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  • Lance Berelowitz

Rapid Transit Creeping Closer To UBC

This week in Metro Vancouver the regional transportation Mayors' Council is considering a report from transportation authority TransLink that outlines the options for extending the proposed Broadway Corridor subway line all the way to the University of British Columbia. The report, signed off by TransLink's senior management, makes it clear that sticking with the same SkyTrain technology that will be used on the new Broadway Corridor line extension as far as Arbutus Street is the recommended way to go, to get the line all the way to UBC, its ultimate destination.

As the TransLink report says: work to date has "demonstrated that a SkyTrain extension to UBC is the only technology that would accommodate the forecast ridership on the Broadway corridor and allow for future expansion in the longer term (beyond 2045)". The report clearly states that TransLink management "will recommend SkyTrain as the preferred technology" to the Mayors' Council, which has the final say (but not the money). The report estimates that the cost to extend the Broadway line from Arbutus Street to UBC (approximately 8.6 km) would be between $3.3 billion and $3.8 billion in 2018 Canadian dollars.

Both the mayor of Vancouver and the president of UBC have come out in support of SkyTrain. The other mayors have yet to declare their positions, but it's a fair guess they will fall in line. This is an important step in getting rapid transit to UBC.

This recommendation is not uncontroversial. Many local pundits and even transit experts argue that SkyTrain is too expensive, and that significantly cheaper at-grade light rail (LRT) options would be better bang for the buck. There is also a legitimate argument about the SkyTrain technology, which is a proprietary automated (i.e. driverless) system that has seen few takers since it was developed and marketed in the mid-1980s, and rolled out across much of the Metro Vancouver region.

While I am no transportation planning expert (but am a professional urban planner), I do however have a working brain and can see what is surely obvious: it makes no sense to stop the proposed Broadway SkyTrain subway (gotta relish the oxymoron) line at Arbutus, and not push it through to its intended destination: the UBC campus with its tens of thousands of students, employees, faculty, and University Endowment Land workers and residents. UBC is either the single biggest or second biggest employment node and customer destination in the region, along with Vancouver International Airport. And the UBC/UEL residential population is only going to grow. In addition, adding more residential density to the intermediate low-density suburbs of Dunbar, Point Grey and Kitsilano is inevitable, sooner or later, and will only enhance the business case even further. Not to mention future development on the Musqueam lands, Jericho lands, etc.

Stopping the subway line at Arbutus, and forcing UBC commuters to switch to buses, will only push all the current problems of travel-mode change at Broadway and Commercial to Broadway and Arbutus, with all the attendant loss of speed, convenience and ridership. To be clear, the reason the Broadway SkyTrain line is currently funded only as far as Arbutus has nothing to do with a business case, or ridership patterns, or any other rational evidence-based argument. It is political. The Mayors' Council represents 22 different Metro Vancouver municipalities. Decision-making is by consensus. There was only so much federal and provincial government money to be spread around between all the competing municipal wish lists, and the City of Vancouver couldn’t be seen to get more than its ‘fair’ share, with other municipalities getting less. That would have fatally undermined the necessary political support for the Mayors' Council's 10 year Transportation Plan.

So the new Broadway line is funded only as far as Arbutus Street, which is not quite half way between the current end of the Millennium Line and UBC, and hardly a major urban node.

Getting the line extended all the way to UBC is the big prize and eventual payoff, in terms of ridership, reducing traffic congestion and emissions, and shifting more people into using public transit. It will be a game changer for the entire region, just as the Canada Line has been.

While I generally agree with those who think that the SkyTrain technology is inadequate and undersized, other experts have argued for its operational efficiencies, which I acknowledge. However, having built most of the region's rapid transit system using this technology, we are now stuck with SkyTrain, at least until the basic network is fully built out and the region can switch to something more updated and/or add a surface transit system as well. It makes no sense to switch travel modes or technologies at Arbutus, if that means commuters having to transfer off SkyTrain to a different vehicle (either at or below grade). So let’s get on with it and finish this line already to UBC, which is where the vast majority of riders will be travelling to/from. It’s years overdue. And while it is clearly more expensive than LRT or rapid buses, both of which also have their rightful place in the public transit toolkit, it’s not going to get any cheaper to build if we wait. I predict that once the Broadway SkyTrain line is built to UBC and the region sees the full benefits, folks will look back on this decision one day and wonder what the fuss was all about.

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