Last June, after Calgary City Council voted to approve the long-delayed Green Line light rail transit project, Mayor Naheed Nenshi declared it a “victory for all Calgarians.”
The vote looked like a milestone. Problems had beset the $5.5-billion Green Line for years. The original vision for the project, from the far north of the city to the deep southeast, was halved after an initial cost estimate was found to be more fiction than reality. So the council vote, 14-1, felt momentous. Debate was over. Construction would be under way in 2021 and the Green Line would open in 2026, carrying some 65,000 Calgarians a day and cutting more than 20 minutes from transit riders’ commutes.
The council vote, however, did not mark an end to the delays. It set off a whole new round of them, and this time it is the provincial government that appears to be doing everything it can to hold back the Green Line.
In theory, the province should be supportive. The Green Line would mean more than 10,000 direct jobs, at a time when Alberta unemployment is 9.1 per cent. Premier Jason Kenney’s mantra is jobs and economy. And it was Mr. Kenney in 2015, then a federal Conservative minister, who announced Ottawa’s $1.5-billion investment in the Green Line, saying, “Canada’s largest cities depend on public transit.”
Yet as Premier, Mr. Kenney has pushed against the Green Line. The Alberta NDP promised $1.5-billion to Calgary from the province in 2017. But in 2019, early in Mr. Kenney’s time as Premier – and eager to balance the provincial budget – he pushed almost all of the money into the distant future. His government also reserved the right to withdraw its financial support at any moment.
After Calgary council approved the project, Mr. Kenney’s government decided it needed to review it again. This dragged out for months. There was vague talk of questions about the budget, design and strategy. It went on long enough to prevent construction this year. The matter was thought to be settled, yet – surprise – it was revealed last week that the province now wants a “business case.” All this for a project that had been pored over for years.
The province claims it wants to see the Green Line built. But its actions have only stymied the project, and the wasted time has made it more expensive. The project is in danger of going from a generational, city-changing investment to one that takes forever to finish, and that has a final result that is an uninspired fraction of what was first envisioned.
This is what happens way too often with transit in Canada. Good ideas are thrust into the maw of politics, chewed up and ruined. Torontonians perhaps know this best. The tales there are near endless. The Downtown Relief Line subway existed only in imaginations for decades. Finally, a new version, the Ontario Line, appears to be going forward. Ottawa announced $10.4-billion last week for it, and for three other Toronto projects. Here’s some perspective: The line’s opening date is 2029, close to a half century after the idea was first tabled.
The same sad saga repeats itself over and over. Hamilton was going to build LRT. The Ontario government spiked it in 2019. Now it’s revived, with Ottawa and Ontario last week splitting the $3.4-billion bill. In Montreal last week, news emerged that the Blue line metro extension budget shot up a third to $6-billion, and there is worry the plans will have to be pared back. In Vancouver, the Broadway subway is under construction, but it’s going only about half the way to its actual end destination, the University of British Columbia. The half-built line will, at some unknown point, supposedly be completed in full.
Ottawa’s renewed commitment to public transit is excellent. Last week’s funding announcements are big wins for Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, home to more than a fifth of the country’s population. And the promise of $3-billion in permanent annual federal funding, starting in 2026, to reliably build transit without being prey to the whipsaws of election cycles, gives hope. Good transit is essential in Canada’s cities, and will become more so as urban populations grow.
But it’s always a battle. The Green Line is mired in the quicksand of politics. Construction should already be under way. The Alberta government needs to deliver the money it promised and get the project, from the southeast, under downtown and over the Bow River to the north, built as soon as possible.
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