TransLink Directors "Flexible" on RAV Costs

The on-again, off-again Richmond/Airport/Vancouver Rapid Transit line may finally be approved if the TransLink board lifts a $1.35-billion cap on public spending on the project. In separate phone interviews with the Georgia Straight, two of the three crucial swing voters on the TransLink board--Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie and North Vancouver City Mayor Barbara Sharp--said they are willing to reconsider the spending limit under certain circumstances.

On November 19, a TransLink subsidiary, RAVCo, announced that the winning bid from the SNC-Lavalin/Serco consortium was $343 million over TransLink's intended budget. TransLink chair Doug McCallum claimed that this shortfall could be cut to $106 million with "scope changes". These include elevating the guideway in Richmond and eliminating one of the five stations in Richmond.

Louie told the Straight that he thinks the provincial government should pay "a substantial amount" of the funding gap. However, he also expressed reservations about supporting the RAV line if the final configuration is opposed by Richmond council. "I have some flexibility in terms of moving off that $1.35[-billion cap]," Louie said.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon told the Straight that he has adopted a "wait and see" approach. "There has been no request to us made by TransLink that they require extra dollars," Falcon said. "So I'm certainly not going to be offering dollars that may not be required."

On December 1, the 12-member TransLink board is expected to vote on granting final approval to the RAV project, which was initially expected to cost $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. Of that, $1.35 billion would come from four public sources: TransLink ($300 million), the Vancouver International Airport Authority ($300 million), the B.C. government ($300 million), and the federal government ($450 million).

At every stage, these five TransLink directors--Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, Langley City Mayor Marlene Grinnell, Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, and TransLink chair and Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum--have voted to advance the RAV project. Seven yes votes are required for final approval on December 1.

At the June 30 TransLink board meeting, Sharp introduced a motion imposing a $1.35-billion public-spending cap and ensuring that TransLink directors would approve any scope changes. Sharp and Louie cited this motion to justify reversing previous votes to kill the project. This sent RAV bids to a "best-and-final offer" stage.

Sharp emphasized that TransLink directors have not approved scope changes, and she is concerned about a proposal to eliminate a walkway between Waterfront Station and the cruise-ship facility.

"You have to, I think, keep an open mind," Sharp told the Straight. "I would not make that statement, 'Not a penny more.' What if it was only $500,000?"

Coquitlam Mayor Jon Kingsbury, the third swing voter on the TransLink board, reversed his opposition to the RAV line last June after directors approved a rapid-transit extension to his municipality. On November 23, Kingsbury told the Straight that only $1.35 billion in public funds are available for the RAV line.

"We told them in three different votes, 'That's all the money there is,' and they have to stick to it," Kingsbury told the Straight. He added that he would be happy if the province took control of the RAV line.

SNC-Lavalin/Serco recently submitted a $1.9-billion winning bid to design, build, and operate the RAV line. RAVCo has since claimed that the scope changes would bring this down to $1.77 billion. Four TransLink directors--Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, Vancouver Coun. David Cadman, Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean, and New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright--have already voted three times to kill the line.

"There is no rational reason why we should risk the entire public-transit system--80 percent of which is buses--on an expenditure where there is dubious assurance that the ridership will arrive," Cadman told the Straight.

TransLink bears 100 percent of the cost of ridership shortfalls. MacLean told the Straight that he questions RAVCo's claim that the number of transit passengers in the Vancouver-Richmond corridor will have increased from 40,000 to 100,000 per day by the time the RAV line opens in 2009.

"If people were going to move in those numbers, you would have seen them on the 98-B [bus] line," MacLean said. "It didn't happen."

Meanwhile, Richmond councillors have reacted angrily to the proposal for an elevated guideway along No. 3 Road after they endorsed a street-level system. On November 22, Richmond council voted to instruct staff to work with TransLink and RAVCo to determine the feasibility of running the line down Minoru Boulevard instead. Council also voted to examine the possibility of building a "Bombardier-style" ground-level system along No. 3 Road.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie told the Straight that he is undecided about how he'll vote at the TransLink meeting, though he sounded in favour. "I believe that the business case has been made that we should have had rapid transit 30 years ago, and I believe our ridership will show numbers far exceeding many other areas of the region," Brodie said. "I'm concerned about anything that will jeopardize that."

The B.C. Liberal MLA for Richmond-Centre, Greg Halsey-Brandt, told the Straight that he opposes the plan for an elevated guideway. "We can't imagine a monstrosity like that going down 3 Road," he said.

Halsey-Brandt, a former Richmond mayor, pointed out that municipal officials are developing a "town centre" along No. 3 Road by improving pedestrian access and promoting storefront shopping. He said that along King George Highway in Surrey and along Kingsway, the SkyTrain is kept away from storefronts. "This will be the first time I know that they will run it down the main shopping street downtown," Halsey-Brandt said.

Transportation Minister Falcon said he has spoken about this with Halsey-Brandt, a former chair of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. "Greg shares the concern of the Richmond council, which would prefer to see things at grade," Falcon said. He described this as another "challenge" for TransLink.