Streets Paved With Gold – Transit Planning is Driven By Politics

Footnotes: The author,  Adrienne Tanner,  was city editor at the Sun, a newspaper that prevented any real reporting of our regional transit issues and took orders from back east to report “SkyTrain” in a positive light. As well, there was little investigative reporting on SNC-Lavalin’s B.C. operations.

Detroit’s ALRT system officially called a People Mover (locally known as the “Mugger mover”) is a 4.73 km single track loop sold as an ICTS system. Today, only about 4,300 people a day use the system.

So, what else is new.

The decision to use the then renamed ALRT system instead of LRT on the first “rapid transit” line in Metro Vancouver was a crass politcal deal between then Social Credit Premier Bill Bennett, to obtain the famous Bill Davis Blue Machine, to win an election. The Social Credit Party, at the time, held a one seat majority.

The Big Blue Machine, a cadre of advertising, public relations, and polling professionals who advised the Ontario premier during campaigns and in government and in turn, the Bill Davis Conservative government sold BC the Ontario Crown Corporation Urban Transit Development Corporation’s obsolete and unsalable Intermediate Capacity Transit System, renamed Advanced Light Rail Transit for the benefit of the Premier of BC.

The Social Credit won the next election and we have been building with ALRT or its variants ever since, except for one exception, the Canada Line, which was a Gordon Campbell driven faux P-3 project.

The NDP were induced to build more of ALRT, now called ART with the promise of jobs, jobs, jobs, with a fabrication plant built in BC.

The Canada line was phony BC Liberal P-3 project which in the end, seemed more like a giveaway to SNC Lavalin and the Quebec Caisse.

Politics dictated that LRT was not to be used.

The Evergreen line was again ART because it was the unfinished portion of the millennium line, as the mini-=metro was far too expensive to build to the Tri Cities.

More politics, more squandering of money.

The present plan to spend $4.6 billion for 12.8 km of now called MALM (Movia Automatic Light Metro, the most recent renaming of the now obsolete ICTS/ALRT system) is all about civic penis envy, as the former NDP MP, and now Vision Lite mayor of Vancouver continues the city’s quest to build subways.

“Because subways make Vancouver world class.”

The argument that there is not the ridership to justify a subway anywhere in Metro Vancouver is politely ignored, unless one works for TransLink, then you are fired if you are an employee or sent to Coventry by the mainstream media.

Tut-tut, facts you say, pity.

The Mayor of Surrey want light metro because Vancouver has three and as to the cost, who cares, he is the civic potentate and believes he can stop the tide and light rail for that matter.

Zwei was told some years ago by a European transit specialist;

“Vancouver’s approach for planning regional transit was unprofessional and extremely expensive. From our viewpoint, it seems your politicians truly believe your streets are paved with gold.”


The LRT plans for metro Vancouver. For the cost of LRT from downtown Vancouver to Richmond, Lougheed Mall and Whally, the region got ALRT to New Westminster.

Adrienne Tanner
Special to The Globe and Mail

In late August, at the beginning of the pre-federal election hype, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation is raising a second rallying cry for a traffic congestion relief fund.

The idea, originally pitched in the spring by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, makes infinite sense. It calls for the federal government to stop project-by-project transit investments and instead contribute $3.4-billion annually to a fund that would be divvied up among Canadian cities based on ridership.

For TransLink, it would amount to a contribution of $375-million each year.

That amount of stable funding would allow TransLink to deliver on long-term plans and essentially strip the politics out of transportation funding. While this may

sound reasonable by any measure, it’s unlikely to happen.

Transportation funding has forever been driven by politicians seeking headlines for projects in ridings they hope to keep or win. And that’s too bad because it leaves municipalities continuing to scrounge to pay for less glamorous transit necessities from other sources.

TransLink is required by law to plan 10 years ahead, which is far longer than any election cycle. The lengthy horizon is necessary because transportation projects are so expensive that funding for any region typically only allows for one or two at a time. The SkyTrain line from Surrey to Langley is expected to cost $3.12-billion; Vancouver’s train to the University of British Columbia could top $4-billion. The price tags on both projects are so high that so far, funding is only in place to build both to the half-way mark.

While they are being built, those plum projects for Surrey and Vancouver will suck up most of the available cash, leaving other Lower Mainland mayors waiting for their turn. The mayors are only willing to be patient if they can look at a long-term plan and see their projects moving higher in the lineup.

However, transit planning is predicated on contributions from municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. And when the higher levels of government jump the queue to pick and choose projects, long-term plans fall by the wayside.

This presents challenges for the less sexy necessities, like maintenance centres for transit lines — items which need funding, but don’t lend themselves to flashy ribbon-cuttings, says Johnathan Cote, who chairs the mayors’ council. And that’s where the trouble lies. Big ticket transit projects, like trains and SeaBuses, are big hits with the public – you might recall the lineups of riders keen to try out the Canada Line on opening day in 2010. It’s understandable that federal and provincial politicians, who always have their eye on the next election, like nothing better than to announce an attention-grabbing new train line.

Buses, which form the backbone of the transit system, don’t have the same cachet, so garner less federal investment.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart points out the opportunity for municipalities to pull together any kind of big transit or housing deal is far shorter than the four years between elections.

“It’s a very short window when all three levels of government are stable enough to sit down and plan without thinking about, ‘who’s going to vote for me.’”

Mr. Stewart supported the FCM congestion fund request even though he doubts it will come to fruition, and feels transit is still secondary to housing on Vancouver’s needs list. He lobbied for the FCM to launch a pre-election push on housing but lost because outside of Vancouver and Toronto, housing isn’t top of mind for most Canadian cities.

To be sure, transit is a key election issue in the Lower Mainland – total ridership increased by seven per cent in 2018, to reach an all-time high. Mr. Stewart, himself a former NDP MP, is using this pre-election window to meet with all parties to stress how much Vancouverites depend on transit.

The parties have all been receptive, he says. However, the real work will come post-election to make sure promises are kept.

It would be nice if the money was delivered through a beefed-up congestion relief fund. But it’s more likely that the politically motivated announcements will continue. And perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. Ultimately what counts is that transit investment continues so we can keep moving in ways that simultaneously reduce congestion and greenhouse gasses.


2 Responses to “Streets Paved With Gold – Transit Planning is Driven By Politics”
  1. Stewart says:

    Trams are garbage. It is common senses to keep extending current trains for better intergration.

    Zwei replies: if trams are garbage, why do major cities operate tram systems?

  2. Haveacow says:

    That’s quite ironic @Stewart, at Bombardier most of the sales staff in the Ground Transportation Division, use to refer to the Skytrain as the “Garbage Cars” or “a waiste of good Canadian aluminum”. Unless they were trying to sell them, then they were the greatest, most modern, up to date rail based Rapid Transit Transportation System available.

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