North Shore LRT concept is on the right track

Quick quiz: What is the most common excuse for arriving late locally?

Answer: I had to take the bridge.

No question, the combination of population, traffic and development has strangled the travelling corridors with the North Shore for as long as anyone can remember. Super-early starts and super-late finish times are the only options if you don’t want to risk inching along or showing up past the appointed hour.

In early March we will get a look at some new ideas from a provincial consultant for rapid transit to link the North Shore with Vancouver, Burnaby and beyond. We should only hope.

The overarching issue here is that we haven’t the transit system to accommodate community growth and we are unlikely to reap repeated tranches of federal and provincial funds to finance what we need.

Some difficult choices lay ahead and some districts are going to be stifled. The closer you are to Vancouver and Surrey, the better it seems are your chances – woe betide those in Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

The inside lane appears to belong to an extension of the Millennium Line to the University of British Columbia at an estimated cost of at least $4 billion (some say $6-7 billion is more accurate), even though there is a need for additional transit into the downtown with the Expo Line reaching its capacity. Already under way is a $3 billion extension of the line to Arbutus. Politics is playing a significant role in building the momentum for the project, as projected growth at UBC is minimal. But it’s rather easy to point to other transit options that are higher-performing by most criteria in serving an existing and foreseen population that more consistently would use the improvements.

A most intriguing option comes from a transportation instructor, Stephan Nieweler of Simon Fraser University, and University of Toronto researcher Chris Humphries: a line of at-grade and above-grade Light Rail Transit (LRT) that extends off the Expo Line at Metrotown, pierces through Brentwood and Burnaby and juts into Vancouver at a new Pacific National Exhibition West Coast Express station, then across an upgraded Second Narrows freight bridge and east-west along the North Shore into West Vancouver.

It would embrace a lot of trip-generating hubs: Metrotown, BCIT, Brentwood, Capilano University, Lonsdale, Capilano Mall, and Park Royal, not to mention port workers, and would allow for a single transfer journey from the Expo and Millennium lines, Hastings RapidBus and West Coast Express to the entire North Shore.

The 23-kilometre stretch ideally suits a bustling walk-up catchment within 400 metres, which greatly exceeds that of the Surrey and UBC projects. The line would embrace much of the population and pending growth of the North Shore and feed Burnaby’s emerging highrise hubs. It would require a revamped bridge for trucks, freight rail and light rail, diverting traffic from the Second Narrows – no question, this would be a large ticket involving shared costs with goods movement funding, and it seems to be the toughest part of any decision. But apart from that bridge, the route itself checks in at about $100 million each kilometre, less than half per kilometre of what it will cost for Surrey’s pending SkyTrain extension and about one-fifth what it would cost for the emerging plan to UBC.

North Shore jobs and amenity users are principally from the south and east of the Second Narrows bridge, so this line would be efficient, seeing balanced two-way flows throughout the week, and offering a new way to reach the mountains on the weekend. Its technical challenges are such that it could get built faster to mitigate problems sooner; if that’s the case, the researchers argue, it would be a better option than linking the region into the downtown.

Indeed, if you want to get a little speculative, think through the idea of LRT near the Hastings Sunrise area and the PNE. Wouldn’t it be an opportunity to rethink the district, even to station a stadium there to more properly house the BC Lions, Whitecaps and even triple-A or major-league baseball? Wouldn’t some of the city’s housing issues be solved by taking down the white elephant of BC Place? But I digress.

The coming weeks are the next chapter in the discussion on how to serve the region, and the North Shore LRT concept has to be a central talking point. At the very least, there is new food for thought emerging. •

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