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The Chief gondola rises near the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, B.C. on April 29, 2014. City council in Burnaby, B.C., is supporting a proposal by the region’s transit authority to consider a gondola to the Simon Fraser University campus.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

City council in Burnaby, B.C., has thrown its support behind a proposal by the region’s transit authority to consider a gondola to the Simon Fraser University campus as one of its expansion projects over the next 10 years.

The gondola would be a unique and relatively inexpensive method of moving people up Burnaby Mountain. If given the green light, it would be a first for a Canadian city and just the third in Canada and the United States combined.

Burnaby City Council originally opposed the idea when it was first proposed 10 years ago, and it has been debated for years. Now, the council has ensured it will be part of the discussion when the TransLink mayors’ council maps out its next 10-year plan for the region.

“We were comfortable this time that it could be successfully done,” said Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley. “It’s an intriguing project.”

SFU president Joy Johnson said the university, along with faculty and students, are very enthusiastic about the concept. The school is even looking at contributing some money to the project, which is tentatively priced at about $210-million.

“It’s such a good business case,” said Ms. Johnson, whose main campus on top of Burnaby Mountain serves 20,000 students, almost all of them commuters since there is a limited amount of housing there. About 5,000 residents live in housing developments there, with projections that the number will soon climb to 9,000. “We’re over the moon about Burnaby approving the direct route.”

The route proposed by TransLink planners would be a straight line up from the Production Way SkyTrain station to a spot near a small commercial strip built for the university’s housing district, which is right next to the campus.

The gondola – often called an aerial tram, in transit planner talk – is now among the ideas being discussed for the agency’s 2050 vision. That vision has set a goal of quadrupling the rapid-transit network to 400 kilometres, and putting frequent transit within a short walk of most homes and jobs.

The gondola will be competing against many other demands and proposals, from a rapid-transit line to the North Shore, the extension of the Broadway subway from Arbutus to the University of British Columbia, a rapid bus along King George Boulevard in Surrey, a rapid bus to Squamish and more.

The mayors’ council will not only need to select from that list but also figure out where the money is going to come from to pay for so many expensive items.

But a gondola is a relatively low-price item on that list, and the benefits in terms of improved transit and reduced carbon emissions are large.

“The diesel buses have difficulties operating a vertical climb of nearly 300 metres, and emit an estimated 1,700 tonnes of GHGs [greenhouse gases] per year,” noted the TransLink project report. “Additionally, winter snowstorms halt the service altogether for an average of 10 days per year, not only disrupting classes, exams and research at SFU, but also stranding UniverCity community members at considerable inconvenience and expense.”

For Burnaby’s council, the environmental benefits were a significant factor in the approval. “We’ve set real tough targets for emission controls. I don’t think we can let any opportunity go by,” Mr. Hurley said.

The gondola was energetically opposed last time by residents in the mountainside community of Forest Grove, who worried about it operating overhead.

But Mr. Hurley and Ms. Johnson said TransLink has done a lot of work to make the line as unobtrusive as possible. A visual animation that was prepared to show what the aerial tram would look like gives viewers a sense that it will be well above any houses and largely screened by trees, they said.

Mr. Hurley also said that TransLink will need to come up with a fair mechanism for compensating those landowners whose property values are affected by the line.

The two other public-transit gondolas that exist north of Mexico are in Portland and Roosevelt Island, N.Y. The Portland tram, which travels 1,000 metres from a spot near the banks of the Willamette River to the Oregon Health & Science University 152 metres above, was largely financed by the university. It opened in 2007, after its construction budget quadrupled from the original estimate to US$57-million.

The Roosevelt Island tram opened in 1976. Aerial trams are much more popular in Latin America, and Mexico has several, with construction of the most recent, the Cablebus, launched last March in Mexico City.

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