Calgary

Calgary council unites after weeks of Green Line acrimony

Practically no one expected a revised alignment for the Green Line to be defeated. But no one predicted a 14-1 approval either.

Opposition to new plan for transit megaproject melts away

This rendering shows what a new Green Line bridge over the Bow River could look like. After weeks of acrimony, council approved the megaproject on Tuesday. (City of Calgary)

Practically no one expected a revised alignment for the Green Line to be defeated. But no one predicted a 14-1 approval either.

Just two weeks ago in a Calgary council committee meeting, the vote on what Mayor Naheed Nenshi points out was the exact same alignment was approved in an 8-5 vote.

Yet everyone is claiming victory, no matter how they felt about the Green Line on June 1.

There were compromises, explanations and some hard work.

The Green Line has had its core supporters on council since a political deal was done in 2014. 

The deal was to stop fighting over whether the next LRT line was going north or southeast and just get on with building a single north-south line.

That support hadn't cracked significantly over the years although the recent pandemic and the economic crisis associated with it has given some supporters reason to pause given the sheer magnitude of the $5.5-billion Green Line.

After all, the city has already spent more than $540 million just preparing for construction. 

Cracks emerge

Two weeks ago, some previous Green Line supporters started to waver on the vision for Stage 1.

Councillors Jeff Davison, Ward Sutherland, Peter Demong and Jyoti Gondek said they couldn't support the revised alignment. 

In a blog post, they said while they still supported the Green Line, they'd prefer to see it begin as a complete line from the southeast to downtown.

The transit needs of the north could be addressed by having a dedicated bus rapid transit route set up on Centre Street North.

"With limited dollars, the current plan to build two unfinished lines is built on hope, which is not a strategy for success," they wrote.

Then Davison, Sutherland and Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart later raised concerns about the $640 million the city will pay in interest on the cost of building the Green Line, something they called "new information."

However, council approved that decision in 2017 by dedicating $23.7 million in tax money over 27 years to pay off the bank charges.

Scrap the bridge

Some of those councillors advocated scrapping the LRT bridge downtown over the Bow River as a way of mitigating any potential cost overruns. Just stub the line downtown they said, maybe take it further southeast.

Nenshi weighed in. He said that saying no to a downtown bridge to get the CTrain to the north end in Stage 1 means the north could forget about ever getting LRT service.

He suggested the naysayers bring forward a motion to just kill the Green Line.

All the opponents had to do was come up with 10 votes to reconsider council's earlier decision in favour of the Green Line and it would be done.

In the end, no one brought forward any motions to scrap the bridge. Instead, they all voted yes on the Green Line.

Back onside

They voted yes after Nenshi and other Green Line supporters rolled up their sleeves to develop a way to win back the opponents to the project.

The revised alignment of June 1 didn't change by this week's council meeting.

What did change was putting in writing things like a commitment to not start construction on the bridge and the Centre Street portion of the line until administration is sure the technically complex downtown tunnel can be built without any cost overruns.

Calgary council votes to build the $5.5B Green Line LRT project. We talk to Councillor Shane Keating, chair of the city's Green Line committee, about it going ahead. 7:40

Davison said that condition put his mind at ease.

"Splitting the [central] segment into two parts really allows the project to move ahead in a measured and responsible way," said Davison. 

He acknowledged there was criticism of his attempt to ensure there are financial safeguards built into the project.

"I'm not interested in the personal attacks. I'm interested in ensuring that if we can do this, we will do it right."

With that work done and all questions answered, he said of this week's vote: "This is a good win-win for everybody."

Not enough votes

But Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said nothing really changed from June 1 to June 16.

So why did some colleagues waver and suddenly jump back on the train, all without getting any changes to the alignment?

To Carra, it doesn't ring true that the cost mitigation measures spelled out this week — which he says were going to be done anyway — were behind the change of heart.

After all, he points out, no proposals to kill the Green Line or to drop the bridge ever came forward.         

In short, he said they knew they didn't have enough votes. So they threw in the towel.

"Their desire to kill the bridge was never about whether it was the right thing to do or not. It was always about whether they had a path to victory," said Carra.

"Maybe it was a political miscalculation, that voting against citizens and the wishes of the citizenry isn't the right thing to do if you're looking to win at politics."

Voters spoke up 

Another Green Line advocate, Coun. Evan Woolley, said he thinks a public groundswell of support for the project convinced his colleagues to get back on board.

"Hundreds upon hundreds of emails coming in, I think that Coun. Davison, Sutherland and Gondek really saw the overwhelming support for this project and decided to shift on their positions to support it," said Woolley.

He credits Nenshi, Carra and Coun. Shane Keating for putting in the work with administration to craft new recommendations for this week's meeting.

These were recommendations that allowed everyone to take away a measure of victory. However administration never deviated from the revised alignment approved by the Green Line committee.

Besides the lobbying by Calgarians, Woolley said not to underestimate the support of the downtown property owners for the vision behind this project.

Woolley said numerous big development companies — including Harvard Properties, GWL, QuadReal Property Group, Concorde Pacific, Ronmor, Remington and Oxford — thought it was very important for the train to go underground in the core and to go over the river so that it can some day connect to the airport.

"It's the smart thing to do," he said.

Effort falls short

Even a self-described ad hoc group of citizens opposed to the proposed Green Line took some solace from the plan ultimately approved by council this week.

That group opposed the bridge, wanted an elevated or on-street LRT line through the core instead of a tunnel, and high floor LRT cars that could also be used on other CTrain lines.

The Green Line plan approved by council includes a bridge over the Bow and a downtown tunnel. A contract for low floor LRT cars is about to go out for bids.

In the end, all the group could do was issue a news release thanking administration for taking steps to reduce the risks in the project.

But as Green Line supporters point out, those steps were taken because a group of independent experts appointed by council, its technical risk committee, recommended revising the alignment to keep the Green Line on budget.

Take a look at the route for the Green Line below:

This map shows the approved alignment for the Green Line. (City of Calgary)

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, Coun. Evan Woolley was quoted listing several companies that supported the tunnel and bridge plan. He later said he misspoke, and did not mean to include Bentall Kennedy, but rather QuadReal Property Group and Concorde Pacific, on that list.
    Jun 18, 2020 7:54 AM MT

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