Transportation Plebiscite: The plan is the problem

Transit plebiscite vote was a rejection of TransLink’s plan

Look at more affordable transportation options to cover more of the region is needed

By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun  July 13, 2015

At $40 million per km, light rail is more affordable than the $250 million per km cost of subways, some say. Photograph by: Richard Bergeron


The 62 per cent No vote result in the transit plebiscite was not simply a rejection of the sales tax or a renunciation of TransLink; it was, more important, a rejection of the plan generally.

Improvements to Lower Mainland transit is an urgent requirement. We need to learn from this plebiscite and establish a supportable plan with a funding model.

The areas of the region with the highest No vote are those that would benefit the least and also have the greatest transit infrastructure deficit.

The plan was also rejected in Vancouver. Although it had the biggest ticket item, the Broadway subway, putting most of the resources into only one corridor, with the huge tower development that would follow, is a mistaken direction that needs to be reconsidered.

Rather than a few mega-project corridors, we need to look at the transit network as a whole. If the transit resources were more broadly distributed using more affordable technology, benefits would be achieved throughout the region.

The city of Vancouver was initially planned and built before general use of the automobile. It was laid out as a transit-oriented city, having everyone within a five- to 10-minute walk of an arterial to access transit.

Improving service on all arterial routes would achieve much broader benefits at a significantly lower cost. The most cost-effective electric technology is the trolley bus. Most of the infrastructure exists already in the city. It could be expanded and improved as a clean, quiet transit system. Some areas would also support streetcars since the city was originally designed for streetcars.

There should also be interurban routes to the suburbs, as in the early pre-automobile days. Many of the rail rights of way still exist.

Comparing costs:

  • Subways are $250 million per km;
  • Streetcars and light rail are $40 million per km; and
  • Electric trolley buses only $1 million per km plus additional double articulated buses at $1 million each.

The more affordable options could cover more of the region at a fraction of the cost.

The more affordable options also tend to have negligible negative effects on established neighbourhoods. Part of the public pushback is the idea of putting towers at every station. This may be appropriate downtown, but planning Metrotown-scale development through neighbourhoods such as Kitsilano and Point Grey is a non-starter.

Even if the Broadway subway funding had been approved, it would not have been built for decades. However, the immediate up-zoning that allows increases in what could be built along the Broadway corridor would have added to congestion. The proposed tower development is the most problematic part of the plan.

This scale of development is also unnecessary to meet growth projections. Vancouver city council recently accepted a staff report that included a Coriolis Consultants report stating: “The city has sufficient capacity in existing zoning and approved community plans to accommodate over 20 years of supply at the recent pace of residential development.” It further says little of the rezonings since 2009 have been built out to date.

That report only includes rezoning to 2013. So all the rezoning to date, the current planning processes underway (for example, Grandview community plan or Jericho), as well as up-zoning on the Broadway corridor if it is approved, would be over the existing zoned capacity calculated in the report. The premise that more up-zoning is required for supply to meet regional obligations for growth is false, according to the Coriolis report.

Perhaps it is time to ensure there is enough electric transit capacity to support what we already have zoned rather than planning for more development than is sustainable.

Using transit technology that is more affordable can benefit the region as a whole and therefore gain broader support for the plan. Our existing SkyTrain lines need investment and upgrades which should be funded before new expensive subway lines are added.

For funding models, the mayors are correct in demanding the province fulfil its obligations to fund transit rather than downloading the expense to the civic level. Property taxes and development fees should be taken off the table as transit funding sources. Carbon taxes and gas taxes make the most sense.

TransLink governance needs to be returned to the regional level, as it was before its reorganization in the early 2000s into the dysfunctional and undemocratic mess it has become. Then it will need to be properly and fully funded by the province, based on a more realistic plan to service the region with clean and affordable electric technology.

It is time to create a transit plan and funding model that is democratic, affordable and popularly supported.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing & properties department and for BC Housing.


Response Letters to the Editor:

July 18, 2015

Correct choice made in transit plebiscite

Re: Vote was a rejection of transit plan; New direction needed, Issues and Ideas, July 13.

Thank you Elizabeth Murphy. Spot on. I believe there may be a vacant chair at TransLink for your kind of insight and foresight.

Christopher Hindson, Delta

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