Uncertain future for SFU Gondola after Burnaby City Council by-election

Jun 28 2021, 8:33 pm

The makeup of Burnaby City Council saw a recalibration following Saturday’s by-election to fill two vacant city councillor seats.

The preliminary results show the seats will be filled by Alison Gu of the Burnaby Citizens Association (BCA) party and independent Mike Hillman, who secured 4,994 (19.4%) and 3,227 (12.5%) votes, respectively.

They will replace Nick Volkow and Paul McDonell, who passed away within weeks apart in Summer 2020. Volkow succumbed to cancer after a long battle with the illness, while McDonell died from an infection.

Both men were known to be supporters of TransLink’s proposed gondola public transit line linking SkyTrain to Simon Fraser University’s campus atop Burnaby Mountain.

But at this point, the future pivotal municipal-level decision with major regional implications could swing either way.

Sometime over the next 15 months, before the October 2022 civic election, the nine-member city council — including the mayor — is expected to decide on whether the gondola project should proceed. If city council passes the first hurdle of wanting the gondola, they will also make a recommendation to TransLink on which of the three routes should be built.

The public transit authority’s gondola route public consultation conducted in late 2020 showed Route 1 — the alignment with the shortest travel time of six minutes, due to its straight, direct path from Production-Way University Station — had overwhelming support, with 85% of all respondents indicating this route to be their preference.

This is followed by 19% supporting Route 2, which takes a detour to the east to avoid Route 1’s path over the Forest Grove neighbourhood between the base of Burnaby Mountain and Production Way-University Station. The travel time for Route 2 is 11 minutes.

Route 3 had a support level of just 12%, as its appeal is blunted by its travel time of 10 minutes and base terminal location at Lake City Way Station, requiring passengers on the Expo Line to change trains at Production Way-University Station. The peak terminal for Route 3 is also located downslope, in a less accessible area away from the core of the campus.

sfu burnaby mountain gondola route options

SFU Burnaby Mountain Gondola route options. (TransLink)

Route 1 has the lowest construction cost at $210 million — funded by the region, not the city — as well as the highest ridership potential and lowest annual operating costs. While it has a comparatively greater impact on Forest Grove, it has substantially smaller impact on the area’s parks and conservation areas, and requires the removal of 220 trees — about 1,000 fewer trees than each of the other two route options.

With 35-passenger capacity cabins departing terminals as frequently as under a minute, the tri-cable, high-speed gondola — similar to Whistler Blackcomb’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola — would have a capacity greater than the 99 B-Line during peak hours.

The BCA has made it clear that they will not support Route 1 due to the concerns of the residents in Forest Grove, and have even suggested that TransLink should upgrade existing bus routes up the mountain instead of building the gondola. Along with Gu, the BCA now has four elected officials in city council.

“Burnaby residents, and especially those in the Forest Grove community, are already bearing unacceptable risks due to the federal government’s tank farm and pipeline expansion. Like residents, the Conservation Area is also at risk and more consideration is needed to protect vulnerable ecosystems, land, and water,” reads the BCA’s position on the gondola on June 22 ahead of the byelection.

“For this reason, we cannot support any of the route options, including Route 1, as currently presented by TransLink. If elected as your new Councillors, we’ll continue to listen and advocate for TransLink and the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation to address the concerns of local residents. And, we’ll ensure new information — including post-pandemic transit ridership changes and the latest electric bus technologies — are considered before deciding on any solution.”

On the other hand, Hillman has indicated in his platform that he is a strong supporter of the gondola, but it is not immediately clear which route he would support.

“I will be a strong advocate for the SFU Gondola so that students and residents can rely on constant and fast service. The Gondola will reduce emissions from diesel fuel buses and save taxpayer dollars,” he wrote.

In May 2019, during the debate on whether city council should allow city staff to collaborate with TransLink on more detailed planning and public consultation, two other city councillors expressed their ambivalence on the project, especially over the issue of the potential impact to Forest Grove. They suggested the route decision should largely depend on feedback of residents.

“I like the idea in principle because it goes somewhat towards lowering greenhouse gases and fighting climate change, but what I can’t emphasize enough is the residents of Forest Grove to have a chance to have a say if this thing can go ahead, and if it does go ahead in what form and benefits,” said Green Party councillor Joey Keithley.

“I think TransLink would press forward with the cheapest and most convenient route for them, but we need to think about those residents having a gondola go above them every few seconds. That doesn’t make sense, and if that is the preferred route TransLink wants to push through, I won’t stand for it and I know the residents won’t go for it.”

Dan Johnson, an independent city councillor, previously with the BCA, also said: “The residents have to be in agreement on this. I know most people would want a gondola going overhead every couple of seconds, and they are one of the safest forms of travel and a tourist attraction. But the concerns of the residents need to come first.”

Based on TransLink’s survey, more Forest Grove residents supported Route 1 (30%) than the other two routes (Route 2 at 23%; Route 3 at 21%). There was high opposition amongst these residents for all three routes, with 63% against Route 1, 47% against Route 2, and 50% against Route 3.

Residents from Forest Grove accounted for 38% of the total opposition to Route 1, but only 6% of overall survey responses totalling more than 7,500 responses.

While the final decision over the gondola lies with TransLink management and the Mayors’ Council, it has been made clear before that the public transit authority will not push a project through if the municipal government is not a willing partner. TransLink is awaiting city council’s recommendations on the route and project before continuing any planning work.

This was seen with the cancellation of the Surrey Newton-Guildford light rail transit project, although this decision was also backed by immense public opposition to the project, reflected in the 2018 civic election.

The following year, West Vancouver city council buckled to pressure from area residents who did not want the R2 North Shore RapidBus reaching Dundarave. Following the debacle, the service launched last year with a route that ended at Park Royal.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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