Last month, a poll indicated that less than one-third of Calgarians approve of city council as a whole. Ouch!
And now, council faces a decision on the Green Line LRT, which legendary business leader Jim Gray says is “by far the biggest thing the city has ever done at a time when the city is under the most stress it’s been under in 60 years.” While the main concerns Gray raised related to the potential costs and challenges of the proposed four-kilometre tunnels through downtown and under the Bow River, there are a number of other factors council should consider in its review.
Since hatching the Stage 1 plan for the Green Line, our city and province have entered into a new economic normal and we need to be very smart with what risks we take on and how we get the biggest bang on investment. The situation is acute with the Green Line decision as the budget is huge, the risk is huge, and the investment is by all three levels of government.
Is there really a new economic normal, and if so, how different is it? Think back to the heady days before the 2008 financial crisis, when global energy giants were investing billions with the dream of doubling Alberta’s oil production. Here is the shocker no one talks about — they (we) actually did it! We succeeded. Production today has more than doubled. We are living in a new normal.
Unfortunately, even though the targets were met, our new normal has resulted in somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 (depending on whose numbers you buy) having lost their jobs, and 30-per-cent office vacancy in our downtown. The new normal includes (1) more efficient operations that employ fewer people, (2) a drying up of capital to expand oil production, and (3) a lack of export options to exploit expansion, even if it were financed. The big picture encompasses bigger problems that our provincial government needs to ponder, but the immediate and likely lasting impact on our city is unmistakable; the economy we have today is likely the economy we will have for the foreseeable future. We ignore it at our peril.
In response, we need a city council that will aggressively and purposefully think outside the box but inside the budget. What can we most effectively do with the $4.65 billion committed to the Green Line from the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government? What if this is the only capital we will ever receive for this project? Are there design changes that would allow this funding to be stretched 46 kilometres to connect north and south to the centre rather than just build the middle portion, which Coun. Evan Woolley correctly describes as a train from nowhere to nowhere? In addressing this challenge what has been adopted and learned in other cities, indeed from our own city to make the most of our current opportunity?
For starters, Calgarians have a great example to guide it. The south LRT was Calgary’s first leg in 1981. This again was given a fixed budget from the province. The council of the day was bold, trading off where it needed to in order to make sure the train stretched all the way down to Anderson station to connect (the then southern edges of the city) to the central core of 7th Avenue. A major trade-off was putting the train at grade through downtown on 7th Avenue rather than building a much shorter line with a tunnel downtown. This action was critical in the instant success of Leg 1 of the CTrain and led to strong provincial support of other lines.
The Green Line has the potential to connect what are currently the most active new community development regions of north-central and southeast Calgary into the city core and to each other. But to do so the initial stages need to go further north than 20th Avenue and further south than Shepard Road.
The south leg of the CTrain was designed 40 years ago and the technology has improved significantly. Most notably the Green Line will feature low-access trains that cities throughout the world are incorporating into existing street right of ways in a fashion not dissimilar to traditional streetcars. We don’t need to adopt that practice, but we also do not need the endless concrete and fence barrier instant ghetto-zones, often in the middle of high capacity roadways, more typical of 1970s’ technology. We can save money and provide much better customer access to the train by being smart with the new technology.
The new technology is designed specifically to accommodate integration into existing streets in the downtown core and in the suburbs. It allows us to rethink alignments and relationships to other parts of the urban fabric. It raises questions such as, can we not align it through residential neighbourhoods like Riverbend, Quarry Park and Douglasdale rather than running it through industrial/warehouse areas adjacent to Deerfoot Trail?
Council members may well initially reject our logic, instead arguing that we need to respect the work done to date and get on with the job. Don’t be fooled. Sunk costs are sunk costs. Confirmation bias to support past decisions needs to be considered in the face of changing circumstances. We are not challenging or negating the wisdom of past councils in setting the current Stage 1 alignment, only arguing that the times, our economy and the technology have changed and it is wise to use this new information to maximum benefit. Remember the original alignment of the north Green Line was proposed up Nose Creek adjacent to Deerfoot Trail, until someone challenged that logic and council ordered a wise rethink that led to the current proposed alignment up Centre Street North!
Today, we play with lines on a drawing — tomorrow we will have hard infrastructure in place and the money will have been spent. Now is the time to gather the best information and make the decisions that will be in the best interests of our children, and their children and not made just because “the money needs to be spent now.”
Jim Dewald is professor of strategy and dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
Richard Parker is the retired general manager of transportation and planning policy and previously director of planning and building for the City of Calgary.
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