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As though Calgary Council hadn’t had its fill of self-inflicted headaches caused by grand vision spending proposals, from its failed Olympic plebiscite to its rushed Arena Deal. Now Calgary’s Multi-Billion dollar Green Line project is well on its way to being the next self-inflicted city-wide migraine, thanks to City Council.
In July, Council released its update and recommendations from the Green Line Project team.
The report states, “we confirmed that the risks for the full 4km tunnel and deep stations are too large to proceed with and we could not build the project within our budget of $4.9 billion. There are significant costs to building four underground stations in the Centre City and mitigating the risks associated with building a 4-kilometre tunnel.”
The downtown portion of this project is by far the most difficult to complete and the most costly.
According to the update, these underground stations could be expected to go as deep as seven stories underground. Council’s report stated, “as the design was refined to address risks, depth of the stations was increased to approximately seven stories below ground, which the project team felt could impact rider experience and was not aligned with the overall vision of the project.” Picturing the lengthy escalator ride to the surface, one can imagine the project team isn’t too far off from public opinion on such a design.
It also should be noted that since the project secured Federal funding support in July 2015, that two more underground stations have been added to the downtown portion of the project, neither of which are connected to above stations with the existing Blue and Red lines, but are within nine minutes walking distance of the nearest stations on those lines.
Is saving this short walk for a few in this area of downtown by having an additional underground station worth the potential cost overruns and delays for the rest of this project which could be helping tens of thousands of other commuters each day shave entire hours off their weekly commutes?
As one of the options presented to the council in this report includes reducing the number of underground downtown stations, Council may no longer see that as the case.
Currently, stage one of the project only extends as far North as 16 Avenue N, and as far southwest as 126th Avenue SW.
This is only 14 stations of the proposed 28 and includes the two underground stations in the downtown portion that were added since Federal funding was secured in 2015.
Meanwhile, the remaining destinations remain both uncosted and purely hoped that they will be built in stage two or even later stages. None of this also takes into account potential augmentations to the line, such as the often floated the idea of creating a fourth transit line to link the Airport directly to the LRT network, nor the city’s desire to continue the expansion of the existing Blue and Red LRT lines.
Many fear the city’s tendency to quickly add on new parts to the project not included in the original plans or costs will result in the other stages of the project being pushed backed ever further due to cost overruns, if not completely taken out of the project, risk losing federal and provincial funding for the project on future stages, or see significant tax increases to keep up with cost overruns.
Due to the various changing costs and plans, the Green Line has at best made itself a heavily divided issue in Calgary. Evan Woolley, city councillor for Ward 8, back in early July urged for the whole Green Line LRT to be stalled. He took issue with both the logistics and costs of underground stations, as well as the odd building plan not to start construction from the downtown core.
“I worry the Green Line may be reduced from an investment in Calgary’s global future to a project that is a burden to taxpayers, doesn’t serve downtown and is a train to nowhere,” Woolley said.
Mayor Nenshi tried to calm nerves over the Green Line stating “we’ve had a large team of experts and some of the smartest people in the world answering those questions” in response to multiple concerned citizens and groups. Nenshi reminded opposition voices that every delay on the Green Line project costs money, in an attempt to kickstart construction.
Premier Jason Kenney came out in favour of putting the Green Line project on hold until a review was done of the current plans.
This would include both the underground stations as well as the route chosen, which has come under the scrutiny of councillor Woolley and others as being the “train to nowhere.”
Mayor Nenshi attempted to downplay the concerns, saying that he looked forward to getting the premier up to speed and that the city has already answered his questions. Nenshi, in the midst of all of these issues, has been displaying an inability to deal with those funding his project, just wanting to be left alone to start building.
“Sixteen of the 20 kilometres are ready to go, and that’s 12,000 jobs so we should just start work on that as soon as possible,” Nenshi said.
Nenshi reflects a familiar feeling within the city administration to get building started regardless of the essential variables needed, hoping budgets and logistics will work themselves out.
Those who are in favour of the Green Line are of course those who the planned line will service. This should be expected even for a nearly $5 billion project as it is difficult to oppose something that will directly benefit you, also if the costs are incomparably high.
Those not benefiting directly from the project tend to have a dimmer view of the Green Line. A group of businessmen led by veteran oilman Jim Gray also spoke directly to the city council back on June 26th demanding that the project be paused for further consideration.
Gray argued that the Multi-billion dollar project was getting out of hand and was an “unacceptably high risk” of becoming an “economic catastrophe” seeing as the upper estimates of the project’s cost could mean the city may find itself more than $2 billion short. This could mean a tax hike would be required on local Calgarians once again to make up the potential gap in funding.
On July 29th Calgary city council passed 11 amendments that in effect put into place a review of the downtown segment of the Green Line, focused mainly on the concerns raised about the underground stations. Mayor Nenshi tried to avoid the notion that this in effect was a pause on the project, instead saying that the review was in line with what Calgary Transport was already doing. Although despite what the mayor had said one of the amendments directed city administration not to start construction on any portion of the Green Line until the downtown review is concluded.
Right now the Green Line finds itself stuck in a holding pattern without a clear timeline to completion.