Opinion: Derek Corrigan as Mayors' Council's Chair could threaten Broadway Subway

Dec 7 2017, 10:47 pm

Supporters of Metro Vancouver’s transit expansion plans, especially the underground Broadway extension of the SkyTrain Millennium Line, should be concerned that Derek Corrigan has been elected the Chair of TransLink’s Mayors’ Council.

Members of the Mayors’ Council, namely the Mayors of the region’s smaller municipalities and jurisdictions, voted today to elevate the Burnaby Mayor as the new Chair of the governance board. He replaces Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who has held the position for the past three years and been a major advocate for transit expansion across the region.

The governance model enacted by the provincial government in 2014 provides the Mayors’ Council with significant authority over TransLink’s board of directors, long-term plans and strategies, and funding.

Corrigan has already hinted that he will attempt to drive TransLink and its expansion plans in another direction. In his nomination speech today, he emphasized a perceived need to focus more on the bus system instead of the new SkyTrain and light rail projects.

All of this is coming from the Mayor of the region’s only municipality – the City of Burnaby – that has two SkyTrain lines spanning from its western border to the eastern border.

Even the City of Vancouver, the economic core and densest part of the region, has just a single line – the Canada Line – that serves the municipality from one end to the other.

Corrigan, a former head of BC Transit, also told other leaders he wants the Mayors’ Council to have greater control over TransLink through governance changes, which could further politicize the decision-making process of the region’s public transit.

Ever since becoming Burnaby’s Mayor in 2002, Corrigan has since taken an uncompromising and adversarial stance towards many of the region’s major transit expansion and improvement plans.

Here is Corrigan’s known record on transit in the region since TransLink was formed:

Mayors’ Council’s $7.5-billion plan

Corrigan was the only member of the Mayors’ Council in 2014 to vote against the 10-year, $7.5-billion transit expansion plan. This includes the the Broadway extension and Surrey light rail.

At the time, he said the plan was too ambitious and expensive, and he doubted the provincial and federal governments would invest in the projects.

Of course, since the vote, there have been changes in both senior governments and they have each committed to take on 40% of the cost.

$2-billion Phase One expansion

Late last year when the Mayors’ Council convened to vote on the $2-billion Phase One transit expansion plan, Corrigan was absent  from the pivotal decision.

Phase One, to be fully implemented by the end of the decade, consists of five new B-Line routes, additional SkyTrain cars, a new SeaBus vessel, and upgrades to SkyTrain stations and systems.

TransLink is experiencing record ridership growth, and additional investment is needed to increase capacity and reliability.

SFU Gondola

Corrigan is also against TransLink’s $120-million proposal to build a gondola transit line in his municipality between Production Way-University Station and Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus, despite the exceedingly high benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 3.6 and net value of $500 million as determined by a business case analysis on the project.

There are cost savings with a gondola compared to operating the existing buses on the steep mountain route, and these bus resources could be reallocated to other parts of the transit network.

Forecast models peg ridership at 37,900 passengers per day upon a theoretical opening in 2021, making it far busier than the vast majority of the region’s bus routes.

But he sided with NIMBYs who live near the path of the gondola and stated his concerns over the financial feasibility.

Broadway extension of the Millennium Line

The business case supporting the SkyTrain extension of the Millennium Line under Broadway is staggering.

The extension is six-km long at a cost of $3 billion – in line with the average cost needed to future-proof a major City subway system – and would push the Millennium Line’s route further west from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street, with a travel time of just 11 minutes on the newly-built span.

TransLink’s conservative estimates peg ridership at 150,000 upon opening day – a figure that was based on a 2021 opening.

With the project already delayed to a mid-2020s opening, pent up transit demand and continued population and employment growth will only increase likely ridership even further.

But Corrigan has been outspoken about his opposition to the project. And this is what Corrigan told the Georgia Straight in 2012 on this thoughts on not just the extension but Vancouver’s place in the region: “Vancouver has to recognize that they’re part of a region, and the region is bigger than their needs, and that there isn’t a way in which, well, not only does Vancouver get what it wants, but it gets it in a Cadillac form. You know, while the rest of the region is in a Ford Focus.”

Essentially, Corrigan refers to SkyTrain as an upscale “Cadillac” system and wants planners to pursue a more economical and slower ground-level light rail transit option instead, regardless of all the numbers that back up the heavy-duty SkyTrain option as the appropriate course to take.

But more importantly, his wider point of view on Vancouver’s place in the region and what it means to ‘think regionally’ in relation to the Broadway extension is incredibly self-serving and is only true if you were to completely ignore the following:

  • The fact that Vancouver is the economic, cultural, and entertainment centre of not only the namesake region but the entire province.
  • The fact that we need to ‘think regionally’. Metro Vancouver’s municipal boundaries are artificial and arbitrary; the entire region is one single city with one economic and social ecosystem. All of the urbanized areas of Metro Vancouver’s 23 municipalities and districts could fit into the City of Calgary, which is governed by one municipal government.
  • The fact that Vancouver is home to about a quarter of the region’s residents and is far denser than any other municipality. Vancouver has a density of about 5,500 residents per sq. km, Burnaby has 2,600 residents per sq. km., and Surrey has 1,600 residents per sq. km. Population density is what makes frequent, high-capacity transit feasible, and it explains why Vancouver is served by more bus service than any other part of the region. It is also why Vancouver deserves more rail.
  • The fact that the Central Broadway Corridor is the second largest employment centre in the region – just behind downtown Vancouver – and will only continue to grow.
  • The fact that the 99 B-Line and other Broadway Corridor bus routes – between Commercial-Broadway Station and UBC – combined create the busiest bus corridor in North America with over 100,000 daily riders. On its own, the 99 B-Line sees 50,000 passengers per day.
  • The fact that ridership on the extension to just Arbutus will attract many new transit riders, not just transplants of existing transit ridership. The total ridership on the extension will be 20,000 daily riders higher than the Canada Line, almost five times the Evergreen extension, and roughly half of the entire Expo and Millennium system.
  • The fact that only a subway, an extension of existing SkyTrain infrastructure, will attract the most riders, bring the most value, and provide a future-proof capacity based on TransLink studies.
  • The fact that the Millennium Line was originally planned two decades ago as a single, continuous project with three phases. The first phase through Burnaby was built in 2002, the second phase on Broadway was supposed to have been completed right after, and the third phase through the Tri-Cities at a later time (Evergreen extension).
  • The fact that Vancouver is the only large city in Metro Vancouver without a major freeway running through it (Highway 1 on the eastern perimeter does not count). The lack of any real road capacity in the City demands a high-functioning, competent arterial public transit network in the city and the only real solution is rail.
  • The fact that the Broadway extension serves the entire region, not just Vancouver and its residents. Residents from all over the region already travel into Central Broadway and other areas of Vancouver daily… unless one would want to maintain the existing bottleneck and prevent that from happening, so that regional mobility is impeded and growth patterns are more encouraged to stay in the suburbs – or a specific adjacent municipality to the east of Vancouver.

Canada Line

I have previously extensively written about the the shortsightedness of the Canada Line’s under-built design, mainly with its limited capacity from its short platforms, and the positions of a number of leaders that highly contributed to the decisions that were made with the project.

Corrigan was ceaselessly antagonistic throughout the entire Canada Line project (formerly known as the RAV Line) nearly a decade and a half ago when the fate of the project and its design was being determined.

This is what he told the Vancouver Sun in 2002: “I’ve been trying to kill this blood-sucking vampire for some time. I think there will be a tax revolt when people realize how much this is going to cost them. You and your children’s children will be paying for this project for decades.”

This specific comment was in response to the $2-billion capital cost of the project and the 100,000 riders per day needed to break even on annual operating costs.

The threshold was easily achieved in a year, as by August 2010, there were already 100,000 riders per weekday – three years ahead of ridership forecast schedules. It hit 104,682 per weekday in May 2010 and 106,320 in June 2010.

In July 2010, there was an average of 107,198 per week day and a daily average (throughout all seven days of the week) of 99,210.

As of 2016, ridership on the Canada Line is averaging at 138,700 per weekday and 102,000 per day on Saturdays.

Fears over poor ridership and heavy financial burden never materialized. But the damage was already done as those fears led to major cutbacks in the scope and design – the project was built cheaply with little consideration to ensure it would be future-proof.

Prior to the much-delayed decision to proceed with the Canada Line, which was not the cheapest option considered, there were even discussions of making it a far slower at-grade light rail system.

Ironically, the Millennium Line running through Burnaby was a poor performing system throughout the 2000s when the Canada Line was being planned and built. It was running operating deficits for years due to low ridership, but this is because initial ridership targets were dependent on immediate seamless extensions of the system along Broadway in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities, which was only completed as the Evergreen extension last year.

The real meaning of ‘think regionally’

For some, the phrase ‘think regionally’ equates to allocating each municipality an equal say on decisions. This cannot and should not be the case.

Today, the Mayors’ Council’s members decided to vote on their new leadership using a ‘one vote for each municipality’ rule, rather than the usual rule of basing each municipality’s voting power on the municipality’s proportion of the region’s population.

Imagine the Mayors of tiny municipalities and districts like Lions Bay, Belcarra, Port Moody, and the Tsawwassen First Nation each having the same equal voting power as the major cities of Vancouver, Surrey, and Burnaby.

In 2007, steps were taken by then-provincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon to remove localized political interference in TransLink’s decision-making process.

Falcon attempted to address the political infighting that maligned the Canada Line debate, resulting in the project being rejected by TransLink’s then-elected board of directors a total of two times before it was finally approved.

At the time, this elected board was formed by a relatively small group of selected Mayors and City Councillors, and their terms would start and end with each three-year municipal election cycle. This elected board (mainly the representatives of eastern municipalities, including Burnaby) wanted the Evergreen Line, which was then a ground-level light rail project, to be built first instead of the Canada Line – arguably a project with significantly more regional value, and an asset for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“Decision-making at the TransLink Board has proven to be difficult, slow and marked by the division of local political interests rather than regional consensus building,” reads a 2007 provincial report on the new governance model following the Canada Line infighting.

This decision-making board that directly ran TransLink was replaced with a professional non-political board. Political accountability, but with far weaker authority than the previous system with the elected board, was represented through the new Council of Mayors, now known as the Mayors’ Council.

“We recommend a new governance structure, including a Council of Mayors, a restructured non-political TransLink Board and an independent TransLink Commissioner,” the report continued. “This new governance structure will create a more efficient, accountable system with the ability to effectively plan and provide for future transportation needs.”

But Falcon’s governance model was short-lived. Beginning in 2014 under Christy Clark’s leadership, the Mayors’ Council’s position on the entire TransLink governance hierarchy was elevated above the non-political board, and the heightened role replaced the independent TransLink Commissioner.

Three years into the new governance model, the regional geopolitical divides that popped up during the Canada Line debate are now making a real resurgence – and with possible major consequences to come that could delay much-needed transportation investments or replace plans with inferior alternatives.

With both federal and provincial governments now committed to funding transit, there is no time for local indecisiveness, which will only increase costs the longer we wait.

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Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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