Opinion: Burnaby's cynicism on new Surrey SkyTrain is deeply hypocritical

Dec 11 2018, 7:18 pm

“I’ve got mine, and f*ck the rest of you.”

That basically sums up a recent City of Burnaby staff report that provided the municipal government’s own evaluation of the newly proposed Fraser Highway SkyTrain extension in Surrey, specifically on how it will affect Burnaby.

The report was created after a city councillor’s motion requesting an examination of the project was approved in late November.

This is not to say that the municipal government does not have a right to look into the project on behalf of its taxpayers, but the report’s highly negative, isolationist framing and the subsequent comments made by city councillors exemplifies the anti-regional attitudes many municipalities in Metro Vancouver tend to display and act on.

The hypocrisy

City staff have framed the upgrade from LRT to SkyTrain with an estimated cost to Burnaby taxpayers of about $48 million or an average annual payment of about $10.00 per person.

“A decision to construct SkyTrain to Langley based on the desire of the host municipality rather than technical considerations may set a precedent, encouraging the construction of expensive SkyTrain lines in other corridors where it is not justified by projected ridership,” reads the report, which goes on to suggest that the City of Surrey should carry the burden of any extra costs to the project.

But the hypocrisy coming from this particular municipality is rich considering Burnaby is already served by two SkyTrain lines — the Expo Line and Millennium Line — with 11 stations combined within city limits. A 12th station, Burquitlam, could be included in the jurisdiction as it sits just beyond the municipality’s northeast border with Coquitlam.

It is the region’s second most well-served city with SkyTrain, just behind Vancouver.

Moreover, the $48-million figure that Burnaby taxpayers would be responsible for is also highly flawed as it “assumes” LRT technology will be retained for the now-cancelled Surrey Newton-Guildford project.

During Monday’s City Council meeting, city councillor Dan Johnson said, “It is an eye opener with that the delay and the change in route, never mind what has been spent to date [on LRT] and what it’ll cost us in the future and our grandchildren in the future.”

City councillor Colleen Jordan added: “I think it’s important that people know it’s not just about Surrey. It’s about all of us because regional transportation is paid for by everyone.”

But when has it ever been about Surrey?

Regional taxpayers, including South of Fraser residents and businesses who are served by far less transit service, have supported the cost of building and operating SkyTrain in Burnaby for decades.

Regional taxpayers have funded the immense benefits and property tax revenue gains Burnaby has experienced as a result of SkyTrain, including the SkyTrain catalyst that led to the creation of the dense Metrotown, Brentwood, and Lougheed Town Centre areas.

In fact, for much of the Millennium Line’s first decade, the operating cost was subsidized by regional taxpayers as the system was not attracting enough ridership (the original ridership projections assumed a completion of the Evergreen Extension and the Broadway Extension by the mid-2000s).

The pursuit for SkyTrain over LRT has always been about creating a fully-integrated regional backbone rail transit network that is reliable, fast, and can compete with driving travel times.

The importance of a fully-grade separated system should not be underestimated for ridership success given Surrey and Langley’s suburban car-centric urban environment. Getting more people out of their cars and into transit needs to be the key priority, and this can only be achieved with faster transit options.

A slower street-level LRT system fuelled mainly on utopian development ambitions simply will not achieve that.

This is the same municipality, under the leadership of its previous longtime mayor, that said the Canada Line would never attract enough ridership to warrant the project’s cost.

“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,” said then-Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan in 2004, emphasizing that the projection of ever reaching 100,000 riders per day is unrealistic.

Similar perspectives amongst several other decision makers in TransLink’s Board of Mayors at the time greatly contributed to the under-built Canada Line design.

Not only did elected officials not believe in the ridership projections, but the projections created were grossly underestimated and depended on outdated regional plans that did not account for all the growth occurring in Richmond.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the region’s experience with the Canada Line, it is that excess capacity should be built to account for both planned and unplanned ridership growth. These SkyTrain systems should be built as lasting 100-year infrastructure investments.

Concerns over more people travelling to Vancouver

The report by city staff also highlights an apparent concern over more people travelling to Vancouver as a result of the SkyTrain extension in the South of Fraser.

“A Fraser Highway project using SkyTrain technology would result in more people travelling between Surrey and Vancouver, rather than making shorter trips in Surrey and Langley. This would increase passenger loads on the Expo Line through Burnaby,” reads the report.

“The existing Expo Line would become more congested. A precedent would be set of building the more expensive SkyTrain technology and adding excess capacity to the system.”

But this assertion seemingly completely ignores the significant short-term and long-term investments planned by TransLink to upgrade the Expo Line and Millennium Line.

Over the next 15 years, TransLink could acquire as many as 293 new train cars for the Expo Line and Millennium Line, including longer trains and new cars that will replace the old Expo-era Mark I models. Further upgrades will be made to SkyTrain’s critical infrastructure and stations.

Within Burnaby, a major capacity upgrade was recently completed for Metrotown Station, and another upgrade is planned for Brentwood Town Centre Station.

The report also ignores SkyTrain’s dual purpose as both a local and regional service, in the absence of a more comprehensive West Coast Express commuter rail network in the same calibre as Toronto’s GO Train or Montreal’s Exo.

Furthermore, Metro Vancouver’s future will depend on improved interconnected regional mobility to help address its housing and labour issues. This region is geographically tiny, and there has to be far less of an emphasis on arbitrary municipal borders.

Concerns over delays with future Burnaby transit projects

Another concern expressed by city staff is the possibility of the Fraser Highway SkyTrain extension impacting the timeline for future transit projects in Burnaby.

“Significant projects in Burnaby that have been discussed in the past, but not yet funded, are a gondola service between Production Way SkyTrain station and Simon Fraser University, and a stronger transit linkage between Metrotown and Brentwood Town Centres,” reads the report.

“For any given funding level, these projects need to compete with requests for improved transit corridors throughout the region.”

Assuming rail rapid transit investments in the South of Fraser stay within the budgeted $3.5-billion funding envelope — split between the second phase and third phase of the Mayor’s Plan — there should be no cause for concern on any projects being cancelled or deferred elsewhere in the region. However, TransLink and the Mayors’ Council still need to confirm funding with both senior governments for the third phase.

With regards to the planned SFU Burnaby gondola, the project could have easily fit into the second phase or even first phase transit expansion plans. Previous studies by TransLink gave the gondola a highly favourable business case, and its estimated cost of between $150 million to $200 million is just a small fraction of the overall $2-billion cost for the first phase and $7.3 billion for the second phase.

The only thing missing over the past decade, under previous leadership, was the municipal government’s role as an active willing partner for the gondola on the same level as the City of Vancouver’s support for the Broadway Extension and the City of Surrey’s previous support for LRT.

Burnaby’s staff report provides yet another example of the narrow frame of mind municipal governments tend to operate — a problem that is generated by the region’s highly fractured local governance arrangement of 23 local jurisdictions.

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