For the first time, Metro Vancouver’s public transit authority has provided a glimpse of the costs and possible designs of the elevated SkyTrain and street-level light rail transit (LRT) options for the planned 16-km-long Fraser Highway rail rapid transit project from King George Station to Langley Centre.
Earlier today, TransLink released an independent report produced in 2017 by engineering firms Steer Davies Gleave and Hatch that compared both technology options. The internal report was kept under wraps from the public eye until this week.
Based on a construction start date in 2022, the report found that the SkyTrain option will cost $2.91 billion while the LRT option will cost $1.95 billion.
This creates a $965 million difference in cost that the provincial government and TransLink would have to make up for, if it were to pursue the SkyTrain option.
However, the public transit authority warns that it cannot flexibly divert the $1.65 billion secured for the controversial Surrey Newton-Guildford (SNG) LRT project towards advancing the Fraser Highway project into SkyTrain, as senior government funding is tied to specific projects.
Delays would also lead to a rise in project costs from inflation on the price of labour, materials, and property acquisitions.
“A change like this to the plan would mean re-starting the funding and approval process at the beginning, delaying new services and increasing costs,” TransLink spokesperson Jill Drews told Daily Hive.
“We have secured $1.65-billion to fully construct the SNG LRT project, none of which could be considered automatically available for another project.”
In a separate update to the Mayors’ Council last fall, Geoff Cross, the Vice-President of Planning and Policy for TransLink, wrote that the public transit authority is requesting the provincial government confirm LRT as the rapid transit technology choice for the Fraser Highway project.
Here is a breakdown of the preliminary findings of the two technology options, based on both the report and the update:
The $2.91 billion cost for the long-term SkyTrain option – a seamless, eastward extension of the existing Expo Line from King George Station – is up from the previous estimate in 2016 of $2.15 billion. Both figures include a highly generous 25% contingency for any unexpected costs that may arise.
It will take 22 minutes to travel the 16-km-long system, which would be entirely elevated with eight new stations located at 140 Street, 152 Street, 160 Street, 164 Street, 184 Street, 192 Parkway, Willowbrook, and Langley Centre.
Each station platform would follow the same length standard as the rest of the Expo and Millennium lines, with platforms built to a length of 82.5 metres.
“SkyTrain on Fraser Highway provided the greatest speed and reliability improvements for those travelling on that corridor, associated with grade segregation and removing the transfer penalty for rider,” reads the update.
“SkyTrain would provide the greatest improvements in operational safety and remove conflicts with other transport modes because of full grade-separation.”
In order to be able to operate the extension, a total of 55 cars – operating in 11 five-car train formations – would be purchased. To support the expanded train fleet, a five-acre site would be secured for a new standalone operations and maintenance centre (OMC) given that other facilities on the existing network cannot accommodate any further train numbers.
But TransLink does not believe the Fraser Highway extension warrants the capacity of a four- or five-car SkyTrain train, as it projects ridership demand will drop off east of Fleetwood.
At the same time, this new section of SkyTrain would still have to operate five-car trains due to the high demand on the rest of the line starting from Waterfront Station. Trains would operate seamlessly from Waterfront Station to Langley Centre.
“For the SkyTrain extension, the majority of demand would be between Fleetwood and King George station. Travel demand between Langley and 160 Street is well below the capacity afforded by a 4- or 5-car SkyTrain,” reads the update.
“Although SkyTrain is driverless, operating costs associated with vehicle propulsion and maintenance are linked to the vehicle kilometres traveled, and in the SkyTrain scenario, larger 5-car trains would have to be run between Surrey and Langley in order to integrate with the rest of the Expo Line. That is not the case for LRT, where capacity and frequency can be set to efficiently meet demands in the corridor.”
The annual operating cost estimate for the SkyTrain option is $25.6 million – about $7.7 million higher than the LRT option. However, this operating cost is completely offset by higher operating revenues generated by higher ridership compared to LRT.
In comparison, the cost of building the six-km-long, six-station underground Broadway extension of SkyTrain’s Millennium Line is pegged at $2.83 billion, but its ridership is estimated to be a staggering 140,000 boardings per day upon opening in 2025.
The LRT option cost $1.95 billion in the latest estimate, up from $1.64 billion over the previous year, including a 25% contingency.
Travel times between King George Station and Langley Centre over the 16-km-long route is estimated at between 31 minutes to 35 minutes. While most of the LRT will run at ground level, a three-km-long section in the Serpentine Valley must be built as an elevated guideway due to poor soil conditions and to avoid traffic congestion at 176 Street (Highway 15).
There are nine stations located at King George, 140 Street, 152 Street, 160 Street, 166 Street, 68 Avenue, 64 Avenue, 192 Street, and Langley Exchange. Each station platform would be built to a 40-metre length standard, but only half of the platform length will be covered with a weather-protection canopy.
A total of 19 LRT vehicles are required to operate the Fraser Highway LRT, with each 40-metre-long vehicle capable of carrying 250 passengers.
An OMC facility is required for this LRT option, but it would occupy a smaller footprint than the OMC for the SkyTrain option.
TransLink believes the less-ambitious LRT option provides the capacity required to meet the expected future, medium-term ridership demand from 14 million to 19 million sq. ft. of new high density development along the Fraser Highway corridor through 2041.
“Questions were raised about the resiliency of the technology choice to any future expansion further east into the Fraser Valley,” reads the update.
“The long-term forecasts for population, employment, land use and travel patterns do not point to the need for rapid transit rail beyond the City of Langley in the next 30 years. If conditions changed in coming years, the significant travel distances involved and lower capital and operating costs of LRT would make it more viable than SkyTrain.”
If construction begins in 2022, a Fraser Highway LRT line could potentially be open for service by 2027. It would be an extension of the same infrastructure laid out for the SNG LRT project, which is expected to commence construction in 2020 for an opening in 2024. Procurement for the SNG LRT will begin later this year.