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Cost vs. city-shaping: Councillors question Calgary Green Line LRT priorities

Concern that cost was the primary driver for delivery of Calgary’s Green Line LRT had some city councillors questioning how city-shaping and transit-oriented development (TOD) were going to be delivered as promised in the multi-billion-dollar transit project.

One of the first slides shown in an update on Calgary’s proposed Green Line LRT highlighted that keeping the project on time and keeping costs in line were high priorities. The project cost has been pegged at $4.65 billion – the city’s largest-ever infrastructure build.

The presentation, delivered Thursday at the city’s Transportation and Transit committee meeting by Green Line managing director Paul Giannelia told about the steady progress being made on the project – several times reiterating the importance of keeping project costs in line.

Transit-oriented development: According to the City of Calgary, TOD is a walkable, mixed-use form of area development typically focused within a 600m radius of a primary transit station – a Light Rail Transit (LRT) station or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) stop, usually of higher density.

Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley was first to question the Green Line director, querying how the city-shaping and TOD would be codified in upcoming project Requests for Proposal (RFPs).

Giannelia said detailed drawings need to be a part of the RFP process.

“It’s the only way it gets into the contract cost effectively,” said Giannelia.

Woolley said he appreciated the desire to adhere to the “constructability” of the project, but he said the city had decided upon a bigger-picture approach to this LRT line.

“One of the concerns that I have is that actually in our constructability focus, that we’re actually losing big components,” said Woolley.

“The whole point of the Green Line was that we were going to do this different than we’ve ever done before. The more I look at it, the more it’s looking the same.”

City of Calgary Transportation GM Michael Thompson did say that more information on city-shaping and TODs were to be presented at various upcoming meetings.

Still, Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell pushed the issue further.

“I recognize you don’t know the details of the project, but the transit-oriented development, the city-shaping, how are we going to work those out? Does that come after you break ground? Do we trust you that the direction that we’ve given you will be implemented?” Farrell asked, citing proposed budget cuts to the city’s Mainstreets program, which she said would affect city-shaping on the LRT line.

“Too often I’ve seen the high-level thinking erode into just a project.”

GM Thompson said the city-shaping and TOD budgets are still intact for Phase 1 and parts of Phase 2 of the Green Line were funded, but beyond that the city would have to find other funding sources for these areas.

Ward 3 Coun. Jyoti Gondek also quizzed administration on the pre-occupation with cost.

“The biggest struggle continues to be, why are we not focusing on things like modal progression and ridership – up front. Why do we not prioritize this in our conversation?” Gondek asked.

“Everything is about cost per kilometre and it’s not about ridership and modal progression – and it tends to be buried on page seven of whatever report we’re getting.

“So, although I respect and appreciate that we’ve got to do this in a cost-effective manner, I’m not seeing attention to very important considerations.”

Giannelia said that ridership is one of the key ingredients to the plan and coupled with effective cost management you achieve a greater overall value on the LRT line.