Why Canada Gets Less For More When It Comes To Building Transit

This news item explains the huge cost of metro Vancouver’s transit construction. Though the article thinks that $500 million per kilometer, for the Broadway subway is reasonable, it must remembered that the subway it is being built on a transit route that has only a fraction of the ridership deemed necessary for a subway.

Much cheaper transit options have been ignored!

Pre Covid, the Broadway 99-B Line bus had a maximum capacity of only 2,000 pphpd and the entire Broadway route saw maximum traffic flows under 4,000 pphpd, far less that the 15,000 pphpd deemed to be the North American minimum for building a subway.

The per kilometre cost of the Broadway subway may seem reasonable but building a subway on such a route is not.

The SkyTrain light-metro system history is checkered with political meddling.

The initial Expo Line from downtown Vancouver to New Westminster cost as much as the original Vancouver to Richmond, Lougheed Mall and Whalley plan.

The then BC Social Credit party entered into a political deal with the then Ontario Conservative government, to purchase an already obsolete proprietary light-metro system (renamed from ICTS to ALRT)  from the Ontario Crown Corporation, the Urban Transit Development Corporation. It later transpired that the Social Credit government acquired the expertise of the Conservative government’s politcal “Blue Machine” to win the next provincial election in BC

The full cost of the 1978 LRT plan was less than the 1982 Vancouver to New West Expo Line.

The full cost of the 1978 LRT plan, $430 mil. to $550 mil. was much  less than the 1982 $890 mil.Vancouver to New West Expo Line.

The SkyTrain Millennium Line was the result of the NDP government being seduced by SNC Lavalin and Bombardier, instead of the original and cheaper Vancouver/Lougheed Light Rail project, connecting LRT to the Tri-Cities. Bombardier acquired ALRT, when they purchased the UTDC at a fire sale price after Lavalin (which purchased the UTDC) went bankrupt trying to build a renamed ALM (formerly ALRT) system in Thailand.

The formerly called Evergreen line was the uncompleted portion of the Millennium Line, which cost far more than the originally planned LRT.

As soon as the Evergreen Line was completed, it was promptly renamed the Millennium Line!

The Canada Line was build hat the behest of the BC Liberal government, resulting with the only heavy-rail metro in the world, built as a light-metro and having less capacity than a simple streetcar line, costing a fraction to build!

The Expo Line extension to Langley is more of the same. The false claim by Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, that the Expo line could be extended to Langley at the same cost of LRT and the subsequent promise by premier Horgan to build the extension to Langley, has been mired with the fact that the 27 km phase 1 & 2, LRT (connecting to Langley), now costs much less than the now 16 km, Expo Line extension, which is currently underfunded by over $1 billion!

Sadly, the taxpayer is not paying for good transit, rather taxpayer is paying a a lot more for politically inspired transit projects.

cut & cover

Why Canada gets less for more when it comes to building transit

OTTAWA – In early September, Conservative candidate Jennifer McAndrew stood outside a suburban Ottawa transit hub in the battleground riding of Kanata-Carleton to make a major campaign promise.

“A Conservative government will support and prioritize Phase 3 of the LRT extension right here to Kanata and beyond,” a smiling McAndrew said in a video posted to her Facebook page on Sept. 2, just as the campaign was heating up.

Not a day later, her Liberal opponent, Jenna Sudds, posted her own video to make the very same promise.

While some transit advocates would be overjoyed to see cross-party commitments to build new light-rail infrastructure, it was a disappointment to Toronto transit researcher Stephen Wickens who spent more than a year warning governments against those kind of campaign promises.

The reason is that Canada pays a higher price to build light-rail transit compared to our international counterparts, driven chiefly by the depth of underground tunnels, the grandiosity of the stations and labour costs.

But several experts agree it has just as much to do with something else: politics.

“That’s the heart of it,” said Wickens, who authored an investigative study on the soaring cost of Toronto subway projects commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario last year.

But in Canada, the costs seem to go off the rails.

By Levy’s calculations, Toronto’s Ontario Line should cost $735-million per kilometre. The Blue Line extension plan in Montreal? About $775-million per kilometre. Vancouver’s Broadway SkyTrain seems almost reasonable at nearly $500-million per kilometre.

Political meddling at all levels of government — by all parties — can cause a knock-on effect on the price tag of projects.

For example, the cheapest tunnelling method is also the most annoying for the neighbours, so local councillors will up the cost to avoid complaints from constituents.

Just over a decade ago, Vancouver opted for a cheaper tunnelling option when it built the 19-kilometre Canada Line by digging a trench at street level and covering the top. The cut-and-cover method, as it’s known, led to big savings, but also disruptions, controversy and even lawsuits.

“The memories apparently remain so unpleasant that city leaders have made clear the Broadway Line will be entirely tunnelled, even with project estimates running at about $500 million per kilometre, or about 4.5 times what was paid for the Canada Line,” Wickens wrote in his report.

Political promises can also lock governments into commitments that may not offer the best value. As a 2019 study by the Institute of Municipal Finance and Governance put it, the best projects based on the available evidence take a back seat to political considerations. Civil servants are forced then to give what researchers dub “decision-based evidence” to justify a political promise.

“Who is a lowly engineer to say ‘we don’t actually need that’ or ‘let’s cut this station,’ or ‘I know you’ve promised this interest group something so you need to break that promise because that’s going to cost us another half a billion dollars,’” said Levy in an interview with The Canadian Press.

It’s not just a Canadian phenomenon.

Levy and other researchers at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University have found Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and United States overpay compared to peer counties like Spain, Italy and France.

Marco Chitti, a Montreal-based associate researcher on the project, said one domestic factor that may drive up costs is our federal political system that offers significant power to single parties trying to win votes from the public.

He said parliaments of other nations are afforded more power to water down proposals from the ruling party and get more bang for their buck.


Another problem is that Canadian cities and provinces often lack the in-house expertise to offer technical advice and oversee projects, Chitti said. He pointed to Italy where civil servants with technical expertise draw up detailed, costed plans before politicians make any commitments.

Chitti said the path to lowering costs on transit projects starts with admitting there is a problem that needs fixing.

“Most politicians in Canada are not aware that Canada has a huge problem, a huge, tremendous problem on cost,” Chitti said.

“I really hope that in a couple of years there will be much more discussion in Canada about the fact that we have ballooning costs, and that they are really out of control.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 26, 2021.

Alon Levy, a Berlin-based transit researcher and writer, calculated that globally, the median construction cost for an urban subway was less than $300 million per kilometre in 2019.


3 Responses to “Why Canada Gets Less For More When It Comes To Building Transit”
  1. Major Hoople says:

    Greetings from across the pond.

    Could it be Canadians are waking up to the fact that transit projects in your country are mainly politcal playthings, designed to fulfill the wishes of corporate sponsors.

    All this to-do with automatic operation is very Canadian, very expensive, very complicated, and in most cases costs more to operate than if the trains had drivers. Within 5 years, we will have autonomous trams, which will be much, much safer than autonomous buses and cars. Oh, there will be drivers of some sort on board because this is what the customers want.

    The preoccupation with subways is very North American and Canada has caught the disease. Subways do not increase ridership, on the contrary, customers do not like them, but they are a fact of life in our major cities.

    We have learned that simple is much better and even in Karlsruhe, your favorite German city, there is now a movement to put tram tracks on top of the subway because local customers want. They like their trams on the pavement, at hand to use.

    Vancouver’s transit planning still puzzles as do the various claims made by the transportation authority. Reports before the pandemic, reaching us questioned ridership claims and certainly heavy car use is clearly evident.

    We hope that common sense is again introduced to your transit planning and that the new year brings success to your endeavors. Please enjoy the seasons enjoyments, even though the resurgence of Covid Omicron is dampening spirits.

    I hope there is a silver lining for your interurban in the new year!

  2. Haveacow says:

    My big issue is with scope change, a problem of political making. The Spadina Subway extension to York University and the northern City of Toronto boundary (Steeles Ave.) was on time and on budget, ready to start construction in 2006. Then both the Provincial Liberal Government and several important local Conservatives both provincial and federal got the idea to extend the line into the City of Vaughan (which is part of York Region).

    After many decades of complaints by its neighbor (Toronto) York Region’s Transit was finally rationalized at the upper tier local or regional government level in 2001. Instead of the small lower tier municipalities like Markham or Vaughan running there own tiny transit systems York Region (Upper Tier Local Government ) would take over operations of York Region’s 5 tiny transit systems and their equally tiny, passenger counts. It is still an ongoing job but some success with VIVA BRT, really good integration with both GO Transit and the TTC has produced positive results. This early period (2001 to 2006) with York Region Transit (YRT), which I played a role in planning, produced some important firsts and a series of great baselines to draw from. However, in 2006 York Region Transit and York Region in general was not really ready yet, politically or professionally ready IMHO, to help plan a full scale subway line extension.

    The line was held back from construction to allow the planning process to take root. Followed by the inevitability of local political rangling at both the City of Vaughan Council and York Region Council. Instead of starting the Toronto section first the whole project was held back now. The result, a 6 km extension becomes a 11 km long extension with a new almost completely unbuilt downtown and massive connecting BRT interface station for the northern end point, in the City of Vaughan. So the line more than doubled in cost due to inflation and the change in project scope. Construction doesn’t start until 2009-2010 and because of a work stoppage (due to the death of a construction worker) we wait until 2016-2017 for the opening. Mainly because, this area of southern York Region really didn’t need a subway/heavy rail/metro, whatever you want to call it, and really wouldn’t need it for a decade or more at the earliest, every second train is still turned back at Steeles Ave West Staion, now called Pioneer Village Station (due to it being very close to Black Creek Pioneer Village).

    The final per km cost of the York University/Vaughan/Spadina Subway Extension although much higher than planned, is only 20% more than the per km cost of the Broadway Skytrain Extension Project to Arbutus. The difference is that the Toronto subway carries at a minimum, twice the passenger levels of the Skytrain, using the 60 year old signaling system and much more if they use the new modern CBTC system now being installed (on all of line #1) by the TTC. With station platforms almost twice as long (80 m vs. 150 m) as Skytrain staions and trains more than twice the length of the 4 section, Mark 3 Skytrains (64 m vs. 137 m) , some serious questions need to be asked at Translink.

    Zwei replies: Again, thank you for this. It is always a bonus to have local explanations for issues 4,000 km away.

  3. Contigo says:

    Wish people would stop calling it the broadway subway. it is so misleading. It is really broadway extension of the millenium line. The next phase will be the UBC extension that will completed after 2030. The extensions will expand capacity on broadway and attract new ridership. Buses have limited capacity. It will also reduce polution and noise on broadway. The 1978 LRT plan was cancelled because the skytrain is faster. The people wanted faster trains. Elevated trains allow it to bypass intersections and traffic. LRT have to stop at intersections. Canada line was a mistake, It should have been built the same way as the expo line with 80-90 metre trains.

    Zwei replies: funding my friend, to complete the subway to UBC is more than $5 billion. Actually, light metro is faster because there are fewer stations. Door to door trip will as fast with LRT or faster due to walk and transfer times taking the subway.

    You make a fundamental mistake, trams do not stop at intersections, cars stop for the trams. Trams actually increase traffic flows as what was found out in Edmonton.

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