Citizens calling for changes to Calgary’s $5.5 billion Green Line project for years have spruced up their web presence and messaging in an effort to once again alter the transit line.
A Calgary city councillor, however, said it’s time for this group to end their attempts to derail the infrastructure megaproject.
The Rethink the Green Line Ad Hoc Committee, which has been opposed to the current iteration of the project since the start, has created a new website to house much of the same material they’ve posted related to the Green Line.
Calgary businessmen Steve Allan and Jim Gray spearheaded the group years ago, and includes former Senator and former Calgary MLA Ron Ghitter, structural engineer Barry Lester, and Neil McKendrick, a retired manager for transit planning with the City of Calgary, among others.
Allan said that despite the group’s efforts to present their information to the Green Line parties, they believe it’s fallen on deaf ears. Their primary concerns are the inflationary increase to the Green Line and the downtown, underground alignment. He reiterated their goal would be to extend the line to Seton in the southeast and end at 7 Avenue.
With the cost of labour, concrete and steel having risen substantially over the past few years, Allan said now’s a perfect time to pause before spending tens of millions more on the project. Projects across North America have either come in considerably over budget or been paused, Allan said.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those costs are going to be substantially inflated over the five-and-a-half-billion-dollar budget,” Allan told LiveWire Calgary.
“So why don’t you recognize that now and rethink it? Rethink the project today. That’s really the message and as I say, it’s fallen on deaf ears.”
Allan and members of his group also don’t believe that many of the design issues have been appropriately accounted for – including potential challenges with an Eau Claire underground station.
Opposition goes back years
It’s a message that’s been played out many times before. The citizen group has appeared before council many times in the past to share their concerns. Back in 2020, the group made a big push before councillors approved what would be the final Green Line alignment.
Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said it’s time to put the argument to rest.
For one, he said the group keeps calling it a Green Line proposal.
“This is not a proposed project anymore,” Spencer told LiveWire Calgary.
“This is funded with close to a billion dollars of enabling work done. It’s a massive, people-moving infrastructure project, this is not a proposal.”
Spencer respects that others have a different take on the project, how it’s being delivered and the construction process. He said the city’s addressed this group’s concerns specifically, but it hasn’t changed their opinion.
He called the latest attempt a “speed wobble.”
“It’s easy to launch an attack against a major public works infrastructure project because of the history, the complexity, because you end up on major projects like this with multiple councils, multiple political partners,” he said.
“The opportunity for a kind of a speed wobble on these projects is high. That’s exactly what they’re doing right now; it forces these speed wobbles because it’s when politicians get cold feet.”
To date, $885 million has been spent on Green Line construction, according to a report delivered to the July 27 Green Line Board. That number includes a wide range of enabling works along the southern portion, plus utility relocation in the Beltline and downtown.
They awarded the development partner contract to a consortium earlier this year.
Now there’s a 16-month process of hammering out how the project will be executed and how it fits into the $5.5 billion budget envelope.
Both the province – after a year review of this proposal – and the federal government have pitched in $1.53 billion for the project construction. Presumably, any changes would impact that funding.
Non-traditional approach to the build process
Green Line CEO Darshpreet Bhatti told LiveWire Calgary they have confidence in their approach and their ability to manage inflationary issues due to the change in the development process.
He said that past North American projects that have gone over budget were done with a traditional bidding process where the lowest bidder would win. Then, over time, costs would creep up as the project scope changed.
“Our approach to thinking is we’ve selected one partner. They’re sitting with us in an open-book environment, telling us how they’re substantiating their design, how they’re costing that design, how they’re identifying risks, how are they costing the risk,” Bhatti said.
“It’s just the one long negotiation where at the end, the hope is that we would know exactly what they have done, how they have done it, and we would have alignment on it. So, the cost that comes at the end is not a surprise to us.”
Along the way, by breaking the process up into negotiable sections, they can identify problem areas and come up with solutions before costs escalate. He said that depending on the solutions, they may need to come to Calgary city council for changes to scope or cost.
“Yes, we can still have unknowns, and we will have to account for those in our costing as well,” Bhatti said.
“But it’s not apples to apples when we compare different projects under different procurement models versus what we’re trying to do here.”
Still, Bhatti respects that others have different perspectives.
“They may do certain things differently but they’re doing that in the absence of having all the details and knowledge that we do,” he said.
“I respect that there’s an opinion but that doesn’t mean that we need to change our course of action as a result.”
Continuing their fight
Allan said wouldn’t concede that this renewed call for change was a last-ditch effort before the first tracks were laid. He said they’d keep at it.
“There are so many problems with this thing that Calgarians just aren’t awake to,” he said.
Along with their previously reiterated issues with the project, Covid ridership, plus ongoing security issues also need to be considered, Allan said.
Bhatti said that the province’s review accounted for a potential post-pandemic change in ridership. He also said that current Calgary Transit ridership has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
Coun. Spencer said it’s time to retire the arguments and move ahead with the project. He doesn’t want the conversation around the Green Line to become inflamed once again.
“They think that they know better than the experts,” Spencer said.
“The whole governance structure has been set up to insulate it from exactly what they’re trying to put it into. I just think it’s ridiculous. They need to stop.”