Before most of us were born, rail was a dominant mode of transportation in Alberta. In the early 20th century, big cities like Edmonton and Calgary had their own extensive streetcar networks.
Since automobiles rose to prominence, city planning and land development choices have shaped our urban design around cars; streetcar systems have fallen out of favour, and the car-centric city design choices we’ve been making for the last 80 years reinforce consumer preferences that perpetuate car-centric city planning. And while both Edmonton and Calgary have built urban light rail rapid transit (LRT) systems, these networks are far from extensive.
However, these LRT networks are undergoing somewhat of a renaissance.
In the province’s two largest cities, expansions to their LRT systems are either planned or already under construction. Furthermore, the province’s highest political office has signaled its interest in exploring new passenger rail networks. The pro-train train is picking up speed.
Done well, these kinds of rapid transit expansions can bring significant benefits, especially as the province continues to experience record population growth. But, as recent Canadian rapid transit infrastructure construction and planning foibles have shown, the problem is that the potential benefits of these LRT expansion projects are often hampered by our governments’ inability to build good projects at a reasonable price. Canadian cities have a very poor track record with train procurement failures, cost overruns, poor system designs, and general bad planning.
This commentary will discuss Calgary and Edmonton’s planned or under-construction LRT network expansion projects in light of the problems that so often plague Canada’s well-intended and much-needed transit expansions. Can we avoid—and have we avoided—the pitfalls that so many other cities have experienced?
A survey of proposed and under-construction LRT projects
Both Edmonton and Calgary are expanding their light rail transit (LRT) systems, adding new lines and extending existing ones. What follows is a summary of the projects currently under construction and in various development stages:
Capital Line South: Phase 1 of this project will extend the Capital Line south by 4.5km, adding two new stops, ending at Ellerslie Road. Construction is expected to begin in 2024.
Metro Line Northwest: Phase 1 of this project is under construction, extending the line from NAIT to Blatchford. Phase 2 will extend the line north to Castle Downs and Phase 3 will extend it west to St. Albert. No timeline is available for the latter two phases of the project.
Valley Line Southeast: Stage 1 of the low-floor Valley Line, extending from downtown Edmonton to Mill Woods, opened on November 4th, 2023. The new line was nearly three years late because of a host of complications and is slowly ramping up to full capacity.
Valley Line West: This project is the second stage of the Valley Line that will extend from downtown Edmonton to Lewis Farms in the west end of the city. Construction began in 2021 and is expected to take 5-6 years to complete.
Green Line Southeast: Phase 1 of the Green Line project will create a new LRT line in Calgary, running from downtown to the city’s southeastern community of Shepard. Preparation is underway, with construction expected to begin in 2024. It is expected to be completed in 5-6 years.
Future Greenline Expansions: Phase 2 of the Green Line expansion project will run a line north from downtown Calgary to 16th Avenue. No timeline has been established for this stage of the project. The full vision of the Green Line will see it extend from 160 Avenue in the north to Seton in the southeast.
In addition, both cities have long-term plans for LRT expansion that extend well beyond the projects listed above. However, these remain unfinanced and are in the earliest of pre-planning stages.
Benefits of expanded LRT service
Expanding the LRT network in Edmonton and Calgary offers a wide range of potential benefits to residents. As with all public procurement projects, these benefits include direct economic impacts such as local procurement; jobs created in construction, operation, and maintenance; and government tax revenue.
However, these benefits are not unique to rail infrastructure. Any other major construction project would result in similar positive impacts. Instead, we focus on the broader benefits that would result specifically from expanded LRT service in Alberta.
- Reduced road traffic/congestion: As long as LRT network expansions connect people to where they want to go, the most obvious benefit is that it would take people out of their cars. That means less wear and tear on city roads, fewer accidents, and faster commute times.
- Lower GHG emissions: LRTs generate far lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than passenger vehicles. According to the City of Calgary, it only takes 18 passengers for an LRT rail car to achieve net GHG emissions savings compared to the same number of people travelling by car.
- Cheaper and more accessible travel: Not everyone is willing or able to drive a car everywhere they go—whether for reasons of affordability, accessibility, or personal preference. When gas, insurance, parking, and other costs are considered, LRT travel is generally far cheaper than passenger vehicles. This is a particularly important benefit for poorer Albertans and newcomers to our major cities.
- Reduce housing cost pressures: Urban rail can help improve access to more affordable housing. Edmontonians and Calgarians could live in less expensive areas of the city (that have access to a train line); and more train stations create more opportunities to build high-density housing around them.
But realizing these benefits will require the cities of Calgary and Edmonton to overcome the substantial challenges plaguing similar transit expansion efforts in other Canadian cities.
Blown budgets and poor planning
By far the biggest issue has been Canada’s deteriorating record on delivering large-scale projects on time and budget. This is true of public infrastructure generally but particularly with urban rail (LRT and subway) projects. Long construction delays and ballooning costs seem commonplace. And, even when a project is complete, it often doesn’t work properly.
The most high-profile example is Ottawa’s LRT system which has experienced an almost comical (if you don’t live in Ottawa) series of problems ranging from sinkholes halting construction, to broken railcar doors, computer problems, station design issues, cracked wheels, and derailments. Construction on the east-west Confederation line began in 2013 and was initially expected to be completed in May 2018. After numerous complications, it finally opened 16 months later and almost immediately ran into a litany of additional problems. Even now, four years later, OC Transpo has struggled to run more than a single train car at a time and has been forced to supplement limited train capacity with shuttle busses. Not only does Ottawa’s LRT still not work properly, some have recently considered ripping up the track in spots and starting over. On top of all that, a second, north-south line is now also contending with significant delays and cost overruns.
And this isn’t just an Ottawa problem. Rail transit projects in Toronto and Montreal have been plagued with problems, delays, and cost overruns at least as bad as in Ottawa.
Sadly, Alberta isn’t doing much better, either. Edmonton’s new Valley Line LRT was originally scheduled to be operational in December 2020 but only just started carrying passengers in early November 2023—almost three full years behind schedule as problems ranging from cracked concrete pillars to oxidized signaling cables have plagued the project. Meanwhile, Calgary’s Green Line LRT is already projected to be $1B over budget and major construction hasn’t even started yet.
Why is Canada struggling to delivering good quality municipal rail projects on time and on budget?
Researchers and analysts offer several explanations.
To start, municipal and provincial officials often lack the in-house expertise to offer technical advice and oversee projects.
Second, public construction projects frequently prioritize local interests and political concerns over the advice of engineers and project development experts. This can lead to inefficient processes and higher costs as politicians are susceptible to NIMBYism (“not-in-my-backyard”-ism) and public pressure to minimize short-term community disruption.
Third, trains connecting to low-density neighbourhoods are less economical than lines in high-density ones. High population densities improve the economic case for rapid transit networks because these systems are very efficient at moving large volumes of people living within close proximity to a train station. This is why many North American cities are pushing for transit-oriented development. But if it already takes someone a long time to drive from their home to the closest train station, it may make more sense for them to drive the entire way to their final destination rather than taking the train for part of their trip.
Since Calgary and Edmonton have low population densities outside of their city cores, train lines often extend into neighbourhoods where the economic case for rail service is relatively weak. Many taxpayers contributing to rapid transit development expect their low-density neighbourhoods to be connected to the transit system; they want access to projects their tax dollars support. This isn’t a good recipe for politicians to make sound, economical route planning decisions.
Fourth, cities that build infrastructure according to standardized, cost-effective designs and construction techniques tend to reduce project costs significantly. Research shows that North American cities struggle with containing costs compared to European cities for these types of failures—especially when designing and constructing train stations. Adopting standardized and cost-effective construction techniques and equipment procurement may take time before the full cost savings can be realized, However, doing so allows cities to develop in-house expertise capable of applying lessons from past projects. It also encourages planners to design projects around readily available and mass-produced infrastructure rather than having to develop new, untested solutions for each new component of every project.
Fifth, other models of funding, building, and operating transit aren’t immune, either, with the rise of Public Private Partnerships (P3s) as a model for delivering infrastructure projects also coming under fire. Broadly speaking, P3s are long-term deals between governments and private companies where the private sector finances and builds a project and then transfers the completed project back to the government in exchange for a long-term revenue stream (such as a lease or a toll on roads).
In theory, P3s allow governments to build expensive projects without taking on large, short-term financial risk, while the company can use its expertise to build more quickly and efficiently. Critics, however, maintain that the P3 model encourages companies to cut corners in order to stick to budgets and protect their future profits. That exact criticism was levied by the City of Edmonton against the consortium building its Valley Line. In short, there are pros and cons to the P3 model. Efforts are underway to improve existing processes in order to minimize the disadvantages while retaining the best elements of P3s.
And finally, Canada in general remains a challenging place in which to invest. A recent paper from the Calgary School of Public Policy highlights a number of specific problems, including declining labour productivity, high regulatory burdens, delays in project approvals and permitting, and constantly changing government policies and support programs, which are increasingly tied to electoral cycles and not long-term economic need.
The way forward
The question is, do the costs outlined above exceed the benefits? Undoubtedly, if Calgary and Edmonton can secure the full potential benefits of expanding their LRT systems, these projects should move forward.
But the fact that cities across Canada have consistently demonstrated their inability to execute these projects effectively doesn’t bode well. They waste huge amounts of taxpayer dollars because of issues like poor planning, political interference, and unqualified management. Right now, more Canadians would be more surprised if an LRT/subway project was built on time and budget than if it wasn’t.
That said, most Canadians understand the value of functional rapid transit systems. We can’t allow our recent budget overruns and system planning failures to discourage future transit system expansions.
Yes—construction costs need to be controlled; political decision-making and regulatory processes need to become more efficient; and project planning needs to reach a level of sophistication that many recent Canadian projects have failed to reach. And to ensure success in these areas, there needs to be much higher levels of accountability—not accountability to following processes that often lead to cost overruns, but accountability to clearly defined budgetary expectations, timelines, and quality controls. Fortunately, extensive research indicates that many of the cost overrun challenges experienced in North America can be solved without reinventing the wheel.
Calgary and Edmonton LRT expansions can and should become a success story that, 10, 20, 30 years from now we look back on with pride. But for that to be the case, we need to fix our public procurement failures and improve our planning processes. Alberta has a track record of getting big, value-adding projects built—and we can do it again.