Tempers flare as committee weighs future of Green Line

The guy in charge of the Green Line project remains optimistic the city can find solutions to the challenges facing the project.

But his political masters are standing by with all kinds of options, up to and including splitting the LRT line in two.

City council voted earlier this fall to create a Green Line committee to handle all of the complex issues surrounding the $4.9 billion project.

On Friday, its first meeting descended quickly into suggestions and arguments about what is going on with the Green Line.

The project has suffered some setbacks in recent months.

Mega challenges for a mega project

Concerns about potential cost overruns, and technical issues facing construction of a four-kilometre tunnel under downtown forced the city to step back and examine other ways of getting the LRT line through the core.

It's looking at building a bridge to get the CTrain over the Bow River, and instead of boring a deep tunnel under downtown, it will use what's known as cut-and-cover to construct a tunnel under 2nd Street Southwest. 

Then in the provincial budget last month, the city found out it would be getting $75 million from the Kenney government over the next four years — instead of $550 million.

The province also signalled in Bill 20 that while it will honour the previous NDP government's commitment of $1.5 billion for the Green Line, it wants to reserve the right to cancel that funding with 90 days notice.

At that time, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the uncertainty puts the future of the Green Line in jeopardy.

However, the head of the Green Line, Michael Thompson, is rolling with the punches.

The team working on the project is coming up with a list of options for shortening the downtown tunnel so it can be built for less money.

Break Green Line in two

Coun. Jeff Davison suggested that the transportation department consider options for splitting the Green Line so that it does not cross 7th Avenue downtown.

Given that getting through the downtown is a major cost to the entire project, he suggested big savings could be found if LRT lines from the north and from the southeast come into the core but don't connect with each other or with other existing LRT lines.

"Given that we already have two intersecting trains in the downtown core, is it not the best use of funds to try and create a north and a south leg, bringing them into the downtown and then moving them again on lines that already exist?"

Coun. Druh Farrell suggested the city could save money and improve transit further out from the core by building a tunnel under downtown that could initially be used by bus rapid transit (BRT) routes and then be converted later to LRT service.

She also suggested that a number of major downtown property owners need to have more input on the changes being considered by the city.

In a letter to Farrell, the landlords indicated they are hearing the city's plan could even include a level LRT crossing of Macleod Trail, something they would oppose. 

"Livid all the time"

Coun. Jyoti Gondek is focused on what can be done to get the Green Line further into the city's north end which she said needs better transit service.

Gondek, who was first elected in 2017, wasn't on council when it voted for the Stage 1 alignment of the LRT line, which will stretch from 16th Avenue North to Shepard station in the southeast.

At one point, she chastised her colleagues for talking behind her back while she was speaking.

Coun. Evan Woolley responded to Gondek's irritation at being interrupted.

"You don't have to be so livid all the time, Coun. Gondek," said Woolley.

She responded in kind. 

"As far as not being so livid all the time and watching my tone, wow, I wonder if my male colleagues have ever been called out for that kind of nonsense. I am not impressed," said Gondek.

"I will be as livid as I feel like being. I am here to represent my citizens as well as all Calgarians. So do not tell me to watch my tone. Please."

Woolley then apologized to Gondek.

The committee got bogged down in a lengthy discussion about principles for making decisions about the Green Line.

Davison, who proposed adding more items to that list, was clearly frustrated by the debate including a comment that his suggestions were "weird."

"You know what's weird? That we have moved this project nowhere in six years," said Davison. 

Eventually, tempers settled down.

Finding solutions

After the meeting, the chair of the Green Line said it's not surprising that emotions around the table get carried away sometimes.

"Everybody wants it (the Green Line). The intent today was: let's put all of that aside. Let's go forward with what we can do, making sure that we're being fiscally responsible," said Coun. Shane Keating.

What the Green Line team is working on is a list of options for getting the LRT project through the downtown and within the $3-billion in local and federal money that has been assembled for the line.

Thompson said that once provincial money comes through in a few years, then the city can determine what else can be built.

His goal is to present those options to the Green Line committee in December.

Council as a whole will vote in January on how the plan proceeds.

The city has spent more than $450 million already, preparing the alignment for construction and acquiring land.

Four companies have been shortlisted to supply the light rail cars for the Green Line. 

The city has also taken submissions from an unknown number of companies interested in building the LRT line. A shortlist is expected by the end of this year.