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Feb 1,2008 Tri City News

It's faster and will attract more riders.

But the SkyTrain-like technology the province has chosen for the Evergreen Line to the Tri-Cities is also expensive and depends on the federal government pitching in to pay.

And it depends on residents making their voices heard on the choice of route.

B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced Friday that automated light rapid transit (ALRT), not light-rail transit (LRT), is the chosen technology for the Evergreen Line.

But it will be 45 days before a route will be confirmed, although a business case suggests a Port Moody option has a slight edge over a southern route along Lougheed Highway, in front of Riverview, because of development in that city.

Falcon announced the technology switch at a press conference in Vancouver where he was flanked by Tri-City mayors, MLAs and Conservative MP James Moore.

Ballooning costs for an LRT Evergreen Line, estimated at $1.2 billion, made SkyTrain, estimated at $1.4 billion, the better choice because it would attract more than twice as many riders and be twice as fast, Falcon said.

He estimated it would take 12.6 minutes to get from Coquitlam to Burnaby with a SkyTrain-like system, which would be separated from road traffic, compared to 23.6 minutes on light rail, which would run at street level, next to traffic.

"Those are two very compelling statistics," Falcon said of the quicker time and ridership.

Community input will be sought to finalize the route and a decision should be made in 45 days to enable the project to go forward.

But Falcon admitted he still has to convince the federal government to contribute its share of the costs. A $600-million funding gap remains even though TransLink is contributing $400 million and the province is promising $410 million.

He predicted the federal government will match the province's contribution and the private sector will come up with the rest with equity, likely through a private/public partnership arranged through Partnerships BC, which is also vetting the project.

MP James Moore called the technology choice a "big step forward," and said a SkyTrain-style system was "the right technology at the right time."

"We're now looking for feedback in the next 45 days from Tri-City residents," Moore said, adding that the final route choice will "drive some of the cost questions."

Although SkyTrain immediately comes to mind in discussions about advanced or automated light rapid transit, Falcon said the Bombardier-built SkyTrain wouldn't necessary be the technology running through the northeast by 2014.

"There's multiple technologies that will achieve the same thing," he said, noting the new system will connect to a spur at Lougheed Station in Burnaby, creating efficiencies that LRT could not match.

The transportation minister said the business case prepared by the province with the support of TransLink raised other issues as well. For example, LRT would have had to be grade-separated for nearly half (40%) of the route, including a tunnel under Clarke hill, which made it almost as expensive as a SkyTrain-like system.

Keeping the Port Moody route is dependent on that city's support.

However, Falcon said instead of running along St. Johns, an ALRT line would run at grade along the CP Rail line, an option that he said was considered some years ago and which the council of the day was comfortable with.

Providing some background to the decision, Falcon said LRT was chosen originally as a cost-saving measure because TransLink had a limited $800-million budget.

"That pushed you into the light rail option. It didn't really allow for the SkyTrain option," he said.

TransLink CEO Pat Jacobsen said the transportation authority supports the choice of technology and will look into how the line could generate some private equity to fill in the funding gap, while fares will cover operating costs, like they do on the rest of the SkyTrain line.

As for the 2014 opening date, Falcon said it is reasonable. He expects the federal government time to analyse the business case and make a funding commitment soon, making it possible to line up a contractor and technology provider as soon as this fall.

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