CITY chiefs now think they can take the tram line to the end of Leith Walk "within four years", it emerged today.
A first phase of the route is still likely to end at St Andrew Square, then continue to York Place to allow the trams to turn, as revealed by the Evening News in June.
But it is now hoped that a second phase will see it extended to the foot of Leith Walk "in the short term". And transport leader Gordon Mackenzie believes that the second stretch of the line could be laid without needing extra money.
But it is not known whether the second phase would be completed by the consortium headed by German firm Bilfinger Berger, which remains locked in dispute with tram firm TIE. Businesses in Leith said today they were extremely sceptical about the prospect of the line stretching further than the city centre.
Speaking after a full council meeting where it was agreed to provide more detailed information on the refreshed business case for the tram to councillors - but not members of the public - Cllr Mackenzie said: "Our commitment is to build the full line 1a but the timing depends on finances.
• Should the trams stop in St Andrew Square or carry on to the foot of Leith Walk? Vote here
"In the first stage, I would like to see it go beyond St Andrew Square as soon as possible. Building to St Andrew Square, if it is the best way of taking the project forward, I am comfortable with. It is an option we are looking at but our contract with the consortium still says build it to Newhaven."
When asked what that means for Leith, he said: "My understanding is that around 70 per cent of what is required to deliver the tram to Newhaven is there. The bits missing is mainly the track-laying. We can't give a projection on what the full cost will be at this stage. But I certainly believe that there is potential to deliver the tram beyond St Andrew Square in the short term." When questioned about what he meant by "short term", he said: "The next three-four years."
Tram bosses have already said they are looking at agreeing a revised scope, price and programme, with the outcome of a tram to "at least St Andrew Square". A council report has also confirmed that incremental delivery to St Andrew Square would be sustainable and meet passenger forecasts in the "medium to longer term".
Around 381 million has already been spent on the project, with 95 per cent of utility diversions said to be completed, but only just over half of the tram vehicle construction work and just one quarter of the total tram infrastructure work.
City chiefs are understood to believe that a second phase of work could see the tram line go as far as the foot of Leith Walk, which is the next possible point the trams could turn after York Place, within the existing budget.
Tram chiefs were not willing to comment today, but a spokeswoman for TIE said: "We are still fully committed to building the full route. The phased delivery is still entirely dependent on the outcome of the dispute."
Bilfinger Berger has submitted costings for each stage of the project and it is understood that there would be a significant funding gap to complete the line from the airport to Haymarket, but continuing on to York Place would not require a huge jump in funding as much of that stretch has already been completed. However, continuing down Leith Walk would be likely to add on significant extra costs.
Leith Walk trader Gordon Burgess, also chairman of the Leith Business Association, said: "If Gordon Mackenzie is saying it can continue beyond St Andrew Square I'm afraid scepticism is the tip of the iceberg. Just judging on the experiences of the last three years, it beggars belief how this whole project has been handled."
He said that many businesses are enjoying the return of trade now that tram work has stopped and there is an even split in the number of businesses in Leith that would or would not want the line to continue beyond the city centre.
The details emerged after a stormy meeting of the full council, where the SNP group, part of the ruling coalition, called for the council to look at ways to "legitimately exit" from the project.
Couincillor Steve Cardownie, leader of the SNP group on the council, said: "We are concerned that we are throwing good money after bad."
But the move was rejected by all the other political groups. Labour had called for a "fully revised" business case with new passenger estimates for each possible tram route, while the Tories called for a "full report in relation to all practical options to TIE and/or the council" including costs.
But a Lib Dem motion, pledging to provide a more detailed account of the updated business case to all councillors on the understanding that they gave "written undertakings" not to disclose to the public any commercially sensitive information, was approved on a third round of voting.
Where we are now
Officially, TIE still claims that trams will be up and running by 2012 but it is likely to be only a much shorter line from Edinburgh Airport to St Andrew Square that is open by then.
It has now emerged that the latest plan could see a second phase of the project, taking the tram as far as the foot of Leith Walk, completed by 2014.
TIE says it remains committed to completing the full line. Reaching Newhaven will depend on available funding and it is feared it could take up to 30 years to complete this stretch of the line.