|Light Rail Transit (LRT) c.1980 Photo supplied by City of Edmonton Archives EB-28-1612|
If city council had listened to a consultant’s advice nearly 40 years ago, tens of thousands of people would be stuck with riding buses or navigating impossibly congested roads. In 1970, Louis Grimble warned that Edmonton would become “the laughing stock of North America” if it pushed ahead with building rapid transit.
Instead, city council stuck to its unanimous decision in 1968 to build LRT. Even so, the community was torn by warnings of a big financial burden, and Mayor Ivor Dent lost the 1974 election promising rapid transit to all quadrants of the city over the next 10 years.
But LRT had momentum, funding from the provincial government, and a looming international sports event. Edmonton's Northeast Light Rail Transit line was officially opened at a ribbon cutting ceremony in Central Station on April 22, 1978.
It was on budget and three months ahead of schedule. Provincial funds paid for 70 per cent of the cost.
That summer, the system passed its first test as it transported more than two million people during the nine-day run of the XI Commonwealth Games, August 4th to 12th. The following year, City Council approved further extensions of the line from Belvedere Station to the Clareview Station and west from Central Station under Jasper Avenue.
The story of the birth and growth of the city’s LRT network is told in fascinating detail in Ken Tingley’s book Journey of the Century, a history of the first 100 years of the ETS, to be published in early November. As Tingley relates, Mayor Cec Purves marked the beginning of construction in October 1980 by driving LRT car No. 201 through a ceremonial barrier in Central Station.
The new station at Clareview was built in modular design, so it could be dismantled and relocated as part of a projected Clareview Town Centre complex. LRT to Clareview went into service during April 1981.
The south extension, completed in May 1983, added Bay and Corona stations. Passengers began travelling over the new line at an official opening on June 21st.
Edmonton’s LRT was poised to cross the North Saskatchewan River to the south side and, in August 1983, city council gave approval in principle to the next two phases of development to Government Centre and across the river to the University of Alberta. The planned extension was based on a review of the South Light Rail Transit (SLRT) plan, which recommended a routing south from the U of A to Southgate and Heritage areas, and a branch to the rapidly developing Mill Woods.
The university insisted that the line be underground. To take the LRT across the river, a city constructed a new bridge just upstream of the High Level Bridge, and above the heart of old Walterdale, where the first ferry crossings were made in Edmonton’s formative years.
The Dudley B. Menzies Bridge, named for the city’s longest-serving commissioner and one-time city councillor, was the first in western Canada to use the box girder system of construction. The bridge was recognized in 1991 by the Alberta Chapter American Concrete Industry with its award for excellence in design.
It was designed for multiple use, accommodating a shared pedestrian and cyclist deck below the dedicated LRT deck. “The bridge is supported on six concrete piers, supporting its 216 concrete box girders; each box girder had to be built specifically to accommodate the subtle curvature of the bridge,” Tingley writes.
When the University Station opened on August 28th, 1992, ridership surged overnight. Passenger trips increased from 23,400 in 1990 to 36,000 in 2000.
Even though the LRT was obviously an efficient, convenient and environmentally friendly way of moving people around, the Ralph Klein Conservative government lost the appetite to fund further expansion. The system languished for the next eight years with precious little new funding.
Finally, in 2000, the federal government unveiled a new infrastructure funding plan to extend the LRT to the Health Sciences Station. Tunnelling through the 640-metre distance from University Station was laborious work, and the project took the better part of five years and ended up costing $100 million.
In 2005, city council voted to fast-track LRT construction south to Heritage Mall, using borrowed money paid off with gas tax revenue. The following year, the Health Sciences station opened, bringing the LRT to the surface for its push further south.
Mayor Stephen Mandel called the new station “a benchmark step in our plans to fast-track the south leg of the system, which will make LRT an attractive travel option for tens of thousands more Edmontonians." In the next few months, McKernan-Belgravia and South Campus stations are to open and, in 2010, Southgate and Century Park are to be operational.
LRT is back on track.