Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rapid Transit - Time to Implement Continuous Growth

With a lot of jubilation, tremendous public interest, and a big final sigh of relief, the Canada Line of Metro Vancouver’s Skytrain system finally opened on August 17th. . Early reports were ridership was even higher than expected. While a lot of the media has focused on those people who have been inconvenienced by the new line, I think the numbers speak for themselves – the line appears to be meeting or beating expectations.

Supposedly next on the list of rapid transit projects is the Evergreen Line connecting Burnaby (Lougheed) to Port Moody and Coquitlam. The tale of this line is almost epic, started, stopped, and made the number one priority so many times it would make your head spin. For brevity, the last few things to happen were

1. The project was changed from being at grade Light Rail Transit, to Advanced Light Rapid Transit (Skytrain) as this would integrate it fully with the existing skytrain system, and only cost an extra $200 million over the $1.2 billion for the LRT.
2. Translink started running out of money. The commissioner recommended against the budget plan that included the Evergreen Line as Translink did not identify where needed money would come from.
3. Local mayors recommend switching back to LRT to save $400 million (not sure how the math works there).

Everything that I have witnessed regarding building rapid transit in Metro Vancouver has shown the process moves slowly, clumsily and in fits and starts. I don’t know how the process went for the original Expo Line, but after it was finished in 1986 ending in New Westminster, it took until 1990 to extend the line just to Scott Road, then another four years to get to King George.

After that it wasn’t until 2002 that the Millenium Line opened, then 2009 for the Canada Line. To summarize, the process has been
- Build a line
- Four years to build and extension
- Four years to build another extension
- 8 years to build another line
- 7 years to build another line
and that doesn’t even touch on any of the drama that occurred trying to get any of these projects started.

Starting and stopping so often causes many issues. Equipment manufacturers allow equipment to go obsolete if they see no future market for it. Construction ventures disband and send their skilled workers elsewhere on the next big project. Large mobilization costs are incurred for bringing crews back when it starts up again. Knowledge is lost as people move into different areas of work. Public frustration grows as the cries for better transit seem unheeded.

There is a way to avoid all these problems, though it will require significant commitment from Translink and all three levels of government. But given the massive costs and grievances associated with the status quo, I believe change is necessary. I am advocating a system of continuous expansion of the Metro Vancouver rapid transit network.

What this would look like is continuously rolling over rapid transit designers, engineers, trades, labourers and other support such that there is always a shovel in the ground expanding the rapid transit network. Imagine where we would be if during the time the Canada Line was being built, engineers were designing, approving, scheduling, estimating, and tendering the Evergreen Line so that the day the Canada Line was finished, all those workers could hop over from Vancouver/Richmond to Coquitlam and Port Moody and start working on it right away.

As they work on the Evergreen Line, the designers are now free to start designing the next line, be it Broadway, Surrey or Hastings. Then as the Evergreen Line is finished being built, the construction workers roll over onto the next project. The benefits of this would be massive – we would have our own dedicated core of skilled engineers, technicians and trades with expertise in rapid transit. Knowing the next project is waiting for them, the workforce would be better motivated and more dedicated to the community. As demand for transit will likely increase around the world in the coming years, this even becomes a marketable service.

Heavy equipment such as tunnel boring machines wouldn’t have to be sold or scrapped, but could be used again spreading the high capital cost over several projects. Local business would have more opportunities to support construction and service the lines once completed. With such a program going on, it may even be possible to develop or attract manufacturers, consultants and other major players in the rapid transit industry.

The public would have more confidence in the transit system, being able to see, follow and experience the new lines coming on one after another.

The best part is this system would be relatively easy to implement; all it really needs is money. A lot of money, no doubt, but still just money. To expand the system at an average of one new line every 5-6 years would require $300 – 400 million per year, money dedicated strictly to expanding rapid transit.

What is easier – scraping together $600 million each from the local, federal and municipal governments when it’s time to put a rapid transit line in, fighting against other capital projects, causing delays and increasing the costs? Or negotiate a dedicated annual $100 million payment from each devoted to slow, continuous expansion. It is easier to manage, easier to budget, and easier to swallow. And given the benefits that could flow from it, I think it’s the path we should go.

Update: Metro Vancouver mayors vote for funding stabilization, not expansion, putting the evergreen line on hold again.  This only emphasizes the need for consistent funding devoted to rapid transit expansion. 

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