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Op-ed: Despite new mayors’ promises, transit extensions require population density, sound business models, to work

Written by Alex Boston, Executive Director, Renewable Cities. This op-ed originally appeared in the November 6, 2018 edition of the Georgia Straight.

It has taken a decade to get all three levels of government on board for a new rapid transit deal for Metro Vancouver. Just as we are about to leave the station, two incoming mayors — Surrey’s Doug McCallum and Vancouver’s Kennedy Stewart — have threatened to take us off the rails. The first advocates higher-cost SkyTrain over light rail. The second aims to extend the Millennium Line to the University of B.C.

Regionally, we have to understand these business cases before we can get back on track with a shared plan.

While Premier John Horgan has indicated that the region needs to figure this out, successive provincial governments have helped create this situation.

In the U.S., an analysis of more than 50 rapid transit systems found a litany of poor investments. In numerous situations, the high capital costs did not deliver the desired ridership, revenues or congestion reductions. The primary explanation: insufficient resident and job density.

Forward-thinking states and provinces have established resident and job density targets for different types of transit infrastructure. In California, municipalities are required to develop regional integrated transportation and land-use plans that meet shared greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Once plans show reduced commuting distances and increased transportation choices, federal and state transportation funding is unlocked. This requirement has led to California’s best regional planning ever, with additional benefits to public health, farmland protection and affordability.

To guarantee taxpayer value, B.C. should follow suit and establish performance requirements for transit investments. This would help the public separate bona fide rapid transit schemes from boondoggles. At some $150 million per km, there is no legitimate business case for SkyTrain to far-flung, seaside communities such as White Rock and Dundarave, despite calls from politicians.

Similarly, the province, feds, TransLink and every Metro Vancouver municipality share ambitious GhG reduction targets, which are also off track. The mayors’ transit vision has been justified in part as a climate action investment. However, TransLink’s analysis shows congestion and GhG will continue to rise. Could the $8.5-billion investment reduce gridlock and GhGs? Certainly! It would require deeper integration of land-use plans with transportation infrastructure investments.

Could McCallum’s SkyTrain expansion across Surrey serve the best interests of regional taxpayers? Sure, if jobs and residential growth are focussed around mass transit stations instead of new neighbourhoods far from good transit. Encouragingly, McCallum has previously emphasized the need for concentrating growth around transit stations.

Langley City, with one of the region’s slowest growth rates, likely won’t have a solid business case for SkyTrain for two decades. LRT is more economically viable, but still requires more complete, compact design than planned.

The business case for Stewart’s SkyTrain extension to UBC is complex. UBC’s population is greater than most B.C. municipalities — all concentrated within a couple square kilometres. While UBC’s density justifies SkyTrain, low populations between UBC and Arbutus weaken the business case for extension. Focussing growth around nodes along 10th, Broadway and Jericho lands could change this math.

Metro Vancouver’s best bet to cut congestion and GhGs would be intensification around under-utilized SkyTrain stations in Burnaby, the Tri-Cities, New Westminster and Vancouver.

Behind their bold promises, the three leaders driving our mass transit agenda have tools to avoid a train wreck. Stewart was an SFU public policy professor interested in effective decision-making. McCallum’s defining trait is respect for taxpayers. Horgan has vowed to meet GhG reduction targets and deliver a comprehensive climate plan. This plan should commit to phasing in transit investments across the region as business cases emerge. To reach our destination cost effectively, all mayors can help better integrate land use into local and regional plans.