Four months before originally envisioned, Vancouver’s TransLink inaugurates service today on the new Canada Line, an automated light metro. If preliminary expectations prove accurate, the corridor will attract more than 100,000 riders a day, making it one of North America’s most-frequented rapid transit routes. The project will make possible quick rides downtown from Vancouver’s central neighborhoods, its airport, and suburban Richmond.
Its successful completion bodes well for the use of public-private partnerships to build new transit lines, a model refined for the Canada Line.
Vancouver has two existing rapid transit lines, the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines, which together form the continent’s only automated main line transit system. Though the Canada Line uses a different propulsion and track technology, it too is driverless, an innovation that reduces costs and allows higher train frequencies.
The corridor features 16 stations, with stops near the Olympic Village (for Vancouver’s 2010 winter event), City Hall, two hospitals, colleges, and several malls. Unlike the existing SkyTrain lines, Canada Line is underground for the majority of its route through Vancouver along Cambie Street, which is a vital commercial corridor. Elsewhere, with the exception of a short segment, the line is elevated, including the route to Richmond City Centre, which is developing into a major regional core of its own.
Though the portion of the line downtown was bored, causing no street disruption, the majority of the route under Cambie Street was built using cut-and-cover methods, frustrating traffic and diminishing business. Yet the opening of the line will likely spur growth for retail outlets along the street. The future construction of planned stations at 33rd and 57th Avenues will make the situation even better for South Vancouver outlets. TransLink also projects future stops at another terminal in the airport and at Capstan Way.
The complete right-of-way isolation for the Canada Line ensures a fast and reliable commute: customers will only need 25 minutes to get from the airport or Richmond to Vancouver’s Waterfront station.
Plans for a new north-south link in southern British Columbia have been under consideration for decades, but only with the decision by the International Olympic Committee in 2003 to award the games to Vancouver did the project’s support come together. Even so, TransLink, the region’s transit authority, continued to put up significant opposition, even voting against it twice. Its board members argued that the agency wouldn’t be able to afford the line and that the Evergreen Line would be a better investment. That project remains in the planning stage.
The necessity to move the project forward quickly in time for the Olympics muted opposition, however, as did significant funding commitments from the province, the airport authority, Vancouver, and Ottawa. The C$450 million donation from the federal government required the line to be named after the country. The project’s construction phase had a quick start-up in 2005 and its earlier-than-expected completion will make the city more than prepared transportation-wise for the Olympics.
More recently, the city has invested in a 1-mile streetcar line between the Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station and Granville Island. It could eventually be expanded into a larger system to supplement rapid transit routes.
Despite growing enthusiasm for the project in the mid-2000s as the Olympics approaches, the public sector wanted to minimize costs and so decided to seek a private partner to pick up some of the bill. TransLink selected a consortium called InTransitBC to design, build, and take a 35 year lease on the line. InTransitBC is comprised of a number of industrial groups, though its majority owner is Montréal-based giant SNC-Lavalin. Trains were built by the South Korean company Rotem. InTransitBC will collect a percentage of fare revenue and hope to make a profit off of it, though the government will set fares and continue to own the line. In return, the company has contributed about C$700 million to the project. The total C$2 billion cost is an estimated C$92 million less than would have been required had the public sector been the only investor.
Problematically, however, the public-private partnership requires the line to meet its projected 100,000 daily rides by 2013. If it does not do so, TransLink will have to compensate the private company, making the involvement of a private company a negative. But the estimated ridership is actually fewer per mile than the existing SkyTrain lines (8,300 rides/mile vs. 8,700), so it seems likely the Canada Line will require no further government commitment to subsidize operations.
If so, the project’s early completion is a demonstration of the benefits of using public-private agreements to build infrastructure projects that are beneficial to the population as a whole. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see other cities duplicating Vancouver’s approach.
Canada Line’s success is basically assured in a city where transit use is already high. In addition, Vancouver’s concerted attempt to encourage more development around stations will make the line even more popular. This seems even more true if and when the region finances a planned Millennium SkyTrain extension along Broadway (and intersecting with the Canada Line at City Hall).
But the project’s exciting opening conceals a pressing problem affecting TransLink’s operations — the organization finds itself in desperate need of more funding if existing services are to be preserved. It would be sad to see the Canada Line open just as the number of connecting buses and SkyTrains is reduced.
Image above: Canada Line map, from InTransitBC