Vision’s Trojan Train on Broadway

Few feel that the construction of the Canada Line was a positive experience for local residents, merchants and taxpayers, but Vancouver’s current developer friendly City Council feels that it deserves to be replicated on the Broadway corridor between Clark Drive and UBC.

According to the Metro’s summary of the report that Council warmly received, it will cost $2.8 billion to provide Broadway corridor rapid transit. The line will simply have to run through a tunnel. Whereas to run at-grade transit or elevated rapid transit, “it would remove 90 percent of parking, restrict turning at 90 percent of intersections, narrow sidewalks and chop trees.” In the City transportation director’s own words, “[i]n fact, the entire corridor would have to be rebuilt from building face to building face.”

This apocalyptic scenario demonstrates the power of the unstated premise: the removal of vehicular traffic. Unstated in all this is the assumption that not one square centimeter of space allocated for moving private vehicles could possibly be sacrificed in order to build more environmentally friendly transportation infrastructure. Whatever public transportation gained in space would have to be seized from merchants, pedestrians and shoppers, because the private car as transportation method is untouchable.

Also unstated is the way senior bureaucrats are being asked to construct a false binary between, on one hand, a $3 billion mega-project and on the other, a bus system already stretched beyond capacity. Off the table is the original elevated Skytrain technology with angle parking underneath. Similarly, all the work done in eliminating turning restrictions pioneered by the Toronto Transit Commission on the St. Clair streetcar route in the last decade is carefully ignored. It’s an expensive, completely unnecessary tunnel or nothing.

All this makes me very suspicious of Vision Vancouver’s real intentions when it comes to Broadway rapid transit. So I have decided to conduct a small thought experiment: let us assume Vision knows the intellectual sleight of hand in which it is engaged, and let’s assume that they have a clear recollection of the various fiascos associated with the Canada Line. What might their actual goals be with this “go big or go home” position on Broadway transit?

1. Renoviction of Small Independent Merchants: Our city government’s current position is being justified to small business owners as defending them from a hypothetical loss of parking and sidewalk space. But, as so many current (and sadly former) merchants on Cambie Street can attest, the biggest threat to small, local business is tunneling. While big box stores, chains and large businesses can afford a complete multi-month shutdown of the street while a tunnel is dug, small businesses lack the liquidity to do the same.

Once the tunnel is complete, only the richest, least local merchants will be left standing. So we can reasonably conclude that plans for another cut and cover tunnel will be what causes and not what prevents “the entire corridor [being] rebuilt building face by building face.” Vision’s developer friends can look forward to another bonanza of redevelopment caused by government-facilitated property value inflation and weakened local merchants.

2. New Car Capacity: Currently, buses occupy a significant portion of the pavement on Broadway, crowding and slowing private vehicle traffic. In Vision’s plan, this would be literally swept under the rug as all impediments to a private motor vehicle monopoly on Broadway would be buried at great expense. Vancouver’s civic government could finally live down its courageous bike lane plan by handing a mixed-use street exclusively to the private car.

3. Public-Private Partnerships: The great thing about coming up with a really expensive big-ticket item is that “other revenue sources” are immediately on the table. By cranking the initial price tag up to just shy of $3 billion, a tremendous appetite can be created to look for “innovative” funding methods. While P3s (public-private partnerships) are more than a generation old in Canada, their supposedly innovative character remains part of the public discourse. Under Larry Campbell and COPE-lite/proto-Vision, a $1.8 billion asset was handed to a private company for anteing up a mere $300 million, along with the guarantee that if they couldn’t manage to make money off it, local government would replace their profits through a direct transfer of tax revenue.

But our civic government has had a decade to learn since their first tentative steps back in the early days of the Canada Line. By closely pairing new transit with the breakneck up-zoning of the city, stations could be financed through zoning variances and development mega-projects. Tunneling could be leveraged with for-profit underground parking to help feed the new pavement being placed at the disposal of private cars. New condos could be given preferential access to stations and associated commercial space could be placed within the envelope of the fare-paid zone as we have begun to see on the Canada Line. Hundreds of millions in “savings” could be delivered through special deals with developers to finance an otherwise unaffordable option.

This trial balloon for privatization, overdevelopment, increased car capacity and another concerted assault on the diversity of Vancouver’s storefronts is being floated in the name of green transportation and sustainability. Transit advocates need to reach out to a broad coalition to stop Vision’s hidden agenda. Small businesses, renters, students and environmentalists must come together to reject the latest mass stealth renoviction scheme before it acquires too much momentum and affordable rental housing and local businesses collapse into a giant cut-and-cover pit the way they have on Cambie Street.

The Vancouver Renters’ Union’s Tristan Markle recently called for the reinvigoration of the Bus Riders’ Union over the latest round of fare-gouging. Here is yet another reason such an organization is desperately needed today.