The Green Line ( or the burning hole in City Council’s pocket)

One of the tasks of City Council is to make improvements that benefit all (or as many) residents possible. Public transport certainly falls under that category, thus by extension, so does the Green Line. Anyone who has travelled outside the country has a keen appreciation of a city that has a functional transportation system that gets you to a desired destination. So why the push-back?

The short answer is (lack of) credibility of the proponents. It appears that City Council consistently underestimates the intelligence of the residents. There is no other way to explain the blasé attitude by which it was announced that the budget of $4.5 Billion originally earmarked for the entire line, now only is valid for half the portion. Next, we are informed that even such staggering adjustment won’t do, but the amount needs to be boosted by 22 percent to $5.5 Billion. What taxpayers realize is that City Council does not have the foggiest idea as to what dollar values they are playing with. So, let us do them a favour and put things in perspective.

Does anyone remember the Calgary Peace Bridge scenario of about ten years ago? The bridge was budgeted to cost $25 Million. (Final cost is obliquely referenced as $30,400 per square meter; but while the contractor insisted on payment for repair work, these costs are not reported). If the $5.5 Billion cost for the Green Line section is valid, that equates to 220 Peace Bridges with all associated complexities. Another way of visualizing cost is that each linear meter will carry an average cost of at least $120,000 (or about $40,000 per linear foot if you’re still working with imperial measures).

The Green Line site quotes “unprecedented investments from the Government of Canada, Government of Alberta and City of Calgary”, somehow missing the connection that all three levels do not have ANY funds if it was not for us, the taxpayers.

With numbers of that magnitude, taxpayers ought to be concerned. Add to that the escalation identified earlier, taxpayers should be alarmed. A few years ago, a speaker at an ASME function (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) presented a talk as to why mega projects (those exceeding 1 Billion dollars) ended up ALWAYS over budget. The explanation was that these projects are so large, that they cannot be effectively controlled. To shed light on this we will illustrate one aspect of the Green Line: the tunnel under the downtown core.

As anyone who has knowledge of tunnels will readily testify, they pose the most risk in terms of technical feasibility and cost of any construction method. This is because once it is decided to start digging a tunnel, there is no way back. A contractor can complete about 90 percent of a tunnel and run into an obstacle that is next to impossible to negotiate. The only options are throwing more money at it or start all over again at a different location. How does our City Council propose to manage this? By putting “healthy contingencies in place”. As to what to do if these funds prove not to be enough, City Council is silent.

If anyone thinks that the risk of tunnel failure is overstated, one should ask why a contractor is not willing to build the tunnel on a “lump sum” or “turnkey” basis. That way, the risk rest entirely on the contractor and the cost is fixed; no guessing required. The answer you will get is that Contractors like to stay in business and do not take risks if they can be avoided. As such, they will only agree to terms that they think they can manage and anything outside that realm will be subject to a change order. City Hall would do themselves a favour by googling: “original contract and change order”: they will find a picture of a dinghy called “Original Contract” tied to a humongous yacht called “Change Order”. That more or less tells the story.

If they above is interpreted in some way or another to accuse contractors in their dealings, it must be understood that this was not the intention. Contractors are businesses that earn a fair return for their labour. They must shield themselves against “scope creep” and have right to be paid for the work performed. If a City Council does not know how to write, administrate, or manage a contract, that is none of the contractor’s business.

To justify their view on the Green Line, City Council next suggests: “simply look at the experts involved in the Green Line” followed by naming half a dozen of consultants. One is left wondering whether to laugh or to be dismayed at such incredible display of naivety. Consultants have had a rough time over the last few years and have now a chance to earn millions (if not tens of millions when construction really gets out of hand) if they can get a piece of the Green Line pie. Can anyone envision a consultant reporting back to City Hall saying: “Folks, that Green Line will be at least 50% over budget when everything is said and done” and still expect to be selected for a Construction Management task? Get real!

On January 4, 2021, the City of Calgary announced an “Inaugural Board that will govern and oversee the successful delivery of this infrastructure megaproject as we move forward into 2021.” The news release informs us that nine members have been selected carefully (they all have no unconscious bias, which is good to know, but details on their compensation packages are not shared: so far for transparency) and have impressive resumes, but absolutely nothing is mentioned about essential, or measurable, parameters: what is deemed “successful delivery”? What are the consequences if the Board is unsuccessful? Who is ultimately responsible if cost run amok? Do any board members carry any personal accountability, or will this be another “spread the blame” exercise? 

In summary, Calgary residents have all the reasons and then some to be averse to City Hall embarking on the Green Line project. City Hall has demonstrated at all stages of the project not comprehending the complexity, risks and cost details and wish to go ahead on a wing and a prayer. The earliest projected in-service date of the first section is 2027, well after Councillors and Inaugural Board members had a chance to ride off into the sunset or laughing all the way to the bank.

At the very least, City Council should inform residents EXACTLY how the Green Line will affect their taxes based on worst case scenario and put the venture to a public vote.