Calgary’s much-debated Green Line light-rail project will go ahead after some previous opponents say they got the financial safeguards they were fighting for all along.
After two weeks of public debate that included opposing polls, opinion pieces, and statements from multiple groups, Calgary council voted 14-1 in favour of moving ahead with the procurement for a first phase next month, as well as a process for the subsequent phases.
But there are competing opinions about what it all meant.
Some, like Mayor Naheed Nenshi, saw it as a city-defining moment, tweeting that “this wouldn’t have happened without the dedicated citizens that told us this was a project they wanted.”
And Shane Keating, an unabashedly pro-transit councillor, said he thinks the massive public support won the day.
“I think that’s why things changed. When their own residents say ‘You should approve this,’ that makes a difference.”
But Ward Sutherland, a councillor who represents the far northeast corner of the city, said he and others who had been wary of the project voted for it because the administration’s final recommendations lined up with what they had asked for.
“We got exactly what we wanted - everything we asked for. The vote would have been completely different otherwise,” said Mr. Sutherland.
James Gray of the citizens group Greenlineinfo.ca, which has opposed the plan, said only the first phase has been given the green light, not the whole project.
The $5.5-billion Green Line project, as approved Tuesday, will be broken into three segments.
The first, which is now scheduled to start construction in 2021, is the 20-kilometre, 14-station southern leg, from Shepard station to the Ramsay/Inglewood station, just east of downtown.
The second, which will now be part of a separate study and contracting process, will go from Ramsay/Inglewood across downtown to the Second Avenue Southwest/Eau Claire station in the west. It will require 2.5 kilometres of tunnelling through the city centre and can’t proceed until there is certainty about the conditions and cost.
“They won’t know what’s there until they dig far down,” said Mr. Sutherland.
The third segment, Second Avenue to 16th Avenue north of the Bow River, will also not be allowed to proceed until council has a final estimate of the cost of the second segment, the most expensive and complicated one. That precaution is one of the 17 new amendments tacked on to the project’s process in the Tuesday vote.
The line’s approval, which has taken the twisting and tortured path of many major transit projects around the globe, follows years of ups, downs, and recalculations.
It originally went from a theoretical future plan to what seemed like an imminent project when Justin Trudeau, campaigning to form government, pledged transit funding to several cities in 2015, after the provincial NDP government had pledged $1.53 billion earlier that year. The federal government formally announced it would match that amount in 2018.
At that point, staff had tentatively planned a line that went as far as North Pointe, near the airport in the north, to Seton and the South Health Campus in the southeast corner of the city.
Once more detailed technical analysis had been done, the project was revised to extend only from 16th Avenue in the north to Shepard in the south, with promises that future phases would extend the line on both ends, including to 160th Avenue in the northwest.
As the June 16 final vote approached, two major public groups mobilized for and against the project.
In the end, only one councillor opposed the project, even with the extra cautions put in. Jeromy Farkas said he still thinks the current version of the project won’t serve the people who need it most.
He argued that the city should either build the original full north section of the planned line, out to the airport, or the original full south section, in order to get to the suburban areas where people really need transit.
“I could not justify spending $5.5-billion to get five minutes from downtown.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.