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Groups vie for footing in Calgary’s Green Line debate

Like many major issues in Calgary, the Green Line debate has created a chasm that’s seemingly insurmountable by understanding and compromise, rational, fact-based discourse and a shared vision for the city.

Two primary groups have emerged: Project Calgary, a grassroots group of Calgarians in favour of the current proposed alignment and the group behind greenlineinfo.ca, which includes several well-heeled city business people and former planners who want to see a more frugal, slimmed down version of the $4.9 billion transit project.

On June 1, Calgary’s Green Line Transit Committee will determine a final path for the Green Line, with that alignment expected to come before council June 15 for final approval.

While several things differ between the two sides, the irony is the biggest bone of contention seems to be the portion that connects the two segments: the tunnel through downtown.

Romy Garrido, volunteer spokesperson on the Green Line for Project Calgary, said the current iteration has been developed after several years and thousands of hours of public engagement.

“We’re not just looking to endorse what administration’s putting forward,” Garrido said.

“We’re looking to endorse what we’ve put forward. This is talking about five years of public engagement with city council. Public engagement sessions, workshops, community meetings; it’s just the years of work and we finally saw all that work culminated into a plan.”

No bridge, surface downtown, north leg Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT)

Neil McKendrick, former head of transit planning at the City of Calgary and consultant for the greenlineinfo group, said the current configuration doesn’t get the Green Line to the important ridership areas in southeast Calgary.

By eliminating the north LRT leg and providing beefed up BRT, and eliminating the tunnel and running it on the surface in downtown, he said you could get the line all the way down to the South Health Campus – for less cash.

If you’re wanting to make a public submission on the Green Line, you have until 12 p.m. on May 25. You can find a link to do so here.

“So, you end up with a very short northern piece, because that’s as far as you can afford to build because you’re going to cross the river and connect to the north. And that section will serve so nobody,” he said.

“And the other half of this whole story is the truncated piece of the southeast because they’re spending all this money on tunnels and the north connection. They don’t have enough money to build the easiest piece of the line and the one that will probably make the whole thing work.”

The group believes these changes will chop the cost of the Green Line in half.

McKendrick said that when the downtown portion was first contemplated in 2006, 11 options were on the table. He said the city should revisit those options.

‘Lots of focus on cost and cost cutting and cutting corners’

The group McKendrick spoke for wants the city to walk back their current work and go with their proposal, dubbed “A Sensible Alternative.”

Garrido said the group is using information from years ago, not backed by the ongoing information being collected by city transportation engineers.

“There’s a lot of focus on cost and cost cutting and cutting corners, suggesting some pretty outdated, so-called solutions to making the whole project a lot cheaper,” she said.

“It’s a call to go back to the drawing board; there’s no way that we’d be able to just take some of these ludicrous suggestions and go forward on the same time and in the same budget.”

The greenlineinfo.ca group, seemingly headed by businessman Jim Gray, made an initial pitch to Calgary’s transportation committee last year. At that time, they wanted to pause the Green Line for a year.

They inadvertently got their wish with ongoing work to come up with a viable concept through the downtown. What’s changed since that time is the current triple threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Calgary’s continued economic woes and oil prices that at one point were in the negative.

The group said that because of this, it’s necessary to rethink how we’re spending $1.5 billion in city cash.

The two groups

The greenlineinfo.ca group is made up of several Calgary businesspeople and planners. Their website calls it an “ad-hoc” group of Calgarians hoping to de-risk and rethink the proposed Green Line.

“Our group includes James K. Gray, Barry Lester, Patti Grier, Emily Farquhar (Struck), Brian Felesky, Ken Stephenson and others,” the group’s website reads.

According to an email provided to LiveWire Calgary, Steve Allan, former CEO of Calgary Economic Development is also supportive of the group’s plans.

It’s has been reported by the CBC that Allan has ties to the current United Conservative Party. Calgary independent media outlet The Sprawl also produced work on Allan and his support for the Calgary arena deal.

Others, including Calgary’s Brett Wilson, have also been linked to the group, and a splinter cell specifically focused on changes and a halt to the Centre Street North plan. That petition is calling for a similar stop to the Green Line in Eau Claire.

Project Calgary was started by Peter Oliver and Brendan Wade. It’s a progressive, volunteer-run group that was set up “with the vision of focusing the knowledge and ambition of a diverse group of community leaders to build a modern, 21st century Calgary that thrives economically, culturally, environmentally and socially,” their website reads.

Oliver is the president of the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association and Wade has a political background and is the former political staffer for Liberal MP Kent Hehr. 

Garrido, speaking on behalf of the group on the Green Line issue, had worked for Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell.

PR firm hired by greenlineinfo.ca

The greenlineinfo.ca group has taken on the service of Longview Communications and Public Affairs, who’ve been dubbed a “boutique” PR firm.

Recently the firm has helped greenlineinfo.ca launch a full-scale online ad campaign to drive people to their site for their perspective on the information. Google and Facebook ads show prominently when one searches “Green Line” on Google.

This ad appears at the top of a Google search on the Green Line LRT. SCREENSHOT

There’s also been concern that the group’s web design was meant to mimic the City of Calgary’s Green Line portal – but currently all three sites bear little resemblance to each other – except to share a green label. The city did, at one time, sport the green train line in some of its literature.

Last Friday afternoon a call was made to Marty Cej of Longview to ask about the marketing plan for greenlineinfo.ca. That call hasn’t yet been returned.

“There seems to be a lot of funding behind their message,” said Garrido.

“Transit users, we don’t have the resources to hire boutique PR firms to speak for us. But we do have our lived experience as actual transit users.”

Impact of a delay, changes on funding

McKendrick said he believes it would take little time to dust off one of the prior Green Line options in order to take the city down the track of a deeper southeast run.

“It makes more sense to build the Green Line south and do it properly than it is to build to pieces that don’t make any sense,” he said. McKendrick added that he believes work could be done concurrently on the Ramsay to Shephard section and downtown access while the rest was ironed out.

However, significant changes to the scope of the project, while perhaps bringing on a delay, could also jeopardize funding.

In October 2019, the province passed Bill 20, which gave the province authority to terminate the grant agreement. It also gives the province’s transportation minister the final approval on any significant changes.

“The Lieutenant Governor in Council may, by order, with a minimum of 90 days’ notice to the City of Calgary, terminate the grant agreement without cause,” the bill reads.

With provincial finances in a tailspin due to the impact of the coronavirus, it has some believing this latest effort to pause the Green Line is political cover for the UCP.

We asked McKendrick if that was the motive. He said no.

“The group is 100 per cent behind the Green Line, just not in the current configuration,” he said.

“I would say that the feds and the province have incredible faith in the City of Calgary to do this right, because we’ve already proven we can do it right.”

Bottom-line thinking, not from a transit user’s perspective, said Garrido

Garrido said this is a plan brought forward by a group of Calgarians who have the bottom line in mind and not an understanding of the current need for transit.

“Again, public engagement over the past five years has shown overwhelmingly that communities want this, they’ve been asking for transit,” she said.

McKendrick said there’s already a robust transit structure in North Central Calgary that provides one of the best bus routes in North America, and the tunnel through the downtown is too risky.

“My question is, would you rather spend a whole bunch of money building the wrong thing? Or spend a few months trying to figure out how to do the right thing,” he said.

Another delay in a project that was supposed to have an alignment last December is more than just a pause, said Garrido. Her group also recognizes the change in the financial landscape that makes this decision even more critical.

“I think we should be talking about how much it’s going to revitalize the city both economically, socially, it’s going to bring people together,” she said.

“We keep talking about the future, about being a world class city, and I think it’s time to start acting like one.”

Garrido said if the group succeeds in delaying the Green Line, it might spell the end of the project altogether.

“The problem here is that a stall is effectively a kill,” she said.