Transit Expert Looks at Vancouver RAV


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- or - Opening the Project's Can of Worms:  Whew!

In April [2003], the Society hired Ron Stromberg, an internationally experienced transit consultant, to review the reports and technical specifications for the Translink ghost train (RAV) to Richmond. Here's what he and our analysis team has found so far:

  1. The ridership projections, both in trips and revenues,are grossly over-estimated. The recently built Millenium Line projections were similarly overblown, and so it bleeds more red ink than publically projected

    Traffic to support this Richmond or RAV system is simply not there, and never will be, on Cambie, on Arbutus, or anywhere else southward. Forecasts of 100,000 trips a day are perhaps three times too high. If the entire bus ridership on all routes southward on the west side of Vancouver shifted to the train (assuming they could find it on Cambie with a bus or on foot), RAV still couldn't find anywhere near that many passengers.

  2. Train alignments for the premature and hasty bid proposals for Cambie would suggest that only a surface Skytrain would work for the above-ground portions. This fact leads to a suspicion that any $450 million federal funding would come with a string: the Llberal party's best corporate friend would get the gravy, while the City's residents would get the shaft, or more specifically a shaft attached to giant, ugly concrete columns littering the cityscape, corrupting property values and bleeding red ink.

    Even if the political fix were not in for the surface rail portion of RAV, the ground profile would discourage a conventional light rail alignment. So it's underground all the way, or underground to 37th/43rd/46th/63rd (pick one, say plans to date), then Skytrain, gigantic ugly columns and screeching trains and intrusive stations and all. Of course, across the river and into the bog, the train can't be buried (see Item 5).

  3. Cost estimates and financing sources are incoherent, suggesting that the project has no fiscal wheels - for example, the federal and private sector investor portions of some $750 million do not yet exist. The federal authorities mumble vaguely about maybe $260 million, but then -- .Only the province's and the airport's pledges of $300 million each seem firm, along with Translink's $300 million, which it will borrow under provincial auspices. That's $900 million of our money firmly committed and poised on the brink of large, unprofitable sink-hole. The public will face gigantic property and other tax increases to pay for the line's revenue shortfalls, estimated officially to be some $70 to 80 million a year in the first years, but likely to be treble that, and for much longer periods.

    RAV will cost more than $1.7 billion, and will require more year-to-year capital and operating cost subsidy than Translink estimates. Considering the province's arms-length, if not stand-offish relationship with Translink's finances, the train will inevitably bring a hard rain of severe property tax increases on the entire GVRD region. That's worth repeating: RAV spells gigantic tax increases on property.

  4. The Arbutus corridor, particularly if used as an underground route, would have considerably more developmental potential for residential and commercial densification through rezoning. Since the City politicians have expressed an interest in acquiring the Arbutus Line, they perhaps have densification in mind. Where densification occurs, so does demand for transit, whether it be train, bus or through better road systems. That makes Arbutus the prime candidate for transit south. Even so, a Richmond train makes no financial or transportation sense there, even if built on that existing rail line, contiguous as it is to underdeveloped city areas. Thin traffic and high costs again argue against wasteful investment.
  5. Richmond has severely limited potential as a future transit trip generator, since its flood plain condition restricts its potential for densification, as GVRD planners have been at pains to point out to Richmond's obscenely expansionist politicians for years. A densely developed Richmond represents a potentially gigantic catastrophe clean-up bill for all Canadian taxpayers in the event of the inevitable flood, earthquake or spate of global warming. Most of West Richmond has water table levels that make Holland look Sahara-like. Meanwhile its planning so far owes much to the example of Baghdad or Havana, or other Third World hellholes.

    So densification in Richmond won't rationalize train ridership. Nor will new densities along Cambie Boulevard, according to Vancouver planners, who claim they do not see higher densities triggered by RAV, and would resist much rezoning. There isn't potential for such rezoning anyway, short of entirely pillaging the Cambie Corridor and areas closeby. Of course, if one does pillage, land values on balance fall, and people move, and your train runs empty through a blight-ridden wasteland. Does that remind one of Skytrain's effects in some areas so far?

    So if not an instrument for densification, as described as its general purpose by the GVRD's senior planners, then the train serves no useful public purpose. The customers will never emerge. And the red ink would flow into infinity, as trains screech through ruined neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

  6. Airport-to-downtown train systems fail in cities where the airport is close to downtown, and the road system allows more effective cab and bus systems for passengers and luggage. Sydney, Australia's bankrupt, under-used airport connector demonstrates the most recent example of such failure --- built for Sydney's Olympics, of course.

    Vancouver's RAV would demonstrate again that political insanity, like other manifestations of psychological disfunction, consists of doggedly and obsessively making the same mistakes, again and again. The previous NPA council in Vancouver was a prime exemplar of such pathology. This council is considerably smarter. But are they smart enough?

  7. Any thorough, legimate cost-benefit analysis would show very large negative net present values for this project. The only significant worthy beneficiary of the system would be those users not living on the corridor. The other beneficiaries are planners, engineers, construction companies and political insiders with short-term profits in mind. The costs are much more widespread and enormous than these benefits. Translink and its captive consultants have ignored all externality or loss of amenity costs. For example, what is noise and sight pollution worth? What is the value of the loss of Cambie Boulevard? What would a rigid, fixed link train system do to warp further transit planning and land development options? And so a list runs on, countless questions, orphaned of answers, trampled by Translink's stampede toward a disastrous megaproject.
  8. The RAV project will further bleed to anemia a bus system already badly wounded by Skytrain's appropriation of a disproportionate piece of the region's transit budget to provide a small portion of its transit trips. Expanding the Skytrain fiscal vampire's domain southward would add another link to a chain of strategic catastrophes in transit planning.

    Cost comparisons are illustrative.  Buses cost $6,000 a seat annually and its operator gets 50% of this from its user. Skytrain costs $36,000 a seat and gets 10% of that from its riders. The buses per capita statistic in the region has dropped from one bus per 1,200 people in 1983 to one per 1,700 now. buses are more flexible, cheaper and much more comprehensive than a fixed link train. Yet Translink robs Vancouver of buses and budget to purchase ever more expensive, unprofitable and ineffective trains that destroy amenity values and run inflexibly on the wrong routes.

  9. The public has no idea what RAV actually will look like or what technology route or form it might take. The City avoids Skytrain to some extent because its hideous physical manifestation and financial impacts are known. RAV's train promises more nightmares, of inchoate shape and cost, to be approved by City Council before the project form has solidified around a "winning" bid.

    Planning with loaded dice, this. Vancouver could still get Skytrain. Yet its only role in this process, according to City Engineer Dave Rudberg, is to "advise" Translink as to its preferences. Perhaps "take your gravy train and shove it" might serve. We live in hope.


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