Calgary’s Green Line Light Rail Transit project has been on the books since the early 1980s, a time when the late Ralph Klein was mayor, transit fare was rising to $1 and Alberta was in the throes of an economic recession.
For more than 30 years, the Green Line LRT has either been placed on the backburner or bumped down in priority. Meanwhile, other projects have been completed – much to the irritation of some city councillors.
But that changed when council voted to fund the Green Line instead of cutting taxes in November, 2013.
Proponents of the project in both the poorly serviced southeast and along the northern leg of the future tracks have been vocal about the necessity of the Green Line, but there are problems. Logistically, the project is massive and will nearly double the amount of rail that already exists in Calgary.
The southeast line will operate independently from other LRT lines in Calgary. Because of this, a new train system closer to the curb will be implemented, similar to the Metropolitan Area Express light rail transit system used in Portland, Oregon. According to Calgary Transit, once the full alignment is constructed, the Green Line will eventually carry 90,000 – 140,000 passengers every day.
How will it carve through the packed communities of Ramsay and Inglewood?
How will the LRT weave through the tight Beltline?
The City of Calgary will need to acquire certain properties along the route and demolish buildings if need be, regardless of whether they are considered heritage buildings or cornerstones of communities.
Council has also decided to bore under the Bow River — “in principle” — but that will be expensive and will carry an environmental cost. Minister of Transportation Brian Mason suggested in an interview with Metro News that the provincial NDP government is tight-lipped about funding.
So how will the $4.5 billion Green Line LRT proceed if no provincial dollars are in the mix?
On Dec. 3, 2016, the province committed some funding to the Green Line, but only provided about 10 per cent of what was needed and there are no solid indications —apart from talk about pledges and promises — that the Green Line will get funded in the New Year.
This timeline explores how the Green Line went from being a “pipe dream” to becoming the biggest transit endeavour in Calgary’s history, while also looking at the potential future of the project.
Priorities and the birth of an idea
A 2005 Calgary Transportation Plan report presented to city council focused on developing the city’s future transportation network by 2025, alongside a projected population of 1.25 million. Specifically, the plan introduced a central transit corridor in north-central Calgary.
The idea of the Green Line LRT first popped up when the City of Calgary was looking to build the West LRT, according to files retrieved from Calgary Transit. At the time, there was only one line in the city, extending south from downtown towards Anderson Road, combined with another line heading to the northeast under construction.
Also, a third line headed to the northwest was in the planning and development stages. A 1983 review of existing and future plans for LRT service concluded that LRT lines to the southeast would be required.
However, due to a lack of funding – and a not-so-rosy relationship between then-Premier Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government and then-Mayor Ralph Klein – the idea of the Green Line extending from the north to the southeast was put on the backburner.
1987: Planning for the future: The southeast LRT
According to files gathered from Calgary Transit, planning for the southeast leg of the LRT began with a southeast LRT functional planning study that examined “projected growth in south Calgary.” Given that the southeast area was growing steadily, Reid Crowther & Partners Ltd, authors of the study, determined that an LRT line would “one day be needed.”
The southeast LRT was organized in segments, along with the growth of new communities that were planned after the city acquired the necessary lands.
1995: Factoring in the northern leg of the Green Line
By 1995, the approach that Calgary was taking towards inner-city transportation was geared more to stronger transit usage. In addition, the city provided options to decrease the amount of cars on the road, especially during peak traffic times.
A 2005 Calgary Transportation Plan report presented to council focused on developing the city’s future transportation network by 2025, alongside a projected population of 1.25 million. Specifically, the plan introduced a central transit corridor in north-central Calgary.
At this time, the plan consisted of bus-only specific routes, with imminent LRT lines projected for the future.
2006: With potential comes problems
According to the North Central Calgary Transit Review, both the City and Calgary Transit acknowledged that transit service should be located within the northern corridor to serve increasing demands for trips to the downtown core. However, both central and north-south LRT routes south of Beddington Trail were not available at the time.
Also, routes along Centre Street, 4th Street. N.W. and Edmonton Trail were not wide enough for both LRT and road traffic – without reducing road capacity or having to spend lots of money acquiring enough properties along the route.
Despite these issues, the City remained committed to transit and poured more funding into LRT projects in the proposed capital budget for 2006-2015.
Council eventually approved the north-central LRT alignment.
December 2010: Functional planning for the southeast is complete
With 18 stations in total, the southeast portion of the Green Line LRT has been fully planned and now extends from downtown into the community of Seton.
Because the southeast line of the LRT will operate independently of other C-Train lines in Calgary, low-floor trains and curb-level transit will most likely be used. From here on out, the Green Line LRT is more of a reality than a simply a vision.
December 2012: Finding solutions as the debate simmers on
Calgary Transit’s route ahead blueprint starts looking at solutions as the debate between starting construction on the north-central corridor or the southeast LRT line simmers on. The proposed solution is to start the southeast portion first.
However, the route down Centre Street or Edmonton Trail will be completed first with both roads getting bus-only lanes to start. But city councillors are not fully committed to the plan. On one hand, Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating would not commit because no funding has been secured.
Meanwhile, both Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell and Ward 4 Coun. Gael MacLeod believe that starting with the SETway — or Southeast Transitway — is a mistake. Ultimately, money is tight and only one leg of the line can be funded.
June 2013: LRT hopes begin to dim for the southeast
Calgary transit planners carried out a study of seven potential transit expansions and placed the southeast transitway in a three-way tie for last place, much to the chagrin of Coun. Keating.
According to the Calgary Herald, the analysis weighed various factors such as cost, future ridership potential and transit times, among others, while also considering the number of residents in the area.
The reasoning behind why the southeast LRT scored so low was because the $642 million cost was extremely high compared to other projects under review. Despite the setback, Coun. Keating remains confident that the busway to Douglasglen will be built first.
November 28-29, 2013: Between transit and tax cuts, transit narrowly given the green light
In a tight vote, city council funded transit projects like the Green Line bus corridor instead of undoing a $52-million tax-hike leading to a one per cent tax cut in 2014.
Calgarians now face a five per cent tax hike, and instalments from those taxes will be used to create a $520-million fund for the Green Line, according to the budget tabled by council.
However, on Nov. 29, news surfaced that the bus-only route wouldn’t be built all at once, but in segments. At the time, the cost was estimated at $760 million for the entire bus portion of the project, with hopes that either the province or the federal government would provide additional funding.
One of the biggest hurdles that project planners and builders face is the issue of crossing the Bow River. Jeff Binks, co-founder of LRT on the Green, told the Calgary Herald that the best option would be to burrow under the Bow River, limiting the impact on the both river banks.
However, Coun. Ray Jones wasn’t sold on the $1.6-billion cost estimate. Another issue is deciding which roadway — Centre Street or Edmonton Trail — becomes a bus-only route and transitions into the LRT route later on, given that it would cost $415 million to undertake this endeavour.
August 2014: The people have spoken: Centre Street trumps Edmonton Trail
After months of public consultation sessions and listening to public feedback, Calgary Transit decides to run the north-central leg of the Green Line along Centre Street instead of Edmonton Trail.
Despite public claims to retain the four traffic lanes (two north and two south) along Centre Street and use low-floor trains, planners opted for a different route: a tighter, only lane in each direction south of McKnight Boulevard. According to Calgary Transit, the city has to purchase properties along the route. This is becoming much more expensive than previously planned.
March 2015: Tough decisions: Carving through Ramsay
The Canadian Pacific Railway has thrown a wrench into the proposed Green Line plan. The original plan had the route follow an S-curve along existing CP-owned rail but there was reluctance to part with the land along the route.
Given this sudden difficulty, residents of Ramsay had to decide which side of 11th Street S.E. would be sacrificed in order to carve out a new route. On one side of the street sit small office buildings. On the other side, the C.C. Snowdon Building, a provincially designated heritage structure.
Ultimately, Ramsay residents decided to sacrifice the east side of the strip – imperilling the Snowdon building but ensuring that the community wasn’t cut off from road links along 19th and 21st Avenues.
July 2015: The Feds come up big but the province stays tight-lipped
On the cusp of the calling of a federal election, the federal Conservatives pledged $1.53 billion for the Green Line with some critics calling this move a blatant attempt at buying votes.
Jason Kenney, then minister of defence and Conservative MP for Calgary-Midnapore, rejected these claims, telling the Calgary Herald that the timing of the announcement came only after the April federal budget was tabled and the Public Transit Fund created.
Even though the feds promised the funding, the provincial NDP government would not publicly pledge support given that the province had accumulated a $11.9-billion debt by the 2014-15 fiscal year.
October 2015: LRT alignments, parking, and the federal election
Transit officials presented a new alignment for the southern leg of the Green Line. Starting from downtown, transit will wind southeast through Inglewood, Ogden and the Quarry Park business centre, ending in Seton. Although given this solution, there’s still a problem with parking.
Certain councillors, such as Shane Keating and Peter Demong, have voiced concerns regarding the need for much more extensive planning for “park-and-ride” lots in the vicinity of the proposed stations. Keating also suggested paid parking as an option.
November 2015: The Green Line is good to go… sort of
City council finally approved the route and proposed stations for the Green Line LRT. However, there are still concerns regarding parking options and what the development potential will look like along the Green Line.
Regardless of these concerns, council approved a motion that will have Mayor Naheed Nenshi write a formal funding request to Minister Brian Mason. In addition, Coun. Druh Farrell wants city administration to consult with businesses along the Green Line route to develop a business support plan to mitigate disruptions to business owners.
December 2015: Triple the cost, triple the time
Initially, the city was aiming to fund the Green Line LRT with $520 million over 10 years. However, a motion to extend the allocation of Green Line funding to $1.52 billion over 30 years proposed by Keating has been approved by council.
Yet, Coun. Andre Chabot doesn’t agree with the plan because the true cost of the LRT is unknown. Some worry that the cost could balloon even more. As an aside, Ramsay’s Shamrock Hotel, built in 1914, closed its doors in preparation for construction of the Green Line.
March 2016: (Dead)lines in the sand
The Green Line LRT is slowly pushing towards a shovel-ready plan, but the provincial government has still not provided any funding. However, in a presentation to city council’s transportation committee, administration with the City of Calgary urged members to draw a line in the sand and put pressure on the province to announce funding by October, 2016.
April 2016: Underground or overground, the options to cross the the Bow River
A few solutions have been crafted over the past few months and presented to council regarding the notion of how to cross the Bow River. The preferred option is to bore a tunnel from 20th Avenue and Centre Street North under the Bow River and the downtown core to connect with southeast portion of the line.
The only hitch? The best option is also the most expensive solution, estimated at roughly $1.3 billion.
Oct. 5, 2016: Under the Bow River it is — “in principle”
Over the course of a few months, the cost of boring under the Bow River has ballooned even more, now sitting at $1.95 billion, worrying individuals who take issue with the rising costs. Since the provincial government hasn’t secured that funding, city council added “in principle,” when agreeing with the underground option.
The city doesn’t want to fully commit to the expensive alignment in case provincial funds don’t come through. With those two words added in, city council has signed off on the underground option.
Oct. 28, 2016. A touchy proposal: using the carbon tax to fund the Green Line
As plans for a carbon tax are being finalized provincially and federally, LRT on the Green co-founder Jeff Binks encourages the province to use some of the money generated from the tax to fund the Green Line. Starting in 2017, Alberta would contribute $52 million, a figure in line with the city’s contribution.
With the carbon tax in place, provincial contributions would increase yearly. The minimum price set by the federal government would then surpass provincial targets, and contributions would sit at $30 per tonne in 2020.
By 2023, these contributions would peak $273 million. However, with the carbon tax leaving a sour taste in Calgarians’ mouths, this plan may slip through the cracks.
Nov. 7, 2016: Federal Government officially funds the Green Line
In the 2016 Fall Economic Statement that the federal government released, the Liberals outlined the second phase of investments in transit infrastructure. Specifically, the budget blueprints indicate that the Government of Canada will invest $25.3 billion over 11 years to fund public transit projects.
This second step explicitly includes the so-wanted funding for the Green Line LRT.
Dec. 3, 2016: Provincial government provides some funding, but not all
After months of back and forth between the city and the province, the provincial government has pledged over $500 million in funding for transit and infrastructure projects across Alberta. Of this amount, $146 million will be going directly towards the Green Line LRT project, a “step in the right direction,” according to Mayor Nenshi.
Despite the good news, this sum falls short of the $1.5 billion that is needed from the province and leaves questions about when – or if – the remainder of the necessary funding will be announced anytime soon. However, some councillors like Shane Keating are optimistic that the rest of the funding will be announced in the new year.
2017-2030: Looking to the future
As deadlines loom, the Green Line continues to face challenges. In his interview with Metro News, Minister Mason also said that provincial money might not make it to the Green Line in the New Year, as the “price for the project is not completely nailed down yet.”
Mason also explained that without the incoming carbon levy, the Green Line would be a challenge to finance. As Calgary Transit continues with the planning along the proposed route – with geophysical testing within the Bow River – decisions need to be made regardless of whether the provincial government wants to play ball.
But there are indications that the province is interested in funding transit endeavours across Alberta. As mentioned previously, the province has contributed $146 million directly to the Green Line project, but that is far from from the $1.5 billion needed, and there are questions about whether the province will provide the rest of the funding in the New Year.
Even if Alberta eventually provides funding, the project needs to be completed in phases to cover the estimated cost of $4.5-$5 billion. The Beltline portion of the Green Line continues to raise questions among residents and businesses – and will most likely have the biggest impact on the final cost of the project.
With a municipal election in 2017, there is no doubt that the Green Line LRT will be an issue that voters will consider. With Nenshi seeking re-election, he will need to address the concerns that have arisen with the Green Line, such as costs and when the project will begin breaking ground. But the mayor is not alone.
Other city councillors are also seeking re-election, such as Coun. Evan Woolley, who said he’s not willing to support the Green Line if the cost keeps rising.
Only one thing is certain: Calgarians will be talking about the Green Line long before they actually get to ride it and, given how slowly the debate has moved along, they could be in for quite the wait.
The editor responsible for this piece is Ingrid Mir, and can be reached at email@example.com