TransLink wants to hear from the public on which route the Burnaby Mountain Gondola transit line should take.
The public transit authority worked with a ropeway supplier over the first half of 2020 to determine some of the technical details of each of the three route options. This information is now being released to help the public, stakeholders, and local governments make an informed decision.
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The intent of the project is to provide Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) growing main campus and residential community atop Burnaby Mountain with a fast, frequent, reliable, and high-capacity service that replaces the existing buses, specifically the No. 145. Approximately 25,000 bus trips are made to the campus each day, and without the gondola this figure is expected to increase by 60% over the next two decades.
Under optimal conditions, the bus trip from SkyTrain’s Production Way-University Station currently takes about 15 minutes.
But the buses are prone to mechanical breakdowns due to the wear and tear of making the climb up the mountain, and snowfall can lead to a shutdown of the campus. Over the years, students have also lamented long lines waiting for the bus, even during normal circumstances.
Here are the three route alignment options, including the tradeoffs of each route:
Route 1: Direct, straight-line route
This straight-line route is the most direct option, with a fast travel time of six minutes over its 2.7-km-long route. It would run north from SkyTrain’s Production Way-University Station to the peak terminal near the existing campus bus exchange.
With the shortest route and five gondola towers to support the cables, this option’s construction cost is $197 million, unchanged from previous estimates. It also has the least environmental footprint, but it will have the most impact on the Forest Grove residential neighbourhood.
Route 2: Detoured eastern route
The eastern route, also from Production Way-University Station, begins by travelling northeast along Gaglardi Way, before switching to the northwest direction with an angle mid-station that changes the direction of the line. The peak terminal is located near the bus exchange.
It would have to overcome the obstacle of tall power lines near the intersection of Broadway and Gaglardi Way, and it has the most impact on the mountain’s forested conservation area.
This route has a travel time of 11 minutes over its 3.7-km-long span with seven towers, not including the mid-station. Previous preliminary construction cost estimates peg this option at $255 million.
Route 3: Detoured western route
The western route runs from SkyTrain’s Lake City Way Station — one station west of Production Way-University Station. As a result, it would require an extra transfer to the Millennium Line for passengers travelling on the Expo Line.
This route runs north from the SkyTrain station, flies directly over Burnaby Mountain Golf Course, and changes to the eastern direction after passing through the angle station near the intersection of Burnaby Mountain Parkway and Centennial Way. The peak terminal will be located within Naheeno Park, just south of the intersection of South Campus Road and Gaglardi Way.
The travel time for this 3.6-km-long route with seven towers, not including the angle station, is 10 minutes. The route is also within close proximity to Trans Mountain’s Burnaby Mountain tank farm.
The construction cost for the third route is significantly higher than the first route, but no precise figure was provided. Detailed cost estimates will be made if a detoured route is selected as the preferred option.
The towers for the options could rise as high as 100 metres (328 feet) to ensure there is a safe clearance over buildings and trees as the topography rises. The elevation gain from Production Way-University Station to the top of Burnaby Mountain is about 300 metres (984 feet).
In an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized, TransLink project director Jeffrey Busby says all routes have a similar ridership potential because the travel time is substantially more competitive to the buses.
“Even if one of the route options that is likely longer is selected, it’s still more time competitive than taking the alternative,” said Busby.
“We’re projecting that most people will switch from taking buses to the gondola, even if they have to go a little bit out of their way to get to the gondola station on the SkyTrain network.”
The main differentiators are the environmental and neighbourhood footprint impacts, as well as construction and operating costs.
On the matter of privacy for the residential neighbourhood, particularly for the first route option, TransLink is providing visualizations of the perspective from the cabins when they glide over these areas, so that the public has a sense of the proximity to the buildings.
Information from ropeway suppliers will address possible safety, noise, and privacy issues, and the potential ways to mitigate these impacts, such as the ability for cabin windows to have glass that automatically frosts over during certain sections of the route.
The operating cost for the first route option is approximately $4 million — about 30% lower than the existing buses. Due to the longer length with additional towers and an angle station, the operating costs for the second and third route options are significantly higher.
This month-long public consultation on the gondola’s route is in response to Burnaby city council’s tentative approval of the project in May 2019, with the stipulation that TransLink thoroughly examine and seek public input on the three route options, including the route from Lake City Way Station.
Subsequently, in July 2019, the Mayors’ Council approved the detailed planning process for the project.
Prior to COVID-19, TransLink was exploring tapping into the federal green infrastructure fund to move the project forward. But it is still unfunded at this time, with no senior government funding source and timeline identified.
After this engagement, TransLink will return to the City of Burnaby in late 2020 or early 2021 with the details and public consultation results, allowing city council to establish their preferred route option.
Afterwards, the costs of the preferred route option will be refined and brought to the Mayors’ Council, which will make a decision on when and if the project will proceed.
“I think there is quite a bit of advantage to having a preferred route identified, because it reduces the amount of uncertainty on where the project would go,” continued Busby.
“It would allow us to work closely with Burnaby and SFU to make sure their developments anticipate and incorporate the gondola route. I think there’s some advantage in completing this work even if there are uncertainties on the specifics on how this project can be delivered.”
TransLink is proposing a 3S gondola system — just like Whistler Blackcomb’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola — with three cables that permit the use of larger cabins for a higher passenger capacity. This also provides greater stability in the wind and additional redundancy for safety and security, compared to the single-cable technology used by the Sea to Sky Gondola near Squamish and the Disney Skyliner at Walt Disney World.
The Burnaby Mountain Gondola’s cabins, departing less than one minute apart, will each have a capacity for 35 passengers. It would have a maximum system carrying capacity of at least 3,000 passengers per hour per direction.
While aerial gondolas are synonymous with ski resorts, they are increasingly being used as a cost-effective public transit solution in urban settings.
Busby says there is a growing number of urban gondola transit lines in Europe and South America that move as many, if not more, people than what is expected for the new link to SFU Burnaby.
The online public consultation will run from September 1 to 30, 2020.