Mayor Gregor Robertson and UBC president Stephen Toope chose the end of February to launch an audacious bid for approximately $3 billion in transportation funding. During a news conference at the Blusson Spinal Cord Centre, the politician and the former law-school dean made the case for a new subway from Commercial Drive to UBC, emphasizing the potential economic impact as well as better service for transit users.
“If you’ve ever tried catching the B-Line at 8 a.m. at Commercial and Broadway or you’ve tried riding down Broadway at 5 p.m., you already know it—this corridor is congested,” Robertson declared, “and something needs to be done urgently!”
With 2,000 passengers being passed up by at least one bus each weekday morning at Commercial-Broadway Station, the mayor has a point. It is the busiest bus corridor in North America.
Toope focused his remarks on the economic benefits that would come through greater connectivity between the university, the city, and the growing health-care industry concentrated around Vancouver General Hospital. “This is a story about opportunity,” the UBC president said enthusiastically. “But it’s a challenge to us to make the decision that we need to make to grab the opportunity. If we don’t make those decisions to collaborate better, to work smarter, and to build transit—effective transit, rapid rail transit all the way from Commercial Drive to UBC—we will not be seizing that opportunity that presents itself.”
The news conference was held to coincide with the release of a detailed, 66-page KPMG consultant’s report, The UBC–Broadway Corridor—Unlocking the Economic Potential. Citing examples in other cities, such as Toronto and London, it makes the case that a subway connecting the Point Grey campus to Central Broadway would help the area become a “globally significant high-tech hub”.
But there’s a problem for supporters of the subway proposal. Vancouver has 20 SkyTrain stations and had a population of 603,502 in the 2011 census. Rapidly growing Surrey, with a population of 468,251 in 2011, has only four SkyTrain stations. And its mayor, Dianne Watts, feels her city has a legitimate case for being first in line for more rapid transit after the completion of the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.
“We had no expansion since the Expo Line,” Watts tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “And we have only six kilometres of SkyTrain for a city of a half-million people. We’re growing and we’re trying to shape the city, so our needs are different.”
Watts, chair of Metro Vancouver’s transportation committee, offers a polite nod to Vancouver by saying there’s an “opportunity” to look at rapid transit on Broadway at the same time as her city presses for light rail. But she also notes that Surrey contributes $144 million per year to regional transportation without getting very much public transit in return, even though, according to her, Surrey is home to nearly 50 percent of the region’s postsecondary students.
“Do we want to move all of these people from one end of the region to the other, out on a peninsula at the farthest point away?” she asks in a mild swipe at the Broadway subway proposal.
It’s a point echoed by veteran Surrey councillor Marvin Hunt, a former chair of Metro Vancouver. In a phone interview with the Straight, he says that Vancouver can’t come close to matching Surrey’s rate of population growth. It rose 18.6 percent between 2006 and 2011, which is more than three times the national average growth rate of 5.9 percent.
Hunt adds dismissively that Joyce-Collingwood Station is the only Vancouver transit hub outside of the downtown core that has experienced significant residential densification. “Where’s the growth coming from?” Hunt says. “There is none. They want to use our money from south of the Fraser.…Vancouver is doing their darndest to forestall history, but one of these days, we are going to be bigger than Vancouver.”
Robertson’s point man on transit, Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs, tells the Straight by phone that he and the mayor have never seen the transit debate as an “us-against-them proposition”. But he also emphasizes that the Broadway corridor is the second-largest business district in the province and highlights the incredible growth in retail around the Canada Line station at West Broadway and Cambie Street. UBC is also a major regional destination, he adds.
“It’s really important that we have a discussion about who it is that’s being moved around here,” Meggs says. “It’s not Vancouver residents moving around their neighbourhoods. It’s regional job seekers, regional employees coming to the medical district, going to UBC, coming to the business area—just as lots of people are going back and forth to Metrotown. The densities that exist already at five locations in the Broadway corridor are some of the largest in the region, and they are not served by rapid transit. They only have bus service.”
After making this pitch, Meggs quickly adds: “We’ve never taken the view that Surrey doesn’t have a very strong case for new investment. Obviously, there is a case with the growth that’s expected there, but it’s for different reasons.”
Gordon Price, director of SFU’s City Program and a former Vancouver councillor, has been paying close attention to this issue. Over the phone from his office, he tells the Straight that mayors across the region have largely kept up a united front against the provincial government in pressing for transit solutions in Surrey and along Broadway. Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Mary Polak has tried to shatter this unity by demanding that regional politicians indicate which area should become a priority for rapid transit.
“What I’m watching with interest is whether the divide-and-conquer strategy works for the province,” Price says.
He adds that he can’t imagine any situation in which Vancouver would prevail over Surrey in a regional vote. So he approves of Vancouver council’s strategy of not condemning rapid transit south of the Fraser River while maintaining pressure for better service on Broadway.
“This isn’t between Vancouver and Surrey,” Price maintains. “This is between the allocation of resources for transportation on a provincewide scale.”
He recalls attending a presentation where Polak mentioned $25 billion in public- and private-sector capital expenditures in B.C. through to 2020. Given the significant job creation and long-term environmental benefits that result from rapid-transit projects, Price suggests that they should be ranked high on any list of options whether they’re in Surrey or Vancouver.
But not every Vancouver municipal politician is in agreement. Former COPE councillor Tim Louis tells the Straight by phone that he’s “very concerned that the mayor and Vision Vancouver are approaching this question with a closed mind”. He claims that an underground SkyTrain would attract marginally more riders than at-grade light rail, but at a massively higher cost. That’s why he favours at-grade solutions, either bus rapid transit or LRT.
“When people are taken off the street—when businesses are made invisible to the transit rider—business declines,” Louis says. “The way to keep people engaged with their local businesses is to keep local business in sight as you’re travelling around the city. Turning people into moles, underground moles, is not good for local business.”
The former chief administrative officer of Metro Vancouver, Johnny Carline, is enjoying his retirement on Vancouver Island, far away from the rising chorus of debate over rapid transit in this region. Over the phone with the Straight, he concisely summarizes the challenges facing TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis in deciding between Vancouver and Surrey.
“If transit investment comes in $1-billion or $2-billion chunks, where do I want to spend my next chunk?” Carline asks rhetorically. “Do I want to spend it in the fastest-growing area for both employment and residential in the Lower Mainland, [which] is accessible…on all four sides? Or do I want to spend it in an area that is not intended to grow, has got water on three sides, and has a sort of crème de la crème belt on the fourth side, which makes it fairly difficult to densify, relative to Surrey?”
Carline notes that in Vancouver, this “crème de la crème” element will make it exceedingly difficult to command street space for surface-level light rail. At the same time, Carline recognizes a business case for investing in enhanced transportation to UBC, though he characterizes the argument of an employment hub in Central Broadway as a “red herring”.
“So if you’re cynical and smart, you’ll probably look at the underground option,” he says. “It still offers you an operating-cost advantage. You get rid of some of the immediate development impacts, but all the financial wheels probably fall off.”
TransLink had a net direct debt of $2.04 billion by the end of 2012. It can carry up to $3.5 billion in direct debt, according to the authority’s media-relations department, without the Mayors’ Council having to approve a supplemental plan.
If TransLink were to be responsible for one-third of the cost of a $3-billion subway and borrowed at 6.5 percent interest, it would add $65 million per year to its debt-service payments, which already stand at $241.5 million for 2013.
Carline says the numbers aren’t very pleasant in the near term for Surrey council’s preferred option, either. “The problem in Surrey is it’s growing like crazy, but it’s not all in one corridor,” he states. “So the business case for any one line is weaker. Long term, it’s going to make bags of financial sense. In the short term, it’s not.”
A recent report by Jones Lang LaSalle indicates the degree to which rapid transit is influencing companies’ decisions on where to locate. HSBC Bank Canada, the Fraser Health Authority, Coast Capital Savings, and TransLink have all recently leased large amounts of space in buildings along the Expo and Millennium lines. “The study continues to reaffirm that tenants outside of Downtown Vancouver are placing a growing emphasis on office buildings within walking distance of rapid transit stations when evaluating their real estate requirements,” Jones Lang LaSalle reported.
A similar phenomenon is occurring on the residential side of the real-estate industry. The Marine Gateway project next to the Canada Line’s Marine Drive Station sold out almost immediately last year. “The development industry is ready to get behind a major transit push,” Price says. “The shift in the development industry has been like night and day.”
This is one reason why Hunt is so bullish on light rail on three corridors in Surrey. He even tells the Straight that his city could conceivably help cover part of the expense in a cost-sharing agreement with other levels of government.
When asked how, he explains that there’s nothing stopping the City of Surrey from creating a waste-to-energy plant to burn garbage from south of the Fraser River, with electricity sales financing transit. He acknowledges that Metro Vancouver has always insisted that any waste-to-energy facility should come under regional ownership under the solid-waste management plan, but he doesn’t believe that’s necessary.
“I can’t see why Surrey can’t take care of its own garbage, as long as we’re working within the plan,” Hunt says.
UBC and Vancouver have not come forward with any financial offers to induce senior levels of government and TransLink to back their subway proposal. And Mayor Watts of Surrey isn’t onboard with Hunt’s idea, even though they were elected on the same political slate. “We’ve paid for other people’s infrastructure in the region, which we were happy to do,” she says. “We can’t look at it now and say, ‘It’s Surrey’s turn, you’ve got to foot the bill yourself.’ That’s just not a fair way to look at things.”
Carline sees Hunt’s idea as a symptom of how regional governance can be undermined by bigger cities with more financial clout. “Marvin has always been a Surrey-first guy, and I respect the situation they’ve got,” Carline says. “And Surrey has been doing some really intriguing stuff. They might be able to pull it off. In the end, it might be the right decision or the right outcome, but done in totally the wrong way.”