Weekday ridership on the $2-billion Canada Line has surpassed the 100,000-rider mark for four months in a row — an average the line wasn’t supposed to reach until 2013, The Province has learned.
Even factoring in lower weekend ridership, the seven-day weekly average on the rapid-transit line has still been building so steadily that it’s almost at 100,000, too.
If the boom continues, it could mean TransLink’s debt on the project could be paid off years sooner than expected, even though the overall cost grew over the years.
While the Canada Line was announced as coming in ahead of schedule and on budget, that budget changed as the plans for the line changed.
Back in 2004 and 2005, the project’s costs were pegged at $1.5 to $1.7 billion. By 2006, with inflation and financing costs, the line’s cost was tabbed at $2.05 billion.
In her investigation of TransLink last year, B.C. comptroller-general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland pegged the cost of operating the line at as much as $21 million a year more than fares would cover — and she said that situation would last until 2025.
“For example, the cost of operating the Canada Line . . . is expected to exceed the additional system revenue it generates until 2025, with costs exceeding incremental revenues by $14 to $21 million for most years until then,” she wrote.
TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said Thursday that scenario could be getting brighter.
“When we’ve hit the figures we’ve hit three years early, it simply suggests we’re going to hit the break-even point earlier,” Hardie said. “It would be nice if it was three years, or even more, early.
“Right now, we’re on target to hit the break-even point in 2022, but if we keep going the way we’re going it could be even sooner than that — which would be nice.”
After a controversial construction period in which businesses struggled to deal with the Canada Line’s open ditch on their doorsteps, the connection between downtown Vancouver, Richmond and Vancouver International Airport opened ahead of schedule, with great fanfare, on Aug. 17 last year.
The line came into its own during the 2010 Winter Olympics. With access to much of downtown Vancouver restricted, local riders were forced on to public transit and people coming in from the airport began to use the taxi-free alternative.
It was during the Games that the line hit a single-day high of more than 280,000 riders, and Hardie says the positive Olympic experience is one of the reasons for increased ridership.
“It gave a lot of people the chance to try the line,” he said.
April was the first complete month in which weekday ridership exceeded 100,000, with an average of 101,676. The figure climbed to 104,682 in May, 106,320 in June and 107,198 in July.
When the lower-ridership weekend days are factored in, the May average was 94,223 rides daily. It increased to 97,969 in June and 99,210 in July.
Hardie also attributed the Canada Line ridership to the fact there are a lot of destinations on the line — downtown Vancouver, the airport and Richmond Centre.
“It wasn’t just a matter of commuters flocking one way in the morning and the other way in the afternoon,” he said. “In fact, there would be fairly strong ridership in both directions.”
The final factor in increased ridership came whenTransLink successfully integrated its system to allow bus riders to be fed into the rapid-transit line.
A quick Province survey of passengers this week revealed a generally satisfied ridership.
Grace Brunger, 27, was riding a southbound train with her bike, heading for Southlands to go horseback riding.
“It’s cheap; it’s fast,” said the Coal Harbour resident. “I can get anywhere.
“I don’t even have a car,” added Brunger, a newcomer to Vancouver. “Even with my bike, I can always get on right away.”
The line was a good investment, she said, “better than roads.”
Still, clouds remain on the Canada Line horizon.
Richmond councillors Ken Johnston, Bill McNulty and Derek Dang issued a press release Thursday calling on TransLink to crack down on fare evaders across the system — including on the Canada Line.
Recently released figures indicate there were 24,000 fare cheats system-wide in 2009, and 550 on the Canada Line in just its first five months of service.
“I’ve personally seen people without monthly passes walking directly past ticket purchase machines and hopping on to trains — with Canada Line “green jacket” staff watching the entire way and doing nothing to stop it,” McNulty said.
The councillors want a crackdown at all stations at all peak hours until fare gates are installed. They’re expected to arrive in 2013, along with new “smart card” technology.
The unhappy councillors cited a 2008 PricewaterhouseCoopers report that estimated there were 4.1 million stolen rides annually, with revenue losses ranging from $5.3 million to $9.4 million.
There are more riders now, so it’s likely there are also more cheaters.