The politics of Lower Mainland rapid transit

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      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.



      James G

      Mar 24, 2013 at 4:02pm

      Thanks for a great summary. I suspect that there will be plenty of rah-rahs for the light rail proposal by all of those unfamiliar with the actualities of that system. I have seen what that looks like and maintain that it would be obsolete upon completion. Limited and overstressed steets mean rail often yields to traffic while above ground. All of these circumstances cascade failures backwards until the costly enough light rail slows to the speed of the current trolleys and people return to their own cars.

      One obvious error in your forecast is that the likeliest scenario for forming government after 2015 is that the Liberals would end up backing up or even joining the Conservatives either as a minority government or as a coalition. This is indicated both by the increasingly right rhetoric coming from the party and by the last Conservative minority. Those who dismiss the possiblity can just observe what is happening in Britain's government.

      Stephen Rees

      Mar 24, 2013 at 4:52pm

      "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."

      U-Pass was not determined by low ridership on the Millennium Line. Translink played no part in the decision to build it and was then and is now impervious to embarrassment - internationally or otherwise. But when the pressure built on Translink to cut a deal on U-Pass (which had been resisted for years due to cost concerns) then CEO Pat Jabobsen had a daughter about to become a student at UBC. And one misguided planner came up with the "revenue neutral" funding formula - which ignored cost altogether.

      The trains for the Canada Line were built by Hyundai - Rotem of S Korea despite significant federal funding.

      The reason we keep building grade separated rapid transit systems is that city engineers have been determined to avoid the impacts on road traffic inevitable with surface LRT.


      Mar 24, 2013 at 7:01pm

      Nice Article...

      There is one more often overlooked point...

      As Transit fares increase its the same cost or less to operate a small fuel efficient Vehicle.

      We are close or at that point already with BC Transit.


      Mar 24, 2013 at 7:36pm

      Cities with LRT are not magically immune to the pressures the author claims influenced what was built here. Why did they get what is supposedly the best option and not here.

      I also don't believe rapid transit in Surrey is all that important to most there and certainly not in Langley. And I doubt anything can stimulate house building or any kind there much longer with the real estate market crashing, no international investors will buy en masse and save things there.

      Daryl at Better Surrey Rapid Transit

      Mar 24, 2013 at 7:39pm

      You do realize that the reason the Millennium Line was built was to provide some rapid transit expansion as Phase I of a T-Line network, the second phase of which was cancelled by meddling Liberals who read an inaccurate report. The routing of Phase I would enable a cost-effective way of bringing rapid transit to some of the corridor and enable rolling stock sharing on the full route when fully built, reducing the costs of further expansions. Phase I (today's Millennium Line) was

      The Millennium Line has also shaped and created a sizable amount of the region's high-density growth, particularly in Brentwood. It is also the lowest-cost SkyTrain expansion ever built, at a cost of some $60 million per km in today's dollars. That kind of cost for a high-capacity heavy rail line is a bargain.

      You should take a look at the ridership numbers and policies in Portland and Calgary. Portland's entire LRT system weekday ridership count after 26 years is lower than that of the Canada Line's today. LRT usage in Calgary has been largely a result of forcing riders on the system by transportation management downtown, while providing free park-n-rides near LRT stations. By contrast, Vancouver managed to reduce the amount of cars entering the city between 1996 and 2006 and did this almost entirely through choice ridership.

      Also, you should take a look at TransLink's full evaluation for Surrey rapid transit. Surrey's preferred LRT option has the worst case of all of the options, with a net present value of negative 510 million and a benefit/cost ratio of just 0.69:1. LRT in Surrey is never going to get built, no matter by which government. Its business case is horrible.

      Yours truly,
      Daryl at Better Surrey Rapid Transit


      Mar 25, 2013 at 5:02am

      I'll bet that 99% of Georgia Straight readers don't know that SNC Lavalin's Transit/Transportation Group Headquarters is in VANCOUVER, not Montreal. They recently bid and won Ottawa's Confederation Line, to design, build, and operate Ottawa's new, built-from-scratch LRT system which is roughly the size of SNC's Canada Line. Just sayin...

      Charlie Smith

      Mar 25, 2013 at 7:19am

      Stephen Rees,
      I never said that TransLink built the Millennium Line. I remember looking at the numbers as TransLink was being pressured by students to develop a U-Pass system. If there had never been a U-Pass, the Millennium Line ridership would have become an international joke in the transit community.



      Mar 25, 2013 at 11:56am

      Count me as one of the original Millenium line skeptics, at the time I was not following transit as closely and did not realize it was supposed to be phase one of a three phase project. To me it was a line from nowhere to nowhere. That said every year the area gets more and more built up and now it can actually be considered going somewhere and it even gets marginally acceptable ridership. When the Evergreen line is built it will make the Millenium line a whole lot more meaningful, imagine if a Broadway extension gets built, it will suddenly be a complete and very useful line.
      As to being an international joke, there are so many systems world wide (but particularily in North America) doing so much worse per dollar spent than the Millenium line (even without students) that I doubt it would have raised eyebrows (just to pick on my favourite transit whipping boy Portland compare Portlands MAXs' cost per rider to the Millenium line (the nowhere to nowhere line)...ouch...and that is before comparing operating costs...and there is lots of praise for Portland, so I doubt anyone would have bothered to blink about slightly lower Millenium line ridership if there was no U-Pass).
      As to the U-pass system it should be noted that pretty much all the transit systems I am aware of have a similar U-pass system.

      Vancouver 2025

      Mar 25, 2013 at 12:46pm

      The current millennium line is incomplete. The original plan was to extend it to both Coquitlam and UBC. Ridership was low in early years, but as development increased along lougheed road, ridership increased. It is sill that politics is so involved. Translink needs long term plan to expand trains all over Metro Vancouver.

      Eric Doherty

      Mar 25, 2013 at 7:28pm

      One missing piece of this is that the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is one of the most valued legacies of the NDP. The Liberal's Massey Tunnel replacement is largely about paving over the ALR. Any NDP politician that supports paving over the ALR will hear about it from the membership.

      Another interesting piece of NDP history is that Dave Barret promised a whole network of "surface-level light-rail" back in the early 1970s. The Sea Bus (built instead of the 3rd crossing freeway tunnel) is the only piece of the network that got built, since he lost the election.

      Although it cant get no respect, bus rapid transit (BRT) makes the most sense for most of the corridors that need better transit in the region. Don't count it out if the NDP gets elected in BC, if I remember correctly it was the Harcourt administration that built a short section of BRT busway in Richmond. Kevin Falcon took great pleasure in having it demolished.