As a city we have been fantasizing about an LRT to southeast Calgary for decades. Residents in the southeast waited patiently for their turn but often saw other projects move forward first. The same could be said for folks that live in north-central Calgary. Many folks in southeast and north-central Calgary saw LRT as something that might never happen in their lifetime. The solution to their problems came in the form of the Green Line LRT.
Over the last few years we have been able to effectively take the Green Line LRT from a visioning exercise to a tangible project. It took a lot of very hard work and some hard political decisions to get us here. Four years ago we were still talking about a transitway for southeast Calgary; today we are talking about the biggest capital project this city has ever considered.
Over the weekend an article came out in the Calgary Herald that shed some light on the status of this project. The article looked at the scope of the project and the associated costs that we are facing. It also offered comment from Transportation Minister Brian Mason. You can read the full article HERE.
It is important that we reflect carefully on where we are with this project. A few years ago we had a rough idea what this project might cost, a rough idea of where the stations would be and a rough idea of how it would provide better transportation service to Calgarians. Every component of this project has evolved over the last few years.
During the early stages of this process we had a ballpark number of what the project might cost. Our preliminary projections pegged this project at a cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion. This projection did not take into account financing charges if funding for the project was amortized out over a long period of time. We began with a target for getting the entire project built, but as we moved through the study refinements had to be made. Today we still believe that we can deliver a feasible LRT line for $4.5-$5 billion, but we need to decide how long that line will be.
Divulging the specific costs of a project is not in the best interests of the corporation or of taxpayers. If we were to give a specific dollar figure on what we were willing to spend, we can almost guarantee all bids will come in at the top end of our budget. While we can set some internal targets of what we would like to spend, it is a best practice for us to keep specific financial estimates private to ensure we get the most competitive contracts. That is where Council has a direct responsibility to make sure Calgarians are getting the absolute best value for their tax dollars.
Decisions on the alignment and the station locations have contributed to more refined cost projections. Calgarians made it clear how they wanted to see this line delivered, specifically through the downtown. We could have made the decision to stay at grade through the downtown and likely delivered the entire project for our visioning budget, but that is not what stakeholders wanted to see. Overwhelmingly Calgarians made it clear we needed to make an appropriate investment that would integrate well with the downtown; we could only accomplish that by tunneling.
Tunneling provides enormous advantages, but it also makes the project much more complex. Council has decided in principle that this is the direction we are going with Green Line LRT and I am supportive of that. With that in mind, tunneling will require us to make some other hard decisions. There are a number of stations that we may need to abandon or temporarily forgo to ensure this line gets out to the maximum amount of riders. Tapping into ridership is the whole justification for this line in the first place and we cannot lose sight of that.
Projects of this magnitude require a lot of really hard decisions. If this project were simple, it likely would have been done by now. As we come to terms with our budgetary realities we are going to have to find a way to provide Calgarians with the maximum benefit through this project. That means agreeing on a staged approach that serves the highest number of Calgarians while providing economic stimulus, job creation and reductions in city-wide congestion.
This is not about pitting the north-central component of this project against the southeast component of this project. The line is not feasible without the integration of both components. As Councillor for Ward 12, obviously my heart lies in southeast Calgary. I am very happy to support a phased approach to the Green Line, but it must service the folks in southeast Calgary that are starved for better service. Getting this line to McKenzie Towne brings the train to the places where people live – and expanding to Seton from this point is relatively inexpensive in the broader sense of the project.
A phased approach to this project is exactly how we have approached our LRT network in the past. We build what we can and seek to do expansions as additional funding becomes available. In the past if we had been presented with the option to build a full line or not build the line at all, we wouldn’t have LRT service in Calgary. We will be tackling the most complicated and expensive aspects of this project first and leaving the door open for feasible extensions that are much less capital intensive.
I’ll conclude my thoughts by offering a brief commentary on our need for provincial involvement in this project. Transportation Minister Brian Mason was quoted as saying “our government is broadly supportive of public transit…however, unless we have a really clear definition of project scope and what its costs are going to be, we’re not in a position to make a decision”. While I certainly see his point, I still find that commentary frustrating.
While we still have some technical decisions to make on the project, we have been quite clear with the province. We want to build a $4.5-$5B LRT line. The price tag of the entire line may be more, but we have asked for a contribution of $1.53B from the province at this stage.
Uncertainty on this project flows both ways. Council is being asked to make important technical decisions on this project, but they are doing so with an absence of understanding on just how much money we will have. The province says they want us to finalize the technical aspects before they commit to the project. That puts us in a bit of a logjam.
We were very fortunate to receive a funding commitment in principle from the Government of Canada back in 2015. At this stage we had very few technical details firmed up and had a tremendous amount of work to do, specifically around the inner city alignment. The federal government committed to funding the project once they received an application that fit a set of criteria that they would establish at a later time. We didn’t receive the funding at that time, but we were at least given piece of mind that the commitment would be there. I appreciate that the provincial government wants to find their own way on this project, but it would certainly be helpful if we had a few more assurances on their intentions.
We have come a long way on Green Line LRT, and we still have further to go. With the funding we have received we will begin some pre-construction work in southeast Calgary this year. What started as a paper exercise is now a project that Calgarians will likely benefit from in the next ten years. The project will continue to evolve and our budget will become more sophisticated as we approach the start of construction. The Green Line LRT is going to transform our city dramatically and we cannot afford to miss this opportunity.