As Calgary’s Green Line project team contemplates critical changes to the LRT line to reduce risk and the potential for cost overruns, city council is set to debate a proposal to pause the entire project while a third-party review is completed.Questions about the $4.9-billion project have simmered for months, finally erupting at a June transportation committee meeting where a group of city businessmen urged councillors to halt the project to re-evaluate the proposed four-kilometre tunnel beneath the downtown.Less than two weeks later, the project’s long-serving deputy director, Fabiola MacIntyre, quit without explanation — the second high-profile departure from the project team in less than a year.The disruptions come at a critical juncture for the Green Line as project staff have determined changes will have to be made to the alignment to “shallow up” the line through the downtown, likely eliminating a tunnel beneath the Bow River.Michael Thompson, the city’s general manager of transportation, says the project team realized the proposed deep-bore tunnel meant inaccessible station designs, sometimes seven or more storeys beneath the ground, while increasing the risk of cost overruns.“We didn’t think that met the vision that we had originally set up with Calgarians for a light, accessible transit system,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “To be seven storeys underground — that’s a deep subway system.“There is a lot of risks being that deep as well, so if we’re not meeting the vision and we’ve got a lot of risks that we have to deal with, why would we push forward with that?”While issues with the downtown leg could take six months to sort out, Thompson said the southern section is ready to go and should proceed as soon as possible since delaying it could cost $50 million.“Eighty per cent of the project is ready to go and that’s everything south of the Elbow River,” he said. “We’ve bought the land, we’ve relocated two landfills, so we’ve been out there doing work (and) it makes sense to us right now that we would split it into two contracts.”NEW CONTRACT STRATEGYUnder the new contracting strategy, construction firms will be able to bid separately on the first 16-kilometre stretch from 4th Street S.E. to 126th Avenue S.E. in Shepard, and the more technically challenging four-kilometre downtown leg from 16th Avenue N. to 4th Street S.E.Splitting the contract has other benefits, as more local construction firms could bid for the southern portion of Stage 1, said Thompson.Coun. Evan Woolley is proposing a pause on proceeding with the southern leg while the downtown alignment remains uncertain and until a third-party review is complete.Other political critics of the project have joined the fray, including Premier Jason Kenney, who has said he supports slowing the project.Council members, including Mayor Naheed Nenshi, have pushed back at the idea of a formal pause.“We absolutely need to get this project right but we absolutely cannot hit pause,” Nenshi wrote in a blog post Saturday. “Asking for a formal pause on this project risks the project itself, and there is no way I’m willing to put this city-building, quadrant-spanning public transit project at risk. The funding from all three orders of government is already in place.”Calgary MP Michelle Rempel and Coun. Jyoti Gondek have called on the city to revisit routing the northern part of the Green Line along Nose Creek, next to Deerfoot Trail, to expedite service to northern communities — an option rejected several years ago due to the risk it could result in lower ridership and introduce new problems when it comes to linking the line to the downtown.“What we have is individuals who feel they have a stake, which they do, but feel that their stake is more important than anyone else’s stake,” said Coun. Shane Keating, chair of the transportation committee.“We have to get past the point of sectioning off bits and pieces of the Green Line.”But beyond the political infighting, there are hints one of the Green Line’s biggest critics may have been the man formerly in charge of the entire project.GREEN LINE CRITICS SOUND THE ALARMWhen veteran Calgary oilman Jim Gray spoke to council’s transportation committee last month, he voiced concern on behalf of a group of 50 local residents, concerned Green Line cost overruns could “devastate” the city.The group argued in favour of an at-grade or elevated train through the downtown and a new alignment that would take the train east of city hall, largely skirting the downtown — taking the route away from the densest part of the core, but significantly reducing costs in the process.Sources inside and outside of the city say much of Gray’s criticism echoes the concerns of former Green Line project director Paul Giannelia, who left his post as head of the massive project last fall. The pair are friends and have worked together previously in the private sector and as consultants with the province on a northern oilsands rail project.“(Giannelia) doesn’t like the tunnels, but neither does Barry Lester, and Barry Lester was the chief operating officer for Stantec,” said Gray, referring to another member of the group. “None of the reading that I have favours tunnels over bridges.”
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2004 File image from 2004 of James Gray (L) and team leader Paul Giannelia (R) for a proposed oilsands railway, the North East Alberta Transportation Initiative, a $2.5-million review of a Ralph Klein pet project.
Gray said Saturday that he remains concerned about the direction the Green Line project is heading.“The tunnels represent an enormous risk and that’s a hill to die on for our group,” said Gray. “Calgary is a wonderful city but we’re stressed right now and we just can’t take on abnormal risks. It could be devastating to our city.”Gray pointed to Edmonton’s recent credit rating downgrade from AA+ to AA, due to the city’s growing infrastructure debt burden as a result of the Valley Line LRT extension to west Edmonton and an east leg that is still under construction. “That’s just an example of what can happen if you’re not very, very cautious and careful,” he said.PROTECTING THE GREEN LINEIn addition to exploring alternatives to deep tunnelling, such as more “cut and cover” construction or trench-style excavation of the Green Line, Thompson said the team has also become more conservative in its costing, decreasing risk tolerance levels and setting aside more money for unforeseen events during construction.“We looked at all these mega projects around North America and why they’ve gone over budget and we found that a lot of it has to do with people being too confident going in,” Thompson said.Keating said he hopes that by making a few key changes to the project now — such as using a bridge instead of a tunnel to cross the Bow — and making “tweaks” to the downtown alignment, Stage 1 could wind up stretching farther than the currently planned 20-kilometre span. With a “shallower” alignment through the downtown, he said, there could even be additional stations built that were impossible with a deep-bore tunnel.“The whole aspect of the frenzy of worry and negativity about the project is in many cases really unwarranted,” Keating says. “My sincere hope is we get a larger LRT because of the changes. And we’re doing the changes for really only one reason: to mitigate risks, to make sure we don’t go over budget.”Advocates for the Green Line say they worry the disagreements will derail a project that once promised to unite communities in the far north and south of Calgary.“The key is going to be remaining laser focused on the questions that we have about what we can do for downtown to deliver the project and not getting caught up in the weeds and reopening old debates,” said Jeff Binks, president of LRT on the Green.firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @mpotkins