The University of British Columbia is a city unto itself. Located on the western tip of the Point Grey peninsula, and separated from Vancouver by a large park, the verdant campus sits on a bluff overlooking the Salish Sea. The province set aside the land a century ago.
The campus is a busy place, with some 55,000 students and 16,000 faculty and staff. Most commute to the school. Four of the five busiest bus lines in the Vancouver area move people to and from UBC and its environs. The packed 99 B-Line bus on Broadway is North America’s busiest bus route, according to regional transit operator TransLink, carrying more than 17-million passengers a year.
Work to connect UBC with Vancouver by SkyTrain has begun, but because of the slow drip of transit funds from the provincial and federal governments, the current plan only has enough money for a line that gets half way to its destination.
Last week, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, UBC and the Musqueam Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh (MST) Development Corp. joined forces to lobby Victoria and Ottawa to help build the full UBC SkyTrain “as soon as possible.” Their goal is the right one, and the provincial, federal and municipal governments should find the money to make it happen.
Last year, the regional mayors’ council that oversees TransLink approved an extension of the SkyTrain under Broadway to eventually run all the way to UBC. Money, however, has only been secured for half the route. As a result, the plan is for the SkyTrain to end at Arbutus Street in the Kitsilano neighbourhood. That would put the terminus several kilometres short of UBC. The majority of the line’s passengers, headed to and from the campus, would still have to ride a bus to get to where they’re going.
The leg to Arbutus is slated to cost $2.8-billion and is supposed to open in late 2025. Work on the UBC extension is at a preliminary stage. The hope is to have it built by 2030 – but without funding, this train isn’t moving beyond the blueprint stage. TransLink says the Arbutus-UBC extension could cost $3.8-billion, measured in 2018 dollars.
Mr. Stewart’s effort, alongside UBC and the MST Indigenous group, is welcome. But can the group sway Victoria and Ottawa? They billed their partnership as “historic” – a city working with a university and an Indigenous coalition to push for transit – but their plan is to “jointly advocate” for money. Mr. Stewart is going to Ottawa this month to make the case. His pitch is economic, to build the infrastructure “as cost effectively as possible” – read: sooner than later.
Some critics have said a subway to UBC is too expensive, and the money could better spent on light-rail or rapid-bus transit. Evidence suggests otherwise. The capacity SkyTrain offers will be ample for decades and would fill a key missing connection in the region. It would allow UBC to be connected by fast rail transit with downtown, the airport and the far-flung suburbs.
It has also been said that the project is simply a real estate play. That is partly true. UBC, which sits on a lot of land, is a big developer. MST is working on a major residential development close to the UBC SkyTrain extension on its Jericho Lands. Broadway will also see lots of new development. In a city that is growing and needs more housing, this would be welcome, if done right.
The City of Vancouver is already carefully planning along Broadway to Arbutus, as it seeks to avoid the mistakes – namely giveaways to developers – it made along Cambie when the Canada Line to the airport was built ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The same focus between Arbutus and UBC would ensure the right housing is built, along with other public benefits. A SkyTrain stop at the Jericho Lands would help assist in allowing for much-needed density in an area of the city that has room for it.
The goal of sending SkyTrain all the way to UBC makes sense. Over the next two decades, Metro Vancouver is expected to grow by 1-million people. For that growth to enhance the region’s quality of life, more and better public transit is needed. The route to UBC, already packed with commuters, has to be the province’s top transit priority.
B.C. has the fiscal capacity to undertake more infrastructure investment, as this page has argued before. As for Ottawa, it has a large, long-term infrastructure budget, to be rolled out over many years. Victoria and Ottawa should listen to the call from Vancouver and its partners, and get the UBC SkyTrain built.