Broadway subway line not a done deal

nor is it a good one

– by Elizabeth Murphy –

The map above shows what $7 billion buys in modern surface tram at $50 million per km rather than only the Broadway subway from VCC to UBC. For illustrative purposes only. Illustration by Kathryn Mandell. (UBC Prof. Patrick Condon)

Vancouver City Council’s recent endorsement of SkyTrain technology for a Broadway subway (the BS-Line) extension from Arbutus to UBC, through the heart of Kitsilano and West Point Grey, is energizing neighbourhoods all along the line.

A March 5 meeting of 300 people at St. James Community Square, sponsored by local residents associations, was the first real community consultation to take place in a process that has been marred by rushed deadlines. As part of a panel including UBC Prof. Patrick Condon, we outlined the many concerns with the city and regional current directions.

Although TransLink’s Mayors’ Council has approved preliminary planning for the extension of the Broadway subway to UBC, this is far from a done deal. The unfolding corruption scandal at SNC-Lavalin and the company’s proprietary role in SkyTrain technology puts this Millennium Line extension in question. Also, the underlying assumptions used to justify the subway do not add up accurately regarding projections of growth, ridership or technology performance of various options.

The recommendations for a SkyTrain subway to UBC are based on a report that updates the 2012 SNC-Lavalin/Steer Davies Gleave report. Since SNC-Lavalin is the main SkyTrain supplier throughout the region, it is not surprising SkyTrain was their recommendation, and since the current update is based on the 2012 report, it would again come to the same conclusion.

The Expo and Millennium Lines are a proprietary unconventional railway, of which the technical patents are owned by Bombardier and the engineering patents owned by SNC-Lavalin.

“Only seven lines have been built in almost 40 years, with only three seriously used for urban transport. Why is Metro Vancouver now the only region in the world that continues to build with SkyTrain?” asks Malcolm Johnson of the group Rail for the Valley.

Given SNC-Lavalin’s proprietary rights for SkyTrain technology and its ongoing criminal prosecution for fraud and corruption that could result in a ban from bidding on government projects in Canada, the mayors requested confirmation that other companies beside SNC-Lavalin could competitively provide SkyTrain technology.

SNC-Lavalin is already banned from bidding on World Bank projects due to corruption, and Bombardier is also being investigated.

There also are the questionable underlying assumptions of growth and ridership projections used to justify a SkyTrain subway.

Simple solutions that could be implemented immediately have been avoided to reinforce their biased narrative that a subway on Broadway is the only option to serve ridership to UBC and that the system is already at capacity. Commuters have been held hostage for over a decade to justify this scheme.

Alternate routes, such as along Fourth Avenue, have been under-served while increased commuters from the opening of the Evergreen Line have been dumped on Broadway rather than diverted to other less-congested routes with express or expanded B-Line buses.

Also, the mode comparative costs have been biased to SkyTrain. UBC Professor Patrick Condon has shown how LRT tram systems throughout Europe and North America are built for under $50 million per kilometre, while the evaluation report vastly inflates the tram costs to $282 million per kilometre.

The $4-billion SkyTrain subway 7.1-kilometre extension from Arbutus to UBC would be about $563 million per kilometre. Both LRT and subway estimates include a 30- to 50-per-cent contingency, even though the subway has higher risk of unknowns with underground streams and utilities to divert.

The entire 13-kilometre SkyTrain subway from VCC to UBC would be at least $7 billion. If LRT was used, the whole route could be continuously built without a transfer point for much less than the $2.8 billion already committed for the phase to Arbutus. However, that option is not part of the updated report. Why not?

If they proceed with a subway option, it will be enormously disruptive and damaging to local businesses all along the route for years. Many business owners are already panicking, knowing that even with a bored tunnel, there will be cut and cover at every station and for utilities. And it is still a possibility of a bait and switch like SNC-Lavalin did for Canada Line when approvals were for boring while the eventual contract was for cut and cover. There is a lot of money at stake.

Of course, the biggest money is in the real estate development along the line. Development is really what this is all about.

But this excessive development is not needed to meet growth and will mostly serve the global capital that will further undermine affordability. The subway extension from Arbutus to UBC is predicated on using development fees to help fund it. This will require large amounts of density bonusing for luxury condos at UBC, Jericho Lands, station areas and other sites, on top of rental development that is exempt from development fees.

So rather than development fees being used to help pay for civic amenities like replacement of community centres, they will be used to pay for the provincial, federal and TransLink responsibilities of transit funding. This is an encroachment onto the municipal tax base. Already, TransLink is getting a regional property tax and development fee to pay for the subway’s proposed first phase to Arbutus.

In October 2016, Green Vancouver Coun. Adriane Carr brought forward a motion, seconded by NPA Councillor Melissa De Genova, that opposed the use of development fees to fund transit. It was voted down by Vision. But now both incumbents and their parties, except for Councillor Colleen Hardwick, voted for the subway extension that included funding from development fees.

Vancouver city staff have confirmed that the number of projected new units is beyond that justified for projected population growth. And existing zoned capacity is already well beyond what is needed to meet projected growth to 2040. Yet the rush to rezone continues.

These policies go back to the failed EcoDensity policies of 2007. Former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan copyrighted the name and his then-director of planning, Brent Toderian, defined the program. After the 2008 election, when Sullivan and the NPA were wiped off council except for one seat, he said that he was a victim of density. But Vision, which promised to reconsider EcoDensity, just rebranded it, with Toderian, as the Greenest City.

Then Vision also approved the regional change from the Livable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy. This included regional designation of Frequent Transit Development Areas that Broadway, like Cambie, is destined to become if a subway is implemented.

From 2007, the city was warned that making density and growth a primary objective would lead to massive displacement. Demolition of existing affordable rentals, character/heritage houses, secondary suites, and small businesses, would be replaced with much more expensive new construction. And that has come to pass with an affordability crisis as predicted, that will be expanded with the Broadway subway corridor planning currently underway.

Sullivan now is a provincial MLA as the BC Liberal critic for municipal affairs. He is proposing to take away municipal land-use authority on areas around transit to further expedite this tower development agenda. The BC budget makes reference to expediting delivery of development project approvals, so the NDP may be looking at encroaching on municipal land-use authority too.

All this just goes to show that bad ideas are not necessarily politically left or right, and can continue through various regimes. Although Vision was wiped off council in the last election, without different directions to staff from the new council, we will continue to have more of the same.

But a Broadway subway is not a done deal. This too can be stopped like the freeways and urban renewal schemes of the 1960s that would have destroyed Chinatown, Gastown and communities on the east side like Strathcona and Grandview.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private-sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver and B.C. Housing.

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