Can a streetcar solve Vancouver's Broadway corridor conundrum

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The following is a guest post by Mike Klassen (@MikeKlassen), a Vancouver communications professional. 

Now that the wraps have been taken off the design plans for Evergreen Line stations the reality is setting in – rapid transit is finally coming to Metro Vancouver’s Tri-Cities area. However, questions continue to linger about Translink’s capacity to handle the inevitable increased ridership at Skytrain’s busiest choke point, the station at Broadway and Commercial.

It is estimated that this extension of Skytrain out to Coquitlam, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam will quickly generate a ridership of 70,000 strong. But there’s an obvious question: where will passengers go when they arrive at Broadway station? Thousands of daily commuters will need to continue westward through the dense Broadway corridor, and all the way out to the UBC campus.

All political bickering aside regarding Translink’s priorities and lack of funding mechanisms to expand rapid transit, the reality is that Vancouver’s Broadway corridor currently has a ridership of over 100,000 passengers daily, half of those on the B-Line bus route alone. It is the busiest bus commuter route in North America, and recent reports say that there is no more capacity for additional buses.

Furthermore, twenty-five percent of Vancouver’s economy is generated within the West Broadway corridor. Improving transit is therefore fundamental to our city’s future success. The unrelenting growth of UBC as a new urban centre should also put Broadway atop the transit priorities for regional politicians.

Yet when it comes to Broadway rapid transit (also known as the UBC Line), Vancouver faces a stalemate. It begs the question – why?

It’s About Leadership

The answer is clear: there is no leadership coming from Vancouver. For all its efforts to brand itself as a green Mecca, nothing drops greenhouse gas emissions faster than effective rapid transit. If you truly want green for Vancouver, then your top priority should be the UBC Line.

For real leadership on rapid transit, look no further than Surrey. Three years ago only a handful of proponents thought that light rail south of the Fraser was viable. Today, light rapid transit in Surrey is in a dead heat with Broadway as a regional transportation priority after Evergreen Line. Credit the fact that Mayor Dianne Watts herself tells anyone who will listen that she is going to get it built.

By contrast, Vancouver’s government has been virtually silent on the subject of Broadway rapid transit over the past four years. It is possible that Mayor Robertson, who built his political reputation bashing the BC government over disruptions caused by Canada Line construction, fears a Broadway business backlash by even raising the subject. Notably, a key Vision Vancouver 2011 campaign promise was to champion better bus service on Broadway, though there has been scant news on that front since last year.

Where Vancouver needed to wield its influence the most was at Translink’s Mayors Council meetings. Yet Robertson skipped half of them, sending Coun. Geoff Meggs in his place. Meggs, for his part, is now using delays on Broadway line development as a campaign issue for his Vancouver-Fairview NDP candidacy. After four years in office, Vancouver’s failure to build support for Broadway rapid transit hardly ranks as an accomplishment for either Robertson or Meggs.

Prospects for rapid transit on the Broadway corridor got even gloomier after this recent opinion column by CBC Radio host Stephen Quinn. He quotes SFU’s Gord Price, who says he thinks rapid transit on Broadway will “not be built in his lifetime“.

How About a Streetcar?

So where can Vancouver go? Its hands are not only tied by Translink’s financial struggles, but the surging success of Surrey’s politicking is also setting Vancouver back even further. There is one solution to relieve the pressure on Broadway that Robertson’s office seem to have slammed the door shut on: a streetcar along the south shore of False Creek.

During the 2011 civic election, re-energizing Vancouver’s streetcar program was a key plank of the NPA campaign under Suzanne Anton. I sat in meetings with stakeholders where we discussed how Vancouver could “go it alone”, building its own streetcar system with the help of a private partner. Though public-private partnerships are responsible for some of the most successful infrastructure developments across the globe, “P3s” are apparently not a part of the Vision-NDP vocabulary.

Integrated with the existing bus and rapid transit systems, a streetcar line could link the VCC-Clark Skytrain station (Millennium Line terminus) with a new rapid bus connection located at Arbutus and Broadway. A railway right-of-way exists for much that entire route. The section by southeast False Creek is currently under redevelopment and promises to bring thousands of new commuters. While it cannot match the ridership nor the speed of Skytrain, it could take many UBC-bound commuters off the overburdened 99 B-line west of Commercial.

A Political Twist

Don’t just take my word for it though. Commentator Bob Ransford argued for the same scheme in a Vancouver Sun column back in 2010. The one-time NPA campaign worker cum Vision turncoat stated, “With a $3-billion price tag, you can do all the studies you want, but the project will never happen.” Ransford continued…

The Olympic Line streetcar project can be built for one quarter the cost of any SkyTrain extension. The city owns most of the right-of-way that would allow a streetcar to run between the Clark Drive SkyTrain station, the Canada Line Olympic Village station and Granville Island. It wouldn’t be that difficult to secure a right-of-way all the way to Arbutus Street. This routing would tie together all the SkyTrain lines and service the densest part of the Broadway corridor. A rapid bus line from Arbutus could adequately continue to service UBC.

…the project is a perfect one for a public-private partnership where a private company designs, builds, operates and maintains the streetcar line in return for the fare box revenue and perhaps a small operating subsidy. If the city was willing to entertain a corporate sponsor being granted naming rights for the streetcar line, it’s likely that subsidy could be covered with annual advertising fees from naming rights. In effect, the streetcar line could be built and operated at little or no cost to taxpayers.

In an ironic twist Ransford’s Vision pals tried to discredit the NPA’s streetcar proposal, and still rules it out as an option today. Politics, as this example proves, makes for strange bedfellows.

As I stated earlier, what is missing here is the “L” word – leadership. Ransford reached the same conclusion, saying…

It takes leadership to put together a creative structure like this that could make the project possible. Without the city taking the lead, though, we might never see this project or any other streetcar line actually get off the ground. That means we may never see the full potential of sustainable urbanism and real livability in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods.

For citizens stuck queuing up for buses at Commercial Drive every morning, the least Vancouver could do is indicate that they are keeping an open mind about a streetcar, and call for proposals.

Will it ever happen? Pigs will fly sooner.

Image credit: Gordon Price

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