The City of Edmonton needs an additional $7.2 million over the next three years to increase Valley Line Southeast LRT service for a ridership level that wasn’t initially expected for 22 years.
In a report to council’s executive committee, the city says the current funding approved for operation won’t meet the expected demand even with reduced ridership due to COVID-19. The city and operator TransEd set out 14 different levels of service, starting at the lowest level with the expectation to scale up by one step every two to three years.
But with updated ridership projections and the impending new bus routes taken into account, the city is calling for service to be ramped up to level eight when the 13-kilometre line from Downtown to Mill Woods opens later this year. This level of service will see seven of the 13 trains operating with two cars and running five-minute frequencies during the weekday morning and afternoon peak periods.
Only funding for the first level of service has been approved, so the city will need to find $7.2 million over the next three years and $3.2 million in each subsequent year to speed up to level eight. Under the project agreement, that level of service wasn’t expected to be needed on the line for 22 years.
“Updated ridership projections suggest Service Level 8 as the required starting point,” the city said in its report. “Administration believes that this service level best aligns with the anticipated demand on opening day. Operating at this service level will minimize potential for overcrowded cars and passengers being passed up during the weekday morning and afternoon peak service hours.”
The proposed service level increase prompted Ward 8 Coun. Ben Henderson to recall the unexpected high level of ridership when the Capital Line opened and the city needed to quickly make adjustments by bringing on more trains slated for the Metro Line.
He said even though it will cost the city more money, it is worth being prepared, especially during the pandemic, to avoid overcrowding.
“It will cost more, but that’s because more people will be riding it, so there’s a tradeoff there as well,” Henderson said Friday. “If we open it and people are scared to use it because it’s overcrowded and therefore they don’t come back onto transit, we haven’t gotten ourselves any further forward.
“It’s about making sure people have a good experience at the beginning, especially when people are so wary of being in crowded situations.”
If it’s found that the enhanced service isn’t required off the top due to low ridership, the city said service would be adjusted and surplus funding would be returned or reallocated to other priorities.
In order to fund the increase service for this budget, council will need to approve an additional $904,000 in 2021 and $3.1 million in 2022 during spring budget adjustment discussions later this month. Council’s executive committee will discuss the recommendations April 12.
The Valley Line SE LRT was supposed to open last December but delays have pushed the opening into this year, although the date hasn’t been announced. The project was 89 per cent complete at the end of February.