 2016 if Edmonton wins the right to host the 2017 World Expo. Further extensions of the line south of Century Park are likely.

Though the first segment of Edmonton’s light rail system extended northeast of downtown, never before has the city constructed stations in areas that are so residential. When compared to most U.S. cities, the communities surrounding the new stations aren’t wildly sprawling (residents live in neighborhoods of about 5,000 people per square mile). In fact, a major development specifically geared for light rail users is being constructed at Century Park.

These will not be stations many people walk to. Trains will travel straight down 111th Street NW, a wide arterial so poorly conducive to pedestrian use that surrounding neighborhoods are walled off and both stations include elevated walkways to get over the highway. Most of the residential streets on which houses are located don’t even connect directly to the main road. Other than the preexisting mall at Southgate and the redevelopment area at Century Park, there is virtually no room for the creation of transit-oriented neighborhoods.

This means that most people who want to use the light rail line in South Edmonton will be basically forced to drive to stations. This isn’t so much the fault of the transit planners, though: it’s simply a reflection of the physical environment surrounding those stations, set in stone years ago by officials clearly uninterested in developing pedestrian activity. Whether it’s a good idea to invest big bucks in new transit lines in such areas should be a matter of debate.

Nevertheless, the light rail system is likely to be well-used simply because it will be convenient, especially for those who take advantage of the free park-and-ride facilities. A ride downtown will take 18 minutes, compared to 35 to 40 minutes on existing bus routes. Bathrooms are included at each new station (and they’re being added to the old ones) and public safety has been prioritized, with security cameras positioned just about everywhere. The stops have already been prepared for five-car trainsets to handle the expected influx of passengers.

But success for a new transit line cannot simply be measured in terms of riders; if Edmonton is able to move people from its southern neighborhoods to work on rail, that’s certainly a good thing, but the system won’t allow many to abandon their cars entirely. But this approach, it turns out, is not necessarily how the city intends to pursue future system development — the West Line, currently in planning, has encountered significant community resistance specifically because it is designed to up density in the surrounding neighborhoods and limit car traffic. The South extension does not appear likely to do either of those things.

Image above: Edmonton Southgate Station, from Flickr user leendertvdb (cc)

Edmonton Light Rail

Edmonton, First North American City with Modern Light Rail, Plans Major Expansion

Edmonton Light Rail Network Plan Map» Network would focus on reinforcing transit in urban communities, rather than speeding suburbanites into downtown.

When Edmonton opened the first 4.3-mile segment of its light rail network in 1978, it was pioneering a new approach to transit in North America. While cities like Montréal and Washington, DC were constructing huge, expensive heavy rail systems that sought to emulate the best features of older subway systems and carry hundreds of thousands of people a day, Edmonton was more modest in its ambitions. Using light rail technology and railroad rights-of-way, the city built a cheaper system that responded directly to the needs of a city whose population was less than half a million strong. As the system expanded, its focus on assuring quick suburb-to-downtown commutes rather than inner-city travel was the system’s hallmark.

Witnessing the extreme costs and the less than projected ridership of the two heavy rail systems that opened in the 1980s — those in Baltimore and Miami — other American cities turned to Edmonton’s example for expanding rapid transit. Rights-of-way are mostly secured, trains rarely run along city streets, and stations feature park-and-ride lots. This model, which attracts more than 50,000 daily riders on less than 10 miles of track, has become something of a continental standard.

Thirty years later, however, Edmonton is ready to try something new.

With a growing population, the existing south-northeast line doesn’t do enough to satisfy the travel needs of people elsewhere in the city. In response, four new lines are in varying stages of planning; unlike the existing lines, they won’t be built to compete with automobiles in travel time, possible only with few stations and isolated tracks. Rather, these new corridors will feature closely-spaced stations located in street medians. Extensions into the far suburbs, while being considered, aren’t the priority. The system’s future will be one that encourages round-the-clock use of trains in dense neighborhoods, not commutes from sprawling communities at peak hours alone. It’s a paradigm change, and if successful, Edmonton’s new system may prove to be a model for transit planning once again.

The Canadian city’s planners have been pushing a light rail network proposal for the past year, though certain elements have been under discussion for a decade. The city is currently expanding its south line five miles to Century Park from its existing terminus at the University of Alberta. A northwest line would reach nine miles from downtown by 2014. Planners insist that the central segment of today’s line, which runs in a tunnel under downtown, will reach capacity in the next few years, so any more spurs will be impossible. New routes, such as to the west and southeast, will need a new downtown connection. All in all, the city is planning a full-scale urban-style system, with 80 miles of track and six lines, a project whose implementation would cost more than C$9 billion to build and carry 500,000 daily riders by the time it’s completed. This new investment allows the city to use a different form of rail technology.

By taking advantage of low-floor trams now common in cities across the country, Edmonton can save on infrastructure costs by eliminating the expense of investing in stations with high-floor platforms. The other major advantage of this approach is that it makes it more simple to run light rail in the street as would a streetcar, and it makes stops more integrated into the surrounding communities. This will encourage people to walk up to trains from the livable, dense neighborhoods that planners argue could surround stations if developers respond appropriately to new construction. The idea that one drives to a light rail station and then gets on a train may be outmoded.

For residents of the communities likely to be affected by these new lines, however, this approach doesn’t seem all that well considered. For the C$2 billion west-to-southeast route, which has yet to be funded, running trains on Story Plain Road out to West Edmonton would mean a reduction in the number of car lanes to just one in each direction. Business owners on the popular strip suggest that this would significantly reduce their customer base because it would eliminate some 80% of cars that drive by daily. This would especially be true for commercial outlets distanced from stations, which will be located every six blocks and leave clear differences in service between areas close to stops and those further away.

In the early years, those business owners are likely right: they’ll suffer a decline in commercial activity as people used to driving to get their shopping will go elsewhere. But the opportunities for revitalization of the affected areas in the longer term will more than outweigh the pain caused initially placed on some businesses. By placing light rail in the street’s median and building closely-spaced, accessible, and convenient stations in neighborhood centers, Edmonton is repositioning itself for a future in which people depend on their feet more than their cars. The general manager of the city’s transportation department phrased it well:

“The LRT is not just about moving people. It’s about building a city.”

Indeed, this is a lesson that other cities could learn; rather than focusing on moving people the longest distances as quickly as possible, transit planners should be working to design transit corridors in a manner that emphasizes creating livable communities. From this angle, Edmonton’s approach is exactly right.

Image above: Edmonton Light Rail Long-Term Plan, from City of Edmonton

Calgary Edmonton High-Speed Rail

Calgary-Edmonton Corridor Next Up for Train Improvements

Calgary Edmonton High Speed Rail MapAlberta government reports on possible high-speed links costing between C$3 and 20 billion.

Last week, yet another North American governmental body announced that it would begin fighting for funds to build a high-speed rail line. This time, Alberta stepped up to the plate, arguing that a fast train link between Calgary and Edmonton, with a stop along the way in Red Deer, would be a appropriate corridor for investment. This is the second serious Canadian effort for high-speed rail, behind the more prominent Windsor-Québec City effort, which would connect Toronto and Montréal, the country’s two largest metropolitan areas.

Calgary and Edmonton are 180 miles apart, putting them about three hours of one another by car. As a result, more than ninety percent of the travel between the cities is done by road, with only a small portion of people choosing to fly between them. Via Rail Canada serves Edmonton along its nationwide east-west route, but it offers no north-south connection to Calgary.

The study, completed by a consulting firm for the provincial government, compared four types of rail investment — 125 mph diesel service (2 hour trip), 150 mph “jet train” operations, 200 mph electric travel, and 300 mph maglev service (1 hour trip). Unexpectedly, the report showed that economic benefits would improve as train speeds increased, and that ridership would similarly go up, reaching between 2 and 10 million annual riders by 2050, depending on the speed of the trains. The study found that 200 mph trains would be the most effective system for implementation; the project would cost around C$10 billion to construct. Other options would cost between C$3 and C$20 to complete.

Calgary and Edmonton are close enough to one another that high-speed rail service between the cities would be competing more with car drivers than airplane riders; this could make attracting market share more difficult than along longer distance routes of between 300 and 600 miles, which are a stretch for most drivers. But the question the government should have in considering whether to invest in this line is whether it expects people to choose rail over driving, and whether ticket prices will be low enough to make that option feasible. If estimates show that rail — with its lower trip times and stress-free commutes — will attract many of those people out of their cars, than this corridor would be worth constructing.

Image above: Alberta high-speed rail plan, from Government of Alberta

* Note: this piece was auto-posted; the transport politic will be back in normal operation on Thursday the 23rd.