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Oct 20,2006

Evergreen Line clears another hurdle

By Leneen Robb - Staff Reporter

The TransLink board agreed Wednesday to spend $16 million for detailed design work on the proposed Evergreen Line, but the project will still go off the rails if the provincial and federal governments don't plug a $400-million funding gap.

Discussion of the proposed light rapid transit line from Lougheed Mall to Coquitlam Town Centre dominated Wednesday's board meeting, which was held at Coquitlam City Hall.

Tri-Cities mayors fill three of the 12 seats on the board, and Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini expressed concerns that the line may not go ahead.

"Normally, I am a very optimistic person, but I think that this time, I am concerned," Trasolini said, adding that several projects are competing for scarce funding from senior levels of government.

"We have been sitting here waiting for our turn, we have been very patient," he said. "I don't think the residents of the northeast sector are willing to wait any longer. We have run out of patience."

Trasolini also had harsh words for representatives of the federal and provincial governments, saying that, "If you ever want to show your faces around the northeast sector, take us seriously."

Others around the table, however, did not take seriously Trasolini's motion to include $400 million - an amount the board had previously agreed to allocate to the Evergreen Line - in a "base case" budget funding scenario that spells out which of the troubled transportation authority's projects will go ahead and which will be put on the backburner.

When Trasolini proposed that the $400 million be written into the base case scenario, he failed to attract a seconder.

When the Port Moody mayor said he wanted a legal opinion on the board's failure to include the $400-million amount in its base case scenario, TransLink CEO Pat Jacobsen said, "It's coming across that the $400 million is not there."

Jacobsen added that the amount - which TransLink has said it would borrow - could not be included in the base case scenario because it would not "flow" by 2007, the year for which the board was discussing spending priorities.

Trasolini said by not including the amount, TransLink directors would be seen as "accomplices" in the death of the Evergreen Line.

Coquitlam Mayor Maxine Wilson, however, said Trasolini's motion was "not necessary," and that the board should instead include in its plan a motion that light rapid transit be extended across the Pitt River.

"I didn't see a need to restate the need for $400 million," Wilson told the board.

The cost of the line is approaching $1 billion - it's now estimated at $970 million.

The province has agreed to pay $170 million of that amount, but so far, the federal government has not made a contribution, which leaves the project $400 million short and unable to proceed to the construction stage.

When directors began discussing the specifics of whether they should allocate $16 million toward detailed design for the Evergreen Line, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan was the sole opponent.

Corrigan said he has supported the Evergreen Line since it was first proposed, but that the board's decision to spend another $16 million with no financial commitment from the provincial and federal governments is "very disappointing."

He said the province - which funded both the Expo and Millennium SkyTrain lines - now only pays for about 20 per cent of the cost of rapid transit, and has "abandoned" its responsibility.

"They keep jacking us around as we go through the process," he said of the province, adding that TransLink's 10-year plan is "overly ambitious" and akin to taking a flight over the Pacific Ocean "knowing now we're running out of fuel and are not going to make it unless someone steps in and saves us mid-flight."

While Corrigan hinted that he doubts the province will step in to bail TransLink out, others seemed more confident.

"I do not believe that [Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon] has closed the door at all," Wilson said. "If we falter now, we will not have as effective a talk with our senior levels of government."

Others, who appeared before the board as delegations, urged directors to either scrap the Evergreen Line or aggressively pursue it.

Ann Kitching, vice-chair of the Douglas College board, said a lack of rapid transit to the David Lam campus is making it "really hard" for students to travel from the main facility in New Westminster to the Coquitlam location.

"The need for the LRT line is really urgent," she said. "Please try to get it built as soon as you can."

Hazel Postma, associate vice-president of external relations for the college, said that about 15 years ago, 60 per cent of students travelled to the New Westminster campus by car. Now, she said, that number has dropped to about 40 per cent.

That preference for public transit is leaving some classes at the David Lam campus short of students, Postma said, adding that planning for the Pinetree Way location was done with the assumption that rapid transit would eventually be built to connect it to the rest of the Lower Mainland.

While Douglas College got what it wanted - an extension of the line to the David Lam campus and TransLink's approval of the $16 million for detailed design work - other local groups urged TransLink to derail the project.

Cliff VanAlstyne, representing Citizens for Appropriate Evergreen Transit (CAET), said TransLink has not made a good business case for the line.

Another group member, Doug Mazur, labelled the Evergreen Line a "streetcar fiasco," and called for a binding referendum to be held in the Tri-Cities on the subject of rapid transit.

Mazur said the detailed design money - which he called a "$16-million gamble" - should not be spent until the province's review of TransLink governance is completed later this fall.

While some Evergreen Line critics are calling for a SkyTrain system instead of LRT, Sheri Plewes, TransLink's vice-president of capital management and engineering, told the board SkyTrain would cost about $300 million more.

Another group that took aim at the Evergreen Line was the Bus Riders Union, a militant Vancouver-based organization whose members frequently disrupt TransLink meetings with their protests.

Members said the money allocated to the line should instead be spent on upgrading the Lower Mainland's bus system, which is seriously overcrowded.

After the meeting, David Chudnovsky, the NDP's Opposition critic for transportation, called on the provincial government to come up with funds for the Evergreen Line.

"We've known about the need for rapid transit in this area for decades," Chudnovsky told reporters. "It's time for Minister Falcon to step up to the plate and do something for the people of the northeast sector."

TransLink board chair and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said local residents and business owners have to let the provincial and federal governments know they want the line to go ahead, by lobbying for more funds.

"We're at a critical decision phase as to where we go in the future," Brodie said.

Corrigan, meanwhile, said the federal government won't do anything unless the province makes a commitment.

The Burnaby mayor also took a final jab at the board's decision to OK the $16 million for detailed design work.

"I can't go on and support spending more when it appears we're spending good money after bad," he said.

At a news conference on Oct. 12, Plewes and Brodie told reporters the $400-million funding gap must be filled within the next six months, or the project will not go ahead.

published on 10/20/2006

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