Is heritage streetcar the road to the future? When fares don’t even cover the electricity?

Council’s decision yesterday to seek a report on the costs and future prospects of the heritage streetcar service to Granville Island will give taxpayers a chance to separate nostalgia from transit policy when it comes to light rail.

Despite reports that the city had “cut off” funding, Dale Laird, a director of the non-profit society operating the service, made it clear he was not at council seeking a grant. What was needed, however, was staff time and cash — amount not clear, but north of $40,000 — to run for another summer.

On the revenue side, Laird said, fares last year of $4,000 barely covered the cost of electricity. There are no sponsorships, corporate partnerships or other revenue strategies. The society operates with volunteers.

The railway operated briefly last summer, carrying fewer riders on its best day than the Dunsmuir Bike Lane supports on its worst. Translink runs the Number 50 right along the same route, more frequently, with wheelchair accessibility. The streetcar is a tourist novelty, not a transportation strategy or demonstration project.

The forthcoming staff report will assess the true cost of this project, launched many years ago by NPA Mayor Phillip Owen to highlight the possibilities of a streetcar service on that right of way. He and subsequent NPA leaders have suggested Vancouver could go it alone and build the line without regional support.

That would be a very expensive proposition and take the Broadway Corridor back down the priority list at Translink.

Now Translink has included a short stretch of the old interurban alignment, from VCC Clark to Arbutus and Broadway, in one of its planning options for the Broadway Corridor.

That’s good news. My view, often restated, is that all major investments from here on in must make a real regional contribution. We are, after all, building a Metro Vancouver system, not a Vancouver system or a Surrey system.

If there’s a business case to run the heritage cars from Olympic Village to Granville Island on summer weekends, let’s hear it. And let’s thank the volunteers who have kept it running at the request of former councils until now.