Vancouver streetcar realities and the NPA dreamworld: a study in contrasts

The NPA streetcar program re-announced by mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton today offers nothing to the tens of thousands of commuters crammed on crosstown routes today who hope Metro Mayors vote Oct. 7 to approve new investments in bus and Skytrain service by raising the gas tax.

I say “re-announced” because the streetcar has been a staple of Vancouver election campaigns for a generation. I should know — I have strongly supported a streetcar program and still do.

But streetcar dreams and streetcar realities are a study in contrasts. Here are some realities:

  • Translink has consistently refused, until 2009, to consider the streetcar as part of the regional transportation network. It only did so in 2009 as the Broadway Corridor study began after Mayor Gregor Robertson’s 2008 election, and then as a key to build ridership on Broadway and sustainable development on False Creek flats. This change by Translink means Vancouver could promote the streetcar as part of the regional network and see funding shared by the region. The NPA plan would put the entire $200 million cost on Vancouver taxpayers and would not even serve the flats;
  • As the NPA demonstrated in the Olympic Village financing fiasco, public-private partnerships are fraught with peril. Transit systems do not make money. Vancouver taxpayers would be on the hook for the entire $200 million, plus operating losses and the premium cost of private sector borrowing. Proponents often propose to finance such projects with huge density lifts, as in Hong Kong. Where would the NPA add this massive density in a line that would snake through heritage neighbourhoods and around the West End?
  • Triggering new investment in existing bus routes and out to the TriCities is the main task facing Metro municipalities today. That’s the reality and that’s where senior governments have offered to cost share. Does Councillor Anton support the proposed two cents a litre increase in the gas tax so service improvements could arrive next year? Or are Vancouver transit riders supposed to wait, and wait, and wait, for the streetcar that could only come with regional commitment to the Broadway corridor?

The reality is that the previous NPA council committed the city to $9 million in capital investment for the 2010 Games streetcar pilot project with no idea when or if the entire system could be built. The rusting tracks are a monument to that “no real plan, no real budget, fingers crossed” approach. It was a great ride for eight weeks.

My money’s on the Translink streetcar option. It’s cheaper, more practical and may actually arrive in my lifetime.