Next stop for Metro’s transit expansion mystery train: mega-cost increases

In an earlier era, a garage mechanic confessed to me about the leverage an auto body shop has over the customer once the car was up on the hydraulic lift.

In short: pretty much limitless. Up goes the car, up goes the repair, up goes the expense. The longer the wait, the greater the leverage.

Times have changed. We’re smarter consumers. The business has reformed.

Not necessarily so over at TransLink and with the regional mayors. Consider the announcement Monday (April 30), after nearly four excruciating years of taxpayers up on the hydraulic lift waiting for the estimate for the transportation fix.

We got word that the budget for the extension of the Millennium Line in Vancouver has risen 50% since our last estimate. It now will cost $2.83 billion to move a total of five-and-a-half kilometres, up from $1.98 billion in 2014.

The cost of a Surrey-Newton-Guildford light rail transit project is at $1.65 billion, up from a little less than $1 billion four years ago.

The Surrey-Langley transit line, meanwhile, is still up on the hydraulic lift. We won’t know its costs any time soon. We do know it will be delayed until 2020.

Now, it is entirely understandable that budgeting takes time. Infrastructure is complex. Stuff happens along the way to jolt the presumptions about what they will cost. Construction inflation is very different than the inflation most of us experience.

It is not understandable, though, that estimates are provided elected officials in private briefings as the public remains in the dark. Records that have been disclosed under freedom-of-information law make clear that officials have been kept abreast of the runaway train, so to speak – but not the taxpayer.

The strategy on this tasks one’s cynicism.

Was it to get the projects so far down the line that they can’t be stopped, no matter the cost? Was it to wait for so many mayors to announce they were not running to make the coast clear for disclosure? Was it to avoid commingling in a provincial election campaign? Was it to compensate those who had speculated on property around the subway corridor?

Regardless, even though it’s called public transit, the process of disclosure on costs has been a shabby way to treat the public.

In business, many projects have to be shelved or revamped when it’s apparent costs are rising. Rapid transit often spells rapid ascent in costs – just look at what Toronto dealt with recently – and it’s polite, certainly by Canadian standards, to be frank when the bills grow.

In waiting this late, and in taking federal and provincial funds for the first two phases of planning, the regional mayors have tied the hands of any future municipal council that might consider thrift over spendthrift.

For instance, there is an argument that a combination of part-measures to address demand across the corridor would suffice: like extra buses, short-run routes to grab the overflow or dedicated lanes (even streets) at certain hours. There might also be an argument for above-ground transit like LRT or streetcars, particularly if the part-measures deal with the busiest times of day.

It’s not that autonomous vehicles are upon us, but they will be in a decade or so, and their presence will raise all sorts of transportation and city planning questions. A meaningful discussion on the consequences for communities might – or might not – make us question the need for a mass expenditure on a subway. It certainly ought to factor into any discussion to extend the line to UBC, regardless of the university’s recent gesture to help finance it.

But the mayors in their regional transportation plan determined the time for debate was over. It appears they left no escape lane for the logging truck with the bad brakes rumbling down the hill.

We got the estimate of the car on the hydraulic lift at last. But it felt like we were in the hands of the yesteryear mechanic.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.