No one should consider the UBC subway a done deal
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, February 24, 2019
What $7 billion buys in modern surface tram at $50 million per km. rather than only the Broadway subway from VCC to UBC. For illustrative purposes only. Illustration by Kathryn Mandell. (UBC Prof. Patrick Condon)_____________________________________________________________
Although TransLink’s Mayors’ Council has approved preliminary planning for the extension of the Broadway subway to the University of B.C. (the BS-Line), this is far from a done deal. The unfolding corruption scandal at SNC-Lavalin and the company’s proprietary role in SkyTrain technology puts this Millennium Line extension in question. The underlying assumptions that have been used to justify the subway also do not add up, regarding projections of growth, ridership or technology performance of various options.
The recommendations for a SkyTrain subway to UBC are based on a report that updates the 2012 SNC-Lavalin/Steer Davies Gleave report. Since SNC-Lavalin is the main supplier of SkyTrain throughout the region, it is not surprising SkyTrain was their recommendation, and since the current update is based on the 2012 report, it would come to the same conclusion again.
The Expo and Millennium Lines are a proprietary unconventional railway, of which the technical patents are owned by Bombardier and the engineering patents owned by SNC-Lavalin.
“Only seven lines have been built in almost 40 years, with only three seriously used for urban transport. Why is Metro Vancouver now the only region in the world that continues to build with SkyTrain?” asks Malcolm Johnson of the group Rail for the Valley.
Given SNC-Lavalin’s proprietary rights for SkyTrain technology and its ongoing criminal prosecution for fraud and corruption that could result in a ban from bidding on government projects in Canada, the mayors requested confirmation that other companies beside SNC-Lavalin could competitively provide SkyTrain technology.
SNC-Lavalin is already banned from bidding on Word Bank projects due to corruption, and Bombardier is also being investigated.
There also are the questionable underlying assumptions of growth and ridership projections used to justify a SkyTrain subway.
Simple solutions that could be implemented immediately have been avoided to reinforce the narrative that a subway on Broadway is the only option to serve ridership to UBC and that the system is already at capacity. Commuters have been held hostage for over a decade to justify this scheme.
Alternate routes such as along Fourth Ave. have been under-served while increased commuters from the opening of the Evergreen Line have been dumped on Broadway rather than diverted to other less-congested routes with express or expanded B-Line buses.
Also, the mode comparative costs have been biased to SkyTrain. UBC Professor Patrick Condon has shown how LRT tram systems throughout Europe and North America are built for under $50 million per kilometre, while the evaluation report vastly inflates costs to $282 million per kilometre.
The $4-billion SkyTrain subway 7.1-kilometre extension from Arbutus to UBC would be about $563 million per kilometre. Both LRT and subway estimates include a 30- to 50-per-cent contingency, even though the subway has much more risk of unknowns with underground streams and utilities to divert.
The whole 13-kilometre SkyTrain subway from VCC to UBC would be at least $7 billion. If LRT was used, the whole route could be continuously built without a transfer point for much less than the $2.8 billion already committed for the phase to Arbutus. However, that option is not part of the updated report.
If they proceed with the subway, it will be enormously disruptive and damaging to local businesses all along the route for years. Many business owners are already panicking, knowing that even with a bored tunnel there will be cut and cover at every station and for utilities. And it is still a possibility of a bait and switch like SNC-Lavalin did for Canada Line when approvals were for boring while the resulting contract was for cut and cover. There is a lot of money at stake.
Of course, the biggest money is in the development along the line. Development is really what this is all about.
But this anticipated development is not needed to meet growth and will mostly serve the global capital that will further undermine affordability. The subway extension from Arbutus to UBC is predicated on using development fees to help fund it. This will require large amounts of density bonusing for luxury condos at UBC, Jericho Lands, station areas and other sites, on top of rental development that is exempt from development fees.
So rather than development fees going to pay for civic amenities like replacement of community centre facilities at Jericho Hill, it will be going to pay for the provincial, federal and TransLink responsibilities of transit funding. This is an encroachment onto the municipal tax base. Already, TransLink is getting a regional property tax and development fee to pay for the subway’s first phase to Arbutus.
In October 2016, Green Vancouver Coun. Adriane Carr brought forward a motion, seconded by NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova, that opposed the use of development fees to fund transit. It was voted down by Vision. But now both incumbents and their parties (except for Coun. Colleen Hardwick) voted for the subway extension that included funding from development fees.
Vancouver city staff have confirmed that the number of projected new units is beyond that justified for projected population growth. And existing zoned capacity is already well beyond what is needed to meet projected growth to 2040. Yet the rush to rezone continues.
These policies go back to the failed EcoDensity policies of 2007. Former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan copyrighted the name and his then-director of planning, Brent Toderian, defined the program. After the 2008 election, when Sullivan and the NPA were wiped off council except for one seat, he said that he was a victim of density. But Vision, which promised to reconsider EcoDensity, just rebranded it with Toderian as the Greenest City.
Then Vision also approved the regional change from the Livable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy. This included regional designation of Frequent Transit Development Areas that Broadway, like Cambie, is destined to become if the subway is implemented.
From 2007, the city was warned that making density and growth a primary objective would lead to massive displacement. Demolition of existing affordable rentals, character/heritage houses, secondary suites, and small businesses, would be replaced with much more expensive new construction. And that has come to pass with an affordability crisis as predicted, that will be expanded with the Broadway subway, BS-Line, corridor planning currently underway.
Sullivan now is a provincial MLA as the B.C. Liberal critic for municipal affairs. He is proposing to take away municipal land-use authority on areas around transit to further expedite this tower development agenda. The B.C. budget makes reference to expediting delivery of development project approvals, so the NDP may be looking at encroaching on municipal land-use authority too.
All this just goes to show that bad ideas are not necessarily left or right politically and can continue through various regimes. Although Vision was wiped off council in the last election, without different directions to staff from the new council, we will continue to have more of the same.
But the Broadway subway is not a done deal yet and this can be turned around like the freeways and urban renewal schemes of the 1960s.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Monday February 25, 2019 – page A7
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2019 all rights reserved.