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A SkyTrain passes over the intersection of Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver on May 27, 2011.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

With a looming decision on where the region's next transit-improvement dollars will be spent, Vancouver's transportation director has declared that a $2-billion tunnelled SkyTrain along Broadway is the only workable city option.

Jerry Dobrovolny said that light rapid transit – a rail system with more cars and speed than a streetcar – is just not an option for the Broadway-line extension. That extension would add 12 kilometres of rapid transit from the Expo/Millennium stop in east Vancouver to UBC on the western tip.

A light-rail line would inhibit truck traffic on the busy commercial route, said Mr. Dobrovolny. It would also prevent turns, he said, as well as requiring reconstruction of the whole street and removal of trees, among other things.

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The SkyTrain recommendation from the city engineering department, made to council Tuesday, firmly shuts the door to the light-rail option that one group of transit experts believe would be cheaper and more practical than a SkyTrain line.

But Mr. Dobrovolny was insistent that a light-rail system just can't handle the huge volumes anticipated in future years along Broadway, the province's second-largest employment centre after downtown Vancouver.

The corridor's jobs and residential density are growing at double the rate anticipated, which will only bring more pressure to a transit route that already carries 80,000 riders a day.

"Is there a system anywhere in the world that's moving this number of people [on surface rail] though this kind of corridor? The answer is no," he said. "And given the impacts, we support a Broadway tunnel all the way to UBC."

Mr. Dobrovolny also said the city needs a decision soon from TransLink, the regional transportation authority, so it can start planning. A route like this will take five to seven years to plan and another five years to build. Right now, the route is serviced by extra-long buses running as often as once a minute.

They are frequently so loaded that 2,000 passengers a day are passed up on average during morning rush hours.

The city's stand is sure to have repercussions, as Surrey, Vancouver and UBC await a decision by TransLink on priorities for its next big projects.

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Surrey is anxious to get light-rail transit connecting three of its town centres to its existing SkyTrain line. UBC is lobbying to make sure that a Broadway extension, whatever system is chosen, goes all the way to the campus.

TransLink has been conducting reviews of Surrey's and Vancouver's plans.

Those reviews are almost complete. Once they're released, the agency will start public consultation on possible options for additions.

In Vancouver, TransLink had been comparing a couple of surface light-rail options, a tunnelled SkyTrain, and an improved bus network.

Its documents say that a light-rail line to UBC would cost about $1.1-billion, carry about 109,000 people by 2021 and do the trip in 26 minutes, compared with the current 33 by bus.

The SkyTrain option, in contrast, would cost $3.2-billion, carry 147,000 people by 2021 and do the trip in 20 minutes.

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Mr. Dobrovolny said the SkyTrain cost could be trimmed by building the line in stages, with a tunnel built out to UBC from the beginning, but with track and stations in the less-populated residential areas only added later.

Pascal Spothelfer, UBC's vice-president for community relations, said the big question is how much tunnel could be dug within the financial limitations TransLink will surely have.

The university has been asking the city to advocate for a rapid-transit solution for a whole route, not just SkyTrain to the Arbutus mid-point and buses after that, as the mayor suggested two weeks ago.

Mr. Spothelfer had suggested the city should look at other, cheaper alternatives such as light rail in order to get a whole route, if needed.

"But there is really no point in insisting on a technology the city doesn't want," he said.

But other transportation advocates are dismayed by the city's recommendation.

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"It's not to the advantage of Vancouver to take a position where they choose the most expensive system," said UBC professor Patrick Condon. "And there's a number of systems all around the world that traverse more difficult corridors than UBC at a fraction of the cost."

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