Local leaders praise transportation dollars
Edmonton LRT, Hwy. 15/37/825 funded in budget
Wednesday, Mar 12, 2014 06:00 am
St. Albert’s mayor gave the provincial budget a mild thumbs-up this week, praising its support for public transit while at the same time criticizing its cuts to cash for cities.
Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner tabled the 2014-2015 provincial budget last week. It includes a $2.6 billion surplus as well as some $5.1 billion in new debt for infrastructure.
“In the last 20 years we’ve gotten a million more people in our province,” Horner said, speaking at a post-budget breakfast Tuesday at the Sturgeon Valley Golf & Country Club. “How many new railways have we built in the last 20 years?”
Low interest rates meant it made sense to borrow money now to build the roads and schools needed to serve this growing population, Horner said.
This year’s budget includes about $5.1 billion in infrastructure support for municipalities through the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) and other programs, Horner said.
It also has about $1.2 billion for 50 new schools and 70 modernizations, including two new schools for St. Albert and four modernizations in St. Albert and Sturgeon County.
But while the province has upped MSI grants for capital by about $25 million, it has cut operating grants under MSI by about $20 million, said St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse (who was not at Horner’s talk).
“To the average Albertan, that comes across as okay,” he continued, making this a politically safe move. Still, it leaves cities like St. Albert with about $300,000 a year to make up for in taxes.
Crouse said MSI operating grants have been essentially flat for about five years, which erodes the buying power of those grants.
“(The province) obviously has to find a way to cut costs, and they’ve taken municipalities as one way to do that.”
GreenTRIP got a $47 million boost from last year’s budget, but was projected to fall back to last year’s levels ($200 million) by 2017.
This provincial fund is meant to promote public transit as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
St. Albert, Strathcona County and Edmonton agreed Monday to ask the province if they were ready to support a $33 million request under GreenTRIP to pay for a regional smart-fare program, Crouse said – one that would help them track ridership and set transit fares for the region.
“They say they’ve got GreenTRIP money. We’re going to see if they actually have GreenTRIP money.”
Premier Alison Redford announced Tuesday morning that the province would kick in up to $600 million to support the Edmonton Valley Line LRT.
Edmonton had needed $515 million to complete the line.
The cash comes in the form of $250 million in GreenTRIP support over three years starting in 2016, with an additional $150 million in matching grants if the federal government backs the project under its 2016-2017 Building Canada Fund. Redford also committed to a $200 million, 10-year, interest-free loan to support the project.
Crouse said this was outstanding news, as this leg of the LRT was the Capital Region Board’s top priority when it came to GreenTRIP funding.
“We’re really moving the agenda forward for public transit.”
There are a lot of “what-ifs” hooked to this cash, he continued, but the announcement suggests the province is committed to the GreenTRIP program.
The Valley Line is one of five extensions Edmonton has planned for its LRT, Crouse said. Next on the list after it is the extension north to St. Albert.
“Every time another spoke gets funded, it moves us closer to the top of the list,” Crouse said.
Last week’s budget also had good news for drivers who frequent the intersections of Hwy. 37, 825 and 15.
Alberta Transportation released a new three-year capital plan following last week’s provincial budget. The plan lists major road and flood projects set to be built between 2014 and 2017.
New to the list is a major intersection improvement and realignment at Highways 37, 825 and 15 west of Fort Saskatchewan.
These three highways all meet within a few hundred metres of each other and serve as the main route from the county to the industrial heartland region and Fort Saskatchewan. Residents have complained for years about traffic jams and unsafe drivers at this location, and have clamoured for a solution.
At an open house on this region last Feb. 26, Alberta Transportation proposed two solutions: double roundabouts for $17 million or lots of traffic lights for $15 million.
At that time, provincial construction manager Michal Pylko said neither option would be built anytime soon, as the project was not on the province’s three-year capital plan.
Now that it is, Pylko said residents should expect construction to start next year.
“It’s a good thing,” he said of this change. “It’s a project that’s very needed to accommodate existing traffic congestion in this area.”
County councillor Ferd Caron said the county was extremely happy to hear this news. “It’s an excellent move to accelerate the construction of that intersection. It’s been such a hazard for so many years.”
Pylko said his team was now reviewing comments from the Feb. 26 open house to determine which of the two solutions they should implement. Residents should expect a second open house with a detailed design later this year, followed by land purchases.