The possibility of an underground Broadway SkyTrain all the way to UBC has been in the news again lately. I so hope that this does not come to pass. Let me explain why.
First, let’s talk briefly about some of the terminology. LRT, or light rapid transit, is at-grade rapid transit typically on rail. Grade-separated LRT is LRT done underground or raised overhead. If it is grade separated, it doesn’t need to be concerned with intersections and other traffic flow, and can therefore be automated.
In days gone by, grade-separated LRT was referred to as ALRT or automated light rapid transit. In Vancouver, ALRT is now commonly referred to as SkyTrain. Without the need to stop for traffic, travel times are slightly faster with SkyTrain than with at-grade, conventional LRT.
Rapid bus is sometimes referred to as LRT on wheels. With rapid bus, busses have a dedicated bus lane and a device onboard to signal upcoming green lights so the bus has the right-of-way at any intersection. No red lights to wait for. Its third and last feature is pre-paid boarding, which shortens boarding time.
Now that we have the definitions out of the way, let’s look backward in time to when I was on city council and we were debating what mode of transit should be used to connect the Richmond airport with downtown Vancouver in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The conventional wisdom at the time was to go with underground SkyTrain at a projected cost of $1.8 billion. I still remember my fellow councillor, Fred Bass, asking staff how much a rapid bus option would cost. The answer was approximately 20 percent of the underground SkyTrain, or about $300 million. Councillor Bass then asked for an estimate of the comparable travel time. Underground SkyTrain would only beat the rapid bus option by about three minutes from the airport to downtown!
But the final and, perhaps, most important question, Councillor Bass asked was to compare ridership estimates. Due to the slightly longer travel, rapid buses’ estimated ridership would be approximately 80% of an underground Skytrain option.
Clearly, rapid bus was the preferred option if one used a cost-benefit analysis. For only 20% of the cost of SkyTrain one would obtain 85% of SkyTrain’s estimated ridership. More importantly, the cost savings of approximately $1.5 billion — 80% of SkyTrain’s cost — could have been used to make public transit in all of Metro Vancouver free for all other modes, in perpetuity: buses, SeaBuses, West Coast Express, and all other SkyTrain routes, including the Expo line.
Alternatively, the cost savings could have been used to provide a rapid-bus solution on all major arteries in metro Vancouver.
An excellent Tyee article, by distinguished UBC professor Patrick Condon, points out that the cost per kilometer of the underground Broadway SkyTrain to UBC is now estimated at $490 million per kilometre, for a total of $2.83 billion — and that’s for only about 5.8 kilometres of new line. Just as bad, it will drive the construction of yet more unaffordable condos.
By comparison, for only $50 million per kilometre — or about 1/10 the cost! — we could implement at-grade LRT, not just for the UBC extension from Arbutus, but for the entire Millennium line expansion, which is now estimated to cost a whopping $7 billion. In that case, the cost savings of 90% would equal about $6.3 billion. With such a huge amount of freed-up money we could implement at-grade LRT on every major street in Vancouver. Think of how much that would do to help the average resident and make Vancouver truly the greenest city on Earth.
Please note: I’m sorry for the error, but some of the figures were wrong in the last two paragraphs of this blog. They were corrected Feb. 13.
Patrick Condon: Am I the Last Voice against SkyTrain to UBC?