Last stop for the city’s $2 billion Broadway corridor subway line

Originally posted By Kirk LaPointe | April 12, 2016 on

It is time to take stock of what was once the unthinkable: that the Broadway subway line might not be wise to build any longer.

The brave faces of city leaders would have us believe they’re heading out to the hardware store to get the shovels to start the work. The shovels would be better suited for what they’re saying.

The cheques are not in the mail. The money isn’t even printed, much less in the bank. The real financial reckoning for this project is into the next terms of the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

The proposed $2 billion extension of the Millennium Line from VCC-Clark over to Arbutus has been years in the touting and planning and many more years in arrears and inertia to serve the needs of a corridor choked by stop-and-start traffic and cheek-to-jowl buses. It may be a better idea for yesterday than for tomorrow.

Our viability and livability depend on better public transit – not in a decade, but today, because we have waited a decade. Trouble is, the line has taken only one teensy step forward and some significant steps back since it was identified as one of several core projects in the Mayors’ Council report on transportation in 2014.

Here we are in 2016, nearly mid-term for the Metro Vancouver governments, nearly a year after their plan to impose a 0.5% personal sales tax was smited in a regional plebiscite.

That there was not an immediate Plan B to the setback, that there is radio silence still, suggests at best indifference and at worst incompetence.

No doubt, with the municipal hands economically tied, the hard work necessary to effect the regional transportation plan has been awaiting a saviour at senior levels of government. On this, it seems Justin Trudeau is the chuckles, Christy Clark is the knuckles.

Still, a step forward: the federal government has said that, when the time comes for the project to be reviewed, it will finance half of its cost instead of the traditional one-third. With the province in for one-third, that leaves the region holding a 17% obligation.

First step backward: the 17% obligation weighs much more than earlier thought. The project cost was last estimated when the dollar was near par and the Canucks were above par. Imported components of the project now come at a 30% to 40% premium, thanks to the devalued currency, and that doesn’t include inflation, which in the infrastructure business is a term to describe the amount that can be pumped into the price.

Second step backward: the land that the region needs to buy was last scoped years ago. You might have read it in the news, but in case you haven’t: local real estate has been appreciating in value, roughly at double the rate of infrastructure inflation. This is not lost on TransLink, whose chief financial officer asserts there will be a “dramatic” impact on the cost of acquisition.

It may be that the mayors are awaiting the next TransLink project estimate at the end of June to determine the most survivable method to extract blood from a stone. It seems mathematically inconceivable they can turn up the tap on property taxes or bleed developers of community amenity funds to finance their share through any existing method within their purview, so they will need to get the province’s blessing through a supported plebiscite to tap a new revenue vein.

Whatever the case, the price tag is being taped over with a new one. And we should worry about the ultimate cost. Put it at closer to $3 billion than $2 billion now. Is that the best we can do – in the swiftest time – with the money? Let’s see now. A provincial election. A plebiscite. Project definitions. Public hearings. Environmental assessments. Procurement. Selection of a construction contractor. Federal funds. Building and building and building. The mayor, in whatever capacity he finds himself then, can use his seniors’ transit discount when the ribbon is cut.

On the other hand, if we’re serious about significant improvement in shorter order and not just a development play, about an environmentally shrewd move that isn’t exhausting our resources and inconveniencing our community as it’s built, streetcars …


Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.

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