$2-billion Canada Line ready to roll

Vancouver Sun

By Kelly Sinoski

Some Metro mayors tried to kill it. Cambie merchants cursed it. But after four turbulent years of messy construction and controversy, the $2-billion Canada Line will open its doors to the public.

The new rapid transit line — touted as equivalent to a 10-lane freeway — is expected to take 200,000 one-way automobile trips off the road system each day and create a corridor for future development stretching 19 kilometres along Cambie, across the Fraser River and into Richmond. (ED: To-date there’s no proof of this claim).

The new line will give transit users faster and more reliable service, while tourists can avoid gridlocked streets to reach the airport within 26 minutes from downtown Vancouver and drivers will see fewer buses and cars clogging up major arterial roads.

Cyclists will have another alternative crossing of the Fraser, on Metro Vancouver’s first separate pedestrian-cyclist bridge.

“[The Canada Line] is going to have the capacity to move a very large number of people in a reliable travel time,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said.

“When it has its own right of way, it’s not subject to traffic congestion.”

Some 6,000 people an hour are expected to ride the Canada Line on opening day Monday, when passengers can ride for free between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m.

But it remains to be seen if commuters will continue to flock to the Canada Line, and when it will reach TransLink’s forecast 100,000 passengers a day.

That goal is now predicted to be reached in 2013, which means taxpayers will have to subsidize the rapid transit line for at least four years.

TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast said the line will cost the transportation authority about $70 million next year in debt servicing and operations.

But he added that the Canada Line — the most expensive infrastructure project built in B.C. — will bring improvements to Metro Vancouver’s transit system.

Bus riders south of the Fraser, for instance, will no longer have to sit in gridlock on Granville or Oak Street. Their buses will be rerouted to Bridgeport Station on the Canada Line in Richmond rather than going all the way downtown.

Other routes, such as the 98 B-Line, which now runs between downtown Vancouver via Granville Street to Richmond Centre Mall, will be cancelled to funnel more passengers onto the Canada Line.

This will free up more buses for more frequent service among south Surrey, Delta, White Rock and Richmond, Hardie said. The changes will come into effect on Sept. 7.

“We will not have to push buses down congested routes,” Prendergast said. “People will have more flexibility in terms of when they can catch a bus.”

The new line should also reduce car traffic, at least in the short term.

Commuting motorists can leave their vehicles at a 1,200-space park-and-ride near Bridgeport for the 18-minute train ride into Vancouver.

But some commuters argue TransLink is pushing the Canada Line at their expense.

Mary Ann Moffat-Meder collected 6,000 signatures from south Surrey and White Rock residents upset over plans to stop the 351 bus at Bridgeport.

Moffat-Meder, who lives in south Granville but visits her 80-year-old aunt in White Rock a few times a week, said she will now have to make three transfers to get to White Rock.

“I just don’t think it’s going to work,” she said. “They really need to look at an express bus in the mornings and evenings from White Rock.”

White Rock resident Christina Ego said her 15-year-old daughter would now have to take four buses to visit her friend in Vancouver.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous what they expect people to do,” Ego said. “No one [from here] is going to Richmond, no one cares. People like to get on the bus and go.”

Hardie concedes some people are upset with the route changes, but said it comes down to efficiencies and most of the existing bus routes aren’t fully subscribed.

“There’s not a really large number of them compared to the people who will be able to make the transition to Canada Line with relative ease,” he said.

Besides getting more people on transit, the Canada Line carries another distinction: It makes Vancouver the first city in Canada to have a rapid transit line to the airport.

That will put Vancouver on the map and on par with Hong Kong and London.

“It’ll change the face of the city,” said Jane Bird, CEO of Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc.”It’s a real opportunity for people to see Vancouver in a different way when they arrive at the airport.”

Prendergast said he expects the line to the airport will be well used by businesspeople, but notes some will still likely drive or take a taxi to catch a plane because “it’s hard to ask a family with three kids and suitcases in tow to take the Canada Line.”

Despite its rah-rah boosters, the Canada Line didn’t always top the popularity polls.

Indeed, when the first rough outlines of the concept were released in February 2004, the line — then known as the RAV Line (Richmond-Airport-Vancouver) — was second on TransLink’s priority list behind the proposed Evergreen Line linking Coquitlam, Port Moody and Burnaby.

That didn’t bode well for mayors and councillors in the northeast sector of Metro, who feared the project — pushed by the Liberal government to open before the 2010 Winter Olympics — would trump their rapid transit line.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan complained the proposed new line was too expensive and would leave Metro taxpayers holding the bag on cost overruns.

They were at least partly right. But despite at least three attempts to kill the Canada Line, the project wouldn’t die.

The first attempt to spike the project came in late February 2004 when Greater Vancouver Regional District directors narrowly voted in favour of TransLink’s $4-billion, 10-year capital plan, which included the rapid transit line.

After the vote, which followed a tense nine-hour debate, former Vancouver councillor Fred Bass claimed the Canada Line would “suck up huge amounts of money and rob the region of the buses it should have.”

Shortly afterward, two consortiums, one led by SkyTrain builder Bombardier Inc., and the other by SNC-Lavalin Inc., were short-listed to build the Canada Line. Their bids were kept secret. Both proposed underground tunnels through Vancouver and elevated guideways in Richmond.

Funding was pledged by the federal government, which offered $450 million, while the B.C. government, the Vancouver International Airport Authority, and TransLink agreed to pay $300 million apiece.

The winning private-sector partner, which would build, operate and maintain the line for 35 years, would provide the remaining $200 million.

But a month later, the project was again in jeopardy after it was revealed that bids by both consortiums carried price tags significantly higher than the $1.35 billion available for the project.

This led TransLink to kill the rapid transit project as it stood. The cash-strapped TransLink board asked its staff to come up with cheaper options — such as light rail — for building a line to the airport plus a second rapid transit line in the northeast.

The feds said their $450 million was still available. But then-B.C. transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said he would withdraw the province’s $300 million if the Canada Line as envisioned was scuttled.

His rationale: Any alternative to the Canada Line could not be completed before the 2010 Olympics. A few days later, the airport fell in line with the province, withdrawing its funding.

This prompted a behind-the-scenes battle to salvage the line by convincing opposing TransLink directors to reconsider their “no” votes.

Falcon announced B.C. would keep its $300-million commitment to the line on the table for 30 days. Business groups begged TransLink to reconsider.

But the sweeteners — and the threats — didn’t work.

Premier Gordon Campbell then jumped into the fray, saying the province would take over the transit line at no additional risk to TransLink. He also offered another $170 million for the Evergreen Line.

TransLink vetoed the offer.

But it was a report from Vancouver city council saying that a surface light-rapid-transit line wouldn’t work in downtown Vancouver that finally swung the vote in favour of the RAV/Canada Line.

At the same time, the TransLink board approved a light-rail transit line for the northeast corridor — a key condition for some northeast mayors — intending it also to be built before 2010.

Five years later, the ground hasn’t even been broken on the project.

“Let’s look at the reality of the facts. The reason the Canada Line was built was because of federal money, airport money and provincial money,” Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini said in an interview. “The Canada Line was the No. 2 priority. But we were told if we didn’t build [the Canada Line] the money [for the Evergreen Line] would not be there.”

So the Canada Line was built. But the money for the Evergreen Line still isn’t there.

ANNUAL SHORTFALL

Some mayors now think the chances of them ever seeing the Evergreen Line are slim as TransLink struggles to stay afloat as it faces a $150-million annual revenue shortfall just to maintain operations, let alone build new projects.

Prendergast said the line will remain on hold unless TransLink can raise $450 million a year. He said the system cannot be expanded at the expense of keeping it in good repair.

“We’d love to have the Evergreen Line built; it’s going to be an important piece of the system but until we get the money, we can’t do it,” he said.

TransLink’s financial woes are in part due to the Canada Line.

During the raucous debates of 2004, the project costs kept mounting. By November 2004, rising steel and concrete prices pushed the overall bid by “preferred bidder” SNC-Lavalin to $343 million over budget at $1.76 billion.

The Canada Line again faced a do-or-die scenario as TransLink prepared to vote on the best and final offer by SNC Lavalin.

It passed.

But the controversy still hovered like a black cloud.

MORE CUT-AND-COVER

In January 2005, it was revealed that construction of the rapid transit line would involve far more cut-and-cover tunnel than expected. A four-block strip along Granville Street and a stretch along Cambie from Second Avenue to 63rd would be dug up, meaning more excavated streets, construction noise and dust.

Canada Line’s Bird claimed at the time that “disruptions will be minimal.” Construction along most of Cambie would take just three to six months, she promised.

Instead, it lasted years. Some businesses along Cambie closed or moved. Others struggled to survive.

Susan Heyes, who owned Hazel and Co. Maternity at Cambie and 16th, lost $900,000 between the fall of 2005 and 2008, when she relocated to Main Street.

She decided to sue, single-handedly battling three levels of government for compensation.

Earlier this year she was awarded $600,000 in damages against TransLink, Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc. and InTransitBC, which were found jointly liable for causing a nuisance.

She was given her compensation cheque this week.

“You have no idea how long this has been,” she said. “I’m really beside myself.”

Although she won her case, Heyes notes the fight isn’t over. Adequate compensation must be factored into any plan, she said, and projects that “devastate people’s very livelihoods” should not proceed.

TransLink, InTransitBC and Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc. have appealed her win. They are also facing a class-action suit by the Cambie Merchants’ Business Association.

Bird acknowledged this week the public-private partners on the Canada Line didn’t fully anticipate the reaction from Cambie merchants, but defended the decisions that were made.

Cambie was the best place for the line, she said, because it was already congested with heavy traffic. The bidder was experienced and efficient.

“There’s no question that we knew when we were constructing something this big down one of the busiest corridors we were going to make some people unhappy,” Bird said. “It’s the cloud on the project, it’s the one thing we’re not really happy about.”

Despite the “highs and lows” over the past four years, Bird pointed out the Canada Line was finished three and a half months ahead of schedule and on budget. Given the complexity of the project, she said, SNC-Lavalin did “an extraordinary job.”

GETTING THE RIGHT HEIGHT

The project involved two tunnels, an “extradosed bridge” — a hybrid between cable-stayed and girder bridges that is high enough to let marine traffic pass underneath, but low enough not to interfere with airport traffic — and the adjoining pedestrian-cyclist bridge. “We absolutely nailed it,” Bird said. “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Trasolini sees another silver lining now that the Canada Line is built: The province can focus on the Evergreen Line.

“I’m convinced the Evergreen Line is going to be built,” he said. “It’s just a question of how they’re going to do it and how they’re going to get the funding. I don’t think the province can back out now.”

ksinoski@vancouversun.com

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