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Future Green Line: Will your mayoral candidates go south… or north?

After a year of waiting in the station for the goods to be delivered, Calgary will move forward on its $5.5 billion Green Line transit project.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in town to make the official federal announcement July 7. A very short time earlier, the province made their announcement that they’d approved a business case sent to them by the City of Calgary May 28.

Part of the province’s approval of Calgary’s largest ever infrastructure project hinged on the conversion to two construction phases from the prior three. Phase one would take the line from Shepard in the southeast up to Eau Claire in Calgary’s downtown.  Phase two goes from Eau Claire, across the Bow River and up Centre Street N to 16 Avenue.

When that plan was announced, Green Line board chair Don Fairbairn said they remain committed to the Phase 2 plan going north. According to the city, the Phase two plan will advance if cost escalations don’t materialize in Phase one. It’s been widely reported there are concerns in a post-COVID world there would be increased material and labour costs due to a pipeline of infrastructure projects in the queue.

In his speech, the Prime Minister alluded to a potential funding conversation needed for Phase two.

“We’re also looking forward to working with the province and the city on phase two, which would see the line extended to the north, to reach people in this part of Calgary as well,” PM Trudeau said.

Later in that event, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi referenced an upcoming conversation.

“So, while I won’t be there, there will be a new mayor there who will be talking to you in October about stage two, and how we’ll find the funding for that.”

North or south?

The current approved Green Line project includes going to the north to 16 Avenue N. It’s easy to presume that the next round of funding would push the line north. There’s uncertainty around that funding and what the timeline would be for the north portion (phase two).

Meanwhile, there have been conversations around the cost to go north, versus extending the line south to the community of Seton and the South Health Campus. The south is presumably an easier path – it’s the kind of track the city’s laid for 40+ years with the red and blue lines.

The biggest cost to go north is an estimated 450-metre span across the Bow River starting shortly after the Eau Claire station. After that, land acquisition and integration into the Centre Street public realm make the prospect of going north slightly more daunting.

Estimates show, however, that ridership in the north could far surpass that of a potential south extension to Seton. The current express 301 route along Centre Street is one of the most successful routes run by Calgary Transit.

The specter of a looming north vs. south decision was raised in a recent endorsement received by mayoral candidate Jeff Davison.  Global Calgary’s Adam MacVicar was the first to report the endorsement on Twitter.

It suggests a potentially new council could mean a different path forward for the Green Line. This would presumably require a host of reconsiderations and amendments (and likely reviews and approvals), but the prospect is real given nine open seats on council and the potential for an entirely new city council altogether.

Where do your mayoral candidates stand?

With a hotly contested mayoral race, we surveyed the mayoral candidates on their priority for the Green Line should they be elected: North to 16 Avenue, or south to Seton?

We received responses from 12 of the mayoral candidates. Here’s what they had to say to this question: (some responses slightly summarized)

Given that there’s funding intact for at least the first phase (Shepard to Eau Claire) of the Green Line and uncertainty around the north segment, as mayor, would your priority be to advocate for the Green Line to go north to 16 Avenue (and beyond) prior to extending the line south to Seton?

Jan Damery

Damery said if there’s significant contingency built into the Green Line budget, she hopes stewardship from the Green Line board allows the project to continue north as planned.

“We must ensure the extension is done right, passing over or under 16th Ave N and the 50,000 vehicles which cross Centre Street a day. Extending south to Seton would attract less than half the ridership at a similar cost to extending to 64th (Avenue),” Damery said.

“Prioritizing an extension to Seton before going north would be an ineffective use of tax dollars.”

Damery said if funding were available, her second priority would be to see it extended further south to McKenzie Towne to connect more neighbourhoods and transit feeder routes, thereby reducing operational costs.

Jeff Davison

Davison said that a Seton extension is less complicated and less expensive than going north and would be a logical choice. He said, however, that both could be done, potentially simultaneously, with different sources of funding.

Davison suggested the Seton extension could be funded through the city’s Route Ahead priority list, with the north extension as part of the original Green Line package, funded in partnership with the federal and provincial governments.

“Any chance we get to build significant transit is a win for the city and the environment,” Davison said.

“In this instance, we could have both moving at the same time because each will be built from different sources of funding. I’d use the city’s RouteAhead mechanism to build the south extension while simultaneously working with other orders of government to secure the financing to build north.”

Jeromy Farkas

Farkas said he’s committed to funding a world-class transportation system in Calgary. His priority as mayor would be to deliver the Phase one portion on time and on budget so future funding could be secured for both north and south segments.

“Following Council’s broken Green Line promises — a significant reduction in length at an increased cost — I believe I am the only candidate Calgarians can trust to keep the Green Line project team accountable,” Farkas said.

“We must ensure that limited resources are spent wisely to avoid repeats of this Mayor and Council’s divisive ‘North-versus-South’ battles.”

Brad Field

Field said the city still needs to pay careful attention to the safest and most cost-effective way to go through the downtown and across the Bow River.

“I am 100 per cent behind the priority being going North after the first phase is completed. Residents north of the river have for too long been under-serviced,” Field said.

“However, going north is a necessity and it must happen. World-class cities must have world-class public transportation that covers all areas of the city.”

Jyoti Gondek

Gondek said that the city must build the entire approved Green Line from Shepard to 16 Avenue N before extending anything else. Gondek had advocated for future federal funds to be directed towards the north extension with a notice of motion in council.

As part of the approved Green Line plan, a functional transit study to the north was included in the 17 amendments. She said that study’s omission from prior Green Line plans hindered work to go north previously.

“If a future Council now somehow reconsiders the decision to build that bridge… and we decide instead to go to the south, then it was an absolute failure to fight the good fight to get that functional plan to the north, and there’s no way I can accept that failure,” she said.

Zac Hartley

“The priority of the green line should be to connect the International Airport with our downtown core. Not the Shepard Landfill,” Hartley wrote.

Larry Heather

“Calgary is on the edge of financial disaster after 11 years of the Nenshi high-Spenshi regime,” Heather wrote in his response.

“The LRT is the most expensive and maintenance expensive of the transit options. The line must be converted to a busway. Future financial constrictions will force us into this pathway, kicking and screaming, or not.”

Dean Hopkins

Hopkins said the city must build as much as it can with the funds it’s allocated for the project, and “if that means the project cannot cross the river to 16th because of contractor failings, so be it.”

He said he wouldn’t increase the tax burden on Calgarians in order to “rapidly” build the transit line – or any other legacy project.

“Yes, the green line will eventually get built as planned in the order which has already been debated, but only when funds become available during the recovery of our city’s economy,” Hopkins said.

Zane Novak

Novak said public transit is essential for any city, but he said the current alignment would be detrimental to the city.

“I have always felt the northern route to be the most needed addition to Calgary transit as the southern suburbs the Green Line targets are in communities full of families that mostly already have at least one, if not multiple vehicles,” he said.

“The northern route would reach far more communities in need of better public transit but a key aspect that needs to be included is the airport.”

Novak said that most major cities have a reliable transit option to the airport and it’s missing a huge tourism and employment link in Calgary.

Teddy Ogbonna

Ogbonna said he would make the case for a large capital expenditure that did both: Go north and extend the line south to Seton.

“Only if local and/or Canadian rail rngineers and technicians are the ones to execute this multi year project,” he said.

Shaoli Wang

“We cannot afford this Green Line. I will halt it,” Wang wrote.

Grace Yan

Yan said she applauded the current funding commitment announced by the provincial and federal governments.

“If no other funding were available, my preference would be to provide access from the South Health Campus and Seton and then go North to 16th Avenue,” Yan said.

“As Mayor, I will continue to champion and push for additional funding so that we can get the full line completed. When we invest in better public transit, we take vehicles off crowded roads in our city which is not only of benefit for Calgary commuters but also the environment.”