Is gridlock the real Expo 86 legacy for Metro Vancouver?

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      Today, social media is full of fond memories of Expo 86, which opened on this day 30 years ago.

      There's no doubt that Vancouver's only World's Fair was a great success, drawing huge crowds to the north shore of False Creek from May to mid-October in 1986.

      The theme was transportation and communication. This influenced the provincial government to launch the first SkyTrain passenger service four months before Expo 86 began.

      SkyTrain was popular with riders, but it was also phenomenally expensive. And it gobbled up precious funds that could have gone into more efficient methods for moving people.

      It might surprise today's taxpayers to learn that the Bill Bennett government bought the system without going to tender.

      The seller was an Ontario crown corporation, Urban Transportation Development Corporation. The display of this driverless system at the World's Fair was designed to spur sales of this Canadian technology around the world.

      That helped bring the federal government onboard to support the fair.

      In the end, those sales of SkyTrain systems never really materialized—at least not with the original Mark I cars. This left the Lower Mainland with a colossally expensive rapid-transit project covering a relatively small footprint.

      Better transit service couldn't be delivered to other areas for years to come—not by bus nor by street-level light rail—because there wasn't enough money.

      A Crown corporation secretariat 1992-93 annual report showed that over the previous nine-year period, B.C. Transit's bus service hours only increased by 3.5 percent. (B.C. Transit was the precursor to TransLink in the Lower Mainland.)

      In 1991, the Toronto Transit Commission was generating 69 percent of its operating expenses through the farebox, compared to just 49 percent for B.C. Transit. With a smaller portion of revenue coming through the farebox, it meant larger subsidies just to maintain status quo transit service.

      It's worth noting that the TTC rejected buying SkyTrain. That's because it didn't carry anywhere near enough passengers to justify the price.

      The cost of the Expo Line from Waterfront Station to King George Station was $1.23 billion, including rolling stock, but not including debt-servicing costs. More than a decade after the line opened, the debt still stood at $1 billion, according to B.C. Transit figures supplied to the Straight at the time.

      The annual debt-service costs for 1997-98 were $143.3 million for SkyTrain-related expenditures. It was Vancouver's version of the Montreal Olympics.

      Metro Vancouver became the guinea pig

      The first UTDC line using the Mark I cars opened in Scarborough in March 1985. The following year, passenger service began in Greater Vancouver on what became known as SkyTrain. The Lower Mainland was the high-profile guinea pig.

      Not long after, the Montreal-based engineering giant Lavalin bought UTDC, but Lavalin's debt burden became so large that it went bankrupt.

      Ownership reverted back to the Ontario government, which sold UTDC to Montreal-based transportation giant Bombardier. After Bombardier developed larger Mark II cars, it sold SkyTrain-style systems to JFK Airport, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Seoul. 

      But that was a small amount of business compared to the number of other rapid-transit systems sold around the world by Bombardier, Germany's Siemens, and France's Alstom.

      Had Bill Bennett's Social Credit government opted for holding a tender before purchasing a rapid-transit system, the eventual winning bid might have been significantly less expensive and carried more passengers.

      This could have enabled rapid-transit to be extended sooner to other parts of the Lower Mainland. And that would have reduced gridlock and enhanced overall livability. Consider it a missed opportunity.

      Instead, the region was stuck with a brutally costly driverless intermediate-capacity system in which new cars had to be bought from a single vendor, pushing up the price. And subsequent extensions, such as the Millennium Line and the Evergreen Line, had to be compatible with the original purchase.

      That's the real legacy of Expo 86.

      Of course, SkyTrain was never about moving people. The real purpose was to spur real-estate development—and in this regard, it has succeeded magnificently.