The Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola

Post by Steven Dale

Voluntary Disclaimer: While I have had conversations with individuals associated with the Vancouver/Burnaby Gondola, I have no stake within this project. Furthermore, while a report I wrote on the topic of cable was referenced in the original feasibility analysis associated with this project, I have not been consulted on this project whatsoever. The opinions expressed below are therefore my own.

Some background: Simon Fraser University‘s (SFU) largest campus is at the top of Burnaby Mountain, a low 370m hill in suburban Vancouver, British Colombia. The SFU Burnaby has a community of over 20,000 students with the attendant staff a university of that size commands.

Burnaby Mountain is also home to UniverCity, a small mixed-use community located adjacent to SFU. Established in 2001, UniverCity is a residential enclave of 3,000 that envisions up to 10,000 people living there in the coming decades. Despite it’s proximity to the university, UniverCity should not be confused with student housing. It is a stable community of families and young couples.

Suffice it to say, the traffic flows from the foot of Burnaby Mountain to SFU and back again are considerable. The Transport 2040 Document by Translink – the Vancouver public transit authority – showed that nearly half of the 50,000 daily trips to and from Burnaby Mountain are made by bus transit. During peak hours, that number is in excess of 53%.

This should make people’s ears perk up: Over 20,000 bus commuters per day up/down an suburban mountain in Vancouver. In Canada. Let’s just say snow, ice and rain are a serious concern.

While buses have a clear advantage over rail-based technologies when it comes to ascending mountains, they run into similar traction issues when confronted with snow and ice. Conversations I’ve had with stakeholders indicate this to be one of the primary motivators behind the project. Inclement weather shuts down bus service on Burnaby Mountain several times every winter. For obvious reasons, this would not occur with a gondola system.

Among the highlights of the existing studies are the following:

  1. Building the SFU gondola would result in a cost savings of over $170 million CAD over a 30 year lifespan.
  2. Bus services (and their attendant GHG emissions) to and from SFU would be significantly reduced.
  3. Travel times would be reduced dramatically. For example, the #145 bus that currently serves SFU provides a 14 minute trip (not including loading and unloading) assuming no delays. The trip via gondola would be no more than 5-6 minutes (not including loading and unloading).
  4. The system is estimated to cost – all in – $68.9 million CAD.
  5. System capacity is estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000.
  6. Technology recommendation is the 3S.

The SFU gondola study will be interesting to follow for numerous reasons:

  1. This is a gondola, not an Aerial Tram. Individuals involved in this process and these studies understand the difference between the two – a very uncommon occurrence.
  2. Initial research suggests this will be a fully-integrated system. Both physical and fare integration with the Vancouver Skytrain are likely to be pursued. This would be a first in North America.
  3. Unlike the vast majority of Urban Gondolas proposed in North America, this is decidedly not a Toy for Tourists. While some degree of tourism is likely to be generated by this system, it is not the primary reason for its existence.

I’m incredibly positive on this proposal. It makes sense from every angle. The one concern I have is this: Money.

Like most every government in North America, British Columbia is broke. Finding $70 million dollars to build what could – on the surface – be seen as a frill expenditure could be difficult, politically.

British Colombia Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal Party is under intense scrutiny and pressure lately over their controversial move to harmonize the provincial sales tax. While readers outside of Canada probably won’t know what “harmonize the provincial sales tax” means, understand that it has been a very unpopular initiative. So much so, Mr. Campbell is now ranked as the least popular Premier in Canada, with his approval ratings in total free-fall.

Unlike most of the developed world, Canadian cities are subservient to the Province in which they reside. This means that any major capital initiatives are likely to be funded (at least in part) by the Province. Municipal transit project in Canada are rarely, if ever, funded by the federal government. Should Translink and SFU move forward with building the gondola link, they’re likely to require strong support from the deeply unpopular Gordon Campbell.

That these studies come part-way through a provincial election cycle is also of concern. The next BC election is scheduled for May 14th, 2013. Given the glacial pace of bureaucratic processes in Canada, approvals for the gondola are unlikely to occur before then. Even if Translink and SFU gather all the necessary political allies to realize this project, they could find themselves under an entirely new political regime in the next few years. Will that political regime be supportive or hostile towards the idea is anybody’s guess.

Given current studies, the Burnaby Gondola has significant merit. Politics are not, however, a meritocracy. Politics are a blood-sport. Unfortunately, our current transit planning method enables a system where transit projects are determined less by merit and more by the politics of the day.

Hopefully, the Burnaby Gondola can find friends and allies on all sides of the table, so that it doesn’t get lost in what seems like an inevitable political shuffle.

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  1. I notice the tender for the business case has been awarded to CH2M HILL. I know they do some transportation consulting but do they have any experience with CPT?
  2. @ Sean re: "I notice the tender for the business case has been awarded to CH2M HILL. I know they do some transportation consulting but do they have any experience with CPT?" Not to my knowledge, but I could be wrong. I think it's a great thing that such a large company as CH2M Hill is involved. The more large firms who know about this stuff the better.
  3. Christy Clark, the Premier-designate of BC was born and raised in Burnaby, attended SFU and held the seat for Port Moody-Burnaby Mountain. This could be good news for the project when she takes over in March.
  4. I was just poking around in the Translink document library and came across the Chief Executive Officer’s Report dated March 16, 2011 (http://bit.ly/hiC7gD). Though it had only one reference to this, it sounds positive: Burnaby Mountain Gondola Business Case ‐ Development of a business case for replacing bus service to Burnaby Mountain with a gondola was initiated in November, 2010. The business case is nearing completion and indicates substantial customer, environmental and financial benefits from gondola service. The study team is finalizing technical analysis of financial feasibility and identifying a procurement approach should the project advance toward implementation.

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