Council Repeating Olympic Mistakes With Green Line
If the recent Green Line debate is giving you déjà vu, you’re not alone. The past few months at city hall have seemed like an instant replay of the last $5-billion project the city tried to push through with as little scrutiny as possible — the 2026 Olympic bid.
A lack of meaningful consultation, ever-changing project scope and budget, secret council meetings, last-minute negotiations with other levels of government, massive amounts of taxpayer-funded advertising to promote the city’s position, immense amounts of pressure on councillors to fall in line, and vitriolic attacks on anyone who expresses even an ounce of skepticism — the city’s 2020 Green Line and 2018 Olympic playbooks are almost identical.
The Green Line has already ballooned in price from $4.6 billion to $4.9 billion to $5.5 billion, all while shrinking in length from 46 km to 20 km. But, as with the Olympics, the bottom line is not the only concern — many of the city’s underlying assumptions are also problematic.
Released at the last possible minute, the city’s own cost-benefit analysis shows that the costs outweigh the benefits by almost 2 to 1. It also excludes costs and includes benefits arbitrarily to stack the deck in favour of the project. To make matters worse, the analysis was done pre-pandemic and, while the city conducted a risk assessment of how COVID-19 might affect transit ridership in the coming years, they completely ignored their own report and assumed that ridership would be higher than in all four of the possible scenarios they considered.
We have, of course, been promised by Mayor Naheed Nenshi that paying for the Green Line won’t raise our taxes, but that’s only because our taxes were already hiked twice — by $52 million a year for 30 years in 2013 and by $23.7 million a year for 27 years in 2017 — explicitly to pay for the Green Line. The mayor is also assuming there won’t be any more delays or cost overruns during construction, but the West LRT doubled in price between this stage of planning and completion.
Budget blowouts were another key concern Calgarians had in 2018. The Olympic deal meant any cost overruns would be born directly by Calgary taxpayers. The Green Line project is the same — Edmonton and Ottawa have chipped in $1.5 billion each, but that’s it. Any extra costs will come out of the city’s budget, and your wallet.
Apparently, though, it’s no longer acceptable to express a genuinely-held concern about committing to a massively expensive project in the middle of a recession. Anyone worried about financing the Olympics was attacked as being anti-Calgary and anti-sport while mentioning the risks of the Green Line will now see you branded as anti-Calgary and anti-transit.
But opposing the proverbial Rolls-Royce of trains doesn’t make someone anti-transit. At every step along the way, the Green Line’s proponents have pushed for the most expensive option, backing down on one aspect only when forced to by yet another cost overrun on a tunnel under the river that threatened to kill the entire project.
In the end, council has delivered a project that looks great in all the glossy taxpayer-funded advertising that tries to win Calgarians over — again, just like the Olympics. But the project fundamentally fails at the primary job of transit, which is to provide Calgarians with a cheap and efficient way to get around the city.
During the Olympics debate, all the city hall insiders claimed that, by now, Calgary’s economy would be well on the way to recovery. Two years later, is there anyone left in Calgary who thinks spending $5 billion on the Olympics would have been a sound financial decision, even if they still wish we could host the Games?
Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t been repeated from the Olympics saga yet is a last-minute intervention by the provincial government to restore some sanity. In 2018, council was only saved from its own incompetence when the provincial government made their funding conditional on the city holding a referendum. The province should give Calgarians the final say on the Green Line, too.
Peter McCaffrey is the president of the Alberta Institute, an independent, libertarian-minded public policy think tank that aims to advance personal freedom and choice in Alberta.