It was just over 20 years ago that Vancouver City Council was asked to choose their preferred route for SkyTrain’s Millennium Line west of Commercial Drive, which would also dictate the then-planned eventual westward extension to reach Cambie Street or Granville Street (now a project to reach Arbutus Street).
The route that was ultimately chosen, the one that exists today, for the original phase of the Millennium Line, continued westward along the Grandview Cut and terminated at VCC-Clark Station.
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This realized route reaching the southeast corner of the False Creek Flats and with an elevated station north of the Vancouver Community College (VCC) campus was referred to as the “north route” option.
As it turns out, Rapid Transit Project 2000, the TransLink entity that was planning the Millennium Line, also presented a “south route” option that would bring the Millennium Line route southwest into a mined tunnel, according to a city staff report in 1999.
The tunnel for this south route option would run diagonally under various private properties starting near the intersection of East 8th Avenue and Commercial Drive over one city block to Woodland Drive, where the tunnel would reach its alignment with Broadway.
For the remaining leg between Woodland Drive and Glen Drive, where the VCC campus is located, there would need to be trench cut-and-cover tunnel construction along Broadway. This is partially due to poor soil conditions, and the added costs for the complexities of constructing the underground station serving VCC over the large China Creek sewer.
There were also concerns over the impact of cut-and-cover construction on Broadway, which would likely require a full or partial closure of the major arterial roadway and the detouring of bus and truck traffic.
If the south route option were chosen, this would have been the second segment of cut-and-cover construction on the Millennium Line, after the two-km-long tunnel east of Columbia Station towards Sapperton Station. Of course, just six years later, Vancouver experienced the full brunt of the impact of cut-and-cover construction on Cambie Street for the Canada Line.
City staff deemed the north route option to be superior for various reasons, including the consideration of how the Millennium Line extension between VCC and Cambie or Granville would be built.
No additional station was envisioned between VCC and Main Street for an extension following the south route, but the north route included the extra Finning Station (known today as the future Great Northern Way-Emily Carr Station) at Thornton Street.
With both VCC-Clark Station and Finning Station, the municipal government saw the potential to use the SkyTrain infrastructure as a catalyst for high-tech and medical research office developments in the False Creek Flats. The pace of this economic development in the area slowed after the tech bubble burst, but over the past decade there has been a resurgence with nearly four million sq. ft. of office recently built, planned, or proposed.
Even two decades ago, the city envisioned a future residential population of 11,000 people and a future employment population of about 14,000 jobs for the north route around both VCC-Clark and Finning stations combined.
On the other hand, the south route with its lone VCC station was forecast to have more than 6,000 residents and over 3,000 jobs in the future.
City staff suggested unless there are “fundamental changes in land use policies” for the south route, the residential and employment populations would likely remain relatively unchanged over the long term.
On the other hand, the north route through the False Creek Flats was already identified as a growth zone, and high-density employment lands typically generate higher public transit ridership compared to residential land uses.
“The North alignment through the new I-3 zone in the False Creek Flats provides the City the opportunity to take advantage of the SkyTrain system to encourage and shape future, transit-oriented development,” reads a city staff report.
“While on a strictly technical basis, ridership appears to be approximately the same on both alignments, the potential for an increase in ridership is likely greater on the North Alignment as the planned Finning and adjacent high tech industrial sites build-out.”
The south route carries a construction cost that is $50 million greater than the north route, but the difference is marginal when each option’s cost accounts for the full segment cost between Commercial Drive Station and Main Street. Preliminary estimates at the time pegged the north route with two stations — one elevated (VCC-Clark Station) and one underground (Finning Station) — at $279 million, and the south route at $282 million with just the underground station at VCC.
This also accounts for the north route’s longer length of about 560 metres, resulting in a travel time that is 1.6 minutes longer, including station stop durations, compared to the south route.
Another major consideration was the tunnel boring machine (TBM) staging space required for the future extension beyond VCC-Clark Station to Cambie or Granville.
If the south route option had been selected, project planners determined that tunnel boring would have to begin from the western terminus — either at Cambie or Granville. An eastward direction tunnel boring machine drill was deemed unfeasible from VCC.
But for the north route option, the TBM staging space could easily be placed in the False Creek Flats, with the construction pit for Finning Station serving a double purpose. This also happens to be the plan for the current project.
At the time, the segment of Millennium Line between VCC-Clark Station and Cambie or Granville was slated as the second phase of the region’s second SkyTrain line. Construction was to begin relatively soon in the middle of the 2000s, after the completion of the first phase of the Millennium Line between VCC-Clark Station and Columbia Station.
However, this project was deferred by the new provincial government, which advanced the Canada Line instead, and then later the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension, which was also originally envisioned as a future phase of the Millennium Line.
For nearly a decade, TransLink, guided by municipal leaders under a different governance structure than what exists today, planned the Evergreen LRT — largely a street-level rail system — instead of a seamless extension of the SkyTrain network as originally planned. These plans for LRT were cancelled in 2008 when the provincial government intervened and reverted the project back to SkyTrain for its superior attributes and comparable construction cost.
The Evergreen Extension opened in 2016, but decades later the Millennium Line’s Broadway Extension — now a six-km-long, six-station project that will run past Cambie and Granville to end at Arbutus Street — is only set to begin construction this fall for a 2025 opening, when it will replace the 99 B-Line between Commercial Drive Station and Arbutus Street.
Commercial Drive Station was renamed as Commercial-Broadway Station in 2009 to reduce the confusion associated with the interchange hub’s two station names, with the other being Broadway Station for the Expo Line.
At the time of the city council’s decision on the route to VCC, the 99 B-Line was only three years old and carrying 20% of the route’s 2019 ridership levels. Up until the 2002 opening of the first phase of the Millennium Line, the route for the 99 B-Line stretched between UBC and Lougheed Mall via Lougheed Highway east of Boundary Road.
Ridership growth on the 99 B-Line along with the Canada Line’s completion is amongst the major factors for the decision to push the Millennium Line’s new western terminus to at least Arbutus instead of Cambie or Granville.