Here’s the situation: A recession grips the country. Alberta is especially hurting, after the price of oil crashed. And in Calgary, a generational public transit project teeters.
This is a story about 2020. It is, however, also a story about 1982, when political leaders faced short-term adversity, looked beyond it, and made the right long-term decisions for Canada’s oil capital.
Four decades ago, Calgary had just opened its first light rail transit line. It was planned and paid for during the late 1970s oil boom. But in 1982, a proposal to expand LRT was in peril.
A young mayor, who dubbed himself “Noisy Ralph,” fought for the project. He urged Ottawa to deliver much-needed funds and said the investment would pay off immediately and over time, representing “a long-term commitment to the concept of urban transportation.”
That mayor, Ralph Klein, won his fight. The new line opened in 1987. Calgary’s LRT has steadily grown ever since, and is among the most successful and busiest systems anywhere. It has been essential infrastructure in the city’s transformation from a regional oil town to a global business capital, with the population of the early 1980s doubling to 1.3 million today.
Planning, funding and building major transit projects is never easy. The process takes years, sometimes decades. As a result, it’s guaranteed that a recession or other calamity will arise during the long gestation period. That means even funded projects will at some point run into a short-term budgetary wall.
Too often in Canada political leaders have declined to look beyond the wall, fixating on the solid brick in front of them. Toronto was forced to eviscerate much of the LRT expansion it had in the works a decade ago, and still awaits a downtown subway relief line, decades after it was first proposed. To get to the future, present obstacles have to be scaled. No one in Calgary looks back at 1982 and thinks Mr. Klein made a colossal mistake. And yet that’s the argument being made these days in Calgary, in an attempt to roadblock a long-planned expansion of the city’s LRT.
A conservative group is fighting a pitched campaign, backed by an extensive PR effort, against the city’s Green Line LRT. The new link would run from the city’s north, over the Bow River, under downtown and deep into the southeast. The opposition wants to sever the project, so the line from the southeast, instead of running through downtown, ends there. The north would be cut off.
This proposed amputation has the support of some city councillors. They say the full $4.9-billion Green Line is too expensive and as a result of COVID-19, some worry about ridership. There is talk of “economic catastrophe” and some fear city council might make the “biggest mistake in Calgary’s history.”
The saga of the Green Line is a long one, marked by repeated attempts to shorten it. In 2015, then-federal minister Jason Kenney spoke of the importance of mass transit in Canada’s cities, and announced $1.5-billion of funding for a 46-kilometre line. Alberta chipped in the same amount. Over the years, the planned Green Line was more than halved but its current form is still highly desirable, and badly needed. The money is still ready and waiting.
To further cut the project down would immolate what is left of the original vision, a line that connects north and south, on a route where transit demand is already high. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is right to call roadblocking the Green Line “a terrible idea.”
It’s not unreasonable for Calgarians to wonder about the future of transit ridership, given the pandemic. But the world has faced, and rallied from, infectious disease before. It is also not unreasonable to wonder about the tattered Calgary economy and acres of empty office space. But to believe that downtown Calgary will never recover is flat-out wrong.
Most of all, the Green Line isn’t about the troubles of 2020, which will pass. The Green Line is about improving life in Calgary in 2030, and 2050, and beyond. There is no great city in the world where people today wish their forebears had built less transit.
Calgary city council debates and decides on Monday, June 15. It would be a generational mistake to fall prey to myopia. Build the Green Line, the whole thing, from north to south. Ralph Klein would.
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