The politics of Lower Mainland rapid transit
Some voters are under the mistaken impression that major transit expenditures are motivated by a desire to get as many people as possible out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
That should be the primary objective if we want to reduce traffic congestion, enhance air quality, and curtail wasteful spending on road projects. Ideally, decisions would be based on how to get the most riders onto transit per dollar spent. That's how plannners can best avoid cannabilizing the rest of the system.
But history in this region tells us otherwise.
Here's how things really work. If there’s a federal contribution to rapid transit, Ottawa is most likely going to want the project built by a Canadian company. This invariably means hundreds of millions must go to Montreal-based Bombardier or SNC-Lavalin, even if there are cheaper alternatives in the international market.
If organized labour is going to have any influence, then buses will likely be provided by New Flyer Industries, which is a Winnipeg-based company. It doesn’t matter if other bus manufacturers can provide cheaper vehicles because New Flyer employs Canadian workers.
The provincial government is usually the prime funder of rapid transit, so it usually gets to decide the route. But on occasion, the feds have had a major say.
Against all common sense, the last NDP government built the Millennium Line through five NDP constituencies. This occurred even though there were barely enough people living along the route to justify a rapid-bus service, let alone a billion-dollar SkyTrain line.
Not surprisingly, few people rode the Millennium Line in the early years. This influenced TransLink to create the U-Pass program for SFU students to boost ridership. It helped stave off embarrassment in the international transit community.
Nearly a decade later, the Canada Line was built as a bauble for the Olympics. It didn't matter that the greatest demand for transit and the most intense traffic congestion were east-west, not north-south. The foremost goals were to impress international visitors and investors and stimulate development.
Moreover, then-premier Gordon Campbell knew that the Canada Line would be popular with voters in South Vancouver and Richmond, who'e traditionally elected MLAs from his party.
The Vancouver Quadra Liberal MP of that era, Stephen Owen, helped deliver $450 million in federal funding for the Canada Line. That influenced the choice of Cambie Street over the Arbutus corridor, where many of Owen’s constituents were vehemently opposed to a train bringing riff raff into their ritzy neighbourhood.
Best of all for political bagmen, the Millennium Line and Canada Line also offered bountiful opportunities for developers, who could cash in on major rezoning along these routes.
Public investment in transit became a mechanism to increase private wealth and shape development. In the wake of these decisions, existing transit riders along Broadway and other busy corridors had no option but to grit their teeth and watch full buses pass them by.
This is why Greater Vancouver has never developed a surface-level light-rail project like those in Calgary or Portland. It was initially envisaged in the early 1990s, but realpolitik got on the way.
Now another heavy-rail project, the Evergreen Line, is being built to Coquitlam. Federal funding became available once the area’s MP, James Moore, was on the government side of Parliament and safely ensconced in cabinet.
Elections will shape region
This past week, the Straight published articles about efforts by Surrey and Vancouver councils to get new rapid-transit lines in their city.
Surrey wants street-level light-rail going in three directions from Surrey City Centre. One line would go along 104 Avenue to Guildford. Another would travel down Fraser Highway to Langley Centre. And a third would move along King George Highway to Newton. Total cost: $2.18 billion.
Meanwhile, Vancouver and UBC have joined forces to promote a $3-billion subway under Broadway between Commercial Drive and the Point Grey campus.
Once again, politics will determine the outcome. And that’s why the May 14 provincial election and the 2015 federal election could have monumental ramifications for this region.
Let's start with the federal scenario. If the Conservatives are reelected in 2015, expect the next rapid-transit project to be built in Surrey. That’s because Surrey and Langley voters have been much kinder to the Conservatives than to the federal Liberals.
Because the Conservatives have traditionally not elected MPs in Montreal, the prime minister will feel less pressure to go with SkyTrain-style technology. Stephen Harper doesn't owe anything to the people of Montreal, who have repeatedly sent Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to Ottawa.
Surrey politicians realize this. They feel comfortable pushing for street-level light rail rather than the more expensive SkyTrain to Langley Centre as long as the Conservatives are in power. If Harper is re-elected, it could be the first time in Lower Mainland history that a major rapid-transit project won't rely on either SNC-Lavalin or Bombardier.
However, if the federal Liberals or NDP win the 2015 election, Vancouver could conceivably jump the queue and get a subway to UBC before Surrey ever gets a fully built-out light-rail network. Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin will be pushing for the subway, and they'll have a willing ear in the prime minister's office if it's occupied by either Mulcair or Trudeau.
In addition, Vancouver has traditionally elected more federal Liberals and federal New Democrats than Conservatives. The Liberal stronghold of Vancouver Quadra is home to UBC.
Surrey politicians will scream murder if the Broadway subway is approved before they get rapid transit. But their voices won't have much influence because Liberal- or NDP-controlled Ottawa would bring enough money to win TransLink's support.
Surrey and Langley will probably never elect a federal Liberal in 2015, no matter how much Trudeaumania may take hold in the rest of the country. There are only two NDP MPs south of the Fraser River.
Given the current polls, the most likely federal scenario is a coalition government with New Democrats and Liberals running the country. That, too, favours the Broadway line, even though a majority of mayors will be pushing for Surrey first.
Provincial politics also matters
Of course, what happens provincially will also have a significant impact.
The B.C. Liberals look like they're getting ready to scrap the George Massey Tunnel and build another bridge across the Fraser River. That would please Ports Metro Vancouver and the real-estate industry, which supports the governing party. But a Massey tunnel replacement wouldn’t do much for transit riders, who are more likely to vote NDP. And it will enrage environmentalists.
It's quite conceivable that if the NDP wins the next provincial election, it will put the Massey tunnel plan on hold. The NDP isn't likely to win many seats in Richmond and Delta, even if the party does exceptionally well everywhere else. Tsawwassen is not exactly Adrian Dix country. So there's not much of a political price in leaving the daily gridlock in place.
But Vancouver and Surrey will probably be Dix country after the May election. The B.C. NDP could win as many as 10 seats in Vancouver and six more in Surrey if current polls hold true on election day. The only B.C. Liberal seats in B.C.'s two biggest cities may be in Vancouver-Quilchena, Surrey-White Rock, and Surrey-Cloverdale.
Dix has already laid a foundation for massive investments in SkyTrain or light rail by suggesting that carbon taxes should be redirected to public transit. This year, the $30-per-tonne carbon tax is expected to generate $1.24 billion for the provincial treasury.
In light of all of this, here are some predictions.
1. After the B.C. NDP wins the provincial election, it will try to secure a deal with the federal government to finance two rapid-transit lines in Surrey: along Fraser Highway to Langley and along 104 Avenue to Guildford. Surrey politicians could claim this as a partial victory, and the developers could go crazy with projects along 104 Avenue. Meanwhile, the Conservatives will have brought rapid-transit to the Langley, creating a long-term political legacy in the area.
2. The Conservatives will not form the federal goverment after the 2015 election. That's when the B.C. NDP will join federal New Democrats and federal Liberals to announce a subway to UBC. This will create serious financial problems for TransLink, but the combination of jobs in Montreal and transit for Vancouverites will prove to be politically irresistible. This will help the B.C. NDP hold its Vancouver seats in the 2017 election. And Surrey residents will be mollified by the prospect of two light-rail lines.
3. The B.C. NDP under Dix will leave the Massey tunnel alone, preferring rapid-transit investments over more road construction. This will put Dix in good stead with transportation activists, who see this as a waste of about $3 billion.
4. Expenditures on rapid transit will be staggered to avoid the worst fiscal impact in advance of the 2017 provincial election. If costs become a problem after that point, whoever is premier may increase the carbon tax to $35 or $40 per tonne or more to funnel more money into the rapid-transit projects. By then, the effects of climate change will be so obvious that the vast majority of the population will support this tax hike.
Surrey and Vancouver will both win under this scenario. And it would facilitate the re-election of the NDP government in 2017 because it will retain key swing constituencies in B.C.'s two largest cities.