Burnaby city council to decide on its support for SFU gondola transit line today

May 28 2019, 12:06 am

TransLink’s proposal to build a gondola public transit line — from a SkyTrain station to the peak of Burnaby Mountain to serve Simon Fraser University — will be reaching a pivotal crossroads tonight, as Burnaby city council is set to vote on its support for the project.

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The public transit authority is asking whether city council desires planning work for the gondola to continue, and is seeking council’s support in principle. Past city councils have been relatively lukewarm with the prospect of building the gondola line, but so far this new council has shown more interest than its predecessors.

There have been three studies in the last decade on the gondola, including an update last year on a previous technical analysis.

According to a city staff report, previous studies examined improvement options such as existing buses, light rail, funicular, SkyTrain, five types of gondola routes, and even an escalator, but only the gondola options were deemed to be practical for both capacity needs and the topographical challenges of ascending a 1,210-ft-tall mountain.

“TransLink has undertaken studies that indicate that there are strong traveller benefits from a rapid transit link from Burnaby Mountain to SkyTrain, and that a gondola is the only viable technology for achieving that link,” reads the report.

City staff requesting three routes for consideration

While TransLink and its independent studies have identified a first option — a 2.7-km-long, straight-line, Production Way-University Station to SFU route — as the alignment with the fastest travel times of about six minutes and the least construction and operating costs, Burnaby city staff are asking council and regional transit planners to equally consider two other route options due to the varying residential and environmental impacts of each option. Construction cost for Option 1, including the acquisition of property aerial rights, is estimated to $197 million in 2020.

Factoring in varying types of benefits, such as travel time savings and reduced operating costs, the latest study gave this project an exceedingly high benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 1.8 (a BCR greater than 1.0 indicates that benefits surpass costs). This is a BCR far better than most rapid transit projects in the region.

The second option would detour the route towards the southeast corner of Burnaby Mountain to keep the gondola from passing over any homes, with a 90-degree turn that requires an additional mid-station building. But passengers would need to walk about 200 metres from Production Way-University Station to the gondola terminal, travel times would be close to 10 minutes, and it would have far higher construction ($255 million in 2020) and operating costs.

This second option would not pass directly over any homes, but it would hover close to more homes than the straight alignment.

SFU Burnaby Mountain gondola

Routes depicted for Option 1 and Option 2 for the SFU Burnaby Mountain gondola. (City of Burnaby)

The third option city staff is requesting for serious consideration, identified in a 2009 study, would start at Lake City Way Station and stay further away from homes by passing over Burnaby Mountain Golf Course, west of the tank farm. However, this option is far longer — 59% longer than the first option and 19% longer than option two — and carry a far higher travel time, reducing the system’s ridership potential.

“As Option 3 appears to have lower residential and environmental impacts than Options 1 or 2, all three options should be considered on an equal basis in the next stage of analysis and public consultation,” continues the report. “Option 3 should be considered both with and without the extension of Expo Line operations to Lake City Way Station.”

“Various alignments and design options are available for consideration, and it should be emphasized that council’s support-in-principle does not extend to the selection of a preferred alignment at this time, but rather is limited pending the outcome of community consultation.”

SFU Burnaby Mountain gondola

Routes depicted for Option 3 for the SFU Burnaby Mountain gondola. (City of Burnaby)

The report highlights possible ways to reduce the privacy impact on the residences below, including positioning or angling of windows to restrict downward vision, using fixed horizontal blinds that allow passengers to look out but not down, and privacy glass, but these measures could affect the gondola’s possible secondary purpose as a tourist attraction.

The mid-span gondola towers would likely be 100 ft to 260 ft tall, with a typical footprint of 4,300 sq. ft., and depending on the choice of supplier each gondola cabin could have a carrying capacity of 33 passengers, with cabins departing as frequently as every 30 seconds.

Need for a gondola transit line

Currently, there are about 25,000 daily boardings to and from Burnaby Mountain, and this ridership demand is expected to grow by 60% over the next 20 years. This ridership growth is from increases to SFU’s enrolment, faculty, and staff numbers, as well as increases to the mountaintop population from the expanding UniverCity neighbourhood.

A replacement of the existing No. 145 bus route from Production Way-University Station to SFU with the gondola transit line would reduce noise and emissions, and lower operating, maintenance, and replacement costs for articulated buses that need to climb a steep 8% grade.

Conceptual artistic rendering for the peak terminal building for the SFU Burnaby Mountain gondola. (SFU)

The gondola transit line could potentially have an ultimate capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd) or with additional investment even higher at 4,000 pphpd, which would be comparable to the Canada Line’s starting mid-day capacity a decade ago.

Such a gondola would also increase the reliability of transit service to SFU, especially during snowfall, and increase the resilience of transportation options by the creation of a third route off the mountain.

“The combination of snow and steep grades can make provision of transit service to Burnaby Mountain difficult in the winter months. Service is interrupted or significantly delayed on about ten days annually, sometimes necessitating the closure of the campus so that students and staff can evacuate before that day’s transit service is cancelled,” adds the report.

“A gondola could provide an emergency evacuation route from the mountain if road access were cut off due to an incident at the tank farm (which is adjacent to the only two roads serving the campus).”

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