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What would happen if everyone got together and decided to come up with the money for transit utopia?

April 1st, 2013 · 54 Comments

This was a deliberately provocative article, so I’m expecting lots of challenges.

Yes, there are many other futures that can be detailed (built $23 billion in transit and had no money left for anything else, is one I’m sure will turn up here).

I found out a lot more about some of the details as I decided to tackle the Big Transit Question from the point of view I did: What the loan payments are on $23 billion. The fact that a Broadway line is projected to have 250,000 riders the first day. Surrey’s idea of building mid-rise villages around its transit lines, similar to Barcelona or Lyons.

(One thing I didn’t find out, apparently, was the right number for the Surrey light-rail option. It is $2.18 million, according to the TransLink study. I used the $1.8 million number that I was given by the mayor’s office a few weeks ago. A reader alerted me to my mistake, so thanks.)

Have at ‘er.

British Columbia’s transit dreams


Published Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 07:37PM EDT

Last updated Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 11:32PM EDT

It’s 2020. Vancouver is basking in admiring attention from urban-watchers around the world for its spectacular transit system.

And its residents are revelling in the wealth of high-speed transit that now covers the region like a spider. Transit use has spiked to levels never seen before – not quite the 50 per cent of all trips that is the target for 2040, but much higher than the rate at the beginning of the decade: 14 per cent.

A $1.8-billion, three-line, light-rail system opened two years ago in Surrey, linking its new downtown with both Langley and Newton town centres, as well as Guildford, along with a rapid bus connecting to White Rock. Nearly 80,000 people a day are now using that streetcar-like system to get around Surrey or commute from Surrey to other parts of the region.

And, as a result of aggressive city planning, districts filled with six- and eight-storey apartments – similar to the densities that exist in cities like Barcelona or Lyons, as Surrey’s rapid-transit planner Paul Lee put it years earlier – have started to replace the single-family neighbourhoods there, meaning the number of riders will double within 20 years.

A year earlier, in 2019, the $3-billion Broadway subway opened in Vancouver, linking Commercial Drive station to the University of British Columbia. On its opening day, it surprised even diehard transit advocates by getting more than the 250,000 riders projected back in 2013.

Between the two additions, the system can now whoosh someone the 66 kilometres from Langley to UBC by transit in a cool 79 minutes – only 15 more than it would take by gas-slurping car.

It all sounds like a dream, you say? There’s no way this region has the political will to find the money for two lines at once?

It’s not so crazy, say local politicians, advocates, planners and engineers when pressed. And there’s even an advantage to it.

“Nobody flinched at $4-billion for the Port Mann Bridge,” says Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs. “Politically, it turned out to have a lot of momentum.”

Transit is now benefiting from similar momentum. There is some convergence of opinion among a disparate range of people and groups: businesses, students, universities, truckers, environmentalists, developers and city politicians, along with the usual suspects like planners and dyed-in-the-wool transit fans.

Even the federal government appears to be getting on board. As dedicated Harperologists noted when the budget was announced, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty didn’t just dedicate $53-billion to infrastructure over the next 10 years. He also mentioned the word “transit” three times. Three.

Gordon Price, the director of the Simon Fraser University City Program and the region’s most energetic proselytizer for transit, says people are beginning to make the argument that needs to be made, which is that transit is as important for the region as the port or the airport. Improvements for both of those pieces of transportation infrastructure got billions in government money in the last decade to make Vancouver competitive.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has been arguing for a Broadway line on those grounds, saying it’s a crucial element to economic development.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts is making the equally compelling case that an investment in transit will help permanently alter the region’s suburbs so that they turn away from car dependency and become a new model for suburbia.

“We are a city of 500,000 people and 70 per cent of the region’s future growth is coming south of the Fraser,” Ms. Watts says. “We need to manage the growth and shape the city.”

Beyond those economic and city-shaping cases, transportation planners say it also makes sense to do a big system fix, instead of one line at a time.

“One of the complications of not looking at the system region-wide is that you just move the bottleneck from one point to another,” says transportation planner Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver’s number-one advocate for transit. “Then you’re just moving the stress point along the line.”

That’s what is going to happen when the Evergreen Line, serving Coquitlam and Port Moody, opens and starts dumping 25 per cent more people at Vancouver’s already loaded Main Street and Commercial Drive stations.

Finally, if Vancouver jumped into a burst of big spending on transit, it would be far from alone.

Toronto is planning to build three lines in 13 years, which is a “remarkable investment,” says Bob Paddon, TransLink’s vice-president for strategic planning. It’s just one of a number of North American cities, currently led by Los Angeles, that have been pouring money into transit.

The momentum for that kind of transit investment will have to be significant, though, to overcome the hurdles: the politics of spending on urban versus rural, the complications of changing neighbourhoods, the inevitable resistance from some residents. Planners are projecting the Broadway corridor will see 66,000 new residents and 35,000 jobs; in the Surrey corridors, 120,000 new residents and 50,000 jobs.

But the big hurdle to overcome is dollars.

Mr. Paddon’s team has calculated that, for the region to build every transit project needed to both serve existing populations (as on Broadway) and shape newer communities (as in Surrey), it would take $23-billion.

That would include the Vancouver and Surrey rapid-transit projects, rapid buses across the North Shore, from Port Coquitlam to Maple Ridge, and through Vancouver along Hastings Street and 41st and 49th avenues, a third SeaBus, more bus service in general south of the Fraser, and the gondola up Burnaby Mountain. Oh, and plus $5-billion to renew aging buses and rapid-transit cars.

It would cost $700-million a year more than the system needs now to make the loan payments on those improvements for 30 years, even with federal and provincial contributions. For the two rapid-transit lines alone: $500-million a year if senior governments didn’t contribute. For any of that to happen, the province will have to decide to turn on some new money taps.

How to come up with $700-million or $500-million?

TransLink would need some mixed-bag solution from its long list of possibilities – for example, a combination of a vehicle levy (at between $35 and $105 per vehicle, depending on kilometres and emissions, up to $200-million possible there), a regional carbon tax ($5.55 a tonne generates another $100-million), a regional sales tax ($50-million for each 0.1 per cent, so $250-million at half a per cent), a hotel tax of $1 a night ($10-million), a vehicle sales tax (1.8 per cent brings in $50-million) and a $1.60 regional toll at major water crossings ($100-million).

There you are, at $700-million, just like that – with an extra $10-million left over to throw a party.

But the smaller the trickle from those taps, the more excruciating the choice will be, pitting parts of the region against each other. It won’t just be a question of Vancouver versus Surrey, as it’s been portrayed in recent months.

Instead, considering the demands TransLink is facing from everywhere in the system, it will be Vancouver and Surrey against Maple Ridge, against the North Shore, against Port Coquitlam. The two big cities will even have to make ugly choices about where the scarce transit dollars go within their own cities: to big rapid-transit lines or to feeder buses.

“People just want more of what we’re offering,” Mr. Paddon says. But they’re not going to get all of it – unless the dream happens.

A Tale of Two Cities – and Two Transit Dreams


Cost of proposed lines: $3-billion for 12-kilometre Broadway line

Estimated ridership – opening day: 250,000 a day

Estimated ridership – in 20 years: 320,000 a day

Population in transit corridor (within 1.6 km of proposed lines) now: 101,000

Estimated population in transit corridor in 2041: 167,000


Cost of proposed lines: $1.8-billion for 26 kilometres of light-rail lines

Estimated ridership – opening day: 80,000 a day

Estimated ridership – in 20 years: 160,000 a day

Population in transit corridor (within 1.6 km of proposed lines) now: 169,700

Estimated population in transit corridor in 2041: 293,500

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