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Is B.C.'s transit system on the road to recovery?

New CEO maps out TransLink’s revenue revival plan
SkyTrain departing from Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver | Chung Chow

By 2050, TransLink envisions an additional 310 kilometres of rapid transit service in the Lower Mainland and beyond – from Pemberton to Chilliwack – and 810 kilometres of cycling lanes.

But in the interim, TransLink’s new CEO, Kevin Quinn, will be focused on the more immediate challenge of rebuilding public transit ridership – savaged by the COVID-19 pandemic – and getting major infrastructure projects like the Broadway subway project either across the finish line or under construction by 2025.

There is also the flooding and landslides crisis that has taken out sections of highway in B.C., notably the Coquihalla – something that will cost the province billions to fix and which could delay other major shovel-ready transportation infrastructure projects.

On November 19, in his first address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT), Quinn, the former CEO of the Maryland Transit Administration, sketched out TransLink’s near- and long-term vision for public transportation.

In 2020, ridership on public transit dropped by 52%, as the pandemic forced people to either work from home or drive rather than risk taking public transit. Quinn said ridership is now “hovering” around 55% of pre-pandemic levels, but is as high as 70% for south of the Fraser.

“We’re seeing some of the most dramatic post-COVID ridership increases south of the Fraser,” he said.

Because the pandemic may have permanently altered the way people work and commute, TransLink can expect to permanently lose some riders on some routes, while demand for service continues to grow south of the Fraser River – notably in Surrey. That may require rethinking and realigning some services.

“We’re projecting to be at 80% by the end of 2022,” Quinn told BIV News. “We know that commuting patterns have changed. And I think the key to success for TransLink is adjusting service to meet the demands of our customers.”

Ridership makes up about 40% of TransLink’s budget.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our finances,” Quinn said. “It has left us with a gap … of about $100 million to $300 million per year. The province has stepped up and really helped us in contributing about $650 million of safe restart funding that really helped us through 2020 and 2021.”

As more British Columbians switch to electric vehicles, TransLink expects revenue from gas taxes to decline by $90 million annually by 2030. The Justin Trudeau government has earmarked $14.9 billion for public transit projects over the next eight years, including permanent funding of $3 billion per year for public transit, but that funding doesn’t kick in until 2026. At some point, TransLink will need a new revenue source – mobility pricing and road use charges being among the ideas being considered.

Getting in and out of the Lower Mainland in recent weeks has been harder than usual, thanks to a once-in-a-century deluge that cut the Lower Mainland off from the rest of B.C. But even at the best of times, daily commutes can be frustrating, whether it is by car or bus.

There is chronic highway congestion between Abbotsford and Langley, bridge congestion between Vancouver and the North Shore, and south of the Fraser there are bridge and tunnel chokepoints and a lack of access to public transit. And for those who want to cycle, there is still insufficient cycling infrastructure in many parts of Metro Vancouver.

Quinn arrives at a time when a number of multibillion-dollar public transportation and public transit projects are already either underway or soon to start that will alleviate some of the congestion. Metro Vancouver commuters may see things get worse over the next few years before they get better, as roads and bridges are closed or traffic diverted or throttled while new infrastructure is being built.

“People recognize there’s going to be some short-term pain, but they also recognize that there’s tremendous long-term benefits,” Quinn said.

Some of the projects, like the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, a B.C. government project, are outside of TransLink’s purview, but nonetheless will have an impact on TransLink’s planning.

By 2025, the $2.8 billion 5.7-kilometre Broadway extension of the Millennium line – from VCC-Clarke Station to Arbutus Road – is expected to be operating, and the new $1.4 billion Pattullo Bridge should be complete.

By then, work should also have begun on the new $4 billion 16-kilometre Surrey-Langley SkyTrain, due to be in operation by 2028. Two years later, a new $4 billion eight-lane George Massey Tunnel is expected to be completed.

One regional bottleneck that continues to worsen is between Vancouver and the North Shore. The Lions Gate and Ironworkers Memorial bridges have become increasingly congested bottlenecks, and the SeaBus between Vancouver and North Vancouver can’t move the volumes that a rapid transit system can.

A recent study looks at various ways of extending rapid transit to the North Shore – including a subway line under Burrard Inlet – but rapid transit to the North Shore is likely decades away.

So might some other proposals, like an extension of the Broadway rapid transit system out to the University of British Columbia and a gondola on Burnaby Mountain to Simon Fraser University.

Both universities already have bus service, and Quinn suggested there might be other higher priority areas such as improving public transit in Surrey that TransLink may need to focus on before those other projects are approved.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote, who chairs the Mayor’s Council on Transportation, noted that, since the region’s last 10-year plan was adopted in 2014, the North Shore and south of the Fraser have developed as “emerging priorities.”

“But I don’t want to put out false hope that within a couple of years there will be a form of rapid transit that’s going over the Second Narrows crossing. To be realistic, a rapid transit project, once it’s even been identified … has still got a good five to 10 years before it is completed.”

South of the Fraser River is one of the fastest growing regions in the Metro Vancouver-Fraser Valley area. By 2050, the population of Surrey, Langley city and the Township of Langley is expected to increase by more than 400,000.

One of the keys to improving the public transit system is bicycling infrastructure, which can address first- and last-mile issues – allowing commuters to use a combination of cycling and public transit.

There is still a lack of dedicated cycling lanes in some parts of Metro Vancouver, and even when people do opt to use their bikes, they may find limited capacity on buses and trains to accommodate bikes at rush hour. TransLink buses have only two bike racks each, and at peak periods, there often is no room for bikes on the Canada Line or SkyTrain.

Quinn said TransLink has ordered 205 new SkyTrain cars, which will have more “flex space” – i.e. bike racks and leaning pads. TransLink’s T2050 transportation plan calls for the creation of an 850-kilometre network of protected bike lanes over the next three decades.

Quinn said technology and innovation will play a big role over the next decade in helping transit authorities use existing bus and train systems in a smarter, more predictive way.

“We’re going to see buses that are going to be communicating with traffic signals, communicating with cars, and that’s going to be really revolutionary for transit agencies, in terms of on-time performance, in terms of safety of our road network and our transit system,” he said. “This is going to be the decade where that technology starts to come out.” •