Translink will soon be making its decision on building a rapid transit line along Broadway from Commercial to UBC. This week the City of Vancouver came out in favour of using underground “SkyTrain” technology. However, Translink’s own estimate put the price tag of an underground train at $3 billion, nearly three times their $1.1 billion estimate for using at-grade light rail transit (LRT). If we take Translink’s numbers at face value, for the price of one underground line we could have three light rail lines; for example, in addition to Broadway, there could be a line along 4th Avenue from Clark to UBC and one along Arbutus from Kits Beach to Southlands.
But it could be that Translink’s consultants have drastically overestimated the cost of light rail. This week Kathryn Mandell and Patrick Condon argued persuasively that the true cost of the light rail option is likely closer to $360 million than it is to Translink’s estimate of $1.1 billion. If so, Translink could build not just 3, but 8 light rail lines for the price of 1 underground line. After building the three lines mentioned above, we could build 5 more! In this paradise scenario, the city would be traversed with rapid transit lines, more people would get out of their cars, and ridership would skyrocket. If you combine this with my ideas for a universal bus pass, I believe car usage in Vancouver would become one of the lowest in the world for a city its size.
So then why this week did the City of Vancouver argue in favour of the more expensive option? Let’s take a look at a couple of the stated reasons.
First, head transportation planner Jerry Dobrovolny said that an at-grade train would require unacceptable reconstruction of the streets and sidewalks and cutting down the trees. But is it really impossible to build light rail without such a disturbance? As Mandell & Condon mentions, Portland’s light rail “Max” did not require such reconstruction.
Second, City manager, Penny Ballem, attempting to argue that the underground Skytrain option would be cheaper than at-grade LRT pointed to the higher annual operating costs of at-grade LRT, for example, drivers’ salaries and benefits. While it is true that at-grade LRT’s annual operating costs are higher than those of the driverless underground Skytrain, in order to do a true cost comparison, we must dig a little deeper. We must know how much higher. Penny Ballem provided no figures for the annual costs. Without these figures it is impossible to know whether or not the higher annual operating costs of at-grade LRT are so much higher that they offset its much lower capital cost. I point this out because every at-grade LRT system I have looked at is cheaper than underground Skytrain even after taking into account its higher annual operating coasts.
It sounds to me like the City of Vancouver first made up its mind, then made up facts to support its predetermined conclusion. It is often the case with large scale public works projects that ruling parties, like Vision Vancouver, are in constant conversation with friendly companies hoping to win large contracts. The bid process is not truly competitive if the decision to go with a particular mode of transit has been made before the RFP [Request for Proposal] is issued. This is particularly true if underground Skytrain is the chosen mode as it’s a proprietary technology – only one company, Bombardier, owns this technology. With only one bidder, there is no opportunity to use the RFP to get competitive bids.
With this in mind, I have a suggestion. If the City of Vancouver and Translink want to prove that they have not already made up their minds about who will win the contract, then when they send out their RFPs for the Broadway-line, they should not stipulate just one mode of technology. The RFP can lay out the goals for ridership, speed, and so on. The bidders will provide their business cases, whether for Skytrain, light rail, or rapid bus.
Those submitting at-grade LRT bids would have the opportunity to suggest creative ways to address the problems raised by Jerry Dobrovolny, such as how to reduce disturbance and reconstruction above ground, how to avoid cutting down trees, etc. This would allow designers to be creative, instead of saying “no” to light rail from the start.
Opening up the RFP would also test Translink’s cost estimate for light rail (or SkyTrain for that matter). If proposals come in at closer to Mandell & Condon ‘s $360 million estimate, then indeed Translink can look at building 8 transit lines instead of just 1!