Russil Wvong / Vancouver / The RAV line

Four ideas to reduce the cost of the RAV line

by Adam Fitch

[Adam Fitch is a development planning consultant. He lives in Mission, BC.]

June 2004

Dear TransLink Board members,

Here are four ideas to reduce the cost of the RAV line, and thereby save the project, without changing the overall route, and without changing the line from a grade separated line to an at-grade streetcar concept. These changes are interlinked; they could all be implemented together to save the maximum amount of costs, or they could be implemented singly or in various combinations.

These ideas are so simple that I would be very surprised if Translink staff themselves had not suggested them. Perhaps they have, but members of the public cannot know this, because so much of the discussions about RAV have been conducted behind closed doors.

I am a development planning consultant based in Mission, BC. I grew up in Vancouver, and I have a strong interest and background in transportation and transit planning.

The concept

The changes I propose are all related to a single idea: eliminate the deep-tunnel portion of the line, and replace it with a combination of a shallow trench, a short cut-and-cover tunnel, an elevated line, a bridge, and utilization of the existing Dunsmuir SkyTrain tunnel. Technical or political reasons have been given why each of these changes cannot be made; in view of the difficulties that have recently been encountered regarding funding approval, I think that all of these arguments must be reconsidered.

From Richmond and the airport as far as approximately 57th Avenue in Vancouver, the RAV line’s vertical profile would remain an elevated line, as currently proposed. From around 57th Avenue to the downtown peninsula, the line would be mostly elevated, rather than in a tunnel, as currently proposed, but the route would be the same. Finally, within the downtown core of Vancouver, the line would take a different route than what is currently proposed.

Going from 57th Avenue in the south to the downtown Vancouver core in the north, the changes that I propose are outlined below, and then described in more detail.

The details

From 57th Avenue to King Edward Avenue, the line would run in a shallow trench. A line depressed half-way in the ground would enable riders to see something pleasant out the windows, instead of concrete tunnel walls, but would not be unsightly or intrude on local residents’ privacy. At each of the major intersections (49th, 45th, 41st, 37th, and 33rd Avenues) the line would dip into short cut-and- cover tunnels. This is the method used along a portion of the Expo line in east Vancouver.

As to the removal of trees that would be required from the center of the Cambie Street boulevard, there are less than one hundred trees that would be impacted. These trees could be transplanted to the edges of the boulevard to screen the line, or into Queen Elizabeth Park, at a fraction of the cost of a deep tunnel.

From King Edward Avenue to 12th Avenue, the line would run in a cut-and-cover tunnel. The Cambie Street corridor is relatively narrow and congested in this section, and an at-grade or elevated profile would not be practical.

Between Twelfth and Tenth Avenues, where the grade of Cambie Street is at its steepest, the line would transition from tunnel to an elevated profile, with an elevated station at Broadway, and would continue elevated north along Cambie, and then over False Creek.

Instead of building a new transit tunnel under False Creek, a new transit-only bridge should be built just east of the Cambie Street Bridge. The City already owns most of the required land. This bridge would be considerably less expensive than a tunnel, and would provide great views of the city to riders. It would also enable above-ground stations to be built at both BC Place and the proposed Olympic Village, whereas the current plan does neither.

Finally, after crossing over False Creek onto the downtown peninsula, the line would turn northeast, pass along the north side of BC Place Stadium, and enter the existing Dunsmuir SkyTrain Tunnel using the original tunnel portal under the Georgia Viaduct. This would require the alteration of the plaza on the north side of BC Place Stadium and the removal and relocation of a number of the existing concrete columns that support the plaza over a short section of Expo Boulevard, but this would involve a much lower cost than constructing new tunnels.

The arguments for and against these changes

A number of arguments have been put forward why all these changes cannot be implemented. Following the same south-to-north organization used earlier, here are some of the reasons given, and why they are not valid:

First, it has been said that the grade on Cambie Street is too steep for an at-grade or elevated line or shallow tunnel, and that therefore only a deep tunnel will work.

The fact is that the grade of Cambie Street is less steep than the grade of the existing Expo SkyTrain line in New Westminster, from the SkyTrain maintenance yard to the 22nd Street station, or from there to Stewardson Way, or in Surrey from the Scott Road station up the King George Highway to the 108th Avenue station. I have checked the grades myself using contour maps.

Second, it is given that the central boulevard on Cambie Street is a "Heritage Boulevard", and therefore the line must be tunneled throughout its entire length, to protect the integrity of the boulevard. It is noted that this is the first and only such designation in the City of Vancouver. This is a sorry example of parochial political opportunism, and a remnant of a previous municipal administration that is no longer the voters’ choice.

A street level, elevated or shallow-trenched line could be built faster and cheaper than something entirely underground. The trees can be transplanted. It should also be noted that even if the line were to be built in a deep tunnel, it would require the construction of various ventilation shafts, electrical substations and other facilities that would disrupt the present nature of the boulevard.

Third, it is argued that according to technical studies, the Dunsmuir Tunnel section of the Expo line cannot accommodate the additional traffic of the RAV line. SNC-Lavalin, who designed and helped build the Expo and Millennium lines, and Bombardier, who designed and built the trains, (both of whom will most likely be involved in designing and building the RAV line) should be able to figure out how to run extra trains through the tunnel. After all, compared to the rapid transit systems in most European and Asian cities, Vancouver’s system is not heavily used at all. If the supposedly world-class transit system builder cannot rise to the challenge of improving the Expo line’s efficiency, then it is not surprising that they have not sold very many such systems elsewhere.

It should be noted that when track switches were added to the Expo line in 2001 to accommodate the Millennium line (just north of the Fraser River SkyTrain bridge), not only did it not slow down the system, but the installation was accomplished without disrupting operation of the existing line.

Finally, it is said that a new tunnel under downtown is required to "shape growth". As far as shaping growth is concerned, it is not necessary to divert the line into the Downtown South / Yaletown / Concord Pacific land areas in order to encourage growth there, at a cost of many millions extra. The Downtown South, Yaletown and Concord Pacific areas are currently experiencing plenty of development without a station in place, and they will continue to do just fine. How much additional development could they accommodate anyway?

People are choosing to live in these areas despite the lack of rapid transit, and they will continue to do so. Most people do not choose to locate in these areas because they would be able to take rapid transit to the airport, to Richmond or to the downtown core. They choose to live there for far different reasons.

In the not too distant future, there will be a streetcar line that runs from BC Place, along Pacific Boulevard, over the Granville Street Bridge (either on the bridge deck or on the superstructure) or over the Burrard Street Bridge, and up the Arbutus corridor. At such time as that streetcar line is in place, transit riders in the Downtown South, Yaletown and Concord Pacific areas will have an easy connection to the RAV line by means of a RAV station near BC Place.

The real reasons behind the deep tunnel

So what are the real reasons, then? Is it that Vancouver city councilors do not want their legacy to be:

  1. An elevated SkyTrain line popping out of the ground right in front of Vancouver City Hall?
  2. A fight with residents along Cambie Street about the disturbance of the "Heritage Boulevard" trees?
  3. The major disruption of Cambie Street from King Edward Ave. to Broadway while a shallow tunnel or elevated line is constructed? (This would occur anyway, regardless if a deep tunnel is used, in order to construct the stations)
  4. A potentially nasty land acquisition tussle with Concord Pacific to obtain the land necessary to connect the line from the north bridgehead of the False Creek crossing to the Dunsmuir Tunnel?

The real answer is that it is all four of these rationales are at play. As usual, erroneous technical reasons are being used to cover for crude political realities. Besides, it is much easier for the City of Vancouver to opt for a more expensive deep tunnel option and avoid all these local political troubles, when the City of Vancouver itself is not paying any of the capital / construction costs. The City of Vancouver is pushing its weight around.

The other culprits

Here are some other factors that come into play:

Running the new line through the existing Dunsmuir Tunnel under downtown Vancouver, as the existing Expo line (the original SkyTrain line) already does, would save millions. But the Feds have insisted on a new, independent line running from Cambie Street almost directly to Canada Place, with its own brand new tunnel. As it stands right now, the Feds will have a big nothing to brag about.

The BC government has stated that the line must be approved "within the next few weeks" so that it can be finished in time for the Olympics. What is that? The Millennium line from New Westminster through Burnaby and East Vancouver took only 4 or 5 years. A street-level or elevated RAV line would take less than 5 years to complete.

Finally, TransLink, the lead proponent of this project, is paralyzed by "committee thinking" and incapable of good decision-making. As a child of the GVRD, which is itself a barely functional federation of many separate municipalities, the TransLink board members are not directly elected, and tend to be highly parochial. If the project is a failure, TransLink will surely get the blame. But if it is a success, they will not get the credit, and they will not win an election, because there is no election for the GVRD.

For the most part, these councilors are only watched by a small number of interested voters in their own jurisdiction, so the local voters are the only ones they are playing to. They are definitely not looking out for the best interests of the region as a whole, as they should. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan revealed this attitude the other day when he said "TransLink was going to push the RAV project through no matter what," as if he was not a member of the Translink board himself.

As the recent past has shown, this is a recipe for fiscal and political disaster. What incentive is there for TransLink directors to be bold or decisive? Who cares about the cost? In this political structure, one hand washes the other. Either TransLink must design a line that everyone can afford, or the province will take over the project and do as they see fit, or most likely, the project will die.

How to get the line built now

The question that has always bothered me is this: When there are so many obvious ways to save hundreds of millions of dollars on this project, why is nobody going in that direction? Especially now that the consequences of the negative Translink decision are so dire--i.e.: the loss of $1.35 billion in committed senior government (and airport authority) funding. The reasons are complex, but as I have shown, they are not impossible to discover.

If these aspects of the proposed line are modified, the line could be built for far less than $1.35 billion. Thus, the RAV line could be built within the budget that is currently committed by the funding partners, and it could be built as a conventional public sector project, rather than as a public-private partnership. It would not be necessary to bring in a private sector partner for funding reasons (although I suspect that doing so is a condition of the BC government’s $300 million contribution). In addition, once the deep tunnel concept is done away with in favour of a shallow tunnel or elevated line, RAV could easily be completed prior to 2010.

By the way, the increased cost of the project is not so much in the added cost of a deep tunnel itself. When one considers the added costs of relocating many buried utilities that would be required for a shallow cut and cover tunnel or an elevated guideway, it may actually be cheaper to go with a deep tunnel, using tunnel-boring technology. However, a deep tunnel requires many deep and complex passenger stations, electrical substations, switching tracks and emergency exits and access shafts. The increased cost of these facilities is what is driving the cost up.

Finally, a federal report released in January projected that ridership levels would be significantly lower than what TransLink has projected, and costs would be significantly higher. The reasons for these findings are already well known--a deep tunnel is more expensive than a shallow tunnel or an elevated line, there is more uncertainty about construction costs, and it is not as attractive to riders.


Forget the long, deep tunnel. Build the RAV line primarily at street-level and elevated, and where necessary, in a shallow cut-and-cover tunnel. The line would be completed faster and for perhaps half the cost. What’s more, it would build on the advantages of our existing elevated SkyTrain system. When you ride the SkyTrain, you can see where you’re going, and you’re not disoriented getting in and out of stations. Best of all, you get a spectacular aerial tour of the region every time you take it. This attracts riders instead of discouraging them. Who would leave their car to ride from Richmond to Canada Place in a tunnel? Knowing how people in this region love the outdoors, I suspect that the number is small.

All this project needs is political vision, determination, and the willingness to compromise.

Adam Fitch, MCIP (member, Canadian Institute of Planners)
7612 Dunsmuir Street, Mission

daytime phone: 604-826-9817