In light of TransLink’s newly departed CEO, Tom Prendergast’s parting shot at the SkyTrain Lobby, “It’s overcoming the cultural embracement of SkyTrain that has existed to date.” …… “TransLink is seeking to cut through the pro-SkyTrain “cultural bias”…………….”, which is entrenched in all levels of civic and provincial bureaucracy; we should look at the warnings given almost a decade ago about the pitfalls with SkyTrain and light-metro.
Charlie Smith has been and is the most knowledgeable reporter on regional transit issues and his relentless investigative reporting on SkyTrain has shed much light on the troubled light-metro. Certainly this article sheds some light on how our regional transit planning has been skewed to favor only a SkyTrain solution.
Though a truncated, generic heavy-rail metro was built instead of SkyTrain, it is interesting to have a look back and see how accurate Charlie Smith was about SkyTrain and the RAV/Canada & Evergreen Lines and the financial mess that TransLink is in today.
“Skytrain gathers speed despite cost to taxpayers”
Georgia Strait,, February 8 – February 15, 2001
For more than two years, Lower Mainland critics of SkyTrain have waged a noisy and so far futile battle against expansion of the rapid-transit system. Four NDP cabinet ministers who have overseen the project-Joy MacPhail, Jenny Kwan, Graeme Bowbrick, and Mike Farnworth-have casually dismissed any arguments about the prohibitive cost of building SkyTrain.
Critics such as environmentalist Deming Smith, light-rail advocate Malcolm Johnston, transit consultant Ron Stromberg, UBC academic Peter Boothroyd, and neighbourhood activist Phil LeGood have also failed to persuade civic politicians on the boards of TransLink and the Greater Vancouver Regional District that extending SkyTrain will do nothing for traffic congestion and air pollution.
Even if SkyTrain is built to Coquitlam and to the corner of Granville Street and Broadway, there will be just 17,000 people on the system during the peak morning rush hour, according to the provincial Rapid Transit Project Office. That will leave almost half a million others relying on private vehicles and other forms of transit to get to work or school.
Meanwhile, B.C. Auditor General Wayne Strelioff has repeatedly refused requests from antitax crusader Liz James and environmental activist Dave Norman to audit the project, even though the Millennium Line is “potentially four months over schedule”, according to a capital-spending review last year by Deloitte Consulting.
At this point, the SkyTrain appears to be unstoppable, driven by powerful forces prepared to flatten any obstacle in its way. Frequently, the critics are dismissed with lectures about the importance of the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategic Plan (Stromberg prefers the term “Gullible Region Strategic Plan”), which can only succeed with a rapid-transit project linking major municipalities. Because provincial and local politicians don’t want to risk the wrath of merchants and drivers who might oppose a street-level light-rail line taking up two lanes of the street, the public is told that a rapid-transit line must be separated from the roadway. More buses are seen as impractical because they don’t “shape development”.
Hence, we get more SkyTrain, at great benefit to the contractors, engineering firms, real-estate developers, and shareholders in Bombardier Inc. To its growing legion of critics, SkyTrain is a disaster for neighbourhoods, taxpayers, and the vast majority of transit riders.
The Millennium Line-linking New Westminster’s Columbia Station with Lougheed Mall and Vancouver Community College’s King Edward campus-is meeting its $1.2-billion budget, the provincial RTPO insists, even though the guideway contractor has put in a claim for at least $35 million in added costs. The cost of another line linking Lougheed Mall with Coquitlam Centre has been estimated at $730 million, with $650 million expected to come from TransLink. Vancouver city hall has estimated the cost of a mostly underground extension from the King Edward campus along the Broadway corridor to Granville at $527 million, though that figure has not been confirmed by the Rapid Transit Project Office and has been ridiculed by SkyTrain critics as too low.
TransLink is reviewing another possible extension linking the airport to Broadway in time for the 2010 Olympic Games, if Vancouver’s bid succeeds; so far, there is no cost estimate and no preferred route. Stromberg has concluded that a $2.5-billion capital project financed over 30 years at a seven-percent interest rate would result in an additional $3.5 billion in interest payments.
On January 31, Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell released an internal government report, written by consultant Alan Greer in 1999, containing shocking allegations about the way the Millennium Line was conceived and approved. The Greer report claimed that “the most relevant information advanced in support of the SkyTrain option was misleading, incomplete or unsubstantiated.” In addition, Greer alleged, there was no ridership analysis to justify the choice of SkyTrain for the so-called T-line linking Columbia station with VCC’s King Edward campus. (The RTPO issued a statement rejecting many of Greer’s allegations, citing ridership estimates contained in a 1995 provincial government study.)
Greer’s report pointed out that the cost of a light-rail maintenance yard was tripled from a 1994-95 estimate to $110 million. The RTPO also used “higher end” prices for light-rail transit cars, Greer claimed, then concluded that SkyTrain cars could be bought at a discount.
Perhaps most troubling, Greer wrote that the company that evaluated the cost of SkyTrain, SNC-Lavalin, had a “direct interest” because it is the preferred engineering firm for SkyTrain systems, which are sold exclusively by Bombardier. “The Lavalin assessment therefore, could best be viewed as a bid of a proponent, competitively crafted to minimize the apparent costs of the project,” Greer wrote.
Campbell compared the SkyTrain extension project to the “fast-ferry fiasco”. However, if history offers any lessons, Campbell’s bombshell and the accompanying two days of media coverage may not be enough to stop the planned extensions.
After all, many of Greer’s criticisms had already been pointed out by UBC’s Boothroyd and his then-graduate student, Tamim Raad, in a detailed 1999 comparison between light-rail and SkyTrain. They concluded that the cost differential between light rail and SkyTrain was either 34 percent, 70 percent, or 133 percent, depending on the assumptions, which meant that the province could have saved between $700 million and $1.6 billion by going with street-level light rail. RTPO had put the cost differential at eight percent.
In 1998, light-rail advocate Louis Guilbault pointed out that the Calgary light-rail project would have cost $28.8 million per kilometre in 1998 dollars, whereas the RTPO’s consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, had claimed that it was $41.1 million. Stromberg demonstrated that a new 10-kilometre SkyTrain line at the JFK Airport in New York City cost $93-million per kilometre, whereas SNC-Lavalin had estimated the cost of SkyTrain to be around $55.5 million per kilometre in the Lower Mainland.
In 1998, the Light Rail for Vancouver Committee had claimed that the latest order of SkyTrain cars from Bombardier cost the equivalent of $42,000 per passenger space, compared to $20,000 per passenger space for light-rail cars in Denver, $24,000 per passenger space for light-rail cars in Dallas, and $26,000 per passenger space for light-rail cars in Portland.
The same year, the minister responsible for SkyTrain, Joy MacPhail, admitted in the legislature that the government had not calculated the cost-recovery on more SkyTrain lines. Cost-recovery is a critical factor in transportation planning, because whatever cannot be collected from users must be covered through government subsidies. Before TransLink was created, SkyTrain consumed 35 percent of BC Transit’s operating and debt-servicing costs while carrying just 15 percent of the passengers, according to then-manager of strategic planning Glen Leicester.
The original SkyTrain from Waterfront Centre to King George Station in Surrey, including the rolling stock, cost $1.23 billion, not including debt-servicing costs. According to a 1998 GVRD consultant’s report, the SkyTrain debt-servicing costs alone for 1997-98 were $143.3 million. So how could a service that costs so much money and carries so few passengers continue to be extended across the region?
Former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm wanted to build a SkyTrain extension from Richmond to Vancouver via Cambie Street but ran into intense opposition from Campbell, then the mayor of Vancouver. On November 15, 1991, the BC Transit board approved the purchase of 60 of the larger Mark II SkyTrain cars after a presentation by BC Transit official Clive Rock, who is now a senior bureaucrat at TransLink. In Opposition, various NDP politicians decried the system, and they stopped the order for 60 SkyTrain cars from going through after assuming power in 1991. Glen Clark said in the legislature in 1994 that it was a “really dumb decision” to build the original SkyTrain, referring to it as a “toy train”.
But pressure was building in a different direction. The wily premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, persuaded Premier Mike Harcourt in 1993 that BC Transit could benefit by helping Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin market the SkyTrain in Asia. In 1995, former BC Transit chairman Eric Denhoff told the Georgia Straight that he had argued vehemently in favour of adding up to 50 new large SkyTrain cars before the Crown corporations secretariat reduced the order.
Denhoff and BC Transit vice-president Bob Tribe eventually negotiated a smaller, 20-car purchase from Bombardier, and were later hired by SNC-Lavalin. As chairman of SNC-Lavalin’s B.C. development board, Denhoff persuaded the provincial government to sign a deal in 1995 to help market the SkyTrain abroad, bringing Bourassa’s vision to fruition.
Under the agreement, SNC-Lavalin would retain B.C.-based engineering firms to complete at least 25 percent of all detailed engineering work. Perhaps most significantly, the deal granted SNC-Lavalin at least 25 percent of the outsourced project management and engineering work if BC Transit decided to extend the SkyTrain in the Lower Mainland.
This put the provincial government in an awkward position. It could reap financial rewards if SkyTrain was built in Asian cities, but it would be a difficult sale if a different form of rapid transit was chosen for the Lower Mainland. A month earlier, the provincial government had issued a report suggesting that light rail made the most sense in attracting development and containing costs. For the GVRD, light rail was a cornerstone for meeting the objectives of the Livable Region Strategic Plan.
Campbell, as the former chairman of the GVRD, played a key role in developing the plan, which described how population increases could be accommodated across the region while preserving greenspace and agricultural land. Developed at a time of extremely high interprovincial and international immigration, the plan called for big population increases in Coquitlam and Port Moody. Conveniently for Campbell, it allowed much of Vancouver to remain zoned single-family.
After former premier Harcourt and Clark together announced the light-rail projects in September 1995, a GVRD staff report went to the board saying that BC Transit didn’t have the expertise to build light rail. Instead of hiring someone with light-rail experience to oversee the project, then-premier Glen Clark chose Lecia Stewart, a former journalist who had developed the West Coast Express commuter-rail line.
Commuter rail was relatively simple compared with the plan to build street-level light-rail across the region. Vancouver Coun. George Puil, quickly becoming the most powerful civic politician in the region, publicly doubted the wisdom of a light-rail line on Broadway because he said it would tie up traffic and eliminate streetside parking. As a result of municipal concerns, Stewart’s office decided it would be necessary to keep the train off the street in many areas, boosting the cost.
According to Greer’s report, Stewart’s office was already studying the possibility of building SkyTrain in 1997, even though it had been rejected by Clark and Harcourt. In June, 1998, Clark shocked GVRD politicians by announcing that SkyTrain would be built instead of light-rail.
To reinforce the wisdom of the decision, RTPO hired a construction-cost expert, Tony Steadman, to perform due diligence on the cost estimates for SkyTrain and light rail before they were examined by SNC-Lavalin and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Meanwhile, the TransLink board continues going along with the SkyTrain expansions, even though it could legally veto investing $650 million on the Coquitlam extension. Coun. Gordon Price, previously a critic of SkyTrain, introduced a motion at Vancouver city council endorsing its expansion along Broadway to Granville Street. To the Non-Partisan Association majority on council, it didn’t matter that Harvard transit researcher Jonathan E.D. Richmond had concluded in a 1998 study of 15 North American cities that “there had been no case where new rail service had been shown to noticeably improve highway congestion or air quality.”
Campbell has a choice. He could attend the TransLink annual budget meeting on February 16 and tell the directors that he opposes the $650-million investment in the Coquitlam SkyTrain extension. For good measure, he might add that building SkyTrain along Broadway is also a silly investment if the objective is to alleviate traffic congestion. Or he could continue supporting his Livable Region Strategic Plan. Because the way things have developed, it’s going to be difficult to do both.