I have had the honour of working with Councillor Woolley for a long time and I know he is working hard for Calgarians and trying to do what he thinks is right for the citizens of our great city today and the future. However, the Notice of Motion that he has brought forward seems to be addressing issues that were brought forward by a group of concerned citizens and not the Green Line team itself. This is not something that I can go along with. Councillor Woolley states that getting the downtown alignment right is foundational to the overall success of the Green Line; that the downtown is the economic anchor of Calgary’s past and future success; and that the future success of Calgary is dependent on an effective and efficient public transit system. On all of these statements, I am in complete agreement. My confusion is that the Green Line team is not looking to make substantive changes to the proposed downtown alignment, rather they are being prudent fiscal stewards wanting to look at the length and depth of the underground portion of the Green Line through the downtown.
He noted that the loss of 40,000 downtown jobs affects the ridership modelling, which will impact the operating costs of the Green Line. While that is certainly true today, projections indicate that Calgary is starting to see an economic recovery and the City, along with partners such as Calgary Economic Development, are working hard to restore our downtown and I am confident we will be well on our way in the 7 to 8 years when Stage 1 of the Green Line begins operating. In social media postings, he shares his concerns that the Green Line has moved away from a City Shaping project to an engineering project seeking to get costs down. I don’t think that’s true. The alignment through the core will remain one that serves the downtown and the commuters relying on it, especially once it reaches the planned ends of the line. The alignments north and south are not changing and will serve nearly 500,000 residents in the long term. I have shared this graphic before, but I will share it again, as it demonstrates that the Green Line is needed now, on opening day, and in the long term:
The notice of motion states that the North Central line is no longer a part of Green Line Stage 1 and that the downtown alignment is uncertain. We have been talking about Stage 1 for a long time now and its alignment has not changed – it continues to be 16th Ave to Shepard. The downtown alignment is not uncertain. Some groups, not involved in the Green Line, have suggested ideas such as going down 3rd Street SE, which is not an idea being proposed by the actual Green Line team as it does not get into the heart of downtown and would not effectively serve Calgarians. There could be minor alignment changes from Inglewood to 16th Ave, but these would be limited and must still ensure strong connectivity, provide transit service to where Calgarians want to go and help to increase the value of the land in the downtown. Councillor Woolley and I are very much aligned in that the Green Line must serve the downtown, as well as effectively serve residents of the Beltline and the future Rivers District. There will continue to be a station that conveniently serves the BMO Centre and a future Event Centre if it goes forward – none of that has or will change.
The changes being discussed now by the Green Line team are discussions of depth and length of the tunnel. If we go under the river and because of the geology of downtown, a tunnel may have to go five to seven stories below ground, making station access a significant issue. The team is actively evaluating construction methods that would bring the Green Line closer to the surface, minimizing the distance that riders would need to travel to get to and from the train and street level. They are also discussing the length of the tunnel and evaluating the concept of going over or under the river. If this is done, it may lower costs and reduce risks, which are prudent financial steps to ensure the success of this mega project. If the project is delivered under budget it may allow further extension of the line, but this will not be done at the expense of the vision which the Green Line team has been working towards. The Notice of Motion states that the federal and provincial governments expect us to be judicious with their investments, which is exactly what is happening with the evaluation currently under way.
Many of the whereas statements show exactly why the Green Line needs to move as quickly as possible. To be judicious with our partner governments, we should be working to avoid escalation costs that come with delays. There are signs that interest rates could be on the rise in the future which will lead to higher borrowing costs. Costs of labour and materials will continue to climb due to inflation. Every delay means costs go up. The Notice of Motion points out that Calgary is currently in a recession and this type of investment will put people to work while creating a number of indirect jobs.
Breaking up the Green Line into at least two contracts is something I have been advocating for from the start. It allows more contractors to bid which will help drive down costs. The first contract is something that the City has decades of experience doing – building LRT track at grade, building bridges, and building stations. The first contract will mean there is potential for local companies to come together as a consortium and bid on the at-grade project rather than a single contract only being available for very large international/multinational corporations. These are projects that Calgary knows how to do, that our transportation department knows how to do, and that will put people to work right away. The risks on this are minimal, as the Green Line team has already been removing potential risks such as ground contamination and has been relocating utilities out of the way of the future Green Line. The only thing giving us pause right now are the unknown unknowns, areas the City has not previously ventured into, and these primarily exist through the downtown. We haven’t tunneled through the downtown and we need to determine the best way to do that. This doesn’t mean that we need to halt what we know how to do. It means the opposite – we can go ahead and start on what we know how to do while we continue to sort out the best method to go through the downtown.
There are many items of the Green Line that require due diligence – I very much agree with Councillor Woolley there. The downtown underground stations which are planned at 5-7 stories underground, need to be looked at again – does a station at that depth really serve the public? This is something that has already been under scrutiny by the Green Line Team and the transportation department for months. Reevaluating the tunnel length and depth – that’s what really needs to be evaluated, and that is what is already getting done. The Green Line will otherwise continue as planned, under the planned alignment, serving as many people and jobs as possible. We are looking at what can be done to lower the risks, mitigating the unknown unknowns such as the deep tunnel and stations, giving assurance that the project will be well within its budget (a budget that has already baked in substantial risk premiums), all while holding true to the original Green Line proposal and alignment that was funded by our partners at the Province and in Ottawa. The plan put forward by the Green Line team is a strong one, focused on getting going on the segment that what we know and are ready to start now, re-evaluating the downtown to ensure that we get it right and delivering on the vision of an accessible and efficient transit system all while being strong financial stewards. This is a plan that I can get behind, as it is right for Calgary today and in the future.