Sprawlcast: Groundhog Day on the Green Line

It’s shaping up to be an election issue — again.

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Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Albertans who want more than the daily news grind. A transcript of this episode is below.

JEFF BINKS (LRT ON THE GREEN): Where are the Green Line's defenders? This is your work. It is good work. So why is nobody publicly defending it when the Government of Alberta sends ripples through the marketplace and the community saying it's not?

MAYOR NAHEED NENSHI: I'm always happy to have folks ask questions, but this cannot go on forever.

MINISTER RIC MCIVER: I'm not going to put an artificial date on it, because, frankly, this is about doing it right.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): In the run-up to the last municipal election in Calgary 2017, the Green Line became a contentious topic. A couple weeks before election day, mayoral candidate and former PC president Bill Smith said he’d hit pause on the Green Line. He called the project a boondoggle, which rankled Nenshi at the time.

NENSHI: Now, after many, many, many, many mayoral forums where we've been asked our ideas, you'd think at some point you would say that your idea is to actually stop the largest transit investment – the largest infrastructure investment – in Calgary's history, to turn your back on $3 billion of federal and provincial funding. Yet Mr. Smith never said it in a forum. He never said it in front of an audience. But he has now announced that he is going to cancel the Green Line. This is shocking, and it really is remarkably breathtakingly uninformed.

KLASZUS: That’s a CBC clip from 2017. At the time, Nenshi said that people had waited long enough for the Green Line.

The Green Line is stuck in limbo because the provincial government has put a pause on its construction.

NENSHI: It is something that the people of southeast Calgary and north-central Calgary have been begging for for decades, and finally we were able to give them a commitment that it was getting built.

KLASZUS: Bill Smith lost that election but the Green Line hasn’t gone very far since. Four years later, the project is approved on paper—but in reality, it's mired in endless delay and politicking. There’s no momentum on the project—quite the opposite. The Green Line is stuck in limbo because the provincial government has put a pause on its construction. And now we’re months away from another election and the Green Line is an election issue once again. Lawn signs have popped up that say DEFEND THE GREEN LINE. And some candidates for council are pledging to scrap the project, portraying it in the same way Bill Smith did in 2017.

Now, construction was supposed to start on the Green Line this year. That was the hope. On March 9, NDP MLA and former Calgary city councillor Joe Ceci asked finance minister Travis Toews about this in the legislature.

JOE CECI: Given that the pandemic has hurt our economy, leading to record-high office vacancy rates in our downtown and double-digit unemployment; and given that the Green Line will be a central plank of any strategy to stimulate Calgary's economy, revitalize the downtown, and refill the office towers; and given that the deadline for procurement is quickly approaching – if it's missed, the entirety of the 2021 construction season will be lost, and also thousands of jobs – will this government commit to approving the Green Line – approving it, not just committing the dollars in a future budget, but approving the Green Line so procurement can happen?

SPEAKER: The Honorable the Minister of Finance.

MINISTER TRAVIS TOEWS: Well, thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Minister of Transportation is working collaboratively with the city of Calgary and their newly appointed board as partners to ensure the Green Line is delivered in the best interests of those who need it and the taxpayers that fund it.

KLASZUS: You heard Joe Ceci mention the possibility of missing the 2021 construction season. Well, fast forward a few weeks and what happened? The city is moving utilities and procuring some train cars this year—but that’s about it. Here’s Michael Thompson, the city’s Green Line GM, speaking to city council’s Green Line committee on March 31.

As far as I can tell, all that we really have is the most expensive utilities relocation project in the city of Calgary’s history.

Jeff Binks,

President, LRT on the Green

MICHAEL THOMPSON: This utility relocation work is what will comprise the majority of the Green Line work in 2021. I've been asked by a number of stakeholders regarding segment one construction starting in 2021. And even if the procurement resumes today on segment one, that initial construction would not be beginning in 2021.

KLASZUS: Here’s Jeff Binks of the group LRT on the Green.

BINKS: What is the reality of Green Line today? As far as I can tell, all that we really have is the most expensive utilities relocation project in the city of Calgary's history. Spending hundreds of millions of dollars pushing dirt and moving powerlines might make construction easier, but until we start signing contracts to lay track and build stations, we still don't have a train.

KLASZUS: So the 2021 construction season has been missed. The province is reviewing the project without a clear timeline. Transportation Minister Ric McIver, who is responsible for the Green Line file, won’t put a date on it. At a press conference on April 28, Tom Ross of 660 News asked McIver what was happening with the pause—a question he’s asked before.

MCIVER: I guess you're going to get a similar answer to the one you got last time you asked this question, because the situation is still the same. The issue with the Green Line is not a political issue; it's some technical work that needs to be done. And I want to start out by expressing my gratitude to the city of Calgary for the cooperative way in which they're dealing with this.

KLASZUS: McIver was vague in his answer.

MCIVER: We look forward to the day that we can say that we've sorted this out and we can move ahead. I'll anticipate your second question; you'll say: when will that be? And all I'll say is sooner is better than later. I believe our government feels that way; the city of Calgary feels that way; and when we can put a date on that we will, but I'm not going to put an artificial date on it, because, frankly, this is about doing it right, not adhering to an artificial schedule. But we all understand sooner is better than later.

KLASZUS: So what’s actually going on here? Let’s do a very quick recap of how this has unfolded.

After council gave green light, the province hit pause

After the 2017 municipal election, a group of business leaders led by retired oilman Jim Gray came together to call for a pause on the Green Line project. That was in 2019.

GRAY: We respectfully submit that the economic consequence of this project, stage one, as planned, embodies an unacceptable high risk of becoming an economic catastrophe – and I use that word appropriately – for the city at this time. And we urge that all spending on the project as currently planned be immediately halted.

KLASZUS: The Alberta government has sent mixed signals since. In 2019, the province passed legislation that would let them cancel Green Line funding with just three months’ notice. In June of 2020, city council approved a revised alignment for the tricky section of the line that will run beneath downtown. They also broke up the construction for the first stage of the Green Line - from 16th Ave in the north to Shepard in the southeast - into three stages.

So it looked like the project was a go. But then, in late 2020, the city announced that the project was on pause because the province was reviewing it. Green Line proponents thought they had a win last summer. But now, with construction not set to begin until next year at earliest, their enthusiasm has been replaced by frustration. Here’s what Jeff Binks had to say on March 31.

This is not the City of Calgary’s project, and this is not the Government of Alberta’s project. This project belongs to the citizens of Calgary.

Jeff Binks,

President, LRT on the Green

JEFF BINKS: Well, here we are at yet another committee meeting. It's been almost four years since the original stage one plan for Green Line was presented to the T&T committee, and yet here we are talking again about anything and everything except a firm construction timeline. Yes, we now have a new stage one plan. It's a plan that I think is better than the one we had before, but it's still only a plan….

I've said this a lot lately, but I think it deserves repeating now: This is not the City of Calgary's project, and this is not the Government of Alberta's project. This project belongs to the citizens of Calgary. Calgarians have advocated for this project; Calgarians have voted in support of this project through several election cycles; and Calgarians are paying for this project through our taxes. And yet we've been left in the dark, waiting to find out what's been going on.

We are out of answers, and we are also out of vigorous defense of this project by the people we've tasked to build it. I can appreciate that the 90-day clause that was inserted in the contract can create a level of apprehension to speak up and speak out. Nobody wants to lose the money, and it's on the province for the level of uncertainty that's been created. But Calgarians need to know this project is a go, and, quite frankly, I think the market needs to hear that too. The province is responsible for spooking the market. What needs to be done by the province to fix it? Soothing words by Minister McIver obviously haven't been working.

What’s the holdup, exactly?

KLASZUS: Now, at this Green Line committee meeting, Councillor Jyoti Gondek tried to drill down and find out exactly what was causing the province to hold up the project. Here she is asking questions of Michael Thompson, who leads the city’s Green Line team. Thompson had mentioned how the city was making progress, set to procure train cars later this year, despite the bulk of the work being on hold.

COUNCILLOR JYOTI GONDEK: Can you tell us what this real progress is, and what is this technical problem that we can't seem to overcome or discuss?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I would say that we've had a real change in the progress we've been making through the review and through the due diligence that we've been doing with the province. And January was a real turn. Since January, we've had a very good working relationship with the provincial review team... The questions that they've had have been similar to the questions that we had answered with council back in June of last year and a number of things that we've all run through regarding alignment, the ridership, the impact of COVID, what constructability issues are, geotechnical issues in the downtown, costing issues, risks, and procurement strategy...

GONDEK: So can you tell us what the problem is?

KLASZUS: Here Thompson repeated much the same thing—the issues that were addressed last summer.

Why are we having the exact same conversations all over again?

Jyoti Gondek,

Councillor, City of Calgary

GONDEK: Okay, this is – it's a little bit mind-numbing to me that all of the things we've been talking about for all of these years, we're still talking about. The 17 recommendations that we formulated as a council with administration, the ones that we approved – 17 very thorough, integrated risk management recommendations – did they just not read those? Did they not pay attention to the June committee meeting and the subsequent council meeting? Why are we having the exact same conversations all over again, and why is there a four-month procurement delay over questions that they've already had answered?

THOMPSON: Thanks for the question, Councillor Gondek. I can tell you that the board and the team, we're very focused on delivering the mandate that council established through the 17 key directions that were approved in June. So we're very focused on delivering those. We have been very focused on delivering those through the discussions with the province.

GONDEK: Okay, so I'm going to interpret all of this as we have now created two sides. One is the city of Calgary, which includes its council, its Green Line administrative team, and its Green Line board, all of whom understand what the 17 recommendations were, all of whom are in favor of moving this project forward and understand the strength of this project for this city. And the other side is now the province, which is kind of part of some team that we are building, who really still have questions, and keeps having questions and keeps delaying things.

I'm at a total and complete loss on what has not been answered. If you're telling me that the 17 recommendations are not being called into question and the city of Calgary still believes in this project, am I left to understand that the province suddenly doesn't?

THOMPSON: Thanks for the question. We've had – like I said, since January, we've had a very good working relationship; we've been answering the questions that the province has had.

GONDEK: I don't actually even know how to ask my next question, because I still don't have an answer to the first one of understanding what exactly the problem is. So let me try this: In your opinion as the team that's been working on this and as the team that solidly believes in this project, are you okay with the fact that we are not going to start construction this year? Don't you feel that's a failure?

THOMPSON: It's frustrating for all of us, Councillor Gondek. It's frustrating for – I think we heard the speakers from public who've been engaged in this for so many years. Our team is frustrated with respect to the fact that we're not out moving quicker right now. I can tell you from a project team perspective there's nothing more frustrating than not moving forward in building the project, and so while it's frustrating for us and personally frustrating, our focus is on making sure that we have a good product at the end of the day.

‘Why is nobody publicly defending it?’

KLASZUS: In addition to the Green Line committee, the Green Line project also has a board that was appointed in January to oversee the project. Don Fairbairn is the chair, and after hearing the frustrations expressed on March 31, he had this to say.

DON FAIRBAIRN: I don't want anybody to think that we don't appreciate all that's been said today. But we also appreciate that we don't want to put ourselves in the position of driving forward to meet what I heard, for the most part, this afternoon as being what I'll characterize fairly as an extreme level of frustration around the commencement of this work. We also have to balance the completion of this work with the commencement of the work. There is no point in thinking solely about how we can get shovels in the ground immediately if, in fact, the consequences of doing that are not helpful to us in the long run.

KLASZUS: Jeff Binks of LRT on the Green challenged both city admin’s and the Green Line board’s seemingly lukewarm attitudes toward the project.

We can’t wait another year to reduce 30,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Jane Ebbern,

Calgary Alliance for the Common Good

BINKS: I appreciate the hard work the team has done over the last few years reworking the stage one plan to address the technical problems downtown. The difficult decision to make further modifications to the plan so that the contingency budget could be increased was the right one as well. As I said, I think this new plan is a better plan. I think the procurement strategy that was recommended last June was the right one. I know councillors agree with me, because they approved that plan 14-1. But I'm kind of left wondering, does the team itself?

To the board of directors who have been tasked to deliver this project and the team who've dedicated years of their life developing it, I ask: where are the Green Line's defenders? This is your work. It is good work. So why is nobody publicly defending it when the Government of Alberta sends ripples through the marketplace and the community saying it's not? How are organizations like LRT on the Green or folks like Councillor Gondek and Councillor Keating supposed to continue fighting for this project when the board of directors doesn't seem bothered to champion it? The words spoken by Mr. Fairbairn today were a good starting point, but it's definitely a long way from what's been needed.

‘What are we waiting for?’

At the March 31 Green Line meeting, councillors also alluded to the provincial government asking them and other Green Line advocates to pipe down and not make a fuss in the media—while at the same time, McIver was in the press saying he had good reasons for putting the project on pause, that it was important to minimize risk. Here’s what he told the Calgary Sun in March: “Who would ever want to sign their name to doing a bad job costing $5 billion? I hope nobody.” Here’s what councillor Shane Keating had to say a few days later. Keating has been council’s most outspoken Green Line champion over the past decade.

COUNCILLOR SHANE KEATING: It's my understanding, Mr. Binks, that in discussions with Minister McIver and the provincial government, that you've been asked, I would say a few times, to tone down the discussion and not go to the media, yet it seems like they do it whenever they want. Is that a correct assumption, or am I off there?

BINKS: You know, I think you're bang on. We've had some discussions with Minister McIver. We're thankful that he wants to chat with us and he loves to say we just need time. We need the technical people to sort out the technical issues and having discussions politically or in the media aren't helpful. But the fact of the matter is we've heard a lot from the province, in the media and political talk from the province, and what we've heard today and, I think, spoken very clearly by Mr. Fairbairn and Mr. Thompson, is that hasn't produced anything good. It's sent ripples through the market; it's created doubt for the people who want to build this thing; and it actually jeopardizes the project.

So yeah, we've heard a very one-sided story in the media from the province and asked to be given time, and so we have. I mean, I told Minister McIver in my last conversation with him, you want the time to get this sorted, we'll give you the time, but we don't have unlimited time. Calgarians need to get work building this thing. Calgarians deserve to see the train go forward.

KEATING: Thank you for that. And it's also my understanding that those same requests have come to a number of other organizations, whether it's construction, the mayor's office, and I could be corrected on that, but I think we've heard over the months is "don't go to the media," but apparently they'll go to the media whenever they feel like it.

KLASZUS: Council is supposed to get an update on the Green Line in May. In the meantime, I’m going to give the last word to Jane Ebbern, who spoke to the Green Line committee in March.

People shouldn’t have to wait for another year in traffic or without good public transit between their communities and jobs.

Jane Ebbern,

Calgary Alliance for the Common Good

JANE EBBERN: I'm here to speak on behalf of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good, which brings together 31 organizations that represent approximately 36,000 Calgarians. Together we organize the power of our communities to shape a just and compassionate Calgary.

The Green Line is an essential project for our city, and it needs to start now. The Green Line is essential for employment. Our people can't wait for 12,000 direct jobs – in fact, 20,000 jobs in total when we include indirect. We desperately need this huge infrastructure project during this major economic downturn. These jobs are critical to Calgary's recovery.

The Green Line is essential to the environment. We can't wait another year to reduce 30,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year.

And the Green Line is also essential for connecting our city. People shouldn't have to wait for another year in traffic or without good public transit between their communities and jobs.

We are building this Green Line for the Calgary of the future, and we need to start now. It is not acceptable that there are people sitting back making six-figure salaries, delaying this project, while families go without, waiting for these jobs, and they need these jobs now.

The Green Line was well researched and engineered by the city and many external experts and then approved last June 14-1 by city council. It's a good plan, a sound project.

What are we waiting for?

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!