There is no middle ground when it comes to gondolas in Edmonton. There’s just the Great Gondola Debate.
Ever since Edmonton first heard of the proposal to build a gondola that would run from a main station downtown, to Rossdale and ultimately Strathcona, the debate has raged. The idea originated in March as the winning pitch from The Edmonton Project, a development industry competition to build a new local landmark. (Other pitches: the world’s largest treehouse; a food- truck Ferris wheel.) In April, the Edmonton Transit System Advisory Board sent the debate into overdrive when it said a gondola could be a “fast … and cost-effective” option to connect downtown and Strathcona.
That divided urbanists, transit lovers and downtown advocates who normally find themselves on the same team. And Robert Summers is not surprised.
Summers, the associate director of urban and regional planning at the University of Alberta, says gondolas are often regarded as a novelty or tourist attraction in North America. And transit proponents in Edmonton, he says, seem to see the proposal as taking attention away from more necessary projects.
“For some people, the gondola discussion is a distraction from the goals they have been working towards, which is high-quality LRT connectivity throughout the city,” Summers says. “Every moment spent discussing gondolas is a distraction from what they see as a more meaningful discussion on LRT, bike lanes or other proven transit options.”
How about people who think a gondola is an interesting idea? “Those who are supportive of continuing to discuss the gondola further have seen the relatively low cost and low timelines for the possible implementation of the gondola, as well as the numbers of people it can move,” Summers says. These types are “intrigued enough to continue the discussion.”
But what about the problem itself— transit connections between downtown and Strathcona? And questions of who will pay if we build a gondola?
Currently, residents of Oliver and downtown can ride transit to Strathcona (but not really Rossdale) by taking a series of infrequent and meandering buses. Or they can walk, bike or take a bus to LRT to cross the river—and then take a bus to Strathcona. Or they can just walk or bike. Or take the High Level Bridge Street Car.
In short, connections between the city’s two main urban areas are laughable.
The matter of who pays has also yet to be settled. In June, council’s urban planning committee voted to investigate the gondola, including its potential costs. City officials are determining how much a feasibility study itself would cost and whether the private sector would really pay for the project. The Edmonton Project founders have said the private sector would pay for everything. Some remain unconvinced of that.
One thing is certain: the Great Gondola Debate is not over.