Blog | June 27, 2013

By Alana Willerton, Jun. 26, 2013, Vue WeeklyWhen it comes to using a public-private partnership (P3) to build the Valley Line of Edmonton's LRT system, the city has ventured into unfamiliar territory. While there have been Edmonton-based projects with private contributions in the past, including the Anthony Henday ring road and various schools, they've primarily been provincial infrastructure projects. The Valley Line marks the first time that Edmonton will pass up public ownership for a P3 model, which sees public and private sectors sharing responsibility and risks in delivering public infrastructure.P3s may be new to Edmonton, but many areas of Canada have been using them for years. Take, for instance, York Region's Viva bus rapid transit line in Ontario, which opened in 2005 and was designed and built using the P3 model. Viva is similar to an LRT line in many ways, and the buses make use of traffic-priority systems at major intersections to make them faster than normal buses.The second phase of the project, called VivaNext, will involve the creation of specifically marked bus lanes to allow Viva buses to skip traffic congestion altogether.Just as Edmonton plans to integrate the Valley Line with the rest of the LRT system, Viva's bus service is combined with York Region Transit's local bus service, effectively creating one seamless transit system."When you get on the Viva bus, the driver's there with a Viva uniform on, and if you were just a member of the public, you wouldn't necessarily know whether that driver was employed by York Region directly or whether they're employed by a private-sector corporation under contract with York Region," explains Paul May, former director of infrastructure planning for York Region and current Chief Engineer of VivaNext. "They're just there to provide that service."Ontario had already used P3 models in the past for projects such as hospitals and courthouses, which eased the minds of many going into the Viva project and made the decision to go with this type of model an easy one."A lot of services provided by York Region are through the private sector, and I think the public here in York Region are more accustomed to that model of private-sector delivery," May says. "So in York Region, the private sector operations has been a much more accepted model, so there was very little reaction to model."At the other end of the country is Vancouver's Canada Line, an LRT line created in anticipation of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. The line has been touted by many as one of Canada's greatest P3 success stories in recent years, opening several weeks ahead of schedule in late 2009 and overachieving its ridership goals very quickly. Ken Hardie, who was the director of corporate communications for Translink when the Canada Line was being built, says the public reaction to going with a P3 was fairly muted, and that there were more issues with construction impacts along certain parts of the corridor where the line was being built."There were some people who simply disagreed with the concept of P3s, but other people were saying, 'Look, if it's a way of getting something built that brings a lot of the private sector discipline and knowledge into the mix, then why not?'" Hardie explains."So there were people on both sides, but to the average person, it was immaterial how it was being built. The fact that it was being built was certainly of huge interest to people who wanted to commute, and as I said, it was the construction impacts more than anything else that were far more high profile than the way that the project came together."Critics of the Canada Line have pointed out issues with the system, such as how three stations were eliminated from the planned route—though Hardie points out that allowances were made for those stations to possibly be built in the future, and that they ended up adding a stop at Olympic Village. But in his book Straphanger, which examines public transportation in cities across the world, author Taras Grescoe points out, "Thanks to cost overruns, the provincial government will be compensating the private company that operates the line with payments up to $21 million a year until 2025." This is a fate Edmonton hopes to avoid with the Valley Line.Despite having never tackled a P3 project before, Edmonton will have the advantage of being able to look back on past projects like these to learn from both successes and failures. Nat Alampi, program manager of the Valley Line, says they've examined the workings of several P3s, including current LRT projects in Ottawa, Waterloo and Vancouver's Canada Line. They also extended their search outside of Canada, seeking information from transit projects in the United States and bringing on advisors who have been involved in P3 projects globally."We're aware that this is our first P3 project, so what we're doing is we're actually leaning on all of our government counterparts with the province of Alberta, with the province of British Columbia, with Ottawa and Waterloo and so on, and we're basically leaning on their lessons learned because they have experience," Alampi says. "In fact, because of our very close working relationship with the province of Alberta, they're lending us all of their templates and they're allowing us to lean on their resources for their expertise and their lessons learned."There is just an absolute wealth of experience out there that we're able to tap into and that we are tapping into."Studying other P3 projects has allowed the city to spot key factors that have helped and hindered these projects, hopefully giving Edmonton the gift of foresight as they proceed with the Valley Line."As these projects move along and you go from one project to the next, there's a better understanding of the implications of how you allocate the risks within these projects," Alampi says. "Risks such as the geotechnical risks associated with tunnelling, with getting environmental approvals for river crossing, how to allocate risks associated with ridership levels, traffic integrations and so on. That's just a very short list off the top of my head, but it's the allocation of risk and how you define the performance—those are the key lessons that others have learned that we're able to take advantage of."But for some, Edmonton's relative inexperience with P3s still weighs heavily, and some public interest groups have expressed their concern over how the situation has been dealt with. Bill Moore-Kilgannon, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, says they too have examined P3s in Canada, and have serious concerns about allowing the private sector to be in charge of the maintenance and operation aspects of the line. Fearing what this will mean for the interoperability between the Valley Line and the rest of the transit system, they're also concerned by the current funding gap of $515 million, and feel the Valley Line should be a municipal-elections issue."Let's be clear, they sign this contract, it is for 30 years. If the conglomeration of corporations that are building and running this thing screw up or provide crappy service, it'll be too late and there's very little that the citizens of Edmonton will be able to do," Moore-Kilgannon says. "If it's publicly owned, then at least there's that ongoing public oversight to make sure that the maintenance and the operations are living up to the standards that Edmontonians would expect."Despite these concerns, the city plans to move forward with the P3 model, and only time will tell if Edmonton's Valley Line will go down as an example of a successful Canadian P3 or not."This project is going to go ahead. It's going to be a big win for the city and for all the residents of Edmonton. I think in our minds, it's not a question of if this project's going to happen, it's a question of when," Alampi says."Council has committed to working over the summer to try and secure the funding gap and we're g
oing to be reporting back in August to see wh
ere that funding gap is at. If they're able to close the gap—or even if not completely, at least narrow it a significant amount—we're confident that we're going to be able to go out in the near future and deliver this project for Edmonton."Read the article at Vue Weekly.