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Commuters cross over the road on a pedestrians bridge over Broadway in transit between Skytrains at the Broadway and Commercial Sky Train terminals in Vancouver March 24. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Commuters cross over the road on a pedestrians bridge over Broadway in transit between Skytrains at the Broadway and Commercial Sky Train terminals in Vancouver March 24. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Transit a hit-and-miss affair in B.C.'s Lower Mainland Add to ...

Shuttling sleekly between Richmond and downtown Vancouver, the $2-billion Canada Line has been a hit since it opened in 2009. But while the Canada Line whisks hundreds of passengers a day to their destinations, hundreds more huddle at bus stops or fume in their cars.

Transit is a hit-and-miss affair in the Lower Mainland, with some neighbourhoods well-served and others out of the loop.

The patchy coverage reflects geography, history and financial constraints. TransLink, the Lower Mainland's regional transit authority, serves an area that covers nearly 3,000 square kilometres, has more than 2 million residents and takes in 21 municipalities, including Bowen Island. Modes of transit include buses, the SkyTrain light rapid transit system, a SeaBus that links the North Shore to downtown and the West Coast Express, a weekday commuter rail service between Vancouver and Mission. In addition, TransLink shares responsibility for major roads and bridges with local governments.

Over the past few decades, the region's population has outpaced transit development. Major new projects have been few and far between. SkyTrain debuted for Expo 86. The proposed Evergreen Line - a $1.4-billion SkyTrain extension that would link Coquitlam to Vancouver - has been on the drawing board since the 1990s, but has stalled repeatedly over money problems. South of the Fraser River, cities like Surrey, Delta and Langley are forecast to have some of the biggest population increases in the region over the next 30 years but at this point argue that they haven't seen their share of transit cash, or service.

Last year, TransLink's mayors' council turned down a plan that would have relied on property tax increases to fund several major projects, including the Evergreen Line.

Provincial and federal dollars for the project have been lined up but TransLink still needs to come up with its $400-million share of the tab.

"The supplemental plan didn't go anywhere because their 'plan' was to put more of a burden on property taxes," says West Vancouver mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, who is vice-chair of the mayors' council. "And we as mayors have been very clear that is not tenable."

The province and mayors in 2010 signed a memorandum of understanding that both sides would look at "all options" for future transit funding. TransLink's current revenue sources include property, fuel and parking taxes. The agency also has the authority to impose a vehicle levy and an "area benefiting tax" - a levy that would be paid from property owners that stand to benefit from transit improvements.

TransLink's funding bind has been an issue for more than a decade, says Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini.

"It hasn't gone away - it has gotten worse. And the delegated funding sources that TransLink was given are not enough to sustain the plan," he says.

In the meantime, urban planning in Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and Coquitlam has been based on the belief that "some day the train will come" - a belief that is at times difficult to maintain.

"Business wants certainty. Investment in our sector is suffering because of skepticism about rapid transit," Mr. Trasolini says. "Business suffers when you don't have efficient transportation systems and you have things left in the air without any certainty."

Future fixes

For transportation planners, big sports or cultural events can be virtual laboratories, ripe with possibilities for experiments and innovation.

After monitoring transportation and travel patterns in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympic games, Tarek Sayed has one overriding conclusion.

"We can set the bar much higher than what we are doing right now," says Mr. Sayed, who oversaw a study, commissioned by the city, that dispatched squads of University of British Columbia student survey teams to monitor people coming in to or leaving downtown. "We can expect a larger per cent shift in sustainable modes, including transit."

The study found that trips by "sustainable" modes - transit, walk or bike - more than doubled during the games and accounted for 79.5 per cent of spectator travel to event venues.

Faced with the closure of major roadways into downtown, people adjusted - walking, taking the bus or working from home. That adjustment holds lessons, including the potential to use a "carrot and stick" approach to transit and travel planning, says Mr. Sayed.

A "carrot" might be a speedy new transit line, while a stick could be costly parking fees or road closures - all designed to encourage "compact" living.

In Vancouver, planners are weighing proposals for higher-density developments along the Cambie Corridor travelled by the Canada Line. Richmond, too, is pursuing transit-oriented development.

Cities can also woo passengers through technology, such as electronic fare cards - names in the running for TransLink's planned smart card include Tpass, Compass and Starfish, along the lines of London's Oyster - and other changes that make transit more convenient and efficient, such as traffic systems that provide green lights for transit vehicles.

TransLink is trying to build on its Olympic legacy, which includes higher-than-forecast ridership for the Canada Line, with TravelSmart, a program that encourages people to use sustainable options to travel around the region.

Outside of Vancouver, that concept can be more difficult to embrace.

TransLink has boosted bus service in Surrey, but that's not enough for many people to give up the convenience and comfort of their cars, says Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.

"That SkyTrain is called the Expo line because it was built for Expo, with four stops," Ms. Watts says, referring to Surrey's four SkyTrain stations. "The population at that time was about 240,000 people. Today we have about half a million people and we have the same four stops.

"The situation south of the Fraser just exacerbates the problem of people getting in their cars. South of the Fraser we are going to take 70 per cent of the region's growth over the next 10, 15, 20 years - and there has to be infrastructure put in place."

Ms. Watts, like many of her counterparts, says TransLink needs a different funding mechanism that would allow the agency to put together an integrated, long-term plan.

For Surrey, she favours a light rail systems that would link different "nodes" of Surrey to SkyTrain network.

SkyTrain is great for linking two urban centres but is far too expensive to run through sprawling Surrey, she says.

"That kind of money is just not sitting in a pot somewhere."

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