Metro Rail Vancouver

Vancouver’s Transit Trajectory: Densify the Core, or Extend Out?

» Proposed extensions to the SkyTrain network could have it reaching to the University of British Columbia or southeast into Surrey.

Of all North American cities over the last few decades, Vancouver has pursued the most steady expansion program for its rail rapid transit system, called SkyTrain. The system, whose first line opened in 1985, was extended with new lines in 2002 and 2009 — and the Province of British Columbia is soon to begin building a fourth alignment. The region’s population has taken to the network, riding at a rate of about 350,000 trips a day, pretty good for a service district of about 1.5 million people. The question for regional planners, faced with limited funds, is where to stretch rail lines next.

Based on recent news, the choice may be to spend on building new rail rapid transit lines out into the suburbs south of the Fraser River, rather than within the existing and relatively dense core.

In its most recent draft growth plan, meant to shape the region’s development over the next few decades, the Metro Vancouver intergovernmental organization has recommended expanding SkyTrain further into Surrey, southeast of the City of Vancouver. The group has suggested that that project would be more effective in responding to new regional growth than a proposed new rail line running under Broadway to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in West Vancouver, previously assumed to be the next obvious step. The Translink regional transportation agency faces a structural deficit and has yet to complete its commitment to the proposed 6.8-mile Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which is supposed to begin construction next year with the goal of providing future service to Port Moody and Coquitlam. There isn’t enough money for both the Surrey and Broadway lines in the foreseeable future, so the latter may be pushed back indefinitely.

All this in spite of the plan’s endorsement of five goals seemingly in opposition to that strategy: Creating a compact urban core; supporting a sustainable economy; responding to climate change impacts; developing complete communities; and supporting sustainable transportation options. Though the region benefits from an urban containment boundary designed to keep new development within a reasonable perimeter of the urban core, encouraging growth in Surrey is roughly equivalent to promoting more construction in what are low-density areas today and are likely to remain so in the future.

In the past, three basic routes have been proposed for new SkyTrain service in Surrey, and these proposals are likely to inform any future investment. One route would extend 4.4 miles south from the existing King George station along King George Avenue to 64th Avenue; another would run 5.6 miles east to Guildford and then south to Fleetwood at 168th Street; a final alignment could extend the latter route another 5.5 miles to the City of Langley. The commute between King George Station and Waterfront Station, at the heart of Vancouver’s downtown, already takes 39 minutes to cover 18 miles — and that’s pretty fast by urban transit standards. So these new routes would encourage long commutes between the metropolitan core and these suburbs.

Can the regional group’s goals be reconciled with an investment in suburban extensions to the rapid transit lines? Indeed, wouldn’t such investments only encourage further growth far from the center, increase car use, and augment the production of greenhouse gases?

Yet there may be some realism in Metro Vancouver’s prioritization of the Surrey corridor over the UBC-Broadway line. It is true that there has been significant growth in the southeastern sections of the region in recent years. If you take the organization’s plan seriously, you might assume that local leaders want the Surrey Metro Center — located around the existing Surrey Central SkyTrain station — to play almost as important a role as downtown Vancouver in terms of attracting job growth. From that perspective, it could make sense to extend the transit system south from there, to provide suburb-to-suburban core services.

If Surrey is to take in a majority of the region’s growth, it is true that an efficient new transit line could play an important role in structuring growth so that it is transit-oriented and so that a larger percentage of trips are made by environmentally sustainable public transportation. A SkyTrain extension could be the way to achieve those outcomes.

Even so, there might be cheaper options that provide many of the benefits of SkyTrain without its costs. The Broadway and Surrey lines could likely both be built as non-grade separated light rail for the same price as just one of them as automated rapid transit. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has herself suggested that the most appropriate technology for her municipality is light rail. And the line all the way to UBC has already been discussed as a potential candidate for light rail or improved bus service.

Yet the Vancouver region has established SkyTrain as its preferred transit mode, and from that perspective it may make sense to continue investing in it over other technologies, because that would allow any new projects to interlink without connections to the existing system.

But the question of where to invest in new transit is not really about technology: It’s about regional growth priorities. If Translink’s next project is a billion-dollar down-payment in the suburbs, then it is clear where the area wants most of future development to be produced. Following the goals established by Metro Vancouver — basically, minimizing automobile use, reducing carbon emissions, and densifying the core — the best investment is invariably in a new line under Broadway to UBC. That route would run in areas that are already developed, encourage higher densities (if up-zoning is allowed), and reinforce the existing transit network by creating a cross-town corridor.

For a regional group whose representation extends far into the suburbs, however, those broader goals that they claim will orient future decision-making may in fact be less of a priority than their draft report suggests.

Bus Light Rail Metro Rail Vancouver

Can Vancouver Afford to Abandon SkyTrain for Its Broadway Route?

» Vancouver’s plans for a Broadway rapid transit line could come in the form of SkyTrain rapid transit or light rail.

With 40,000 students and almost 10,000 employees shoehorned into the tight space between the Strait of Georgia and the City of Vancouver, the University of British Columbia (UBC) is made for rapid transit. It’s an ideal terminus for a major public transportation line, with thousands of transit-friendly people ready to line up to commute to other parts of the region.

Indeed, the existing buses connecting UBC to the rest of Vancouver are jam-packed along their routes, with up to 100,000 riders making the link daily. The University has been envisioned as the eventual destination of one of the region’s rail lines since the automated SkyTrain Expo Line first opened its doors in 1985. With the active and pedestrian-heavy Broadway corridor serving as the connecting spine and the Millennium SkyTrain designed specifically to allow for an eventual western extension down that street, it has been assumed for years that UBC would get SkyTrain service at some point.

Several months after the successful opening of the Canada Line between downtown Vancouver, the airport, and suburban Richmond, transportation authority Translink has begun its study of six options for the future development of the Broadway corridor. Though a 12 km SkyTrain link is being considered (as shown above), so are bus rapid transit and light rail alternatives, each of which could offer good mass transit at a reduced price compared to the automated metro service offered by SkyTrain.

With the region facing a serious long-term budget gap, can it place economic concerns above the benefits of a more expensive expansion?

Jarrett Walker discusses the options on Human Transit, arguing that while extending the Millennium Line from its current terminus at VCC-Clark to Arbutus Street (about two-fifths of the way to UBC) is an important step, the lower densities west of there imply that a cheaper street-running light rail alternative could connect to UBC along the remainder of the routing. East of Arbutus Street, the light rail line could continue northeast along an existing rail right-of-way (including that of the ephemeral Olympic Line Streetcar) to the Canada Line Olympic Village Station and and Main Street Millennium/Expo Lines Station.

This alternative would provide connections to the Canada Line for both UBC and Millennium Line riders at a cheaper price than would be possible with a fully tunneled SkyTrain route, expected to cost up to C$2.8 billion. This would give riders from both sides of the region direct access to the very dense Fairview district (near City Hall) and allow one-transfer rides to UBC from anywhere with a rail link. The emphasis here would be on connections. (The light rail/SkyTrain alternative alignment shown below.)

Two fully light rail options and the bus rapid transit option would be less advantageous, as they would limit access to Fairview from the east side of the region by requiring a transfer to get there. (One of the light rail alternatives shown below.)

The question, though, is whether any of these options satisfy the strong transportation demand of the Broadway corridor. With expected ridership of 150,000 passengers a day, can a street-running light rail line from UBC to Fairview handle the traffic? Today’s buses, running every 90 seconds at peak, are overcrowded; it would be difficult to offer light rail trains at similar frequencies because of their long lengths and interaction with surrounding traffic, meaning that capacity would not increase nearly as much as it would with SkyTrain. Light rail, in other words, would leave little room for future growth.

Moreover, should riders hoping to get to UBC be expected to settle for 16 mph average speeds on light rail or buses — the fastest they’re expected to run even with exclusive lanes? The Canada Line travels at a significantly speedier average speed of 22 mph.

Today, downtown Vancouver has a 49% transit commute share, pretty high for any city; on the other hand, UBC is only able to attract 27% of commuters by transit (despite a very high student population), and Fairview’s even worse, at 21%. A relatively slow light rail line cannot provide the kind of mobility improvements possible with a fast, automated SkyTrain line.

The advantages of building the route as a SkyTrain line accrue as you zoom out, too; combined with the proposed Evergreen Line, a new UBC route could provide a direct link from Coquitlam and Port Moody to the city’s western edge, serving as the region’s new east-west mainline. By expanding the transfer-free links to UBC, the number of transit riders can be expected to increase substantially.

Meanwhile, while it is true that density decreases substantially west of Arbutus Street, even those neighborhoods have population densities of 16,000 people per square mile, not too low — and there is plenty of room for transit share growth among higher income residents there if faster options were offered. The Canada Line’s south Vancouver stations have been very popular, despite their similarly only moderate densities in the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, the massive population at the UBC end of the corridor should obviate concerns about limited ridership from stations between there and Arbutus, since trains will fill up from the beginning of the route. Light rail would slow down the commutes of tens of thousands of daily transit users.

As Translink considers its options over the next few months, it will have to put any projects within the context of its difficult financial condition — which means, given few resources, a full-length Millennium SkyTrain extension from its current terminus to UBC seems unlikely. That said, if there is political will to promote a SkyTrain extension to UBC, provincial and regional officials will be able to assemble the funding; the money should not be the limiting factor in choosing the appropriate technology for this corridor.

In the coming months, Translink will produce more detailed information about the corridor, including projected ridership and transit times for each technology. If those figures come out strongly in support of the SkyTrain alternative, as I would bet, it would be unfortunate to select either light rail or bus rapid transit alternatives for the line.

Images above: Alternatives for Vancouver’s Broadway Corridor, from Translink

Finance Vancouver

Despite Extraordinary Ridership, Vancouver’s New Canada Line is Suffering

» Public-private partnerships have their costs.

It was originally supposed to open twelve days from now, but Vancouver’s Canada Line has already racked up millions of rides since it commenced operations in mid-August — and it’s now carrying almost 100,000 people a day on average. The 12-mile automated light metro, which was built at a cost of C$2 billion, was one of the first major works of transit infrastructure built with the help of a public-private partnership (PPP) in North America. The deal, which allows a company called InTransit BC to contribute about C$700 million to the project in exchange for the right to operate the line, was designed to lower costs for the taxpayer and bring the supposed efficiencies of the private sector into what has typically been seen as an exclusively government-controlled market.

The on-budget delivery of the project three months ahead of time was immediately hailed by supportive Liberals (center-right in B.C.; center-left elsewhere) and Conservative (right) Party members, who suggested that the PPP model was the face of future infrastructure investment. Lawrence Cannon, Federal Minister of Transport (Conservative) said in excitement that “This successful project clearly demonstrates the benefits of public-private partnerships in large-scale transportation infrastructure projects.”

Yet, faced with rising operations and maintenance costs, the benefits of such private involvement are now being put into question. Despite the fact that the Canada line will soon meet its required ridership to fulfill the contract it made with InTransit, the government will have to subsidize the project to a tune of C$14 to C$21 million a year — until at least 2025. That money will go to pay off the C$700 million put in by the private side of the exchange.

But TransLink, Vancouver’s transit operator and therefore entity responsible for those payments, is already operating under a structural deficit of C$130 million annually produced by a dysfunctional decision-making structure. An irrational chain of command on the agency’s board, which has exaggerated the conflicting interests between mayors and the British Columbia government, has prevented a stable source of funds from being committed over the years. The result? TransLink is planning increases in fares, likely cutbacks in service, and a probable delay in the construction of the proposed Evergreen SkyTrain Line, which it can no longer afford.

Though the PPP used to construct the Canada Line is hardly the cause of all of these problems, opponents of private involvement in public service provision are calling for a stop to their use. Politicians of the New Democratic Party (on the left) have argued that the government — both Liberal at the provincial level and Conservative in Ottawa — has been ideologically predisposed to favoring PPPs, and that the consequence is increased expenditures by the government for an inferior product.

There is substantial evidence for this conclusion. During the preliminary discussions over the construction of the Canada Line, the Liberal-controlled province repeatedly argued that private participation would have to be mandatory, no matter the costs, despite the fact that the TransLink board turned down the idea twice. Deputy Transportation Minister Dan Doyle wrote that “Any project constructed using provincial funding will be a public private partnership.” Only when British Columbia leaders blackmailed the board with money for the Evergreen Line and the federal government found more money for the Canada Line project (previously it was likely to be named the Olympic Line) did board members reluctantly change their votes in favor of the PPP process.

In an affront to democracy, the province reorganized TransLink substantially in the following years, putting far more provincial government appointees on the panel and continuously rejecting efforts by the localities to assemble new revenue sources.

Once the idea of a PPP was installed, the method used to implement it was deceitful and biased. A report comparing the costs of PPPs with fully public alternatives paid for by the Canadian Union of Public Employees demonstrates that the government’s justification of the use of private “risk” for the line — a British Columbia-sponsored report suggested that a public alternative would cost a full C$92 million more — ignored the fact that the public sector is able to borrow at a lower discount rate than private industry, a fact that would have saved Vancouver citizens millions of dollars. In addition, the government’s calculation showing higher costs under a public alternative was based on counting risks against the government twice. This despite the fact that in a project such as this, the “risk” is minimal to none, since a C$2 billion transit line won’t simply be abandoned; the public will keep these infrastructure assets operating, even if the private sector abandons them.

The problems with private involvement in the Canada Line project got even worse once the project reached the contracting stage, when the government was supposed to decide the preferred bidder based on the “efficiency” of offers from competing companies. Ignoring the fact that the other two SkyTrain lines operated using exclusive Bombardier technology, bidders were supposed to pretend like all forms of rapid transit were equal — so a non-compliant light metro scheme won out, meaning that the Canada Line will forever be incompatible with the rest of the SkyTrain system.

Once InTransit was in charge, it set out to minimize costs, and since it had only its profit margins to answer to and not citizen concerns, it picked a cut-and-cover tunnel for the primary section of the line instead of a bored tunnel that had originally been planned. The PPP process, based on the efficiencies of the free market, did nothing to solve the problems of the hundreds of affected merchants on Cambie Street that saw huge declines in business during years of heavily intrusive construction. Meanwhile, 19 planned stations were reduced to only 16 because of cost increases. The two southern termini of the line, shooting off to Vancouver Airport and to Richmond, were built as cheap single-track spurs, limiting capacity and making further extensions basically untenable.

The resulting line, while successfully attracting tens of thousands of users, is underbuilt. Stations are too short to accept more than two cars at a time, a huge problem if ridership increases; the fact that they’re underground means they’re unlikely to ever be expanded. Meanwhile, stops are bare, with few amenities: they’ve clearly been cost-cut.

All this, and TransLink will still be responsible for up to C$21 million in annual payments to InTransit, partially thanks to an agreement that the province forged in which it will hand back between C$152 and C$250 million in “performance” assessments. So much for the large private contribution to the project — and goodbye to the promise that taxpayers would not have to subsidize the line as long as ridership reached 100,000 a day.

This is not to suggest that the same project, under the management of a public authority, would have arrived more cheaply and without problems. There is a long history of rapid transit projects coming in at costs higher than originally planned. Very few transit lines in the world are operated without public subsidies, so it was probably unreasonable for British Columbia to have ever assumed that somehow passing an aspect of the project off to the private sector would mean profitable operations.

Rather, the difficulties with the implementation of the Canada Line are reflective of a peculiar political reality that suggests that private involvement in infrastructure should be advanced, and that the methods of promoting that view should eschew normally held views of democracy and rationality. Assuming the public sector could have built this project at a cheaper cost — quite a reasonable proposition — shouldn’t it have done so? If the locally chosen TransLink board wanted a government-controlled project, shouldn’t it have had the choice to make it so, rather than be forced into the deal as a result of the decisions made by provincial officials?

If InTransit goes belly-up because of some unforeseen economic crisis or poor investment, will the government have to assume its debts to keep the Canada Line operating? Why should a private company profit in the good years while forcing the public sector to take the hit during the bad ones?

On the other hand, would a public project, like so many before it, have been beset by the petty demands of too many local interests, or of powerful political interests? If the Canada Line is underbuilt today, would a public version, submitted to community group after community group, have been overbuilt and have represented a far more significant burden on the government’s budget?

Where is the appropriate middle ground between the two?

I don’t have a clear answer to any of these questions, but the Canada Line story suggests that the recent move towards experimenting with private involvement in infrastructure creation may be moving too quickly. Governments shouldn’t be biasing study results, intentionally expressing an unwillingness to admit the advantages of the public-sector. Nor should projects such as this one be so oriented towards meeting some predetermined return on money spent that long-term value is sacrificed. If that’s what PPP means today, it’s not worth it.


Vancouver Opens Canada Line — Months Ahead of Schedule

Vancouver Canada Line Map» 12 mile, C$2 billion project connects Waterfront with airport and Richmond.

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

Finance Vancouver

Vancouver's TransLink Faces Serious Funding Gap

» Meeting long-term transport needs will require a major new governmental commitment, as well as new financing options like central-city tolling.

This week, metro Vancouver’s TransLink presented three options for the region’s elected officials: with an infusion of new cash, the transit authority could dramatically improve service and expand rapid transit along three new corridors; it could maintain the status quo and cut bus service by 40%; or, it could do something in between. Politicians in the region’s cities and in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, have until October 31st to make up their minds. They’ll either have to find significant new funding sources or face dramatic cuts in transit service.

Though Vancouver is currently building a new rapid transit project called the Canada Line and is investing in a downtown streetcar project in time for the 2010 Olympics, the picture isn’t all rosy. TransLink faces a $4.6 billion funding gap between now and 2020. Municipalities and regional officials have a responsibility to come forward with $450 million of new annual funding if long-planned projects such as the Evergreen Line and Broadway extension of the Millennium Line are to be pursued. No funding at all would devastate plans to encourage more of the region’s population to choose transit over driving.

Three Options for Vancouver
No new financing $260 m more annually $450 m more annually
Bus service 40% reduction 10% increase 20% increase
# New buses Few 160 400
# New trains 48 100 138
Major expansions None None Evergreen Line, Broadway Extension, Surrey Extension
Station upgrades None Expo Line Expo Line
Cycling programs $1.2 m/year $10 m/year $23 m/year


Mayors are adamantly opposed to any proposals that would result in such reduced transit service as TransLink has suggested in the “no new financing” plan shown above. Cities alone would be able to raise about $275 million yearly from local revenues. Mayors may choose to levy automobile users an average of $122 a vehicle, with those in more polluting cars paying more. They could also increase taxes on parking, introduce higher gas taxes, and augment transit fares. Implementing all of these new funding solutions would allow the compromise plan to be implemented, basically allowing for a slight increase in transit provision.

TransLink is also proposing an even less expensive $130 million solution that would eliminate the need to levy an automobile fee but that would avert service cuts. Local officials have argued that an increase in property taxes would be politically infeasible.

Yet in order to fund transit service expansion at a cost of $450 million a year, British Columbia will have to get involved. Thus far, transport minister Shirley Bond has suggested that she isn’t a major supporter of rapid transit expansion. Nonetheless, mayors are continuing talks with provincial officials to find more money.

The province could choose to toll automobilists for bridge use or charge a vehicles miles traveled tax. Tolling drivers to enter the city core would be an effective incentive to take the bus or train. Together, at reasonable rates, these fees would raise $175 million a year. It’s unclear whether British Columbia officials will find such major new fees acceptable, but if there’s a consensus on the necessity of transit expansion in the region, someone’s going to have to find the money somewhere.