The Evergreen Line is approaching a critical engineering and design phase and there is no point in reconsidering a light-rail option, says Coquitlam’s mayor.
Richard Stewart said the Burnaby-to-Coquitlam rapid transit line is “approaching a shovel-in-the-ground stage” and needs broad support from the region’s mayors to make sure it’s fully funded.
“The engineering is nearing completion. I think we have to be very cognizant of the fact that we have both senior levels of government with significant investment in the project and at least one of them has made the investment in SkyTrain [technology],” Stewart told The Tri-City News.
He was responding to comments made at a Metro Vancouver meeting by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts last week during a discussion of TransLink’s 10-year plan. Watts said switching to street-level light rail would save TransLink $400 million and help the regional transit authority solve its current funding woes.
“Given these economic times, maybe we go back to the drawing board and have a look at it,” said Watts, who also chairs the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation.
Stewart didn’t attend the Friday board meeting but he understands the mayors’ frustration about TransLink’s ongoing funding problems.
One solution would be a $450-million plan touted by TransLink and endorsed by the mayors Friday but it’s not on the table because it includes new sources of funding — such as road pricing or tolling — coupled with a vehicle levy, which would require provincial approval.
Instead, when they meet in October, the mayors will have to decide whether to implement deep cuts or generate $130 million to $275 million for a modest 10-year plan that doesn’t include operating funding for the Evergreen Line.
“It’s a frustration of every mayor, the Oct. 23 meeting,” Stewart said. “We can do nothing except take a bunch of flack for a system that is unsustainable because it doesn’t have any revenue.”
Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said he would be happy to switch technologies away from SkyTrain if it gets the line built through his city.
“You could build it with today’s budget,” he said. “They’ve done all the technical research on it. The tunnel engineering is the same.”
Coquitlam and Port Moody originally supported a light-rail Evergreen Line, which would have meant more local stations and a slower overall trip along the line — more of a community system than a high-speed commuter route.
“If you’re going from Coquitlam Centre to Lougheed Mall and it takes two or three minutes longer, is that going to kill you?” Trasolini asked.
Watts said the apparent senior government bias towards SkyTrain is a problem that threatens to hurt the outlook for rapid transit extensions in Surrey as well.
“South of the Fraser, we want at-grade light rail,” she said. “You see it all over the world and for some reason it’s just not on the table. So we’ve got to pay that much more money that we don’t have.”
TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast warned mayors the base case scenario would force drastic cuts of 40% to bus service in some areas and spell “chaos” for the region.
Another “funding stabilization” option to generate an extra $130 million a year so the region can tread water would still mean reductions of spending in some areas, he said.
Cycling infrastructure spending would be cut and road maintenance grants to cities would be reduced, leaving them to pick up those costs or scale back road repairs.
Since TransLink cannot adopt the $450-million plan — extra sources from the province are so far not forthcoming — the Metro board motion calls on TransLink to give priority for bus and rapid transit extensions to the historically under-served eastern and southern areas.
But Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan warned that TransLink’s plans are unaffordable and argued scarce funding should be used to sustain service to areas with strong existing ridership rather than areas with low transit use if cuts are required.
“There are significant subsidies going into many of the south-of-Fraser routes that are questionable in terms of business efficiency,” he said.
Some Metro directors also suggested TransLink could save money by eliminating its plan to add fare gates to the SkyTrain system to help enforce payment.
Prendergast said the capital cost of that is estimated at $70 million to $80 million but noted those costs were to be entirely covered by the provincial and federal governments.
The current debate over funding aside, Stewart said there is no doubt the province is proceeding with the Evergreen Line. He said he was given assurance about the project in a recent visit to Victoria and a great deal of work has already gone into the project.
Currently, consultation is taking place for an environmental assessment review for the project and the public will be asked for feedback on preliminary design starting Oct. 5.
Transportation Minister Shirley Bond also supports the SkyTrain-type technology, noting the decision was based on a solid business case and endorsed by both the province and TransLink.
“Although the Evergreen Line’s ALRT [SkyTrain] technology has higher construction costs than LRT, it has significantly lower annual operating costs, significantly shorter travel times for commuters and would have two and a half times more ridership by 2021,” Bond said in a statement. “These benefits clearly outweigh the relatively small additional cost of SkyTrain versus LRT.”
TransLink has committed $400 million for the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line but there’s still a $173-million shortfall after federal and provincial contributions.
TransLink’s share translates into annual costs of $40 million to $50 million — money the authority says it can’t afford with either the base plan or funding stabilization option.