Key decisions loom this month for $5.5B Green Line

City council will make significant decisions this month regarding the future of Calgary's next LRT line.

Over the years, the city assembled a $5.5-billion budget for the 18-kilometre Green Line, which will run from downtown's Eau Claire neighbourhood to Shepard station near 126th Avenue S.E.

That money comes from the city as well as the federal and provincial governments.

For months, concerns have been growing about the rising costs of building what city council wants the line to include.

Council was briefed in June about the budget issues. More work is underway as the Green Line board overseeing the megaproject prepares a final report for the politicians.

Council will get that report in mid-July and that will lead to a discussion at the July 30 council meeting to determine what happens next.

There have been indications the options include finding more money for the Green Line or altering the scope of the project to reduce costs.

An artist's rendering of a ground-level station on the new Green Line LRT. According to Mayor Nenshi, this is exactly the moment to be investing in projects like this one, which will create an estimated 20,000 jobs.
An artist's rendering of a ground-level station on the new Green Line LRT. (City of Calgary)

The chair of the Green Line board, Don Fairbairn, said the board has now refined its presentation to council.

He said council set the alignment for the LRT line years ago and then delegated to the board the task of delivering the Green Line. However, it is required to come back to council for direction on key elements of the project.

Fairbairn said this is one of those points.

"We're limited in our authority. Ultimately, the authority to proceed resides with council," he said.

"Our job has been to ensure that we understand fully the risks, the costs, the approach to delivering and, ultimately, the benefits of this program."

Another member of the Green Line board is David Duckworth, who is the city's chief administrative officer.

He said the Green Line has been in the works for many years and that it will be a great addition to Calgary's transit infrastructure.

Calgary city manager David Duckworth (left) and Darshpreet Bhatti, head of the city’s Green Line team.
The City of Calgary's chief administrative officer David Duckworth, left, and Darshpreet Bhatti, the CEO of the city’s Green Line team. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

But the city's top bureaucrat said dealing with this budget issue is a key moment for the project.

"Council has a significant, important decision to make at the end of July as the Green Line board brings their recommendation to them," said Duckworth.

More than $1.5 billion has already been spent over the years on items such as land acquisition, design and engineering work, hiring staff and undertaking enabling works that clear the way for easier construction.

Since last year, the city's Green Line team has been working with its development partner, Bow Transit Connectors, on refining the design. That's the consortium selected through a competitive process to build the LRT line.

The CEO of the Green Line team, Darshpreet Bhatti, said earlier this year that with 30 per cent of the design finalized, they were able to save $400 million in spending. That included choosing different kinds of construction materials and making design changes to stations.

For example, the exact location of the Inglewood/Ramsay station was shifted slightly as a cost-saving measure. The station was initially planned to be on a bridge over 12th Street S.E.

Bhatti said they found they could save significant money by building the station a short distance away on the ground, west of 12th Street.

The design of the LRT line is now about 60 per cent complete. However, he said finding savings has not progressed at the same rate, even though it is an ongoing process.

"You've already picked the low-hanging fruit but you can still find efficiencies … which eventually becomes money," said Bhatti.

And that's an ongoing process.

"There are still areas where savings can be found as we work more diligently with our contractors in establishing a sequencing of construction, establishing the scheduling of activities that need to be done. Inevitably, that will actually give us a buffer on time, which is money."

If the City of Calgary does need more money for the Green Line, it may not have much luck with the provincial government.

In a letter to Mayor Jyoti Gondek in May, the minister of transportation and economic corridors, Devin Dreeshen, said it will be up to city council to manage any budget overruns.

"Any cost increases or escalations will be the responsibility of the city and no additional funding will be available from the province for this project under any circumstances," wrote Dreeshen.

For now, the city's plan to start formal construction on the LRT line later this year remains in place.