25 August 2013

A rant on Edmonton's back-to-the-future transit thinking

A newcomer to a city sees illogical things. These are things a long term resident doesn't see, or more likely is just tired of complaining about. As I biked home from the bustling and surprisingly car-free Edmonton Fringe Festival on Saturday, my new to Edmonton eyes saw one such thing. It was a red, German-built, two-car Hannover tram. The '70s era train and its many passengers were headed directly -- as in door to door -- to the Fringe Festival. I couldn't help but notice, however, that despite this public rail connection traveling from where people live to where they want to go, the tram isn't part of Edmonton's transit system. Instead, it's a glorified amusement ride that runs for just more than a third of the year, and yet nonetheless offers the most logical public transit link between downtown and Strathcona.

This would make absolutely no sense in a city other than Edmonton.

The lack of a dedicated, direct transit link between Edmonton's two downtown cores -- the one most of us work in and the one, across the river in Strathcona, that we eat, drink and walk in -- has already been written about. A wrinkle that continually gets missed, however, is the four historic trams that compose the High Level Bridge Streetcar fleet. Aside from offering picturesque rides across the North Saskatchewan River, their existence is most effective at mocking Edmonton’s modern transit ineptitude. 

The missed opportunities are stark. The High Level Bridge Streetcar starts in downtown's Grandin neighbourhood, just west of 109 Street and south of Jasper Avenue, which is a roadway that is overrun with bus passengers. Two blocks to the east of this is Corona LRT station, and one block to the west is the Grandin LRT station. The possible connection for all this considerable transit traffic is, literally, a short walk away. And the line runs across the river, stopping in Garneau and then the Strathcona Farmers Market, just north of Whyte Avenue. Both of these spots are popular places that people would like to take public transit to rather than drive, walk or bike to, but currently don't, or even can't, because the service is poor, slow or nonexistent. 

There are reasons, I hope, that long ago Edmonton city council decided it was wiser to build an LRT line that didn’t service Whyte Avenue and Strathcona, only to more recently propose to build a line that would do just that, yet far off in the future and requiring hundreds of millions of dollars to build. And I hope there were also reasons that this idea was picked while a former tram line connecting downtown and Strathcona already existed. And further I hope there are reasons that the city helped a historic society restore this line, which was built in 1913 and abandoned (but not disassembled) in 1951, in order to offer a tourist attraction rather than a transit link.

To me, the newbie, what should happen is obvious: The rickety, seasonal transit bandaid that is the High Level Bridge Streetcar should become the side show. The main act should be a dedicated, high-volume, year-round tram on the same track run by Edmonton Transit Service and usable with a transit pass or tickets. Yes, the investment in new tram cars would be a risk, offering a short term, less than ideal solution to a problem that's proposed to be addressed by an upcoming (we hope) LRT project. Yes, there would need to be consultations and goodwill built amongst those who live beside what would be a re-invigorated, high-volume tram route. Yes, some would surely object to seeing the High Level Bridge being so heavily used. 

But at least this would make sense. And making sense would be a major step forward for Edmonton’s modern transit planning, after all. The High Level Streetcar's main sell is that it takes the rider "back in time." And it does. That time, before 1951, was one when Edmonton's rail infrastructure and rail-based public transit were located where many of us wish they were now.  

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