CVN writes Premier Horgan on transit plans for City of Vancouver: Questions, costs, alternatives

On April 23, 2018, the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods wrote the following letter to Premier John Horgan and other key officials.

Discussions are at an advanced stage regarding a multi-billion dollar transportation plan for the Metro Vancouver region, with a large portion of the funds supposedly being dedicated to a “Broadway Subway” from Commercial Station to Arbutus, and eventually to UBC. CVN raises questions, asks for clarification, and suggests alternatives.

As of May 4, CVN has still not received any acknowledgement of receipt from any recipients.


April 23, 2018

Premier John Horgan
Hon. Claire Trevena, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure
Mayor Corrigan, Chair of Mayors’ Council, Metro Vancouver
Vancouver MLAs

Re: Transit Mode for City of Vancouver

Recently, we have seen the release of promised Federal and Provincial funds earmarked for transit improvements in Metro Vancouver. The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (CVN) has some concerns with how those funds could be implemented.

Completing the Millennium Line from the VCC Station to the Cambie and Broadway Station makes logical sense. It provides the link for the Skytrain system for passengers travelling from Surrey (and the Valley) to the Airport.

What needs to be reassessed is system progress from that point. The Mayors’ Council Vision has called for rapid transit along Broadway from Commercial Station to Arbutus, and eventually to UBC. The mode of this extension is not spelled out in the Mayors’ Vision. In an atmosphere of limited funds and a need for fiscal responsibility, we should be wise and frugal, while meeting the needs and requirements of the future. Barring an unexpected economic downturn, prices will not decrease, but will continue to rise. All of which brings many questions:

  1. What mode supports best options resulting in less single occupancy vehicle travel?
  2. What mode supports best options for housing affordability?
  3. What mode supports best options resulting in enhancement and growth of existing neighbourhoods?
  4. What mode supports best options resulting in support for local businesses?
  5. What mode supports best options resulting in earliest build out and transition to full service on widest coverage?
  6. What mode supports best options resulting in lowest cost while providing needed capacity?

We continue to believe that a surface rail (SR) extension (like Bombardier’s Olympic Line of 2010, not Skytrain) to the existing system along Broadway, as part of a multi-modal network (MMN) across the City (which would include a combination of higher-capacity, zero-emission electric streetcars, articulated trolleybuses and surface rail, as capacities require), provides the best options for answering the above questions.

To clarify:

  1. If you provide a good, efficient transit network covering a much wider area of the city than only one corridor, you are increasing the accessibility of transit to a much larger and broader segment of residents.
  2. The City has indicated that its share of the extra costs related to building transit along the Broadway Corridor will be financed by development fees. They have also said that this will mean higher densities around the nodes of transit stations. Given the significantly higher costs of a subway, this will mean high-rise development. We have seen the record of recent history, and it does not show evidence of any ‘affordability’ in the high-rise development sector. If a network (MMN) were built, with its significantly lower costs, there would be less pressure for extreme densities in limited locations, more allowance for somewhat lower densities throughout neighbourhoods. This would result in somewhat more affordable housing. (See also Appendix to our letter of 9/26/16, attached)
  3. Existing neighbourhood structure and character is one of the strengths and attractions of Vancouver as a city. Proposed Skytrain station locations are not central to existing neighbourhoods. A SR extension, as part of a network, allows and provides for a more incremental approach to densification in existing neighbourhoods, enhancing the growth of what already exists. Higher densities at stations in areas peripheral to existing neighbourhoods would destroy them. (see also #2 above)
  4. At-grade modes of transit give you a visual connection to what you are travelling through, and an on-off option to take part in the life of that community, including shopping. A tunneled train would not. Also, the most likely to be used construction method for Skytrain of cut and cover will be a huge cost to local businesses in lost revenues or loss of their businesses (see Cambie Corridor).
  5. Recent estimates show that a SR/MMN system could be built out in approximately 2-3 years versus a Skytrain system taking 15-20 years, if completed as proposed to UBC. A multi-modal network alone would require even less time. If we are at all concerned about climate change, we need to act more quickly than 15-20 years in getting people to transition out of their cars.
  6. Various studies, including Translink’s own (Phase 2 Evaluation Report, UBC Line Rapid Transit Study, Aug. 2012), show that a surface rail extension can provide the needed capacity for the next 30 years at a cost estimated to be 1/3 to 1/6th the cost of a Skytrain system. For comparison: on left, Skytrain, on right for same cost, SR/MMN network.

Image showing single Broadway subway line, serving a small area of Vancouver Image showing a grid of transit lines, serving nearly the entire area of Vancouver

Other concerns:

  • No updated financial estimates; governments currently using 2012/2014 numbers;
  • No estimate by City of Vancouver for tunneling operations payable by CoV (us);
  • Cost of Skytrain technology: more expensive to service/repair; too many different systemic variables (different track gauges, car sizes, etc.); billions to maintain/repair/update our old existing systems; stations too small, costly to expand;
  • Most of the new systems around the world are surface rail: a clue?

We are not asking for a start-over. We are requesting that you consider this transit solution holistically: look at Vancouver Metro’s needs, not just each individual city. If an SR and/or MMN mode is selected, then it becomes possible to share purchase power with Surrey, perhaps others, to use economies of scale to purchase together. We believe it’s more productive to look at long term needs to provide a network for all municipalities within Metro, not just Surrey or Vancouver, to link systems together to really provide access to all, and to best transition people away from car usage. Be truly Green.

Additionally, we are requesting that the options be revisited with meaningful consultation, full transparency and clear and available data. We are aware that the subway was promoted through the Mayors’ Council by the current Vancouver mayor without full disclosure of the different options. Vancouver did not support the subway in the plebiscite. The decision on mode should be made by the next Mayors’ Council given that significant change will result from the fall election. Consideration should be given to a slightly different option from those articulated in the 2012 Steer Davies Gleave report: Skytrain link from VCC to Cambie and Broadway, with surface rail from Commercial to UBC, as part of a multi-modal network providing access to good transit for all of Vancouver.

We want to do this right; we need to do this right.


Larry Benge, Co-Chair
Dorothy Barkley, Co-Chair

On behalf of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods
Member Groups of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods

Arbutus Ridge Community Association
Arbutus Ridge/ Kerrisdale/ Shaughnessy Visions
Cedar Cottage Area Neighbours
Chinatown Action Group
Citygate Intertower Group
Community Association of New Yaletown
Crosstown Residents Association
Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council
Dunbar Residents Association
False Creek Residents Association
Grandview Woodland Area Council
Granville Burrard Residents & Business Association
Joyce Area Residents
Kitsilano-Arbutus Residents Association
Kits Point Residents Association
Marpole Residents Coalition
Norquay Residents
NW Point Grey Home Owners Association
Oakridge Langara Area Residents
Residents Association Mount Pleasant
Riley Park/South Cambie Visions
Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association
Strathcona Residents Association
Upper Kitsilano Residents Association
West End Neighbours Society
West Kitsilano Residents Association
West Point Grey Residents Association




Negative impacts of transit tied to high density transit-oriented development
The Metro Vancouver Region’s designation of major transit infrastructure routes as Frequent Transit Development Areas (FTDA) encourages, requires and supports extremely high density development. This is the city and region’s proposed direction for the area referred to as the Broadway Corridor from Nanaimo/Commercial Drive to UBC, 4th Avenue to 16th Avenue. While this plan would involve a radical transformation of the Broadway Corridor and affected neighbourhoods, public consultation has been minimal with community input not reflected in the plan.

The proposed first phase of development of the Corridor is identified to be a subway from Vancouver Community College to Arbutus Street. If the first phase is approved, the city has indicated it would be also looking at land use designations west of Arbutus to UBC in anticipation of a phase two extension of a subway to UBC. This will have significant impacts on neighbourhoods in and surrounding the Broadway Corridor without their support.

Under this scheme for the Broadway Corridor, the City’s Transportation 2040 policies and the KPMG report propose that development could be similar to that of the Cambie Corridor, on the Oakridge Mall scale (redevelopment approval added 11 towers up to 45 storeys in height) as a model for sites such as the Jericho Lands. This scheme would not be an appropriate fit for our neighbourhoods and would destroy its existing character and not provide the kinds of medium density family-oriented housing that are so desperately needed in our city.

Worse yet is the very real possibility that neighbourhoods could be transformed by transit-oriented development and densification well in advance of transit infrastructure that may not be provided for decades, if ever. Meanwhile, intense levels of new development would add further congestion to the already severe impacts of UBC commuter traffic.

Amenities Starved for Transit Funds
Problems arise if subway funding is tied to a Public Private Partnership (P3) model, or if development is used to fund transit. These funding models would divert Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) paid by developers into funds that would pay for transit rather than for amenities for the community and its increased population. This is an unacceptable form of downloading the cost of transit onto cities and communities.

The Future of Transit
It is by no means certain that, in the long term, future transit systems will be dominated by large scale high cost projects. It is clear from the recent transit plebiscite that the public is fed up with continually paying for high cost transit, and is demanding more accountability.

Proponents of a Broadway Corridor subway would like to boil the choice of options down to efficiency and “megaproject” economic stimulus. However, the broader implications of competing public transit visions for Vancouver and its neighbourhoods are vastly more complicated and significant.

There are other options to promoting a nodal pattern of high-rise development through high-cost underground rapid transit on a single corridor. Others advocate for a high-capacity, at-grade transit network that is more evenly distributed and reinforces a pattern and scale of urban development that is more affordable, livable, socially productive and supports businesses on a broader city-wide scale.

Studies have shown that a more evenly distributed transit network is also more cost effective (see below results of a UBC- based study). These studies indicate that it is also vastly more sustainable from an environmental perspective to replace existing fossil- fuelled diesel buses with a combination of higher-capacity, zero-emission electric streetcars and articulated trolleybuses. The existing transit grid could have more frequent transit and expanded routes throughout the city and on key routes of heavy demand.

For the price of this….

Image showing single Broadway subway line, serving a small area of Vancouver

We can have this…

Image showing a grid of transit lines, serving nearly the entire area of Vancouver

Equivalent electric streetcar network deliverable for same cost of proposed Broadway Corridor subway
(Condon, et al, 2008, The case for the tram; learning from Portland, Sustainability by Design – An examination of alternatives to an underground extension of the Millennium Line to UBC, Foundational Research Bulletin, No. 6.)

How This Affects Us
There is a real danger that our neighbourhoods, and in particular larger sites such as the Jericho Lands, could be planned and built based on an outdated approach and faulty assumptions. Many informed sources suggest that a nodal based approach to transit, based on transit megaprojects and high rise development, is probably not the way of the future as some have suggested.

The Federal Liberal Party platform said only that they would support “rapid” transit on Broadway, but rapid transit can take a variety of forms other than a subway. Rapid transit could instead be streetcars or rapid electric trolley buses, or other combinations of grade level transit at a fraction of the cost as noted in the example above.