To much fanfare, the South LRT extension and Century Park “Park and Ride” officially opened this weekend and the focus is now on city council’s plan to keeping the momentum rolling.
Plans are in the works for LRT extensions to NAIT, Mill Woods, Heritage Valley, Gorman, and Lewis Estates. In the case of NAIT, some tracks are already being laid.
It’s evident, then, that a lack of ambition is not city council’s problem. The problem is money — a lack thereof, more specifically.
With the exception of some one-off stimulus package funding, provincial and federal funding for the LRT have more or less dried up as both levels of government grapple with deficits.
City council recognizes the dilemma emerging before it: At his State of the City address earlier this month, Mayor Stephen Mandel dedicated an incredibly large portion of his speech to the LRT and how to fund it.
One of Mandel’s more controversial suggestions was that some of the funding currently earmarked for roadwork could — and perhaps should — be shifted to funding for the LRT.
There are merits to this idea, admittedly, in that expanding roadways has generally been found to make traffic worse; however, even if this type of budgetary shift is pursued, it is still difficult to see how the city will be able to fund further LRT expansions without the financial backing of the provincial and federal governments.
Most of the LRT expansion projects on the books right now have price tags in the area of $1 billion or more. At the same time, the city’s entire annual budget — for all departments — is only about $2.5 billion.
Even with the city running a modest $32-million surplus, it’s clear that any cost-saving projects and budgetary shifts that Mandel or city council may choose to pursue are peanuts without the monetary support of the province and the feds.
Without a doubt, it is now up to Mandel to negotiate with these higher levels of government for more funding. Hopefully, Mandel is up to the task; if not, it looks like LRT expansion may be slowed to a crawl or — once again — be put on the shelf for several years.
– Bryan Saunders is a local transit advocate and a strong supporter of initiatives to decrease dependence on private vehicles.