When it comes to who is going to be the next mayor of Edmonton, how we get around is a hot-button issue — and that was clear at the Downtown Business Association’s mayoral debate, held Thursday at Ford Hall.
The five mayoral candidates on stage were asked about Edmonton’s downtown infrastructure, and that conversation spun into transit, roads and — everyone’s favourite — construction projects. Yes, the candidates spoke about more than just transportation — they touched on downtown cleanliness, how the City will access funds and opioids. But, when it comes to an issue that quickly gets the electorate to pay attention, talk about the orange blockades and fences that cut off our sidewalks and roads. Talk about slalom driving or cycling between concrete barriers, or trying to figure out which side of the pylons is where you’re supposed to drive.
Promise to cut traffic? To penalize contractors for finishing projects late? How about a transit system that never breaks down? These are discussions that get voters to listen.
Former city councillor Michael Oshry said that if the city is not going to make it easier for Edmontonians to get downtown, the core will not thrive.
“If people come down by any means, we need to make sure they’re able to.” And, he made sure not to vilify drivers, noting that 70 per cent of the people who make trips downtown do so by taking their personal vehicles.
He stressed that debating the LRT expansion to the west end is no longer on the table. The land has been secured, and the contracts have been signed. So, the focus for the city’s next mayor has to be about ensuring the LRT expansion is going to be the best it can be.
“We have to get these things right, because we need to fill these buildings downtown.”
Cheryll Watson, the former head of Innovate Edmonton, said she is frustrated by the sheer amount of unfinished road projects.
“It seems like the entire city is under construction right now,” she said. Watson argued that the City needs to do a better job coordinating and managing projects, to ensure that some parts of the city don’t get jammed up because two or three projects are encroaching on one another. “We need to realize the city doesn’t stop moving.”
(Take a drive down Stony Plain Road, recently? Multiple construction projects — from work at Glenora School, to the moving of pipes underneath the neighbourhood — have limited the road down to one lane and reduced visibility when it comes to pedestrian crosswalks.)
As for how the city expands transit in the future, she said it’s impossible for her to tell what Edmonton will need years from now. She said COVID-19 has permanently changed the way we work, and could forever change our commuting needs. If more of us work from home, how many buses will we need? She said transportation planning needs to be flexible because “the world won’t be the same.”
Ex-city councillor Kim Krushell agreed that it’s hard to predict the future. Yes, the electric car is a game-changer, and the City doesn’t really know what’s ahead — in terms of societal change or where the money to fund transit is going to come from. She added that construction projects need to be finished on time, and that the City must review the on-demand bus service, which was part of a major route overhaul launched in late April.
And, really, she said it’s difficult for any candidate to make real promises, as the new mayor will deal with an Edmonton coming out of the COVID crisis. Will there be a funding crunch? Will the tax base dwindle?
“We don’t know what we’re going to be facing.”
And, she also targeted the construction snarl, noting that the City has to find ways to ensure projects finish in time and are better coordinated.
Former city councillor and Liberal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi leaned on his experience in Ottawa — he talked about his experience in helping bring government funding for projects like the LRT expansion and work on Anthony Henday Drive.
“Infrastructure is key and we need to continue to build it,” he said.
But he said the mayor’s office must ensure there are better lines of communication between utilities and developers, to ensure that multiple, uncoordinated projects don’t bring some city blocks to standstills.
And that set the stage for Rick Comrie, who was invited to the forum because, according to August polling from Leger, finished in the top six of the mayoral candidates. When not making barbs directed at just re-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he spoke about poor Edmonton roads, the city’s “financial crisis” and how he’d institute a full-on audit of the city’s services, including the transportation department.
“It’s your money, it’s your city. Edmonton must remain the people’s city.”
As for transit?
“The roadway system is unacceptable, this is a western society, this is not a hamlet in Europe.”
“The LRT is the biggest blunder we’ve got.”
“Busing is no longer available, busing on-demand does not work.”
Where’s Mike Nickel?
Noticeable, once again, in his absence, was Mike Nickel. As one of the top six in the polls (Leger had him at No. 2, trailing Sohi), he was invited to the forum, but was not present. Nickel also did not take in the BOMA forum held earlier this month, and never responded to this magazine’s request for an interview for our July mayoral-candidate feature.