The last time we tried to build a freeway in Vancouver, Three Dog Night's Joy to the World was No. 1 on the Top 100. The year was 1971. The idea was to build a six-lane highway through East Vancouver, linking Highway 1 with downtown. Not a great idea, perhaps, especially if you lived in East Vancouver. So we dropped it.
Someone forgot to tell the automobile manufacturers, however. Since that year, the number of registered vehicles in the Greater Vancouver District has increased by more than 50 per cent to about 1.2 million. And we're not talking Ford Falcons, either: Ford Expeditions, GMC Yukons. Heavy metal. So part of the equation is solved -- the no freeway part -- but bigger and better traffic clogs the lower mainland's arteries while the other part, mass transit, continues to mystify our best minds (not to mention the rest of us). Our best bet for deliverance has become, by peevish consensus, Skytrain, the elevated railway installed for Expo 86, and -- finally -- updated this week.
And this consensus has barely survived the litany of woe that has accompanied what should be a triumph for Translink, the beleaguered body responsible for getting us around. For one thing, it's about two years late, and for another, although it adds another 19.5 kilometres to the system, the Millennium Line is mostly noteworthy for where it doesn't go.
The Skytrain to Nowhere does not go to Richmond, one of the fastest-growing communities on Earth. It does not go to UBC. It does not even go to the so-called Tri-Cities suburbs of Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam, which were the destinations envisioned by planners at the outset. Politics somehow intervened, and unless Translink finds another $830-million, the Tri-Cities might as well be the Bermuda Triangle.
The Millennium Line will cost $4-billion, once it's all paid for 40 years from now, which is about $3-billion more than the price touted by former premier Glen Clark when he launched the project during his benighted tenure.
There are the inevitable last-minute glitches. Eleven of the 13 new stops aren't ready yet, so the new line will open with a token two. The rest are scheduled to open, oh, in the summer of 2002, maybe. None of the 60 updated Mark II Skytrain cars are ready yet, so for the time being, Translink will actually decrease the number of old Mark I cars now servicing commuters in Surrey in order to supply the new stations.
Good news for commuters -- the new ride costs the same as the old ride. Bad news for taxpayers -- there's no money to build turnstiles, so no one knows how many transit pirates are riding for free.
The essentials are, however, covered. Rapid Transit Project 2000 Ltd. (even the name is dated!) has earmarked $60,000 per station for public art. Commuters stuck at the new Braid Street station, waiting for an old Mark I train, can read the funky writing on the walls, and contemplate the verity of "I stuck my head in a little skunk hole, and the little skunk said Bless My Soul."
It is estimated that all this millennium activity will remove 1,000 cars from the road, which according to my calculations, comes to $4-million a car. If you were wondering how B.C. ever managed to run up a $35-billion debt, stop wondering.
This is not an argument for freeways. It may not even be an argument against Skytrain, although there are alternatives that cost less and work just as well or better -- street-based light rail, for one. It is, I guess, a rearguard argument for good sense. Before we start working on how to get the next 1,000 cars off the road.