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Some businesses have warned they would oppose a new train line at street level, as seen in rendering.

City of Calgary

Calgary’s Green Line was supposed to be a new spine down the middle of this sprawling city and transform neighbourhoods along the way, but the planned light-rail line now faces possible delays, a ballooning budget and lukewarm provincial support before construction even starts.

While it’s billed as the largest public works project in Alberta’s history, it could be years before ground is broken on much of the proposed 46-kilometre transit project meant to stretch from the city’s northern edge to its southern-most suburbs. The project was troubled before Premier Jason Kenney’s government announced a short-term reduction in the province’s contribution. Now, Calgary’s mayor warns the transit line is in jeopardy.

Council gave preliminary approval to the Green Line in the summer of 2015, when oil revenue was still filling government coffers and Calgary’s population was booming. The project’s current budget of $4.6-billion now sits in front of a city council that is closing pools and recreational facilities as it looks to slash spending. Property-tax revenue downtown have plunged as office towers emptied out when thousands of jobs were lost in the years after energy prices started to decline in late 2014.

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Only the section of the Green Line that would run south of downtown is receiving much attention from planners. The northern half will come later. And municipal officials have rejected a long-time plan to tunnel below the city’s downtown due to cost.

Construction is supposed to start next year. However, council has yet to approve the full plan, and councillors warn the start date could slip. Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it’s important to get the planning right.

“This is a monstrously complicated project,” Mr. Nenshi said in an interview. “It’s the largest public-works project in Alberta’s history." He said it’s three times bigger than the largest public-works project Calgary has ever completed. "So it’s really important to get this right and spend the time up front to make sure we have the right solution.”

On Friday morning, during the first meeting of a city council committee on the Green Line, officials made the challenges clear. Tunnelling below downtown won’t fit into the budget, but businesses have warned they would oppose a new train line at street level or above. City officials now say the entire project could be split into northern and southern lines that never meet and avoid the challenge of crossing downtown.

“It’s a tough road ahead," Councillor Evan Woolley said. "Building this train the right way through the downtown core will be the success or failure of this project. Nothing else matters.”

Calgary’s two existing light-rail lines merge and cross downtown at street level. A Green Line built through downtown would be perpendicular to that transit way.

Councillors will decide in the months ahead whether they can afford to go forward with the full project or to scale it back. A group of downtown business leaders has asked the city to push pause while the municipal budget is so strained.

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“Calgary is struggling," veteran oilman Jim Gray said from his downtown office. "Up to a quarter of the buildings outside my window are empty.” Mr. Gray was part of the group that asked for the pause. “It’s an enormous challenge, and we just can’t have this project go into the ditch. We can’t afford it.”

According to the mayor, the current timetable and budget for the Green Line have been driven as much by politics as by demand. At the start of this decade, the city had wanted to build dedicated bus lanes along the planned route. Regular buses north of Calgary’s downtown are the most overcrowded in the city, and fast-growing neighbourhoods in the southeast have little transit. Light-rail would come later, when the money became available, Mr. Nenshi said.

Things changed in 2015, when the federal government called with an appetite to build transit in Calgary. Mr. Kenney, then the federal defence minister, was sent from Ottawa to unveil a promise of $1.5-billion in funding for light rail.

“We got a call on a Monday night that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to write you a cheque, how much do you want a cheque for?’ And on Friday, I was standing on a bluff overlooking the Bow River with the then-minister announcing that funding," Mr. Nenshi said.

The mayor added that federal and municipal officials quickly estimated that putting light rail on the route would cost $4.6-billion. The other two-thirds of that amount would be split equally between the city and the province.

“It was always clear to the bureaucrats that this was a shot in the dark about the money to get this built,” Mr. Nenshi said.

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CALGARY C-TRAIN

EXISTING LINES

Blue line

Red line

PROPOSED GREEN LINE

Phase 1

Future extensions

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1A

CALGARY

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8

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0

3

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OSM

CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF CALGARY

CALGARY C-TRAIN

EXISTING LINES

Blue line

Red line

PROPOSED GREEN LINE

Phase 1

Future extensions

201

1A

CALGARY

201

8

201

0

3

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF CALGARY

CALGARY C-TRAIN

EXISTING LINES

PROPOSED GREEN LINE

Blue line

Phase 1

Future extensions

Red line

201

1A

CALGARY

201

8

201

0

3

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OSM CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF CALGARY

Now, as Premier, Mr. Kenney has complained that the price for the 20 kilometres of the line the city wants to build first, which starts just north of downtown and goes about two-thirds of the way to the city’s south, has the same price tag – $4.6-billion – as the full 46 km initially did.

“My question as a Calgarian, as a taxpayer, as a former federal minister who put $1.5-billion on the table is: What happened to the Green Line? How did it shrink in half?” Mr. Kenney said earlier this year.

Mr. Nenshi says that was never the plan. “I’m aware that’s his perception,” the mayor said, but when the money was promised in 2015, the city didn’t have a business plan or full estimate of the cost of the project. “People have spun it that we were going to build that 46-km train in one fell swoop, double the LRT in Calgary all at once. That was never my intent. It was always meant to be built out in stages,” he said.

The Kenney government’s first budget could mean delays to the project, cutting the payout of the first $555-million of the promised provincial funding over the next four years to $75-million. The rest could come in later years, after construction has started. The city would need to borrow more to make up for it, incurring high interest costs, Mr. Nenshi said.

The province has also said it plans to insert language into its funding agreement with the city that would allow it to stop paying out its promised contribution in future years with little warning. Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver rejected the notion that the province is responsible for any delays to the project. “It is not as though the government of Alberta cutting a cheque for the full amount today would result in construction tomorrow. Far from it, given how debate in council has unfolded,” he said.

Mr. Nenshi said the delay in paying the province’s share and the plan to change the funding agreement make it extremely difficult for the city to move forward on schedule.

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