SkyTrain, or light rail? Election may decide

Could light rail make a renaissance? goh iromoto photo illustration/the ubyssey

The future of Vancouver transit: Could light rail make a renaissance? goh iromoto photo illustration/the ubyssey


by Marie-Helene Westgate
News Writer

Monday, October 20th, 2008

It’s official: Vancouver needs more transit. Taxpayers want out of their cars and onto the tracks, to give up their seats to those in need, to stand up for the rush hour commute when every single bus, SkyTrain and SeaBus is packed. Why then is there all this controversy over the proposed SkyTrain extension from Broadway station to the University of British Columbia? If anyone needs greater public transit access, it’s those at university: our future entrepreneurs and taxpayers.

TransLink communications liaison Ken Hardie sees the need. “An extension of the Millenium Line along the Broadway corridor was identified as a regional priority in the Livable Region Strategic Plan,” he says. TransLink has known this since the mid 1990s.

What is harder to see are the alternatives: not to driving, but to the SkyTrain expansion—the option being championed by many as the single, gleaming solution to Vancouver’s increasingly congested thoroughfares.

In stark contrast, UBC professor Patrick Condon conducted a study of Portland, Oregon, and other European cities’ light rail transit systems. The study’s findings challenge the assumption that transit necessarily has to mean a high-speed train.

Although any increase in transit use means less greenhouse emissions and a good, green face for global neighbors to see as the Olympics approach, Condon proposes greener solutions within the realm of public transit systems. The SkyTrain, he argues, is a dated technology for the 21st century. Harkening residents back to a pre-SkyTrain era, Condon’s study demonstrates that, “the money needed for one 12km subway line would be more than enough to rebuild and substantially expand the region’s entire historic streetcar system.”

The SkyTrain project’s price tag currently reads $2.8 billion. It covers a 12km expanse from Broadway and Commercial to UBC. The city of Vancouver was built along trolley lines, some dating as far back as 1890. TransLink foresees a 2020 completion date, but Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson is concerned with timeliness.
“I strongly believe we need more rapid transit access out to UBC,” he says. “We need to be helping people who are getting passed up by B-Lines right now.”

His chief opponent, Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Peter Ladner, a fourth generation British Columbian (the town of Ladner was named after his grandfather) and a commuter cyclist, runner, skier and kayaker agrees. “Any increase in transportation choices in the city is exactly what I would like to see,” he says, adding that a rapid transit line to UBC would take priority over a streetcar network.

TransLink CEO Doug Kelsey seconds that notion. He claims adding light rail transit to the grid would take too long and would prefer permanent plans over pilot projects. “Light rail,” he states, “will have to earn its right into the overall network.”

What Condon’s study urges is just that. But how does a new idea “earn its way?” How does light rail bring attention to itself when residents are satisfied to hear representatives claim support for transit increase, regardless of whether the infrastructure in question accommodates high speed expansions or light rail alternatives? And after all the politicians and TransLink officials have said their piece, what do UBC students think?

UBC’s only audible voice for students is VP External Stefanie Ratjen, who works as a liaison between students and external bodies dealing in issues like elections and public transit. She explains that the SkyTrain plan is about to come under review and that no final decision has been made by student government about whether SkyTrain or light rail will better serve students. While her position remains open, Ratjen declines the opportunity to spout her own platform.

“My job is to be an advocate for students to levels of government,” she says. “Not the other way around.”

What Ratjen pushes, rather, is an increase in student opinion on the matter of SkyTrain expansion and adjacent issues like the contested underground UBC bus loop—an endeavour that intends not to increase transit numbers but rather to rebuild the current loop underground and incorporate shops and other amenities into the infrastructure so students can spend their money.

Ratjen’s main concern is TransLink’s foray into property development and the potential repercussions this might have on progress for student transit on and off campus. She urges more jurisdiction regarding who can buy land around SkyTrain stations, for example, and addressing incentives that inform development. Politicians and officials urge Vancouver residents to support transit development while smiling for the cameras. Behind the scenes, critical minds like Ratjen and Condon ask residents to question what the options truly are. As it stands, it won’t be until after the municipal elections next month when some clarity is given to the future of transit for both Vancouver and UBC.

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