Councillors will vote next month on whether the city’s tram service should be extended to Newhaven, finally completing the full line originally promised eight years ago.
A senior SNP figure said the party was not “ideological” about the future of the tram, and was prepared to vote in favour of extension – but would wait until a new business case for the proposal is published next month before making a final decision.
Deputy transport convener Adam McVey said that its stance would depend on the revenue projection calculated for taking trams to Leith, but warned that councillors could vote for a limited extension only as far as Leith Walk if the sums don’t add up for a Newhaven terminus. The city already has the tram tracks in storage needed to complete the line, as well as a fleet of vehicles large enough to serve the full route.
Extending the line to Newhaven is estimated to cost £80 million. However, the work could eventually be done in stages thanks to a contribution from developers behind the £850m Edinburgh St James project, which is expected to be used on a transport “interchange” between bus and tram at Picardy Place.
Depending on the size of the sum provided by developers, it could also be used to build another tram stop near McDonald Road on Leith Walk.
Cllr McVey said the group would take a pragmatic approach, and would base its vote on the evidence produced by officers. He said: “The SNP group is open to the potential extension of the tram but only if the evidence supports it.
“This is not a decision that can be made on ideological grounds – to commit to an infrastructure project worth tens of millions of pounds, the people of Edinburgh expect the business case to be solid.
“The SNP will analyse all options for extension, including no extension, next month with an open mind and we will ensure any plan agreed is subject to robust scrutiny.
“It’s hard to deny that the tram has performed well and helped facilitate economic development but it would be unforgivable to overlook the mess caused by the tram’s first phase. It’s therefore vitally important we get this decision right.”
If SNP councillors do back proposals to extend the tram to Leith, it will be the first time the party has willingly given its support to the project in a major vote.
In 2007, SNP elected members at Holyrood voted against providing a £490m loan to pay for the tram project, but because the party formed a minority government, it was out-voted by Labour, Liberal Democrat, Tory and Green MSPs. The vote led Finance Secretary John Swinney to famously declare that “not a penny more” would be given to the project.
And in 2011, SNP councillors abstained from a vote to cut the already truncated tram line from York Place back to Haymarket, prompting a crisis that saw the Scottish Government threaten to withdraw all funding for the project. It was only after this threat that the SNP group at the City Chambers voted in favour of the Edinburgh Airport to York Place line.
Commentators have previously suggested that without taking the line to Leith, one of Scotland’s most densely populated areas, the profitability of the tram line would always be hampered.