The unaffordable subway

Originally posted by Elizabeth Murphy, June 2016, at Common Ground

Metro Vancouver scheme has the hallmarks of a pro-development and deeply flawed transit strategy

Skytrain Extension

Skytrain Extension 2

Equivalent electric streetcar network deliverable for same cost of proposed Broadway Corridor subway (Prof. Patrick 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.)

Using electric trolley buses or a mix with streetcars would even allow much broader coverage across the region for the same funds as one subway on Broadway.

Providing an expanded and improved transit system is vital to Metro Vancouver and the provincial economy. However, the subway is a poor choice for the Broadway east-west thoroughfare. The current plans and funding models are promoted for corporate interests, but they are not in the public interest.

Last year, the public voted down, by a large margin, the plebiscite for a sales tax increase to cover the Metro Vancouver transportation plan. This plan is actually a real estate and tower development scheme led by a subway. Now the same plan is being put forward again – this time with much more problematic funding options that would put the public in unnecessary massive debt, without any pretence of public support.

The provincial government is failing to provide adequate funding for much needed transit while, at the same time, looking to benefit financially from development along an unaffordable Broadway corridor subway. So the civic level that receives only seven percent of the tax base is being required to take on this provincial funding responsibility (referred to as downloading) without the resources to fulfill it.

The province refuses to consider using the obvious and appropriate funding source: the carbon tax. Funding options being considered are property taxes and development that would be downloading onto cities. Transit fare increases add to the cost of living for those who can least afford it and further discourage transit use.

Property taxes are the main source of funding for civic governments that have correctly resisted provincial moves to try to take them for provincial purposes to fund transit. That resistance is now softening.

Although the property tax mill rate per thousand dollars of property value is considered low in Vancouver, actual property taxes are based on sky-high assessments that affect the cost of homeownership and are passed on to renters. Property taxes are already tapped out for civic purposes.

The proposed property tax increase for funding transit is a wedge in the door to future increases. Current budgets for the subway and the plan are likely way out of date and based on a previously stronger Canadian dollar. The estimates will go up significantly during each phase over the projected 10 years.

Using development to fund transit is another problematic proposal. This contribution is generally put towards paying for part of the civic amenities needed to service increased populations, such as parks, recreation, daycare and community centres. If the province uses development fees for transit, there will be large increases in tower development with fewer amenity resources left for the city to service the increased population.

Then there is the issue of the plan itself. There was little public input or demonstrated support for the options proposed. Although upgrades to the current transportation system include a few more buses that are urgently needed, the major projects in the plan are expensive. A large amount of the funding is slated for a short, stubby subway from the Millennium Line at VCC along Broadway to Arbutus rather than to serve the broader city or regional transit needs.

This has been raised by UBC professor Patrick Condon – as shown in the maps here – from his study comparing a subway with streetcars. For a fraction of the cost of a subway on Broadway, we could have streetcars and an expansion of electric trolley buses that would electrify the transit system across the city and region.

When looking at the capital costs, the best options are obvious. The subway is $350 million per km; streetcars are $20 – $40 million per km and electric trolley buses (both rapid lines and local services) are only $1 million per km plus $1 million per articulated double trolley bus. Making the best use of the most affordable options should be the priority to complete a broad and integrated plan servicing the entire city, not just select property developer nodes.

Electric trolley buses could carry the bulk of the network since they are the most affordable. Streetcars could be used in areas where they are most suited, such as the Arbutus right-of-way that has just been purchased by the city from CP Rail, and which could be expanded along the original inter-urban route to the Fraser Valley.

The City of Vancouver is particularly suited to this option since Vancouver was developed before the broad use of the automobile. It was designed around the streetcar system with the main arterials accessible within a five to 10 minute walk from any location, thus Vancouver inherently has a transit oriented land use pattern. All it needs is adequate, improved trolley bus or streetcar transit service throughout the grid.

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (CVN), an umbrella group of 26 resident associations and communities across Vancouver, has made the call for options like this to be considered with a better consultation process to establish the appropriate best value plan to serve the public interest.

Unfortunately, rather than serving the city with affordable, sustainable transit for the people, the city and province are promoting a subway in order to direct and shape land use for the major developers. This would transform the affected communities into a development corridor from 16th Avenue to the waterfront and from Commercial Drive to UBC, including nodal land use patterns with Metrotown-scale tower development at stations.

Using development to fund this plan will give further density bonuses to large developers, which may include Public Private Partnerships (P3s). The transit manufacturers, builders and developers would benefit the most from this scheme. They also contribute to financing election campaigns at all levels of government and then lobby to get a return on their investment.

We need to change direction and:

  • Provide more affordable electric rapid and local transit options using trolley buses and streetcars.
  • Fund the plan with carbon taxes, gas taxes and mileage-based vehicle fees.
  • Use neighbourhood-based planning to ensure development suits the local context for liveability rather than imposing a concrete jungle of towers designed for laundering foreign capital onto established communities.
  • Build more affordable housing for students, staff and faculty at UBC to reduce the need to commute rather than build more high-end condos.
  • Ensure every stage of planning has a transparent, democratic process.

Transit should be about transporting people and serving communities; not used as a tool to impose development that undermines established community planning. It is high time for a democratic, affordable and sustainable transit plan.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and a former Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing.

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