Tories announce $1.5B for Green Line LRT project
Calgary politicians were positively giddy Friday after the federal government pledged $1.53 billion for the city’s long-sought LRT Green Line, despite numerous challenges still facing the project.
The contribution from the federal Public Transit Fund accounts for one-third of the project’s $4.6-billion price tag.
“It’s an extraordinary investment and it will change the face of this city forever,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi, while city and federal politicians posed atop Rotary Park with downtown towers and the Centre Street Bridge in the background.
While city officials bathed in the promise of funding announced just weeks before a federal election is called, several significant issues could derail the project.
The final alignment of the 50-kilometre track and its 27 stations has not been completed. A land acquisition strategy needs to be determined. The city still needs to buy as much as $100 million in land along the route.
Further, the city must settle on one of four options currently on the table to connect the north-central leg to the south line through downtown.
The city could run the north-central line along existing Centre Street Bridge, build a second bridge dedicated to the LRT over the Bow River, construct an elevated track through the city centre or bore a tunnel from 10th Avenue south to 24th Avenue north.
Nenshi said the federal funding will force the city to decide quickly how it will accommodate the line’s Bow River crossing.
“Soon, if you can imagine it, we will see state-of-the-art light rail transit emerging from downtown, crossing the river into this escarpment serving upwards of 40 million passengers a year,” Nenshi said.
Moreover, city council must figure out how it’s going to fund its third of the project while the negotiating with the provincial government to kick in its portion.
“It’s difficult for municipalities alone to finance this kind of expensive, modern, cutting-edge infrastructure,” said Jason Kenney, federal minister of national defence and multiculturalism.
Kenney, MP for Calgary Southeast, said Friday’s announcement marked the “single largest federal infrastructure investment” in the history of Calgary.
“Together with our municipal and provincial partners will ensure that Calgary has the rapid transit infrastructure to make this dynamic city move into the future,” he said.
Brian Mason, Alberta’s infrastructure and transportation minister, was unavailable for comment Friday.
But in an email his press secretary said the city had not yet filed a formal funding request, adding discussions between the province and Calgary would continue.
“We are committed to partnering with the city to make life better for Calgary families by building infrastructure that has been underfunded for years,” said Aaron Manton.
Nenshi said construction of the light rail line connecting north-central Calgary to the city’s southeast would start in two years and create upwards of 23,000 construction and operating jobs.
He said he would prefer the project start downtown, extend north and south and meet “somewhere down the line” of each leg.
“That’s my guess for today, but that’s something for the transportations engineers to figure out,” Nenshi said. “It is really, really, really early days. We really do need to do a lot more detailed design work.”
By 2043, the new line could serve as many as 456,000 Calgarians living along the corridor, greatly reducing traffic congestion in a city projected to grow another 700,000 to 1.89 million in that time.
City administration is currently working on two studies focusing on the alignment of the southeast leg and the downtown section of the line. Those reports are expected this fall and no later than February 2016, respectively.
“It’s full bore,” said Mac Logan, the city’s general manager of transportation.
“That decision is really going to be pushed hard … now that we’re going to go to construction much quicker than we anticipated,” said Logan, referring to the four options to get the train over the Bow River.
LRT on the Green — a not-for-profit group that championed the line — said the funding commitment was “a giant step” toward the project becoming a reality.
“It’s going to have a transformative impact on all of Calgary,” said organization president Jeff Binks. “It will do a great job of reducing congestion on the Deerfoot Trail, which impacts hundreds of thousands of Calgarians.”
Binks praised the federal government for its commitment to public transit in the city and hoped it would spur the city to commit to its portion as soon as possible.
With the federal pledge, focus now turns to the province and city hall to find the remaining two-thirds needed to fund the pricey project.
In 2013, council narrowly voted to allocate $52 million in tax room each year over a decade, from 2015 to 2024, to create a $520-million fund for the Green Line.
Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating, one of the strongest Green Line proponents on council, said the city could extend that fund another 20 years.
“The next step will be making sure we have $52 million over 30 years, “ Keating told reporters. “Which does not increase our budget, does not increase taxes, but it dedicates funds already in the existing budget to a specific, well-needed project.”
Keating downplayed concerns the Green Line would go over budget like the $1.5-billion west leg of the LRT.
The west line, which opened in late 2012 at $1.5 billion, was originally projected to cost less than half that, when council approved the project in 2007.
The cost to build that eight-kilometre leg ballooned as additional costs — such as land acquisition, a new parkade, a major interchange and a new high school — were factored in.
Keating said officials would have to keep close tabs on the cost of the Green Line, but was upbeat that the economic downturn could work to the city’s advantage.
“The timing is perfect now,” Keating said. “With the economy the way it is … it’s absolutely perfect for large construction corporations who are willing to come forward and say, ‘If we get in on this now, we’re fine for years to come.’”
With files from James Wood, Calgary Herald