No one needs reminding that the short history of Edinburgh’s new age trams is not a glorious one. The long delays, the humungous overspend and the huge embarrassment that the project imposed on Scotland’s capital will live long in the memory.
Since they began operating in 2014 public hostility has turned from grudging acceptance to broader support, with many services running with standing room only. To that extent, the tram has turned out to be a success, and has encouraged the council to extend the service.
However, the dreadful turmoil and cost to council taxpayers has been at the forefront of opposition to finally extend the eight mile single line from the city’s east end to Newhaven. The plan will be discussed next week when the SNP/Labour administration hopes it can head off any possible rebellion to allow work to start this year.
The biggest concern is whether it represents value for money and whether the council can contain costs. The existing line was supposed to be built for £375 million but the final bill came in at £776m. Added to that, the initial network was butchered when the the Haymarket to Granton section was dropped and the stretch to Leith and onward to Newhaven was cut short at York Place.
The council says it has learned from the previous experience and promises to keep disruption, particularly to local businesses, to a minimum. As most of the underground infrastructure work was done last time it hopes this will reduce the amount of roadworks.
However, the £165m original estimate of the tram extension has already risen to £207m. Opponents fear the council, far from learning from its previous experience, is in danger of repeating the same mistakes. Some 1,200 problems below the surface of the route have already been identified.
There are also changes to the financing model. When the first tram project was conceived there was no shortage of public funds available. Central government encouraged schemes such as rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, new railway lines in Alloa and the borders – and Edinburgh’s trams.
Ten years after the financial crash, there is no central government financial support available like there was for the first development and so the council is bearing the full cost of the extension. Furthermore, it is being conceived at a time when the council is cutting £30m from its budget, leading opposition councillors to argue the priority must be existing public services.
The SNP/Labour administration’s solution to the financial challenge is to raid both passengers and profits from the municipally-owned Lothian Buses. The plan is to take £8m a year in dividends (even though the profit was only £7m in 2017) and poach nearly eight million bus passengers a year from future journeys.
Conservative councillors argue it would be better to invest some of Lothian Buses’ dividend to help deliver a world-leading low and zero emissions bus fleet, while road and public realm improvements could ease congestion and help the bus network cater for the growing demand. They also point out that as private cars switch to hybrid, or 100% electric power, pollution levels will likely fall anyway, even as car ownership continues to grow.
The expectation is that the vote will favour the tram extension. Contractors have been readied and the business case appears to be settled, at least in the council’s opinion. Despite former tram cheerleaders the Liberal Democrats, now deciding to oppose the scheme, the 17 SNP, 11 Labour and 8 Green councillors in favour look to have a decent majority.
The administration argues the tram extension will bring in £321m of value, delivering a cost benefit gain of £1.25 for every £1 invested. Crucially, it will allow key brownfield sites in the north of the city to be developed while attending to growing congestion. Its backers believe this not only outweighs the short term disruption but also counters arguments that it is a mere vanity project.
The trams remain a divisive issue in Edinburgh and for the sake of the city’s reputation, its overstretched coffers, and the continuance of the excellent bus service that serves the majority of the city, the decision has to be the right one.
Additional writing by Terry Murden