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Passengers wait for the C-Train along Calgary’s 7th Avenue. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Passengers wait for the C-Train along Calgary’s 7th Avenue. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

ENTERPRISE WEST

Calgary plans an infrastructure blitz Add to ...

The city that built itself on the fortunes of oil and gas is investing in the future with bold plans for its infrastructure.

“We have a list of infrastructure plans for everything from transportation to water and wastewater [treatment] to emergency services,” says Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Calgary has listed its priorities in its four-year budget, which calls for $22-billion in infrastructure spending over that period. It has been approved by City Council.

“It includes major public transit projects, roads and interchanges” as well as “green” infrastructure to make Calgary better prepared for climate change and extreme weather, Mr. Nenshi explains.

Some of the work will be for upkeep and repair. “It’s important to make sure we don’t let things get run down,” the mayor said.

“We have approximately $500-million per year in additional investment we need to make in our water and wastewater systems. And of course in Calgary we need to invest in flood mitigation and resiliency, especially after what happened in 2013 here.”

In June of that year the rising Bow and Elbow rivers caused the evacuation of 75,000 people, with water seeping into the Saddledome, home of the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames.

Calgary’s plan also includes ambitious big-ticket projects such as a massive extension of its light rail transit. The Green Line “will essentially double our LRT system,” Mr. Nenshi said. “It will be the largest public works project in our history by a factor of three.”

Calgary also plans to build community facilities, such as an indoor fieldhouse for soccer and track and field. The city is the largest in Canada that still does not have such a facility.

Mr. Nenshi concedes there is a “huge gap,” however, between what is planned and how much money is available – at least $7-billion, which does not include funds for the Green Line, says Ed Conway, communications leader in the Deputy City Manager’s office. But the mayor is confident that other levels of government as well as the public agree that this city-building must be done.

There is little doubt that the new federal government is committed to helping Calgary and other cities. While Ottawa has not yet pinpointed how much it will contribute to Calgary’s or other cities’ plans, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear his government considers infrastructure important for the long-term economy.

“It is tempting to look at quarterly returns and short-term outcomes and think that if everyone just takes care of the short-term, the long-term will take care of itself. That is increasingly not true,” he said at the recent G20 conference.

Calgary also received some good news in the first budget from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government, tabled Oct. 27. The budget set aside $830-million toward building Calgary’s $1.3-billion new cancer centre, a portion of $2.9-billion slated for ring roads in both Calgary and Edmonton, $72-million to the Mount Royal University Library and $105-million to the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering.

With oil prices slumping and energy companies laying off employees, Mayor Nenshi says building Calgary’s infrastructure is even more important now than in good times. “This is stuff that we need anyway,” Mr. Nenshi said.

He points to three good economic reasons for building now. The first is that low interest rates make financing infrastructure as cheap as it has ever been for cities.

“Number two is that in Calgary, we’re always competing with the energy sector for construction projects,” he said. In good times, “the cost of building in Calgary is extraordinarily high compared to other municipalities.

“Because we’re seeing this turnaround in energy construction at the moment, that gives us the opportunity to get lower prices.”

“So, money is cheap, labour is cheaper than it has been, and, finally, we have people who are out of work,” he adds. “Those lawyers, procurement specialists, you name it – they’re exactly the people we could use,” Mr. Nenshi says.

Infrastructure makes Calgary better directly and indirectly, said Mr. Conway, of the Deputy City Manager’s office.

“We’re creating jobs while addressing our infrastructure gap and ensuring levels of service to our citizens and businesses. The indirect benefit is … those same citizens are able to spend their earnings locally, and help stabilize our economy.”

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