TODAY’S announcement by Edinburgh City Council on a programme of improvements for Leith Walk might at first glance not seem to be that earth-shattering. The local authority is simply saying that it will take account of potential future tram works when it spends around £10 million on road, footway and cycle improvements from Leith Walk to Pilrig Street.
Put simply, it doesn’t want to spend a load of cash on infrastructure and then rip it all up again if a future administration gives the green light to trams down the Walk.
But this announcement is highly significant because it is the first public sign of growing confidence within the current administration in the tram project.
We are only two months away from the opening of the line between Edinburgh Airport and York Place. Excitement is growing, testing is progressing well and there is a genuine feeling that public antipathy towards the £776 million scheme can be turned around.
The lesson from tram projects in other cities is that passengers love them and once in place other areas of the city are desperate to benefit.
The case for trams down Leith Walk is rock solid. It is the highest area of population density anywhere in Scotland which means lots of passengers are around to use it, which is essential if the tram is to be profitable.
The major hurdles to growing the network are money, political will and public opinion.
What today’s story tells us is that the political will is there. Our politicians – whether brave or foolhardy – have the stomach for further development of the line.
The cash will have to be borrowed.
The move to extend trams to Leith in the next five years therefore largely depends on the success of the existing line and whether public opinion can be transformed. The early signs are good.