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Sep 28,2009 Tri City News


TransLink can save $400 million in one easy step by switching plans for the Evergreen Line from expensive SkyTrain technology back to the originally envisioned at-grade light rail system.

That's the suggestion from area mayors who say the move would save a big chunk of capital money and go a long way to helping the transportation authority get on sustainable financial footing.

"Given these economic times, maybe we go back to the drawing board and have a look at it," said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who also chairs the Mayors Council on Regional Transportation.

She told a Metro Vancouver board meeting Sept. 25 a shift back to light rail would save a significant amount of money and would be supported by northeast sector residents along the line.

Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said he'd 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 the light rail idea, 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.

But transportation minister Shirley Bond is defending the switch to SkyTrain 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 CEO Tom Prendergast told the board he has heard suggestions Ottawa might pull its funding for the Evergreen Line if federally preferred SkyTrain technology was abandoned or if the project takes too long to move forward.

He noted a significant section of the route would have to be tunneled, regardless of the technology.

And he said there would have to be a fresh cost analysis done on a light rail option.

Watts said the apparent senior government bias to 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."

Prendergast, who was hired a year ago, said he backs objective decision-making on rapid transit technologies for future lines – something he said hasn't happened here so far.

The renewed debate over Evergreen Line technology came as Metro Vancouver board directors passed judgment on the funding options TransLink has tabled for its new 10-year plan.

They endorsed the preferred option of TransLink and area mayors for new sources of funding from the province – such as road pricing or tolling – coupled with a vehicle levy to deliver $450 million more per year.

"Our regional land-use plan will not work if we don't have the appropriate transportation plan to support it," said Metro chief administrator Johnny Carline.

Prendergast warned them the base case scenario would force drastic cuts of 40 per cent 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 underserved eastern and southern areas.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, however, warned 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 subisides 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 to $80 million, but noted those costs were to be entirely covered by the provincial and federal governments.

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 to $50 million – money the authority says it can't afford with either the base plan or funding stabilization option

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