Councillors discuss future of Calgary's Green Line during lengthy public hearing

The team behind Calgary's long-awaited Green Line is hoping to clear some key hurdles in the next two months.

Council committee began examining revised alignment Monday ahead of key vote June 15

An artist's rendering of a ground-level station on the new Green Line LRT. According to Mayor Nenshi, this is exactly the moment to be investing in projects like this one, which will create an estimated 20,000 jobs. (City of Calgary)

The team behind Calgary's long-awaited Green Line is hoping to clear some key hurdles in the next two months.

The goal is to put the first stage of the $4.9-billion LRT megaproject on track to start construction in the spring of 2021. 

But first, city council has to approve the revised alignment which aims to reduce the cost of the project and lay the groundwork for future expansions.

The revised alignment calls for:

  • A shortening of the LRT tunnel under downtown to save money.
  • Putting the Second Avenue station underground but inside a future development which will replace the Eau Claire market.
  • Building a bridge to carry the CTrain across the Bow River.
  • Adding a Ninth Avenue station in Crescent Heights and running the train line down the middle of Centre Street North to 16th Avenue.
This map shows the revised alignment of Calgary's Green Line LRT, which will need to be approved by council if the megaproject is to start construction in the spring of 2021. (City of Calgary)

Coun. Shane Keating, the chair of council's Green Line committee and a longtime supporter of expanding the LRT system, said it's a big month for the project.

"I'm certainly hoping that we have enough resolve to make sure that the recommendations by administration are put forward [to council later in June]," Keating said.

Money committed

The city has convinced the federal and provincial governments to match council's $1.5-billion commitment to the project.

Council has supported the Green Line moving ahead at each step of the process.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of business people stepped up a campaign to try to alter the Green Line.

Calling itself an ad hoc citizens' committee, it has been arguing that the economics of the LRT line have changed and that it's too financially risky to build.

Businessman Jim Gray, former alderman Patti Grier and others in the group suggest the city should drop going across the river, use a ground level or elevated train through the core and ditch plans for low-floor light rail vehicles.

Calgary businessman Jim Gray is one of the men behind an ad hoc group that is questioning the Green Line project. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The ideas ring hollow for those putting together the plan.

Council members say it's critical to get the line across the river to prepare for future expansions northward and that downtown building owners oppose another CTrain line on the street or an elevated train line.

As well, switching from a low-floor LRT car back to the high floor models currently in use on Transit's other train lines would only add to the spending on stations.

Mayor says extensions to complete vision

Mayor Naheed Nenshi is backing the revised alignment plan even though some have questioned the utility of placing two stations in Crescent Heights without having the money to go further north.

"Let's be clear. The two stations at 16th Avenue and Ninth Avenue are not going to be huge ridership stations. But they are needed to build the rest of it," said Nenshi.

"Building that bridge within the existing funding today is a cheaper, smarter way of making yourself ready for future extensions."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is backing the revised alignment plan for the Green Line LRT project. (Adriean Wyld/The Canadian Press)

He dismisses the ad hoc group's criticisms.

"Dealing with this misinformation on this level is very irritating but ultimately, I think council is not in any way swayed by this misinformation," said the mayor.

"It's council that will be voting."

If council did reject the Green Line, Nenshi points out that 20,000 construction jobs and $3 billion from the federal and provincial governments would not be coming to Calgary.

Planning has changed

A transit planner who worked with the City of Calgary on past LRT projects like the west leg of the Blue Line and the LRT extension to Saddletowne said the Green Line approach is the right way to go.

David Cooper said planning a modern LRT line is fraught with complexities. 

Unlike the late 1970s and 1980s planning processes used in Calgary, the Green Line will not be running entirely along freight train lines or in the middle of busy roads like Crowchild Trail.

He said the important lessons of the past have been learned including building the line right the first time so there isn't major spending later to correct things.

For example, putting the CTrain on Seventh Avenue downtown made sense in the 1970s, but a longer term vision today requires the downtown tunnel for the Green Line.

"We had to spend half a billion dollars on retrofitting the LRT system to date on the existing Red and Blue lines just to function for today's needs," said Cooper.

"We had to rebuild the stations on Seventh Avenue because they were done in a cheap fashion. We had to extend platforms on three legs of the LRT because they initially weren't built for four car trains that we needed to put into service."

100-year vision

Cooper also mentions that lengthy pedestrian bridge that connects Chinook station with Chinook Centre, something that was only really necessary because the station was placed so far away from the mall.

A view of the exterior and interior of the $13-million pedestrian bridge that opened in 2017 to connect Chinook station with Chinook Centre. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

The final Green Line route is aimed at having the CTrain reach underserved communities and get people to where they want to go.

For example, it will go through the heart of downtown but also travel near attractions like museums and the new event centre as well as reach employment centres like Quarry Park and ultimately, Calgary's south hospital.

"We're building a multi-generational 100-year project and if you cheap out on things, it's no different than buying a pair of boots. If you buy a good quality pair of boots, they last forever," said Cooper.

"If you buy a cheap pair, you have to replace them over and over and over again. And we had to do that on the existing Red and Blue lines."

On Monday, more than 80 people called in to a public hearing share their input on the revised alignment. The meeting paused at 10:30 p.m. Monday, and was set resume on Tuesday.

Ongoing concerns about the budget for the project also prompted some councillors to push for another plan during the lengthy committee meeting, which could see even further changes to the project.

Councillors Jyoti Gondek, Jeff Davison, Ward Sutherland and Peter Demong suggested the city build the Green Line south to downtown but hold off on crossing the river and instead improve bus rapid transit service to the north central corridor

"Chopping the Green Line north or stopping at Eau Claire would be a massive disservice," said Peter Oliver, president of the Beltline Community Association.

"This is a city-shaping project ... [that] will have far-reaching economic benefits that go far beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic," said Tyson Bolduc, also with the community association.

Between enabling works, procurement and planning, financial documents show the city has already spent $524.8 million on the Green Line.

A group of Calgarians also rallied in front of city hall as Monday's meeting began in support of the project.

After votes, momentum builds

The head of the Green Line team, Michael Thompson, said if city council approves the alignment on June 15, the megaproject's next steps will move ahead.

They include taking bids from four pre-approved companies to supply new light rail vehicles and putting out the contract for the southeast portion of the first stage of the Green Line. That leg will run from Shepard station in the southeast to Victoria Park.

He said the idea is that construction would begin next spring.

The downtown section to 16th Avenue North needs more refining, so construction on that portion is not expected to begin until 2022.

With files from Sarah Rieger