Company ready to pay City of Edmonton $1.1M to run gondola over river valley

A proposed gondola over the North Saskatchewan River from downtown Edmonton to Old Strathcona is inching closer to reality with a new draft land deal between the City of Edmonton and the company pitching the project. 

Prairie Sky Gondola has agreed to pay the city about $1.125 million a year to lease land and for a licence to operate the gondola. 

A report released Thursday shows the company has agreed to pay $350,301 a year to lease land where 20 towers and five stations would go up, if the company starts to build by June 2026. 

The proposed 2.5-kilometre gondola is designed to run from the base of the ATB tower at 100th Street and 100th Avenue downtown to Old Strathcona, just north of Whyte Avenue.

The company has also agreed to pay $774,600 a year for the licence fee to operate the gondola. 

Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson, president and CEO of Prairie Sky Gondola, said the arrangement is a key step in the project. 

“We are pleased,” Hansen-Carlson said in an interview this week. “We’re very near what I would describe as the biggest milestone in this project.” 

The idea was first pitched in 2018. 

The city’s financial and corporate services branch prepared the report, after council approved an agreed framework last February. 

City managers now recommend council approve the lease and license agreements, which could happen as early as mid-August.   

“Prairie Sky requires certainty regarding the availability of the land for the proposed alignment in order to advance to the next stage of the project development,” the report says. 

The deals are required as the gondola would be built on and travel over city-owned land, parks, road right-of-way and the river valley.

After the first five years, the lease amount would increase by about 2.5 per cent a year, the report says.

The initial term is for 30 years and Prairie Sky has the option to extend the lease for two further periods of 30 years each.

If the agreements are approved, there are many other regulatory steps to go through, including rezoning the land, revising the river valley bylaw, and doing an environmental impact assessment.

Aligns with city vision

Hansen-Carlson believes the project would help fulfil the city’s plan to create and connect 15-minute neighbourhoods.

“We believe it’s an important piece of the puzzle,”  Hansen-Carlson told CBC News. “We’re pretty proud of where we’re at in terms of our relationship with the city.” 

The cars could carry 1,800 people an hour each way and would be useful to get people to stations like the one at the Rossdale power plant for future events like festivals. 

The gondola could be a regular commuting option for residents and connect with the existing Edmonton Transit Service, Hansen-Carlson said. 

“The other part of the business is giving them an innovative experience in the core,” he said. “And the tourism piece of this business, I think, is equally as important as the urban commuter piece.” 

Hansen-Carlson said the company will use dynamic methods, such as artwork in the cabins and at the stations, to tell the historical significance of the area, including Indigenous culture. 

The deal also removes risk from the city with a decommissioning bond, making the company responsible to remediate the infrastructure and land if the gondola gets grounded. 

Project critics

David Cooper, a transportation planner and consultant with Leading Mobility, said it’s an innovative idea but he disagrees that the tourism component is as important as the overall public good. 

“Right now, it’s a private sector tourism gondola using public lands and we need to have a very fulsome conversation about the public benefit,” Cooper said in an interview earlier this month. 

Value and viability of the project are still unknown, he argued, as well as the amount the fare will cost and how it will connect to the existing public transit system. 

It already has a no vote from at least one councillor: Michael Janz. 

“I’m not anti-gondola as a technology. I think it can be an incredibly efficient and economical technology for moving large numbers of people up and down slopes,” Janz wrote in a blog post.

Janz argues the project may not benefit the public as a whole but rather leans toward being a private money-making venture. 

Council’s executive committee is scheduled to review the deal at a meeting Aug. 10. 

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