Opinion: SkyTrain must be extended from downtown Vancouver to the North Shore

Oct 11 2017, 12:52 pm

An extension of Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network to the municipalities on the North Shore would greatly alleviate traffic gridlock between Vancouver and the North Shore.

The North Shore has some of the most congested roads in the region, and the road capacity across Burrard Inlet has not changed for nearly 60 years.

When the capacities of the Lions Gate Bridge and Ironworkers Memorial Bridge are combined, there are just nine lanes of roadway that connect the North Shore’s 180,000 residents to the rest of Metro Vancouver.

Cars are not traveling on the Lions Gate Bridge in this photo as the crossing is completely closed in both directions due to an accident. (Government of BC)

But given that a new roadway bridge is highly unlikely, since it would be highly controversial and potentially more costly, all solutions seem to point towards rail rapid transit.

North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto told Daily Hive a SkyTrain extension under Burrard Inlet from Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver could eliminate any need to increase the capacity of the existing bridges or even build another bridge.

After the Broadway and Surrey rapid transit projects reach completion in the mid-2020s, the region’s transportation planning efforts must turn towards implementing a real and effective long-term solution to the North Shore’s transportation woes.

The situation on the North Shore bridges, particularly the Lions Gate Bridge, is somewhat comical. Conditions will only worsen with regional population growth and the  planned demolition of the Vancouver viaducts, which will only cause further delays for traffic that must pass through downtown Vancouver streets to reach the bridge.

Feasibility study needed for SkyTrain

Approximately 70,000 vehicles cross the Lions Gate Bridge on a daily basis, and traffic statistics from 2011 indicate 130,000 vehicles use the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge.

However, traffic for the bridge across the Second Narrows has grown significantly since then, with more traffic being funnelled into the crossing from the recent Highway 1 widening from Vancouver to Surrey and the new Port Mann Bridge.

Additionally, TransLink data shows SeaBus has a ridership of about 16,000 per weekday while bus ridership on the Lions Gate Bridge is about 30,000 per weekday.

Delays are increasing as both bridges are the only way for travellers to reach Squamish and Whistler. In particular, Squamish is quickly growing into a far-flung suburban community, and as a result traffic to and from this mountain town is increasing.

Inlet Centre Station on the Millennium Line’s Evergreen extension. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

“You have to remember that anyone going up to Squamish and Whistler has to go through the North Shore,” said Mussatto.

“If we’re able to get people out of their automobiles and take public transit, that frees up road space on the bridges for things like construction workers, who need to carry tools, tourists coming from Seattle going to Whistler, and such.”

Mussatto wants TransLink to start a feasibility study on rail rapid transit to the North Shore to determine the potential cost, route alignment, and ridership levels – whether it is the best way to manage congestion on the North Shore.

Improved SeaBus and new North Shore B-Line coming soon

Earlier this year, TransLink improved SeaBus service by increasing operating frequencies to every 15 minutes, from morning to 9 pm, seven days a week.

With a third additional vessel arriving in 2018, frequencies for peak periods will further rise to every 10 minutes. But travel times of 15 minutes one-way across the inlet will remain the same, and the reliability level of  bus connections to and from the terminals could deteriorate with growing traffic.

“At the end of the day, the SeaBus is only going to be able to carry so many people,” said Mussatto. “If you had a fixed link, it’d be much quicker and reliable.”

“If we don’t do this, we’re going to be looking at a third crossing.”

Seabus heading from Lonsdale Quay to Vancouver (Max Lindenthaler/Shutterstock)

SeaBus heading from Lonsdale Quay to Vancouver (Max Lindenthaler/Shutterstock)

In 2019, as part of the approved $2-billion Phase One transit improvement plan, TransLink intends to start a B-Line service in the North Shore.

The frequent, express bus route will run along Marine Drive and Main Street from Dundarave and Park Royal in West Vancouver to Lower Lonsdale and Lower Lynn in North Vancouver. B-Line buses will operate every 15 minutes daily into the evening and up to every 10 minutes during weekday peak hours.

B-Line services have been the unofficial precursor ‘litmus test’ for the ridership needed to support a SkyTrain service.

The original Millennium Line route from Commercial-Broadway Station to Lougheed Town Centre Station was previously part of the 99 B-Line’s route, and the now-defunct 97 B-Line and 98 B-Line were replaced by the Evergreen Extension and Canada Line, respectively.

Catalyst for economic development

The North Shore’s population has generally grown at a much slower rate than other areas in the region, largely because of the transportation issues that curb economic growth and development. West Vancouver’s growth in particular has been almost stagnant.

But this could completely change with a SkyTrain extension.

“Having (the trains) run along the North Shore is what would really make this work,” said Mussatto. “Three municipalities are coordinating our planning to do density in that corridor.”

“That is where the density should go and that is where the density is being planned for buildings. That would make perfect sense to have a rapid bus or even light rail to do that.”

Looking north, the view from downtown Vancouver. Is this the future density of North Vancouver? An artistic rendering for the office tower at 745 Thurlow Street imagined significant densification in the North Shore. (QuadReal Property Group Limited Partnership)

The Mayor adds that he has had informal discussions with TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, who Mussatto says was not opposed to such a study, but it would of course have to come in the order of the public transit authority’s priorities.

“There are no plans on the books to study a SkyTrain tunnel to the North Shore,” said TransLink spokesperson Chris Bryan. “That said, the region needs a place and time to think big, and a great opportunity to do this is when we update the 30-year Regional Transportation Strategy later this year.”

“SkyTrain to the North Shore is one of those big ideas worthy of discussion among the region’s mayors and TransLink, as we do our long-range visioning of the region – which is expected to evolve and add more than a million more people in the next 30 years.”

Tough geology under Burrard Inlet; not cheap

A SkyTrain extension to the North Shore, whether it be a continuation of the Canada Line or more likely the Expo Line, would be a complex, multi-billion-dollar engineering endeavour.

Burrard Inlet has some of the most complex geological conditions in the region, given its varying depths and glacial history.

“You’d expect something that is deep in size from glacial history, and so there would be thick layers first of more recent loose sediments,” said Erick Eberhardt, Professor and Director of Geological Engineering at the University of British Columbia, and the President of the Tunnelling Association of Canada.

“Beneath that you have glacial soils and then bedrock, and it’d be a combination of weak rock or maybe stronger crystalline rock.”

Large boulders from glacial action are a common construction obstacle in the Lower Mainland, and it is also something that tunnel boring crews with both the Canada Line and Evergreen Line had to deal with.

Tunnel construction for the Millennium Line’s Evergreen extension. (Evergreen Line Project Office)

As for the depths of Burrard Inlet between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver, the shallowest point is just west of the Lions Gate Bridge where the inlet bed is about 40 metres deep.

A SkyTrain extension traveling under Stanley Park and the First Narrows could have stations serving Coal Harbour, the West End, and the park. When it reaches the area near the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge, it could split into two spans – similar to the Canada Line division south of Bridgeport Station – with one span going westward towards Ambleside and another span going eastward towards Lonsdale.

As another option, there is also a relatively shallow area further east, about 50 metres deep, at the Second Narrows where the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge is located.

A SkyTrain route that crosses the Second Narrows – either as a new tunnel or bridge – could potentially be built as a northward extension of the Millennium Line or perhaps even part of a new line along Hastings Street, with stations serving Gastown, Downtown Eastside, Commercial Drive, Nanaimo Street, Renfrew Street/PNE/Hastings Park, and Boundary Road. From Boundary Road, the route would turn northwards towards the North Shore via Second Narrows.

Alternatively, the extension could take the most direct route between Waterfront Station and Lonsdale, but tunnelling would be far more challenging and costly given that the route under the inlet has a depth of approximately 70 metres.

With this option, a potential SkyTrain extension would not end at Lonsdale Quay.

To pick up the ridership it would need to be feasible, such a SkyTrain line could potentially continue beyond Londsale and become a much-needed east-west transportation artery in the North Shore from Seylynn Village in the District of North Vancouver to Lower Lonsdale in the City of North Vancouver and the Ambleside area in West Vancouver.

For all three options, there would be an express bus route serving Horseshoe Bay from West Vancouver’s easternmost terminus station.

Chart showing the varying depths of Burrard Inlet. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada / Government of Canada)

By comparison, the Canada Line’s bored tunnel under False Creek reaches a maximum depth of 46 metres. The most direct route from Waterfront Station to Lonsdale is approximately three km long, whereas the Canada Line’s False Creek tunnel is less than 400 metres long.

“The issue with a transportation tunnel depends on how deep the tunnel is and how deep the tunnel needs to go to be in competent ground for construction,” said Eberhardt. “You’re looking at steep declines and inclines in terms of moving under Burrard Inlet given that you are right up against the shore for the tunnel’s entry points.”

Either a standalone system, separate from existing SkyTrain infrastructure, or an extension of existing SkyTrain infrastructure could be built.

For instance, a northward extension of the Canada Line from Waterfront Station would likely be highly difficult due to the train system’s shallow tunnel depth in the area. There is little clearance for a Canada Line extension to dive under structures, including the Expo Line platform, never mind reaching the depth needed to tunnel under Burrard Inlet. The Canada Line’s track technology only allows for a maximum grade of 3.5%.

But an eastward extension of the Expo Line from Waterfront Station towards Gastown could provide the necessary depth to submerge under Burrard Inlet before turning north towards North Vancouver. Track technology on the mainline permits much steeper grades of 6%.

Eberhardt cited research work in Norway that explored tunnel crossings across inlets, including floating and submerged tunnel technology. These options, however, might not be feasible for Burrard Inlet given the heavy ship traffic and the clearance needed for large ships.

One major application of submerged tunnel technology is the Transbay Tube for San Francisco’s Bay BART train system. It is approximately six kms long, and its tunnel segments were prefabricated and then submerged and anchored onto the floor of San Francisco Bay.

Tunnelling to the North Shore not a new idea

Transportation tunnels to the North Shore near the First Narrows were seriously considered approximately 50 years ago during Vancouver’s great debate over freeways.

There was an ambitious plan for a freeway along the Gastown and Coal Harbour waterfront, and the roadway would turn north onto reclaimed land in Coal Harbour. The tunnel portal would have been located just east of Brockton Point.

Artistic depiction of land reclamation in Coal Harbour for the creation of a transportation tunnel to the North Shore. A land reclamation project was deemed necessary due to the steep grades of the inlet and the grade allowances required for a roadway. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Map showing downtown Vancouver’s never-built freeway network. The tunnel portal to the North Shore would have been located just east of Brockton Point. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Since then, more work has been performed to explore the geological conditions of Burrard Inlet, mainly for water main connections, and Eberhardt says this exploration is ongoing.

Existing regional trunk water mains, operated by the Metro Vancouver Regional District, that feed water supplies from the North Shore’s mountain reservoirs to the rest of the region, run along the aforementioned shallowest points in Burrard Inlet at the First and Second Narrows.

“There is going to be some experience at looking at tunnelling, and there’s work going on right now investigating the geology of the inlet and determining the best alignment for water conveyance. That will give some more insights for transportation tunnelling.”

Map of the regional water mains across the First and Second Narrows. (Metro Vancouver Regional District)

There is no question that a rail rapid transit connection to the North Shore will be one of Metro Vancouver’s most complex, expensive, and controversial projects (NIMBYism is highly problematic in West Vancouver and North Vancouver), but the North Shore has waited long enough for a real solution to its transportation woes.

This is long overdue, and it would do wonders for the economy on both sides of Burrard Inlet. It is time to bring the North Shore into the fold of Metro Vancouver – there is no reason why it should be its own island economy.


See also
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