Politicians Stay Silent on RAV "Pork Barrel"

The Straight

Transit groups say they want federal candidates to make an election issue out of the Liberals’ support for the Richmond/Airport/Vancouver Rapid Transit project.

The federal Liberals have already announced a $450-million contribution to the proposed RAV line, which includes a tunnel underneath Cambie Street and downtown Vancouver.

On May 7, the TransLink board voted 7-5 to kill the $1.7-billion RAV project, but the Vancouver Board of Trade and other business groups have launched a campaign to revive it.

Several citizens groups, including the Bus Riders Union and the Light Rail Committee, have condemned the RAV line as a colossal waste of public funds.

Bus Riders Union spokesperson Jennifer Efting told the Georgia Straight that she thinks all levels of government should focus instead on improving bus service. She claimed, however, that the corporate sector prefers SkyTrain extensions, which benefit construction companies and owners of real estate.

“There’s tons of focus on what the Vancouver Board of Trade thinks, even though they never probably ride the bus,” Efting said. “And the mother of two who has to ride the bus every day is never consulted.”

Light Rail Committee spokesperson Malcolm Johnston told the Straight there is no need to build an expensive tunnel or elevated concrete guideways. He claimed that a modern street-level light-rail line would cost far less money and attract more riders.

“Here we have the government spending three times as much for a prestige rapid-transit line that they can cut ribbons in front of,” Johnston said. “All these glitzy rapid-transit systems in the air, like SkyTrain, haven’t attracted motorists from the car.”

Johnston said Lower Mainland voters should ask questions about this at all-candidates meetings leading up to the June 28 federal election. “It’s a huge issue,” he said.

TransLink’s three-year strategy, which includes the RAV project, calls for a six-percent hike in transit fares next year. Homeowners face a $20 tax increase for every $100,000 in assessed value to pay for TransLink’s three-year plan.

Meanwhile, Canada’s preeminent urban-affairs commentator, Jane Jacobs, recently claimed that the RAV project is a “black hole” that will consume limited transit funds needed in other areas.

Jacobs, author of the just-published Dark Age Ahead (Random House Canada, $29.95) and six other books, told a UBC audience on May 19 that the RAV line is a “pork barrel” designed to benefit Bombardier Inc.

The Montreal-based transportation multinational is the sole supplier of SkyTrain systems.

“The senior governments are very–this is the big danger–very apt to grant money for something that is going to be a good pork barrel for Bombardier,” Jacobs said, generating loud applause from the lecture crowd. “I don’t know exactly why, except that they think it pleases Quebec. I don’t know that it does please Quebec. But whether it does or not, it is not a good reason for settling on a certain kind of transit without experimenting, without knowing if this is the most economical and, especially, is this the right route.”

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Stephen Harper has often urged voters to defeat the Liberals in order to stamp out “waste, mismanagement, and corruption”.

Harper has been silent about the $450-million federal contribution to the RAV line, which is promoted by some of the same businesspeople backing his party.

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton has also never publicly criticized the plan to build a tunnel underneath Cambie Street, even though this would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of the rapid-transit line.

Vancouver Quadra Green party candidate Doug Warkentin is one of the few federal candidates who has criticized the RAV project.

Almost a year ago, Warkentin said in a constituency news release that the RAV line was “a huge expenditure of tax dollars on an incredibly wasteful subway, a project that cannot be justified either by public transportation priorities or by economics”.

At the time, Warkentin urged Ottawa to use its $450 million to provide TransLink with a perpetual annual payment of $40 million, which could reduce transit fares and improve late-night bus service.

The NDP candidate in the riding, David Askew, has also publicly stated his opposition to the RAV line because of the cost and because it’s proposed as a public-private partnership.

Warkentin and Askew are competing against Liberal Public Works Minister Stephen Owen, who announced in May that the federal contribution to the RAV line will be increased from $300 million to $450 million.

Jacobs told the UBC audience that traffic engineers have traditionally proposed rapid-transit lines where bus routes were most heavily used. Depending on transit ridership, she said, they would recommend a
surface-level light-rail system or a more expensive subway system.

Jacobs said that this doesn’t always occur anymore. “There has been very sad experience in the last generation of ill-planned routes, transit routes,” she said. “This is part of the onset, the genuine onset of a genuine dark age. Traffic engineers have forgotten how to plan successful routes.”

In Vancouver, the former Civic Non-Partisan Association­ controlled city council chose the Cambie Street route after hundreds of Arbutus corridor­ area residents converged on city hall to oppose rapid transit running through their neighbourhood on the CP line.

These residents live in Owen’s west-side riding, which does not extend east of Oak Street.

Jacobs told the UBC audience that business interests other than Bombardier also profit from “politically determined” transit lines. In Toronto, she said, casino operators have been some of the biggest beneficiaries.

“It really isn’t about transit,” Jacobs said. “It’s about…subsidizing infrastructure that can be used by junkets for gamblers. I’m not against gambling, but I don’t think this is a proper use of transit funds.”

Next month in Richmond, Great Canadian Gaming Corp., will open a new casino resort with up to 950 slot machines. It is across the street from the RAV line’s proposed Bridgeport station.

The Bridgeport station would link the main line to Richmond with the spur line to the airport. It’s also the destination for 16 bus routes.

Johnston of the Light Rail Committee said he thinks the Bridgeport station should be renamed. “It’s Casino Junction,” he quipped.



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