John McLellan: Bus fares will ‘inevitably’ go up to fund tram extension

Tram works on Leith Walk in Edinburgh'Edinburgh streets'roadworks
Tram works on Leith Walk in Edinburgh'Edinburgh streets'roadworks
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All aboard the tram to Newhaven! With the zeal of converts, the excitement amongst the SNP group on Edinburgh City Council for the tram is in stark contrast to their dogged opposition during the Steve Cardownie years. How times change.

Never mind that the mothballed three-mile Picardy Place-Newhaven stretch was left out of the City Deal and Edinburgh has got to find the £165.2m it will cost on its own, we are assured everything is going to be just fine.

City council transport convener Lesley Macinnes

City council transport convener Lesley Macinnes

Council officers estimate it will take 40 months to complete and they are confident lessons have been learnt from the past so it will be delivered on time and on budget. In fact, with financial incentives for beating deadlines contained in standard construction contracts, rather than the bespoke deal which caused so much trouble the last time, there is optimism it can be finished earlier.

Then there is the fact that much of the major infrastructure work on Leith Walk was completed before the line was cut short at York Place, even though there are still 1200 outstanding “conflicts” to be resolved and certainly more to come.

But it must not be forgotten that the £165m price tag does not include the rolling stock or the hardware because all that has been bought and paid for – you can see the track lying next to the railway near Saughton Park – so the real cost will be a staggering £55m to lay a mile of track.

The question most people ask, though, is even if it all goes smoothly and the first passengers are duly welcomed in 2022, how can a council dealing with a £27m cut in its block grant from the Scottish Government, and saddled with debt from the original £776m project, find £165m to spend on a line less than three miles long?

Part of the answer is the £20m “dividend” it expects Lothian Buses to supply over five years, over and above the normal dividend it pays to the council from its annual profit. So when directors are calculating how much they need to charge passengers to cover increasing running costs and protect the normal annual dividend, they will also have to sweat an extra £5m a year from their assets to help fund the tram extension.

That inevitably means fare increases. In other words, all Lothian Buses passengers will be subsidising the project, the vast majority of whom will never gain any benefit because they don’t live near the line.

The total bill includes a whopping £32m for risk, the contingency to cover unforeseen problems which indicates how many might be expected, but Lothian Buses will already have trousered up by the time this has or has not been spent as work nears completion. OK, so smooth construction and early completion might actually reduce the final cost, but whoever heard of bus fares going down?

Back in the 19th century, the Forth Bridge was heavily over-engineered because of the Tay Bridge disaster, and now it seems the finances for the Newhaven line are being over-engineered because of the Edinburgh Tram Disaster. Perish the thought that bus passengers are being asked to subsidise a giant public relations exercise so the council administration can claim they delivered a major project in good time and even below budget.

Mayhem down the line

The road closure plan for the tram work involves major disruption the length of Leith walk for 40 months, the theory being that closing off large sections will save time because the teams won’t have to stop and start and can move on to different sections while snags are being addressed. It makes construction sense, but it still means over three years of gridlock for residents and businesses. But those at the top of Leith Walk actually face five years of disruption because of the closure of Leith Street and the diversions needed for the St James Centre work due to start next month. The creation of what will effectively turn Calton Hill into the world’s most historic roundabout could mean mayhem on London Road, with the promise of three more years to follow. We’re gonna need a bigger business compensation scheme…

Just admit it: you’re anti-car

As phase three of the 20mph city-wide speed limit rolls out this week, the SNP-Labour administration continues to rely on the argument that lives will be saved as a result, and in theory it’s correct that someone knocked over at 20mph is less likely to die than someone hit at 30mph.

But how many lives will actually be saved? In 2015 thankfully only two pedestrians died on Edinburgh roads and in the previous two years it was four. While each one was clearly a tragedy, it has not been shown that the fatalities were caused by a driver lawfully doing 30mph on a road being limited to 20mph.

Nor has it been proved that 20mph provides a more pleasant street environment rather than just a longer, slower procession of vehicles and it has not been demonstrated it will result in a significant improvement to air quality. In fact an Imperial College study in Islington showed that some emissions from petrol vehicles actually increase at the lower speed. And why £2.2m is being spent on signs which warn drivers of something the already-stretched police officers are rarely enforcing is another story.

For as long as I can remember, city council leaders have adamantly denied they are anti-car so it would be refreshing if transport convener Lesley Macinnes just dropped the pretence and admitted it’s really about making driving in Edinburgh as difficult and irritating as possible.

With traffic volumes continuing to rise in 2016 and bike use actually falling, maybe a the public would appreciate some straight-talking.

No winners in waiting game

At last, the fabled city council coalition deal has finally materialised. Not late at all, according to council leader Adam McVey (pictured), because the thing was only signed two weeks before recess and it’s now only two weeks after recess so what’s the problem?

This is an agreement signed on June 16 which he and Labour mucker Cammy Day said they could publish immediately, yet it took two months and several Freedom of Information requests for the details to be made public. The document contains no obvious causes of controversy so it’s hard to understand why it took so long to publish.

As thousands of council works will tell him, recess does not mean holiday, and what would happen to the city’s administration if each time such straightforward information was requested, a two-month wait was regarded as “not too bad”?

Grants are still up for grabs

Calling all community groups in Craigentinny and Duddingston. As with all neighbourhood partnership areas there is a small grants fund, and this year there is still some cash left in the pot to support worthy local projects.

Businesses do not normally qualify, but the funding panel welcomes applications from properly constituted groups with open memberships for awards of usually up to £2000.

If you think your group and your project meets the criteria then download an application form from the Edinburgh neighbourhood partnerships website. Key Edinburgh community grants fund in your browser and you should find it.