TRADERS have voiced fresh concern over the impact of extending the Capital’s tramline after it emerged work could potentially begin as soon as 2019.
A report setting out the case for taking the line down Leith Walk to Newhaven has now been completed and is set to be examined by councillors over the coming weeks. If approved, the council could start inviting bids for the £165.2 million project from the end of next month.
A final decision would not take place until autumn 2018, and if all goes ahead it is thought work would take three years to complete.
But traders in the area have said work on the tramline would only serve to bring renewed disruption following the imminent ten-month closure of Leith Street from August 28.
Shamsu Yusaf, owner of Folly Antiques on Leith Walk, said he feared he could lose business if the tram extension went ahead.
He said: “I don’t think they should be doing it here – there are buses, there’s no reason why we need a tram down Leith Walk. It’s ridiculous, it’s not a good way of taxpayers’ money being spent. Half the time I look at the tram there’s hardly anyone in it.
“It’s a waste of money. It does worry me because if nobody can get to the shop how am I going to live?”
While the finer details of the business case are yet to be released, it is understood there will be information about a business compensation scheme for local traders during construction.
But Mr Yusaf said such a scheme would need to take into account each individual business for it to work.
He added: “They need to look at how much we make a month and our expenses because we are all different. If they are going to do it they’d better let us know what they are planning to do and how long businesses are going to be affected.”
Tracy Griffen, a personal trainer and business owner whose fitness studio faces on to Leith Walk, also voiced concern.
She said: “Eight years ago Balfour Street was shut for six months – there were pneumatic drills outside my studio for a couple of months, it was very loud.
“Suddenly one day they downed their tools and disappeared which was very mysterious. I got very stressed and upset. I think nowadays we are all just a bit philosophical – if it goes ahead that’ll be a miracle.”
Ms Griffen said her biggest fear was how long the work would take, adding: “I don’t think it’s going to be as straightforward as shut Leith Walk and put down a tram track.
“Even with the current reinstatement of Leith Walk the timescales are elastic. Some of these businesses are really living week to week. If you are a business you have got bills to pay, you can’t afford to lose footfall.”
A public inquiry into the previous tram project, headed up by former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie, is expected to get under way next month.
The work was originally supposed to cost £375 million for 15 miles of track and be completed by 2011. However the end result was just nine miles, which opened in 2014 at a cost of £776 million, a figure expected to rise to £1 billion with interest charges.
Transport convener Lesley Macinnes insisted the trams were going “from strength to strength” and that extending the line would bring multiple benefits such as economic growth, cleaner air and improved accessibility.
She said: “We fully understand traders’ concerns and want to reassure them lessons have been learnt.
“Our planned traffic management approach will deliver the project as quickly and as efficiently as possible and we will have a business compensation scheme in place. We are also looking at ways of ensuring Leith Walk remains an exciting and must visit destination during the works and are keen to work with local organisations to discuss our plans.”
Tory transport spokesman Nick Cook said his party would be examining the renewed business case closely but that initial briefings had done little to allay his party’s concerns.
He said: “It is also of the utmost concern that the council remains intent on leveraging millions of pounds of cash from Lothian Buses to help fund such a controversial project.
“Businesses on Leith Walk will understandably be concerned by the impact construction will have on their livelihoods.
“The assumption that the St James Quarter will simply be completed on time and allow a seamless transition to begin tram works on Leith Walk simply flies in the face of the delays commonly associated with ambitious construction projects.”
A report setting out the business case will go before the city council’s transport and environment committee for approval in principle on September 4. If granted, it will then go before full council on September 21.
Gordon Henderson, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said he was surprised the business case was being considered prior to the publication of the tram inquiry’s findings.
“The point about having the inquiry is you learn lessons and you put them into practice before we build any more tramlines,” he said.
“People are going to be very worried down Leith Walk. If there’s going to be a compensation scheme that’s good, but it needs to be one that actually makes a difference to businesses and helps them survive these works.”
Mr Henderson said traders in the area had faced a “decade of digging” and urged for further consultation.
He added: “You would hope that the timeframe for doing the tramworks down Leith Walk has been reduced substantially by the fact that all the utilities have been moved already. I’d be interested to know a bit more about the finer detail of the construction work.
“Do they actually have to close the entire of Leith Walk or is it done sectionally? What can be done to minimise the pain?”
But Paul Tetlaw, of sustainable transport body Transform Scotland, said extending the tramline was “essential”.
He said that because trams were more efficient people carriers this would allow some of the buses to be taken off Leith Walk, therefore improving air quality. He said it would also help with regeneration.
“We need to develop it further and go on from there to create a network over the years, which is just what they have done with comparable European cities,” he said.
“I can’t think of anywhere else in the UK or Europe where they have built one tramline and that’s it.
“Each year since it’s opened the passenger figures have been well ahead of the projections. All that indicates for all the controversy during construction people have taken to it.
“I think the doom-mongers who said it wouldn’t be a success, [that] nobody will use it, have been proved very wrong.”
Bob Downie, chief executive of the Royal Yacht Britannia, also backed the idea.
He said: “The trams have the potential to deliver the greatest socio-economic impact on Leith since the construction of the docks themselves, encouraging more people to live, work and visit the area, and making it easier for existing residents to access jobs in the city.
“The completion of the tram route holds the key to the future of tourism outwith the congested city centre.
“Our visitor numbers at Britannia continue to grow year on year, with over 400,000 visitors expected this year.
“Added to this is the unprecedented growth in the number of cruise ship passengers arriving in the city via Leith and Newhaven, all of which will deliver significant financial benefits for the city as a whole.”