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Councillors in Edinburgh have voted in principle to complete the city’s troubled tram line, four years after they were forced to stop the service three miles short to avoid haemorrhaging money.
The city’s ruling Labour-Scottish National party coalition won the vote comfortably, with Liberal Democrat and Scottish Green party support, after agreeing to carry out more detailed financial assessments of the £145m extension.
The SNP group on Edinburgh council, which campaigned vigorously under Alex Salmond against the project from its inception on cost grounds, swung behind the proposal after initially indicating it would vote it down.
If finally cleared next month, the extension will take the existing £776m line from its current terminus in the city centre along its full route down Leith Walk – the area with the lowest car ownership in the city – and then north-west to Newhaven on the Firth of Forth.
That would connect the Ocean Terminal shopping centre in Leith docks with Edinburgh airport, via Princes Street in the city centre, and help the city to cope with its rapidly expanding population. Expected to be Scotland’s fastest growing city, forecasts suggest its population will leap by nearly 30% over the next 25 years.
Hampered from the start by mismanagement, poor planning and political conflicts between the city and Scottish government, the tram project deeply divided Edinburgh, ending the political careers of several senior Lib Dem councillors who had fought to keep it alive. The tram finally came into service in early 2014, several years late, eight stops short and some 50% over its £520m budget, at a cost of £776m.
The project has left Edinburgh the second most indebted council in Scotland, with total borrowing of more than £1.4bn – nearly £3,000 for every resident. The full lifetime costs of the existing incomplete line, including the cost of its borrowing but not including extra borrowing needed to complete the line, are estimated to be more than £1bn.
Council officials now have to show that its costs are manageable and justified: they plan to ask Lothian Buses, the publicly owned company which runs the trams, to use £5m saved from dividends and then raise another £20m from an extraordinary dividend to help pay for it. The council will need another £15m to cover overruns, taking the potential capital budget up to £160m.
There are fears this could prove too financially challenging for Lothian Buses and the council, which would force fares up or lead to cuts to bus investment. With angry shouts of dissent from the public gallery, the decision to extend the line was carried with only 11 votes against after the Tories stood alone to oppose it.
Cameron Rose, the Tory group leader, said the postponement of a final decision was further evidence that the city’s ruling coalition was “addicted to fudge”. Rose said: “It’s not viable, it’s much too expensive and it’s going to take far too long.”
In a statement after the vote, Andrew Burns, the council and Labour group leader, said: “I am pleased we have been able to find a way forward for the project, which would deliver a range of key benefits in terms of economic growth, greater accessibility and the environment for Leith and the city as a whole.
Sandy Howat, the SNP leader and deputy council leader, said: “We are in agreement that extending the tram line could have a positive impact on the city, and look forward to receiving further information later this year, before deciding on whether to proceed with the project.
“We want to provide best value for the city, so it is essential that we balance progress with the interests of Edinburgh’s residents.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010