Southeast LRT, North Central LRT or Neither?

Much discussion has occurred recently over the question of which line of the LRT system should be built next, the Southeast Line or the North Central Line. Both the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun ran articles on the issue, with several letters to the editor arguing one or the other and some members of City Council added their voice to the discussion, most notably Shane Keating (Alderman for ward 12, the ward most aided by a southeast line) and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

This week, we are adding our voices to the discussion. Three separate contributors, Chris Ollenberger, Chris Harper and William Hamilton, share their thoughts on the issue (in the spirit of debate, two contributors agreed to argue the opposite of their personal opinions). So let the debate begin:

What About Us? The Forgotten SE LRT: Chris Ollenberger

The SE LRT has been on the books for the City of Calgary for over 35 years now in various stages of planning, and recently has been the topic of some debate again.  Debate on its timing most recently occurred when the West LRT line was debated to be built over the SE LRT, but with transit investments reaching over $1B, debate is natural and healthy.

Given that there is currently no foreseeable source of funding for most major LRT expansions, now is a good time to examine the SE LRT before funding decisions are probably made for mainly political reasons and discuss the benefits and challenges of the SE LRT.

The SE LRT will travel through communities like Inglewood, Ramsay, Highfield, Lynnwood, Ogden, Quarry Park, Douglasdale, Shepard Industrial, McKenzie Towne and Mahogany eventually reaching the new hospital in Seton in the very deep SE.    It is contemplated to be a low-floor design (finally!) for better integration into communities and flexibility in design.  It is the south leg of the North Central LRT line, with a below grade tunnel planned at 2nd Street SE to cross the CPR lines and the existing LRT corridor of 7th Avenue.  Recently, its price tag has been estimated at over $2.5B.

Transit is of course most successful when there is a mix of uses at sufficient density to support ridership viable for the investment.  The SE LRT alignment has mixed potential for ridership along its route, as areas poised for re-development are realistically confined to Inglewood and Ramsay, both limited in population growth potential, plus the more recent and exemplary Quarry Park.  Beyond those areas, opportunity for redevelopment specifically orientated for transit is limited as much of the line runs through low density industrial parks and low density established neighbourhoods like Douglasdale until reaching McKenzie Towne, Mahogany and Seton.  This results in a challenge for the SE LRT to be a stimulus for intensification, but it could be effective at reducing automobile traffic, existing and future, given the population of communities below 130 Avenue and their employment destinations like downtown and the Seton Hospital employment node.

One of SE LRTs best features is the planned integration of a station in East Village with a future high-speed rail terminal at 9th Avenue and 5th Street SE, where passengers will be able to transfer from the LRT easily to a train to Edmonton.  People from southern Alberta could park at a park and ride in the deep south, take the LRT to the high-speed train station and be whisked to Edmonton.  Another excellent link will be between the residential communities south of 130 Avenue and destinations like Quarry Park or the hospital and employment complex in Seton, with potential to reduce automobile traffic.  Unfortunately, given the track record of stations on the South line like 39th Avenue SE, one of Calgary Transit’s lowest ridership platforms, there is likely to be limited ridership to destinations within the Highfield, Lynnwood, Ogden or Shepard Industrial parks.

Given the SE LRT’s planned configuration of low-floor trains, its disconnect from the need to use existing LRT cars because of its alignment, and the recent work within the last two decades on acquiring the route’s land requirements, it may actually make financial sense to start the SE LRT in the south at Seton and stage it northwards towards downtown.  This could reduce the initial investment required significantly, in that instead of reaching out from downtown, the SE LRT could begin its service within its highest short-trip ridership area, supporting already existing transit-orientated developments like Seton, Mahogany, McKenzie Towne and Quarry Park.  Staging from the south and extending northward would also give the City time to fund lower ridership areas in the industrial parks and acquire the lands needed without the rush that occurred with the West LRT expansion.  Another benefit of utilizing low-floor trains is that stations need not be built in low-ridership areas until demand is there, such that the City could build the stations in the south as described above, then have a non-stop section between Quarry Park and East Village or Inglewood.  Stations could be added to the non-stop portion as funding and ridership permits.

Given that the SE LRT would not really be a stimulus for transit orientated redevelopment, but is really being planned to service existing needs for the foreseeable future, care should be given that its funding recognizes this reality.  This would mean that attempts to use Community Revitalization Levies or similar for financing would be unwise (but could be viable for North Central portion), and instead this leg would unfortunately probably rely on goodwill from higher levels of government to fund.

Half the Length, More Passengers- The North Central Route: Chris Harper

LRT infrastructure is not cheap.  Land acquisitions, site preparation, stations, LRT vehicles, laying of the track, and operation of the system takes a lot of resources and a lot of planning.  Jarrett Walker when he visited Calgary in the Spring of 2012 put it pretty simply:  “Buses are for frequency, rail is for capacity” and if rail is for moving the most people, the potential North Central line of the LRT has it down were it built today.

When it comes to servicing the most population at the lowest infrastructure costs as quickly as possible with operating expenditures and revenues to cover them, the North Central LRT would seem to be the reasonable choice.  I mean, it certainly wouldn’t have the label of being Calgary’s most expensive infrastructure project in the City’s history, a label that is likely distasteful if you’re a accustomed to riding the rails of risk aversion.

When Calgary hits 1.5 million citizens it is expected that 314,000 of them will reside in North Central Calgary, up from 183,000 in 2011.  Currently, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route 301 is well utilized from North Central Calgary with average daily ridership of 14,550 in 2010.  Based on 2010 ridership numbers, the South East BRT has seen approximately 2,800 riders per day.  As of 2011 Administration has identified the need to enhance the North Central BRT service due to increasing ridership with no such enhancements recommended for the South East BRT.  With BRT routes often considered the litmus test for future LRT service, the North Central LRT line seems to be making a good business case.

Consider that the North Central LRT is presently planned to have eight LRT stations across thirteen kilometers of track servicing just under the projected future population of South East Calgary.  For literally half the resources, capacity transit service could be brought to North Central Calgary as compared to the sixteen station, twenty-six kilometer South East LRT.

In addition, a future High Speed Rail Station connecting Calgary with Edmonton is proposed along one of the options presented by City Administration for the North Central LRT alignment. Imagine if we had connectivity by LRT to a high-speed rail station before the Calgary International Airport!

One tricky bit of info not yet known is that pesky thing about price.  The North Central LRT line has no price affixed to it as of yet, largely because the route alignment has not been decided and the three options present variable costs.  The original proposed Nose Creek route took a nose-dive after Calgary City Council sent Administration back to the map for some new options, and price.

Until a North Central LRT route is selected, the world of BRT is likely to be the reality of committed transit goers in North Central Calgary.  Not to worry, that’s only a couple of years away.

All Strength Arises from a Strong, Stout Heart: William Hamilton

(Build the Downtown Subway System Before Either Leg)

So what’s to make of what my fellow correspondents have said about the next steps for light rail transit in Calgary?  You’ve read sound arguments on both sides of the question.  On the one hand, planning and development are further along for building the southeast leg of the C-Train system, and the redevelopment potential for the area is enticing.  On the other, the business case for light rail along Centre Street and the north-central corridor is more alluring, along a right of way barely half as long as its counterpart line.

Yet to distil the construction of north-central and southeast LRT lines to a mere either–or proposition is to betray the most important function of an urban transit system — to unify the city it serves.  A clearer, broader view of the C-Train network as a whole, and of the downtown infrastructure at its heart, is needed.

By design, and by statutory intent, Calgary’s mass transit strategy brings its citizens to and from the downtown core, with the objective of maintaining a fifty percent or better weekday modal split between taking transit and using other means to enter and exit the city centre.  By extension, a city of 1.5-million people — the population threshold at which both the north-central and southeast LRT legs are meant to be built — all the more stridently warrants robust physical infrastructure and reliable system connectivity to travel to, from, and through Calgary’s downtown core to a list of citywide venues that will only lengthen as our population reaches this threshold in 2027.

The scope of the light rail projects being considered in Calgary is staggering.  The south and northeast C-Train legs are poised for extension to Silverado and to Redstone via 128 Avenue NE, respectively.  The Southeast 17 Transportation Corridor is a long-range candidate for LRT conversion from Inglewood along 17 Avenue SE to Belvedere, east of Stoney Trail.  The Airport Trail Tunnel is being built as a light-rail-ready conduit along 96 Avenue NE to connect Calgary International Airport to the northeast and north-central legs of the network.  Even the west leg of the LRT has a one-station extension on the books.  Most relevantly, though, consider not only the southeast and north-central legs of the C-Train system, but the two interrelated projects in central Calgary on which every future metre of track ultimately hinges.

The central segment of a combined southeast and north-central C-Train line would tunnel southward from Centre Street and 20 Avenue N, crossing underneath the Bow River to Second Street SW, turning eastward at 10 Avenue SW to surface near Macleod Trail SE and continue at grade to Inglewood.  This segment would intersect with the planned Stephen Avenue Metro, extending westward from a roughed-in station underneath City Hall to connect with existing surface-level tracks north of Seventh Avenue at Ninth Street SW.  The 5700-metre Transcanada–Inglewood segment and the 2100-metre Stephen Avenue Metro are largely below grade, with nine tightly-spaced stations as illustrated below.

Calgary Transit will ultimately need two separate subway lines in order handle the capacity needed for the LRT network.

The aim for these two light rail segments is to strengthen the heart of the C-Train network.  The Stephen Avenue Metro will divert south and northwest light rail services to their own separate corridor.  This will relieve signalling, switching, and scheduling pressure on the existing Seventh Avenue corridor that is already apparent from running C-Trains from all directions down one stretch of track.  Building the Transcanada–Inglewood segment simultaneously will ease construction of the two-level interchange station required on Second Street SW between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue.  This will help ensure the completion, operability, and start of service for what will be by far the most difficult segment of infrastructure to build within the C-Train network.  It will also make it much easier to plan, design, stage, finance, and build northern and southeastern extensions on their individual and strategic merits.

It thus stands to reason that deciding between north-central and southeast LRT is moot unless and until Calgary upgrades the central city’s light rail infrastructure to manage increased passenger demand on six legs of LRT.  That this commitment represents the most intensive and technically challenging public infrastructure investment in Calgary’s history is obvious.  That this investment is an urgent and necessary precursor to inaugurating both the southeast and north-central LRT legs, and to relieving passenger crowding on the C-Train system’s existing four legs, is self-evident.  That the cost of not completing this project first and foremost is more than this city and its transportation system can bear is stark in its clarity.

The decision between whether the Southeast LRT or the North Central LRT should be built first is definitely tough. Questions around cost, ridership, destinations, improvement to service and many other factors need to be considered. It may not even be the case that either should be the next priority in terms of major capital expenditure for Calgary Transit. One thing is clear. Calgarians are passionate about improving transit in our city. And for that, we can all be thankful.


8 thoughts on “Southeast LRT, North Central LRT or Neither?

  1. Well debated gents.

    Sadly, I believe having the two legs being debated by the opposing people, (ie: not debating for your preferred leg) means that the Neither option wins the debate in my mind. Building the subways downtown looks to be the best option as it relieves pressure on the existing lines, not adding continued stress to the northwest-south line by making all of us wait for the separation of the two lines.

  2. A downtown subway system seems like a must. If it could then extend by just one station in every direction that would be benifitshal. Would love to see the lines built from the centre out ward. First to Quarry Park with a park and ride for Deerfoot comuters and then Northward hitting the densest areas first.

  3. I had separately come to the same conclusion as Mr. Hamilton, that the central segment of a NC-SE LRT line should be built first.

    I don’t however see any great need to combine the NC-SE 2nd St subway with a project to build the 8th Ave subway, other than to build the interchange station. I would wait on seeing what effect running 4-car trains on 7th Ave has before deciding on when to go ahead with the 8th Ave subway.

    Additionally, I would strongly urge considering extending the SE leg of the project to the vicinity of the the Bow River and the Deerfoot where a BRT-to-LRT transfer facility could be built. This could be done for example on the west bank of the Bow where 15 St and 46 Av come together next to Deerfoot at the CNR bridge through the use of bus-only on- and off-ramps from Deerfoot Trail. Indeed, an unused on-ramp already exists from 15 St that could be put into operation, leaving only an off-ramp to build. The lightly-used CNR bridge may be usable in a shared form (it’s being done in Gatineau, QC – see Rapibus*) for the inbound buses. A transfer facility built in this area would avoid the expense of crossing both the Deerfoot and the Bow while avoiding having buses from the Southeast getting tied up in the industrial area to the north; it also makes little sense to build a dedicated busway through there when the expense of doing so is essentially the same as for a light railway.

    *Rapibus Project (in English):

    Image of the bus-rail bridge (and this is for bi-directional bus service):

  4. I want to be clear I am a HUGE fan of both Seimens (Avanto/S70) & Bombardier (Flexcity etc, as was displayed on Stephen Ave recently) low-floor / curb-height LRT technology. I have used it & love it.

    However – presuming the following:
    – SE & NC run as a continuous line eventually
    – the alignment involves the majority of the line running alongside the heavy rail corridor (downtown to quarrey park) & north under Centre Street until as far as McKnight)

    …I fail to see the sense of using a more expensive, non-standardised (as in not compatible with the existing network) low-floor “urban” cars in a context where the vast majority of the surface operation would be suburban. In the surface areas, we can see from the current West LRT built on Bow Trail that stations designs can now be relatively compact & accessible (compared to the monstrosities on 36 St NE). Unless the savings (lower tunnel height, station construction costs) are significant enough to offset the additional cost of low-floor cars & the costs associated with maintaining two different technologies, it may be wise to consider high-floor cars as a worthwhile cost-control to help get this combined project within reach financially.

    Meanwhile: International Ave (17 Ave SE, east of deerfoot), downtown/uptown steetcar loops, etc – low floor low floor low floor… (with wireless magnetic-induction power to boot) – Flexcity is the PEFECT car for those types of projects.

    Right technology – right application.

  5. Regardless of whether the North Central or Southeast LRT lines are built first, the point where they intersect with the 7th Ave transit corridor (and possibly the proposed Stephen Ave subway as well), will require a dedicated transit hub to accommodate the large amount of people transferring between lines (perhaps allow connection for buses as well). I think with will need to be its own building to do so (Waterfront Station in Vancouver is a good example). What other needs do you think such a hub would need?

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