Olympic Village won't be the only shock

The Straight

The media went into overdrive after Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said the province should amend the Vancouver Charter to permit an additional $458 million of borrowing.

In a report to council on January 12, city manager Penny Ballem said this is necessary to complete the Olympic Village.

This is just the first of many shoes that will drop in connection with the cost of hosting the Winter Olympics.

In the past, provincial politicians have tried to downplay the connection between the 2010 Games and the costly expansion of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Here’s the reality: the centre was expanded to accommodate hordes of international media who will descend on Vancouver for the Olympics.

No other location was large enough or had sufficient technical capability.

The original price was $495 million. Now, it’s in the range of $870 million. That would pay for a whole lot of medical treatment.

Keep in mind that this expansion is nearing completion just as the world economy is going into a deep freeze. This is terrible news for the convention industry.

It’s also bad news for B.C. taxpayers, who can expect to subsidize this white elephant for the rest of their lifetimes (unless the province decides to convert all that contiguous floor space into a shiny new waterfront casino).

Then there’s the expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway, which will cost more than $600 million by the time it’s completed.

This was supposed to open up a lucrative new real-estate corridor, stimulating all sorts of economic activity.

In 2002, Vanoc chairman Jack Poole said this publicly, according to eyewitness Frank O’Brien, who reported his comments in the Western Investor.

Well, guess what happened? The housing market went into a freefall. That’s going to make it difficult to sell all those units.

The result will be an underutilized highway to a ski resort and some very stressed out property developers.

But the biggest Olympic hangover may be felt by Metro Vancouver transit riders.

TransLink has always denied that the $2-billion Canada Line to the airport and Richmond was an Olympic project.

However, Poole wrote a 2003 letter to Premier Gordon Campbell and then-prime minister Jean Chretien that suggested otherwise.

Poole bluntly stated that a rapid-transit line to the airport “has always been viewed as a valuable tool in the campaign to win the right to host the 2010 Winter Games”.

Urban-affairs writer Jane Jacobs once described the Canada Line as a “pork barrel” and “black hole” that will consume limited transit funds.

TransLink will reroute north-south bus routes to connect to the Canada Line in an attempt to boost ridership.

Merchants on north-south streets such as Fraser, Oak, and Granville will be shocked when they learn that they no longer have people using the bus to reach their stores.

Some might even cite this and ask for a break on property taxes.

But the biggest risk of all is if the Canada Line fails to attract more than 100,000 riders per day.

It will be a difficult challenge, given the cost of transit in this region and the percentage of households in Richmond that own cars.

If the line doesn’t generate sufficient ridership, TransLink will have to provide a whopping operating subsidy to the private operator.

How will that be financed? Probably by cutting back on bus service and jacking up fares.

Federal, provincial, and municipal politicians took a huge risk when they got behind the idea of Vancouver hosting the 2010 Games.

If these investments had occurred in tough economic times, they would have offset the impact of a slowdown.

However, the timing didn’t work out right. The economy was in good shape, so these expenditures in sports facilities, an Olympic Village, a convention-centre expansion, a rapid-transit line, and a highway project crowded out other investments, creating construction cost overruns and jacking up the price of housing.

Now as the economy is slowing down, there’s a greater need for public-works projects to stimulate the economy.

But because the politicians bet on the Olympics, there will be less money in the kitty to do this. The city could see its credit rating downgraded, which will lead to higher borrowing costs.

Over the longer term, that probably means a higher unemployment rate and less tax revenue.

The politicians gambled and lost. And the public will be ponying up for a generation to come.

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