Nenshi tunnels his way to a campaign promise

If there’s one thing that will politically motivate the public as much as exorbitant charges to watch cat videos online, it’s the possibility that their morning commute might take a little longer. Only five short months ago, many students flooded their Facebook and Twitter accounts with purple mania in support of mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi. While many were surprised that he was able to grasp the attention of young voters– students have never been known to typically care much for municipal politics– the most difficult challenges were still to come. The culmination point of one of the most controversial issues, the north east airport underpass, has finally come to a head.

On Monday night (or more accurately early Tuesday morning) city council voted 8-7 in favour of building the $295 million tunnel. The price tag is undeniably enormous and will constitute the vast majority of infrastructure spending for the foreseeable future, but the project is necessary. The situation ultimately boils down to whether Calgarians must spend a lot now, or even more in the future. Any delay would only result in severely impeding growth in the north east while calling for more expensive rerouting through McKnight Boulevard, Country Hills and Metis Trail. Barlow Trail will soon close and the 30,000 vehicles that pass through it daily need another option.

Calgary is a major city in western Canada with an impressive airport that serves as a hub for many international flights. Without a doubt, the Calgary International Airport is the largest airport in the prairies. And yet today, there is only one public transit route that reaches it. After a ride on the McKnight line to Whitehorn station, the lucky, luggage-ladden travelers can wait 20 minutes for the 57 bus which will then take them on a scenic tour through industrial parks before heading towards the airport. Compared to the transportation options at other major Canadian airports, this is an embarrassment.

Several aldermen have come forward with concerns about funding construction on land owned by the Calgary Airport Authority, who recently cited their own “complicated and critical” issues with the plan. Yet the airport tunnel will be in the best interest of both the public and private groups. While the tunnel does not directly alleviate public transport issues, it will allow for future light rail transit access. The $295 million expense will prevent immediate extensive transit development, but the city is looking at more cost effective alternatives where possible– such as buying and refurbishing Edmonton’s LRT vehicles instead of buying 50 new ones and potentially charging $3 for access to the airport tunnel.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has yet to be major backlash to this proposed fee. After the short-lived $3 park-and-ride fee that was rightfully overturned by public condemnation, one might think that a similar toll fee would face more criticism. The silence goes to prove that Calgarians realize the necessity of this project and are willing to make minor sacrifices for the sake of long-term gain. Mind you, the $3 fee is expected to bring in $5.5 million each year, which means it would take over 50 years to break even.

Calgary is prone to the issues that come with growing out instead of up. But before we can challenge this mindset and change the way the city expands, we have to have a functional foundation. Once we are able to make our way around the Calgary that is, then we can attempt to stave off further excessive outward development and focus improving other types of infrastructure. The airport tunnel is expensive, but ignoring the issue will not make it disappear. City council has made the right decision and it is now up to them and the airport to work together amicably.

. . Gauntlet Editorial Board