Rail for the Valley – new report
Rail for the Valley released yesterday a report that looks at the possibilities for the Chilliwack to Surrey interurban line. This is the route that was once used by BCER to link up what were then small farming communities to New Westminster and Vancouver. The line was closed to passenger service in the early 1950s when, as in most of North America, high quality, fast electric public transit was being abandoned in favour of near universal car ownership. Since then, many people have seen that this was a very poor bit of planning, and that since the line still exists and is in public ownership, reinstatement of some type of rail based transit might be a good idea.
I was sent an early copy – and I must say that it failed to excite me. Rail for Valley think that it will help their cause, so I have provided a link to their blog where you can read their case and find a copy for yourself. What I had to point out to them was what is missing. It does cover – in great detail and at a high level of credibility – what the capital cost of reinstating service might be. That is based on widespread experience of utilizing existing railway rights of way for light rail passenger services.
But while there is a great deal of information about capital cost there is nothing at all about revenue – or indeed operating costs. I looked for, and could not find, any attempt to assess what the potential ridership might be, or what the revenue stream would need to look like. It would appear to me that the absence of any demand forecast leaves the biggest question open – how are we going to pay for this? This has to be the first question to be asked. The assertion that light rail has a record of attracting users out of cars is not nearly enough to convince a skeptical public that this idea is economically feasible. What kind of revenue can be expected from fares and how much support is to be required from the various levels of government?
The problem I see is that this report concentrates on what the project might cost – and even goes into detail on service levels. But there is no assessment at all of where people want to go and how much of that can be met by travel on this line – or indeed if it can provide the right combination of fares + time (generalised cost) to be attractive.
We spent a lot of time at that Abbotsford Committee looking at the way the line through that city is aligned north south when the dominant movement pattern is east west. And eventually concluded that a new tram line was needed, with a bus lane being the intermediate step along the way. And that was without any demand modelling!
In Greater Vancouver transit expansion is stalled. Translink can no more consider this proposal than it can anything else since it has no money for any expansion. So this report ought to have concentrated on what could happen outside the Metro area. There is no regional transportation agency in the valley – nor is there any way to collect much to support the (woefully inadequate) transit that is there now. So a report that used reviving part of the interurban at low cost within the imagination ability of local politicians might have a chance. Presenting a mega project with no hope of financing is not realistic and is far too easily dismissed.
The real problem for the valley is the Port Mann Bridge is being replaced by a much wider structure and the freeway is being widened as far as the Metro boundary. Piecemeal widening is occurring further east as well. The reason for that is that the BC Liberals and their friends like to think that the regional strategy has “failed” – and that there are huge opportunities for lots of money to be made by continuing to develop farm land at low densities. This pattern suits developers, car salesmen and indeed business interests in general. It is what they know how to do, since they have been doing this for the last fifty years and more. And they are convinced that despite the end of cheap energy they can continue as before. The impact of burning fossil fuels is something they think can be safely ignored, or will be mitigated by technologies and government subsidies, and that they can keep doing that with impunity indefinitely. They recognize no limits to growth. Indeed their entire premise is that economic growth is essential, that people want to believe that their personal disposable incomes will increase (even though in real terms is has been static for most households) and will continue to vote for this pattern. Indeed as they just have done in the Delta by-election.
We would have got much better value for money if the Port Mann/Highway #1 project had been replaced by transit expansion. Indeed, Premier Campbell liked to boast that the Canada Line provides the capacity of ten lanes of freeway in the space taken by two. So one might have expected that he would have considered that, if he actually was concerned – as he so often professes – about climate change. But, of course, his track record is to say one thing and do the opposite. Which is now getting him in trouble with his core constituency. There is of course a great deal of anger. Here it has been captured by Van der Zalm and his antiHST campaign. I see some similarities with the Tea Party movement. It is about taxes. It is about the fact that people feel stretched financially and are worried about the future – and that the elites do not seem to be listening to the voters. That spin and rhetoric is used on them – and that their experience does not match what they are being told. I suspect that the anger will intensify as the new highway and bridge fills up with traffic, the tolls are raised and the commute times increase – but by then it will be too late.
The way to pay for Rail for the Valley was not to waste it on freeways. The way to save the valley from sprawl was to strengthen the ALR, not weaken it, and build transit oriented development (TOD). But TOD does not work is there is no transit.
RfV say they are not in a position to produce a demand forecast – and that is true too. Anyway, the way we do modelling here you can put in any land use pattern you like – just as the province did for its freeway forecast. They used the same future land use pattern for both “with” and “without” scenarios. The model has no feedback loop between network and land use. It ignores induced travel. It says that trip making is simply a function of population size and distribution. So it is not exactly realistic – but it would still show that if the freeway had not been built and the people still came in their millions then a new railway line would have carried them. And some spread sheets would also demonstrate that would have been financially supportable – given some way to link travel choices to social costs. Not unreasonable assumptions – unlike the wildly unreasonable assumptions that are made by the Gateway program and the “business as usual” crowd in general.
Quite what the model would forecast if you now put in the widened freeway and its greatly dispersed population pattern that reflects real decisions as opposed to wishful thinking I can only imagine. The case for the use of the existing right of way might still be shown to be more viable than a new one. The costs of acquiring land for transportation being one of the largest single elements – and a quick glance around the place where that by election occurred will now show exactly how much land the SFPR is taking over. It is not a small project. But in current decision making timelines, any demand forecast for the valley has to assume the current projects are completed and up and running before the trains (or trams) arrive.
At the same time as this report emerged, so did the discussion about how to pay for more transit in Metro Vancouver get restarted. There is to be a meeting this week between the Mayors, the Premier and his Minister of Transport. Some kind of deal will – it is hoped – emerge that will allow Translink to expand beyond its present services, and for the Evergreen Line to the North East Sector to be built at long last. I doubt, somehow, that the interurban will take up much of their time. Though places like Surrey and Langley have made it clear that they will not tolerate any new funding mechanism that just pays for one line that does not serve them. More buses – and bus lanes – seem the easiest way to meet that demand even if that will not exactly satisfy them. But that is the nature of compromise – a solution that leaves all parties equally dissatisfied. The Fraser Valley, of course, is not part of that process.
UPDATE There was a short report on the local CBC News