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Calgary Green Line LRT: Readiness pushed the line south over north

A 2006 City of Calgary report outlined the need for LRT service in North Central Calgary within 20 years because buses wouldn’t be able to handle the passenger load with rapid growth north of Beddington Trail.

In a May 2017 blog post by then-Ward 3-candidate Jyoti Gondek, she referenced City of Calgary data for two bus-rapid transit routes: The 301, which connects north-central Calgary to the downtown, and the 302, which connects southeast Calgary to the downtown.

At that time, there were 11,300 riders per weekday on the 301. In contrast, 3,700 riders per day boarded the 302 in the southeast.

SCREENSHOT FROM 2006 North Central corridor transit study. The full report is further below.

Substantial population growth is projected in both areas, though the southeast route sees the bulk of residential growth near the end of the line. In contrast, the projected growth in the north is already built around the right of way for a proposed BRT / LRT line.

These routes follow the general path today of the proposed Green Line LRT.  Councillors will be in a workshop Tuesday deciding the next, and perhaps final, iteration of the city’s most ambitious infrastructure project ever.

RELATED: Podcast shorty: Splitting Calgary’s Green Line LRT

Gondek, now councillor for Ward 3, still bristles at the decision-making process that led to the current Green Line alignment, with Phase 1 of the $5 billion project going to 126 Avenue SE, and 16 Avenue in the north. Phase 2 takes the Green Line project further north to North Pointe.

“I have to give full credit to the councillors in the south who actively lobbied other orders of government for the money that was needed to get this project done. I have full respect for them,” Gondek told LiveWire Calgary in a sit-down interview earlier this month.

Green Line LRT: Why south over north?

Gondek said she’s never been given a straight answer on how the south was prioritized over the north. It was a decision made prior to her election to council in October 2017.

“If you look at the Route Ahead plan for the city, and you look at the variables that are in there, it should have gone north, the ridership is there, the route makes sense,” Gondek said.

“But I believe that in the end, because the money was in hand, and we had to move quickly, it was easier to go south because there’s less disruption.”

In the Route Ahead plan, though both the north portion and the southeast portion are slated as long-term projects, the city’s ridership projections had the north-central portion at 19 million annually and the southeast at 22 million.

(I refer you back to the 2017 BRT ridership above and estimate the relative growth in ridership that would be needed for the southeast to reach and then surpass the north, assuming similar population growth over the next 10 to 15 years.)

The LRT line from North Pointe to downtown, however, was 14 kilometres with a projected cost of $2.5 billion. Annual operating costs were estimated at $19.3 million – or roughly $1 per passenger trip.

The southeast portion is 26 kilometres, with a construction cost of $1.8 billion. Estimated operating costs were virtually double that of the North Line at $38 million – and with 3 million additional projected riders equates to a $1.72 per passenger cost.

In addition, the south route required the city to lay track over larger swaths of land with much less dense use.

Still, some councillors have told LiveWire Calgary that one major difference between the north and south lines is one had a ready-made, transit using audience – the north. The south was more of an “if you build it they will come,” project.

North Central Calgary Transit Corridor Review by Darren Krause on Scribd

Readiness determined decision to go south: GM Thompson

The southeast is underserviced by Calgary Transit, said City of Calgary Transporation GM Michael Thompson. He said it doesn’t meet the current standards of service set out by the City.

“The southeast is really underserved by transit across the entire area,” Thompson said.

“That’s just because of the time it takes to get across the city and so bringing something in that speeds up that travel time and will make transit more attractive and an easier mode for Calgarians was the problem there.”

But when push came to shove and money was in hand, he said the decision to go south came down to readiness.

“The North Central needed additional work and time to become ready to go,” he said.

Plans for the Southeast Transitway (SETWAY) began in earnest as far back as 2007. Enabling work along the planned southeast Green Line route has been ongoing for at least two years with bits of cash from other orders of government that could keep the project moving along.

Land assembly, particularly along Centre Street from downtown to where it abuts with Beddington Trail in the north, will be particularly time consuming, said Thompson.

“Property acquisition is one of the pieces that takes a long time. And so, we need to be doing that years in advance of starting those next stages,” he said.

That’s one aspect, however, that puzzles Coun. Gondek.

Centre Street route approved in 2011

Prior to 2011, the proposed route for the north-central portion of the Green Line was along Nose Creek, running parallel to Deerfoot Trail. It would jog in from Deerfoot along Beddington Trail and turn north along Harvest Hills in the already built right of way.

In the 2006 north corridor document, it acknowledged the difficulties created in using a “major road corridor in North Central Calgary,” because of the “significant physical intrusion” into the neighbourhoods. In short, they’d need land.

The primary reason in 2011 for changing to Centre Street was centered around the desire to be around significant population centres. Putting it out at Deerfoot bypassed those major nodes, potentially lessening its appeal to riders. It may have also forced more commuters into their vehicles to make it to an LRT location.

This alignment, along the Nose Creek corridor, was scrapped in 2011. CITY OF CALGARY DOCUMENTS

“But since that was finalized in 2011, no one thought to dedicate funding to the purchase of land that would be needed to do that North line along Center Street,” said Gondek.

With no northern land assembly plan in place and cash in hand for the line, the city had to act.

“You couldn’t use those funds for (land assembly),” said Gondek.

“The city would have had to come up with money, we would have had to start negotiations with landowners and that would have put us behind. The south, in the meantime, did not have that encumbrance.”

She said had they tried to push forward with the north, the disruption in the area would have been immense.

“We’re asking people to take on a massive amount of change and it will disrupt their lives for several years as we go through this project,” Gondek said.  

“So, I do think that Council was a little bit nervous about doing something so big that they had created an alignment plan for, but had never set the funds aside for.”

Phase 1 is being fine-tuned… but what about Phase 2?

Details on the alignment and downtown design of Green Line Phase 1 will be discussed this week and delivered publicly in March.

Coun. Gondek, who sits on the city’s Green Line committee said she’s moving forward on Phase 1 to ensure it’s the best possible project. That’s despite the feelings she harbours over the North phase.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t want to sacrifice a project of this nature out of spite,” she said.

Plans for Phase 2 must become a priority, she said. Gondek doesn’t want to make the mistake of not being ready should another “tranche” of cash be made available from the provincial and federal governments.

A trip along Centre Street North where the city will have to acquire properties to make way for a future LRT.

Land assembly along Centre Street seems to be the major hurdle as the right of way is already set north of Beddington Blvd along Harvest Hills Blvd.

Thompson said they’ve picked up parcels strategically over the past couple of years as they started to chart a clearer course for Phase 2. The city requires hundreds of these properties, he said.

“And when I say properties, it might not be the full property. It might be a sliver, so few feet of someone’s property, but we still need to go and negotiate with them to do that and to pick that up,” he said.

Council has directed the Green Line team to begin acquiring land north of 16 Avenue for the future stages now that they have a better idea of potential costs, design and community fit.

2020 – Phase 2 details will be examined

Thompson said Phase 1 has been the focus. They have timelines to meet and the challenges with the downtown have set them back.

This year, they’re going to get into the finer points on the Phase 2 project.

So far, Coun. Gondek hasn’t seen a firm plan for the northern phase.

“Any time I’ve asked about a concrete plan for phase two, the answer has been, ‘Don’t worry. We’re still looking for money.’ That’s not a plan. That’s wishful thinking,” she said.

She’s hoping the Green Line committee starts looking at the Green Line as a whole project, rather than just the focus on the south.

Having that commitment for a plan to go north is critical for her. She said the lack of planning on the north could cost them an LRT line.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if that money magically appears, where do you think it’s going to go? It’s going to go south, it’s going to extend the line that’s already been started,” she said.

“So I don’t want to be left waiting yet again, because we didn’t push hard enough to say, ‘you can’t ignore us anymore.’”