When it comes to ‘no brainer’ public transit projects in Metro Vancouver, the long-proposed gondola cable car transit line between SkyTrain’s Production Way-University Station and Simon Fraser University’s campus atop Burnaby Mountain fits the bill.
The improvements to reliability, capacity, and travel times to reach the university’s rapidly growing mountaintop campus — the solution to the problem-ridden buses — and the expected resulting ridership should make this an obvious priority project.
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But it is the bill, literally, that has been the main obstacle to sending this project airborne, although the cost is relatively small compared to the region’s planned upcoming SkyTrain projects.
An April 2018 update of a 2011 feasibility study, commissioned by TransLink, indicates the project will now cost $197 million in 2020 dollars — up from the $114 million when first projected in detail in 2011. Its operating costs are estimated at just $4.1 million annually in 2020 dollars.
Contrast that figure to the $2.8-billion cost of extending the Millennium Line from VCC-Clark Station to Arbutus Street or the $2.9-billion cost of the Expo Line’s extension from King George Station to Langley Centre.
TransLink’s proposed gondola line
These costs are based on the preferred, direct, 2.7-km-long aerial ropeway route from the SkyTrain station to SFU’s new East Gateway hub.
The system would be designed with a capacity of 3,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd), with 33-passenger cabins leaving the stations in frequencies of less than a minute and taking six to seven minutes to complete the trip.
These large, heavy-duty cabins would be similar to those of Whistler Blackcomb’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola, and ropeway would be able to continue operations up to wind speeds of 70 km/hr.
Added enhancements to the features of the cabins, not found on the gondolas of most ski resorts, include interior lighting and at least one-way communications system. The possibility also holds for a two-way communications system, similar to SkyTrain cars.
Operational hours are pegged at between 6 am to 1 am daily, aligning the gondola line with SkyTrain hours.
Subject to funding, key infrastructure components of the gondola could be built to accommodate a future 4,000 pphpd capacity to ensure the system fulfills demand needs beyond 2045 — close to the Canada Line’s starting mid-day capacity when it opened in 2009.
The demand for such a system already exists, and it will only continue to grow; by 2045, UniverCity’s residential population will grow to 10,000 people, the number of faculty and staff will increase to about 8,000, and the number of undergraduate and graduate students will reach over 30,000 (up from 20,000 today).
With the gondola, the report estimates TransLink will be able to free up 25 articulated buses and one standard bus on the No. 145 route alone by 2045, which translates to the elimination of $34.5 million in vehicle replacement costs and a reduction of $89.3 million in bus operational costs over 25 years.
Construction is estimated to only require about 18 months.
Factoring in other benefits, such as travel time savings and reduced operating costs, analysts pegged the project with an exceedingly high benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 1.8 (a BCR greater than 1.0 indicates that benefits surpass costs).
Contrast with some BCRs of other previous and planned TransLink projects.
The Canada Line had a BCR of 1.25, the Evergreen Extension earned 1.27, and the upcoming Millennium Line Broadway Extension is pegged at 2.3. A previous estimate for the proposed 16-km-long Fraser Highway SkyTrain extension of the Expo Line gave the project a BCR of 1.55.
The cancelled Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT’s BCR was just 0.69.
The benefits to consumers total to about $225 million over 25 years, with the benefits relating to a reduction in travel times, vehicle operating costs, collision reductions, parking costs, and vehicle emissions. For the university, there are additional benefits from the campus being more accessible to tourists and the improved access to on-campus events.
Challenges with existing buses
Currently, the No. 145 bus takes 15 minutes to complete its trip from the SkyTrain station to the top of Burnaby Mountain along a winding 8-km long route.
Articulated buses used on the route frequently break down from the difficulties of climbing up a steep elevation of 300 metres, and passengers during the peak hour may experience as many as four full buses pass them by before they can board.
Colin Fowler, a co-founder of the Build SFU Gondola advocacy group and the president of the SFU Economics Student Society, illustrated the challenging situation students face while taking the current buses up to the campus.
“These lineups and multiple pass-ups aren’t just an occurrence during the peak times, as it’s now happening in the off peak. TransLink has already reached the maximum frequency possible for buses on this route, but a gondola would nearly double this capacity and be sufficient for the next 30 years,” Fowler told Daily Hive.
“Buses are breaking down on the way up and TransLink has called Burnaby Mountain routes some of its most challenging to operate. Students going up hear the engine roaring and hear the brakes squealing the entire way down, so obviously this isn’t good for the buses either from a maintenance perspective.”
Furthermore, slick road conditions from snowfall have cancelled bus services up the mountain for an average of 10 days per year, resulting in disruptions to classes and exams. In some instances in past years, hundreds of students were even stranded on the campus and forced to stay overnight in make-shift accommodations or even sleeping areas.
In fact, according to Fowler, just a few weeks ago during the region’s latest blast of winter, students were kicked out of their mid-term exams halfway through due to snowfall, but the buses had already been heavily curtailed at that late call.
“Students are often stranded on campus in the snow after all stores and restaurants close, leaving us with no food, and forcing reliance on our friends at UniverCity and Residence who are always very generous when it comes to helping their peers, but shouldn’t be in a situation where that has to happen,” he said.
Jasdeep Gill, the vice-president of external relations for Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), added that the weather atop Burnaby Mountain often changes very quickly and sometimes it is too late to catch a downward bus before they become inoperable.
As well, she says long lines at every bus stop with waiting periods of 20 minutes or more is very common even during fair weather periods.
“This causes a lot of stress and anxiety for students who have no other means of transportation,” said Gill.
She went on to emphasize that a gondola is a key component to the Burnaby Mountain Tank Farm safety plan, as road access on Gaglardi Way and Burnaby Mountain Parkway could be cut off if there is an incident at the tank farm.
In this emergency scenario, a gondola located on the preferred route, which happens to be away from the tank farm, would provide a safe evacuation option for SFU students, staff, and residents. These findings are also highlighted in the report.
Growing support for a gondola
Fowler says his group plans to ramp up their advocacy moving forward, and hopes others will follow suit. While he knows university officials and the City of Burnaby have been advocating behind the scenes, they have not been doing the same level of publicly visible advocacy like what UBC is doing for the SkyTrain extension from Arbutus to the Point Grey campus.
“The general population isn’t aware of the capacity constraints facing SFU students, our bus breakdowns, or any of the other related issues,” he said.
“Running our campaign without any of the resources that other stakeholders have has been a challenge, but it’s been truly humbling to see how much interest student take in this project. I’ve already had so many students ask me if they can help out in any way, which will be much needed as we move forward.”
Gill noted that the SFSS has been doing its part by lobbying the provincial government to contribute funding to the project. She says, based on the student society’s most recent advocacy survey, 77% of students want to see reliable TransLink services.
“This data and student feedback makes it clear that the gondola project is essential for the students at SFU,” she said.
The gondola project was brought up in a recent Mayors’ Council meeting, and a work plan for the year that included further planning into the gondola was approved. According to TransLink staff, the gondola requires further development and public consultation before it can be sent to the Mayors’ Council for funding and approval consideration.
The federal government’s Green Infrastructure Fund has been specifically identified as a possible major funding source for the project.
Gondolas as public transit around the world
While a gondola system may seem like a gimmicky approach to public transit, there are urban gondola systems around the world that are built to operate as this commuter function.
The Metrocable system in Medellin, Colombia is the world’s first public transit gondola line, connecting outlying areas with the city centre. Since the first line opened in 2004, three additional lines have been built and the service has proven to be highly popular and effective. In fact, the Metrocable has reduced poverty and violent crime in the city.
Over in Bolivia, the Mi Teleferico connects the city of La Paz with the low-income hilltop city of El Alto. The first line connecting both communities spans 10 kms long and was built in 2014.
Due to Mi Teleferico’s immense success with ridership and reducing traffic and travel times, nine more lines spanning 28 kms with 27 stations have since been built, which has turned the Mi Teleferico into the world’s first backbone public transit system that uses a network of gondolas, according to the New York Times.
In Asia, the 5.7-km-long Ngong Ping 360 is owned and operated by the MTR Corporation, the same company that operates Hong Kong’s subway system. It connects communities and major tourist attractions over a 25-minute end-to-end ride.
Singapore also has its own urban gondola system connecting the main island with the resort island of Sentosa.
And Transport For London, the public transit authority of London, owns and operates Emirates Air Line — a 1.1-km-long gondola cable car system across the Thames River.
Later this year, Walt Disney World is scheduled to open its Disney Skyliner gondola system, a public transit network that connects the Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks with four Disney resorts.
This new gondola system with significantly improved travel times and frequencies will replace Disney Transport’s bus routes connecting the resorts and theme parks.