How P3 Shaped Vancouver

Vancouver ranks among the most livable cities in the world — an enviable status owing in no small part to the city’s P3-driven transit expansion.
IF THERE WAS EVER A CITY in need of successful public transit Infrastructure, it’s Vancouver. Landlocked by mountains to the north and the Pacific to the west, urban sprawl has for decades been pushed to the south and east. Burnaby, Richmond, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, Surrey. Port Moody and Langley are just some of the bedroom communities that have sprung up as density, space and cost force people farther from downtown. Traffic has become a blood sport with no signs of a slowdown.

Eighteen years ago, there were 745,000 licensed vehicles operating in the lower mainland, according to statistics from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. Today the number is close to 1.7 million and growing. “You have to get people out of their cars. You can’t just keep building bigger roads,” says Maria McKenzie, a partner at Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy LLP in Vancouver.

The city got its first Light Rapid Transit Line, the Expo Line, linking Vancouver with New Westminster roughly 20 kilometres away, for Expo 1986. But after that, busses and SeaBusses were the only public transit available until 2002 when the Millennium Line opened, connecting Coquitlam to Vancouver’s downtown. Like the Expo Line, it’s a driverless SkyTrain funded entirely by governments and taxpayers.

But if Vancouver has become a leader in public-transit Infrastructure in Canada in more recent years, one of the reasons is necessity, plus “a champion going back to the early 2000s when our premier, Gordon Campbell, was actively invested in making public Infrastructure successful using a P3 model,” McKenzie says.

Governments have been very alive to the issue, says Ross MacDonald, managing partner of Stikeman Elliott LLP’s Vancouver office. Yet even at that, these kinds of projects can take a decade or more to get from conception to operation.

“Public transit in Vancouver is a different head space than it is for some other big cities,” says Linda Brown, co-head of the Infrastructure practice group at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. Vancouver, she explains, does not have a subway system to move people around. The burgeoning population and subsequent gridlock required for more public transit quickly. That led to the Canada Line, which runs from Vancouver to Richmond and also connects to the Vancouver airport, which was one of the first public-private partnerships in Canada. Constructed with SNC-Lavalin as the concessionaire, it helped build Canada’s reputation as a P3 expert and finally sell many Vancouverites on the advantages of using public transit.

McKenzie — who takes the Canada Line to and from work every day — says it is so successful that entire communities are developing around its 16 stops. “The thing that’s the most amazing if you drive in Vancouver is, all the way along the Canada Line corridor, there’s been this massive development going on around the stations,” she says. “It’s taken what was light industrial or single-family residential areas and is transforming a lot of it.”

She points to Marine Drive, the last station before you get into Vancouver proper, as an example of the impact these kinds of public transit projects can have. “The whole time I was growing up — I’m from Vancouver — a lot of this was low-rise, two-storey dodgy old commercial buildings with a few apartments on top.” Now there are condos and mixed-use towers, shopping centres, grocery stores, cinemas, pharmacies and plenty of cranes indicating more is being built. “There are also streetscapes and some cool public art,” she says. “It’s really become a neighbourhood. It’s transformed that area in just eight years. It really has.”

One thing that makes the Canada Line different from its predecessors — and most other light rail systems in Canada — is the innovation in its construction, says Karen Martin, a partner at Dentons Canada LLP. The line had many challenges, not the least of which came from its multiple owners including the federal government, the cities of Vancouver and Richmond, and the airport authority.

During the procurement process, it was made clear by the owners’ entity formed to run the project that they wanted innovative ideas, a new way to do things. The successful bidder came up with the idea of what’s called “cut and cover,” says Martin. This involves cutting out existing roads and rights of way from the top, digging down deep enough to build the train line, covering it over and replacing the road, instead of having to tunnel under residential areas — which is much cheaper and requires significantly less home expropriation.

Martin says it’s tough to overstate the impact the Canada Line has had. Before it was built, on the streets leading to the two bridges going to False Creek, an inlet that separates downtown Vancouver from the rest of the city, “there was gridlock for several hours a day and there was no room for any new lanes because we’re talking downtown.” The Canada Line, which went under the inlet instead of going over it, “had the effect of giving us 10 new lanes. It’s location, location, location.”

MacDonald says, “I don’t think people realized how good public transit could be until the Canada Line,” which he worked on for 10 years. He calls it “a showcase piece of rapid transit” and Marine its poster child.

“I think the idea is, you could live around the station and not own a car because everything you need is either where you live or somewhere along the rapid transit line. So it actually all starts to make sense both economically and in terms of viability.” The regional busses all feed into at least one line, and the lines all feed into one another, forming a giant web that moves people not only downtown or to the airport, but throughout Metro Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.

In December, Vancouver opened the Evergreen Line, an 11-kilometre extension of the Millennium Line linking East Vancouver to Coquitlam via Burnaby and Port Moody — and even more is planned with new projects coming from TransLink, the agency responsible for Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation network, and the Mayors’ Council, a body of 23 mayors formed in 2014.

A common vision released in 2015 involves $7.5 billion in new capital spending, and is expected to reduce traffic congestion by 20 per cent and allow many drivers to save 20 to 30 minutes a day. The federal government announced in its budget it was committing $2.2 billion for transit improvements in Metro Vancouver. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called it a “game changer,” but looking at what’s in the pipeline, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed.

One key project that has been through consultations is a Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT. With an average of 10,000 people a year moving into Surrey, the city’s population — already BC’s second largest — will surpass Vancouver by 2041. Yet, when it comes to rapid transit, Surrey is served only by the 31-year-old Expo Line and hasn’t seen any rapid-transit capital improvements in over 20 years. It’s predicted the new line, with construction expected to start in 2018, will put 200,000 people within five minutes of getting onto a rapid transit system.

Another project worth noting is the planned extension of the Millennium Line along the Broadway Corridor, a major east-west corridor in Vancouver that ultimately leads to UBC. MacDonald says many were disappointed to see that Phase One doesn’t go all the way to the university because “tens of thousands of people commute to UBC every day, and there are fairly few arterial routes feeding into it.”

The Surrey line and Broadway extension are both entirely government and taxpayer funded, MacDonald notes, unlike the Canada Line, which was done as a P3. So given the funding shortfall, why aren’t the new public-transit Infrastructure improvements being done as public-private partnerships? MacDonald calls it “a good question. You should ask the City of Vancouver … There’s a sense of urgency that public Infrastructure is the way to go, and every day delayed is a day lost. So let’s get on with it.”
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