Forget about a Broadway subway, think LRT along West 16th

Adam Fitch, Special to The Vancouver Sun  12.10.2012

The City of Vancouver is wrong, at this time, to advocate for an underground LRT line along West Broadway to the University of British Columbia. Stop calling it the “Broadway line,” and start calling it the “UBC line,” and you will see my point.

The city’s report compares a Broadway subway with a Broadway street-level LRT. Of course, a streetcar or street-level light rail along Broadway is going to compare badly with a subway in terms of capacity and speed. West Broadway is already severely congested.

Trying to force the most complex and expensive, highest capacity transit line in Vancouver through one of the most congested arterials in Vancouver is pure folly. It would be easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle. It can be done, but at what cost?

The most appropriate solution, with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e. Surrey, etc.) and time frame (10 years from now to build the subway at a minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue to UBC. Compare this route with a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails.

Certainly, this would upset those who live along 16th, and they will oppose it, but let’s be realistic. If a subway is constructed along Broadway and 10th, there would be a massive increase in traffic disruption for several years during construction, and a consequent transfer of traffic to 16th Ave.

Recall the effect on Granville, Main and Oak streets, to name a few, when Cambie Street was closed. Some of those who switch to 16th during construction will never go back to Broadway/10th Ave. afterwards.

A streetcar or LRT along West 16th could dip into short cut-and-cover tunnels at major intersections, as does the SkyTrain between Victoria Drive and Rupert, and as do portions of the Calgary and Edmonton LRTs.

Such a route/technology option would be far less expensive to build than a subway LRT (SkyTrain), and could be built within a much shorter time frame.

If anyone thinks that a Broadway subway can be built for $3 billion, they are dreaming. Look at the cost and disruption of the Canada Line construction. The only extremely congested part of that line (in Vancouver) was the northernmost portion, from King Edward to Downtown — a few kilometres.

By comparison, the congested and difficult part of the Broadway line will be practically the whole thing — many kilometres — from VCC to the UBC Gates.

Vancouver says that if a Broadway subway is constructed with a tunnel boring machine, it will have little disruption on Broadway during construction. This is misleading. Tunnelled subways require massive surface excavations for stations, electrical substations, track switches, ventilation systems, emergency exits, equipment and dirt removal, and so on. If a subway is built along Broadway, even using a TBM, the street will be significantly disrupted (read: closed) for several years, at least.

I fully realize that the City of Vancouver’s position is a negotiating tactic — ask for the moon, in hopes of getting something less — but can we not be more mature than that?

For goodness sake, TransLink and the province are crying so poor right now that they cannot even afford to finish off a bus rapid transit facility that is partly finished (the 156th Street transit exchange in Surrey), and I am sure the same applies to numerous other projects, programs and initiatives.

So why ask for a $3-billion project (likely to be closer to $5 billion) when there is no chance of it happening in the near future?

Meanwhile, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts proposes three street-level LRT lines for her city at less cost than the Broadway subway line.

Who looks more reasonable? Chop the Broadway project in half, as Vancouver suggests, and what would we have? Certainly not a UBC line. That would simply move the transfer bottleneck from Commercial to Arbutus. Not worth $1.5 billion. Chop Watts’ proposal in half, and what would we get? At least one new rapid transit line for Surrey.

If transit facilities are spread along two parallel corridors, rather than squeezed into one, it will provide more benefits to more people. And it will open up new areas for development that may help fund the transit line and other amenities, following the “Hong Kong model” of transit finance.

If Vancouver thinks that it can get the province to tunnel the Broadway line, as it did the Canada Line under Cambie, it is living in the past. That was a different era. Lots of provincial money, and lots of hype for the Olympics. When the cupboards are bare, you don’t ask Santa for a gold-plated train set.

Finally, Vancouver quotes Alan Jacobs in its recent presentation: “Going underground is the only way to deliver Broadway as a Great Street.” This is surely a misappropriation of Jacobs’ ideas. West Broadway is already a great street. Disrupt it with several years of major construction, and its greatness will be destroyed. Put rapid transit on another street, reduce the number of express buses and traffic congestion on Broadway and 10th, and these streets can become even better.

Adam Fitch is a planning technician for the Thompson Nicola Regional District and lives in Kamloops.

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