ajor new transit infrastructure is being built today in many of Canada’s largest cities. As urban areas are growing rapidly, traffic congestion and emissions in city cores are a bigger issue than ever. So, it’s no surprise that getting cars off the roads and improving public transit are top priorities.

The challenge, as always, is to develop these projects in a way that is affordable to taxpayers, providing as much benefit as possible without breaking the bank or interrupting city life in the interim.

In Edmonton, a massive transit expansion is underway with a long-term light rail transit (LRT) plan that will see six lines extending to the northwest, northeast, east, southeast, south, and west. “Edmonton has been growing at a breakneck speed, and this has put enormous pressure on our road infrastructure,” says Edmonton Mayor Don Iverson. “LRT expansion is a critical piece of the puzzle as we create an urban shift to a more dense, compact city that offers Edmontonians better, more reliable transit options.”

"This will take significant pressure off our roadway networks — up to 17,000 vehicle trips per day."

Construction on the first phase of the Valley Line, reaching from downtown Edmonton to the community of Mill Woods in the south, began earlier this year. The second phase will later extend this line to the west as far as Lewis Farms. “When it’s fully built, the Valley Line will move tens of thousands of people into our core every day and will be a vital link to downtown amenities,” says Mayor Iverson. “This will take significant pressure off our roadway networks — up to 17,000 vehicle trips per day.”

Interestingly, the first phase of the Valley Line is being built as a public-private partnership (P3), with private sector partners being brought on to build, maintain, and operate the line for the first 30 years of its life, while the city retains full ownership of the assets themselves. P3s are an increasingly attractive way for municipal, provincial, and federal governments to build out new infrastructure while managing the overhead and risk to taxpayers. “The P3 model puts some onus on the private sector to account for all their operating costs in their bid, which provides the city with some financial assurances in relation to operating costs,” says Mayor Iverson. Further, the model allows the city to financially incentivize their private sector partners to minimize road closures during construction, reducing the growing pains associated with infrastructure expansion.

From east to west, and everywhere in between

Similarly, in Ottawa, construction is underway on the new Confederation Line, which will extend 12.5 kilometres from the eastern to western ends of the city, including a 2.5-kilometre tunnel through the centre of downtown. More than tripling the total number of LRT stations in Ottawa from 5 to 18, it is expected to have a marked effect on the future shape of the city. “The reality is, the Confederation Line should have been built 10 years ago. When a city reaches a size of about a million people, it’s time to start thinking about mass transit in a different way,” says Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. “The plan is to ensure that as these new stations are built, that these are the areas where we want to see the most growth.” 

“Less time commuting benefits everyone.”

With Ottawa’s population projected to grow by 30 percent over the next 15 years, new transit infrastructure is essential to ensuring growth neither destroys the capital’s famous green appeal nor grinds the city to a halt. “Our estimate is that this project will reduce our CO2 emissions by about 94 thousand pounds per year by 2021,” says Mayor Watson. “And, when this is done, we’re going to have over 70 percent of the population of Ottawa living within five kilometres of LRT.”

Like the Valley Line in Edmonton, the Confederation Line is making use of the P3 model for construction, maintenance, and operation. The assurances that come with putting the responsibility in the hands of the private sector played a big role in making the line a reality. “We signed a fixed-price contract, which puts the onus on the private sector to ensure the project is delivered on time and on budget,” says Mayor Watson. “Council really rallied behind this proposal and the plan was approved unanimously.”

Edmonton and Ottawa are far from the only urban centres in Canada using the P3 model to expand their transit infrastructure, with the Eglinton Crosstown Line in Toronto being another prominent example. With this innovation bringing better public transit to Canada’s cities in a financially responsible way, we should all be thankful. After all, as Mayor Iverson succinctly puts it: “Less time commuting benefits everyone.”