The sky-high price of gullibility: the case against underground SkyTrain to UBC


At-grade Light Rapid Transit in France.

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.


The 99 B-Line rapid bus from Commercial Broadway to UBC carries over 17 million passengers annually. [Photo courtesy WP]

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.


Vancouver’s Skytrain is grade-separated LRT, with a sky-high price tag to match.

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.


Calgary’s at-grade LRT is windpowered, [Photo David Dodge,]

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.

Read more:

CBC: As transit expands, Metro Vancouver struggles to keep homes affordable

Patrick Condon: Am I the Last Voice against SkyTrain to UBC?

Tim Louis: Underground SkyTrain oxymoron puts Vancouver on the wrong track

Vancouver Tenants Union

This entry was posted in affordable housing, British Columbia, Broadway Corridor, COPE, developers, economy, fiscal responsibility, gentrification, LRT, Planning, Skytrain, sustainability, Transit, TransLink, transportation, UBC, Vancouver and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The sky-high price of gullibility: the case against underground SkyTrain to UBC

  1. Peter Finch says:

    One of the many elephants crowding the room is Environment.

    Concrete is NOT harmless. The making of and the extensive use of concrete has an enormous environmental footprint. It accounts for a significant amount of of North America’s total CO2 emissions.

    Not only that, concrete structures off-gas for years and, far from being permanent, will eventually have to be replaced.

    We need to start thinking about how our decisions impact our grandchildren’s world, not just our own.

    We need to connect the dots.

    CO2 tends to cling to the ground. It is found where most of the insect life on our planet is found. Our pollinators are in trouble, and beneficial insects of all kinds are disappearing rapidly.

    Again, we need to connect the dots.

    Building a subway is not only enormously wasteful and unnecessary, costing an estimated $ 563 MILLION / km, but beyond that scandallous price tag is also the environmental impact that so far NO ONE has clearly articulated.
    We have a new City Council, but it seems nearly as myopic as the last.

    Colleen Hardwick – Vancouver City Councillor, and Jean Swanson, City Councillor have both recognized that the 1950s spoke-and-hub development style with its characteristic clusters of pinnacles–will not solve either our housing or our transportation needs.

    I have no doubt that both will address the environmental impact of the subway as well.

    They are connecting the dots.

    No urban issue stands alone. It is irresponsible to support a subway just because you want it and think you need it.

    We need a public discourse in which all of the elephants in the room are acknowledged–and there are many more I haven’t yet mentioned.

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