Calgary mayoral candidate Bill Smith has picked a side in the ongoing debate about the city's approved Southwest Bus Rapid Transit route, choosing to back a group opposing the project.

Just days after a mayoral forum at Mount Royal University where Smith did not specifically say if he is for or against the Southwest BRT, he held a joint press conference with Ready to Engage

The group is steadfastly against the 22-kilometre bus route from Woodbine to the downtown core which Doug Fraser, the group's spokesperson, called "unnecessary, and economically unsound." 

"If elected, I will put a stop to the Southwest Bus Rapid Transit project in its current form and we will re-evaluate it," Smith said on Sunday to the crowd of a few dozen members of Ready to Engage.

Bill Smith

Bill Smith announces his run for mayor in Calgary on June 12, 2017. (Shannon Scott/CBC)

It was not only supporters of Ready to Engage who gathered to hear Smith's stance on the BRT.

Shifrah Gadamsetti, president of the Students' Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) – Calgary's only post-secondary institution with no C-Train access – said the BRT will improve transit access to the university.

"[Not having C-Train access creates] significant barriers for our students, our staff, our faculty, their quality of life, and we want to make sure that that's addressed through the BRT."

Southwest BRT map

The service includes two new dedicated bus-only lanes on 14th Street S.W. between Southland Drive and Glenmore Trail. The city says the lanes will allow buses to bypass traffic and provide a "reliable and efficient service at all times of the day." (City of Calgary)

Gadamsetti said SAMRU and the Mount Royal Faculty Association have partnered with Calgarians with BRT, a pro-BRT group.

"We haven't heard any vocal opposition from our students in support of this project because it aligns with all of their goals to improve their quality of life," Gadamsetti said. "And our senior admisnistraion and staff are also very much in support."

Combined, the two groups from MRU make up over 10,000 people.

Project is council-approved

At the press conference on Sunday, Smith and Fraser both said city council is "fast-tracking" the tendering of the $65-million Southwest BRT project, with Smith saying council should suspend the project until after Calgary's municipal election on Oct. 16. 

"This is an obvious attempt to make it too costly for the newly elected council to back out of this poorly planned, ill-concieved and costly Southwest BRT plan," Smith said.

Incumbent Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Smith's "accusation" of fast-tracking is "offensively wrong."

"The fact is that council overwhelmingly approved the budget and the project months ago," Nenshi said on Sunday. "And work doesn't stop during an election. They've got to continue on if they want to get on the ground on time and on budget."

Shifrah Gadamsetti SAMRU

Shifrah Gadamsetti, president of the Students' Association of Mount Royal University, says the BRT project will improve transit access to and from the university. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Smith also called the current mayor "Mr. Lack of Transparency" for shutting down future public meetings on the project after city staff were threatened at an information session.

"That's rich," Nenshi said when learning of Smith's moniker for him, noting the irony of the statement after Smith refused to reveal his campaign donors list ahead of the election, something Nenshi has done and has challenged other candidates to do as well.

nenshi

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says city work 'doesn't stop during an election,' including the Southwest BRT. (CBC)

Nenshi's request is voluntary, as candidates are not required to reveal their donors list until after the election.

Smith said he is just following the rules.

'We hope that he takes our invitation'

Some members affiliated with Ready to Engage have been linked to Smith's campaign team.

Alan Hallman, an organizer of Ready to Engage, endorsed Smith on Twitter and attended the event on Sunday. The group's former spokesperson, Rick Donkers, is now a spokesperson for Smith.

When asked about the connections between his campaign and Ready to Engage, Smith said his team is comprised of people from "all walks of life and all ends of the spectrum."

"These are all good people that I've got working for me and I'm very fortunate to have them," he said.

Gadamsetti said SAMRU have asked to meet with Smith to discuss the project's potential benefit to the Mount Royal University, where Smith's son is currently enrolled.

Gadamsetti expressed her disapointment on socail media, posting on Twitter that there is a "lack of facts, transparency & consultation" on the project by Smith's campaign team.

She said Smith had previously met with SAMRU's vice president, but the candidate did not take a stance on the BRT at that time.

"We hope that he takes our invitation and comes forward and has a dialogue with us, because I think we've done a lot of work to create awareness, start a conversation, dispel myths, and we'd love the opportunity to share that with him," Gadamsetti said, adding that she hopes the BRT debate will encourage MRU students to vote in the municipal election.

With files from Kate Adach