Recently there has been a flurry of news stories about rapid-transit projects in Metro Vancouver, many with misleading headlines like “SkyTrain to Langley top rapid transit option for Surrey: TransLink”. Mayor Dianne Watts wants light-rail rapid transit in Surrey, and Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs has been badmouthing anything in Vancouver but a $3-billion subway along Broadway to UBC. But TransLink’s just-released studies reveal a wide variety of good rapid-transit options, all with both positive features and limitations.
No “preferred alternative” has yet been selected.
The big question is how any of this will be paid for. The provincial government under Christy Clark has prioritized roadway expansion over transit, and the result has been cuts to transit service across the region. The cuts are deepest at the edges of the transit system, in Surrey and Delta, but they extend even to bus routes in Vancouver and off-peak SkyTrain service.
An obvious solution, for at least part of the cost, is reallocating the money from urban road-expansion projects. The controversial Massey Tunnel project is expected to cost billions and is designed to facilitate industrial and residential development on land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve. Besides dooming Delta’s agricultural land, this project would direct development onto a floodplain increasingly vulnerable to flooding due to sea-level rise. At the same time, it would increase the carbon emissions driving global warming. Three billion dollars is enough to build light rail along Broadway to UBC and bus rapid transit in Surrey, with about a billion left over for bike paths, bus lanes, transit signal priority, and the like throughout the region.
Many U.S. groups, including the Sierra Club, have adopted the slogan “Fix it first” to campaign for an end to wasteful spending on new and wider roads. Get OnBoard B.C. is a coalition of groups supporting increased funding for transit in Metro Vancouver that has taken up a similar idea and advocates reallocating funds from road expansion to transit, among other transit funding options.
The Climate Justice Project report Transportation Transformation, which I coauthored, suggests that between $1 billion and $1.5 billion per year could be reallocated from roadway expansion to transit, cycling, passenger rail, and other low-carbon-emission transportation across B.C.
This is in addition to the vehicle levies, carbon tax, gas taxes, tolls, and other revenue sources TransLink could access with provincial-government approval. Seen in this light, maybe we can even afford bathrooms at SkyTrain stations and bus loops, and improve HandyDART service for people with disabilities and the elderly, in addition to new rapid-transit lines and more buses.
Even capital-intensive SkyTrain lines are within reach for the busiest corridors, if the political will is found to set aside road-building projects and put transit first. But most of Metro Vancouver is far away from the busiest transit routes, so less expensive forms of rapid transit need to be considered for these areas. One of the most interesting options being examined by TransLink is bus rapid transit (BRT). A $900-million BRT option is on TransLink’s shortlist for Surrey and Langley; it is forecast to attract around the same number of riders as a light-rail system costing more than twice as much.
TransLink’s early studies cast doubt on the ability of BRT to meet long-term ridership demand while maintaining speed and reliability. However, the transportation authority’s analysis of BRT is based on diesel buses with a capacity of only 100 people, whereas double articulated buses that hold up to 200 in both diesel hybrid and electric trolley versions are now available. Electric trolley buses accelerate more quickly than diesel buses and attract more riders since they are quieter and pollute less. TransLink’s studies and real-world experience show that BRT can be effective even on very busy routes. The next stage of TransLink studies should provide more information on what can be done with BRT using modern high-capacity trolley buses.
Under pressure from concerned citizens, TransLink has already set the stage for creating a world-class transit system. In May 2011, the authority announced the cancellation of the North Fraser Perimeter Road project through New Westminster. More recently, TransLink has pulled back its proposal to build a six-lane replacement for the Pattullo Bridge at a cost of around $1 billion and is instead considering upgrading the existing bridge for around $200 million. These two moves alone free up more than enough money for a $900-million bus rapid-transit network in Surrey.
To make major progress on transit, we need a provincial government that puts funding transit ahead of road expansion. This will only happen if candidates hear that this is what people want during the upcoming election campaign.