Auditor’s report on Evergreen endorsing Skytrain over LRT may influence next Translink investments

Although Auditor General John Doyle’s report on the Pacific Carbon Trust dominated the headlines last week, his endorsement of the Skytrain purchase for the Evergreen Line — despite shortcomings in the information used to make the decision — may have a bigger impact on the daily lives of countless commuters.

To quote the Surrey Leader’s Jeff Nagel, a careful reporter on transit and urban issues, Doyle’s “latest audit concludes SkyTrain and not light rail was the best option because of its greater capacity at similar cost, its easy integration with the existing rapid transit system and because it’s well understood by transit users.

“While the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line is already under construction, the findings may influence the debate under way in Surrey and Vancouver over whether rapid transit extensions in those cities should be done with grade-separated SkyTrain or street-level light rail.”

It is Skytrain’s demonstrated capacity to carry long-term growth without disrupting local retail districts that has driven the City of Vancouver’s preference for Skytrain on the Broadway Corridor. Like Evergreen, that line would be an extension of the existing Skytrain system. LRT would be lower capacity, more disruptive for retail and require a transfer, either at Commercial Drive or further west.

Many Translink critics have argued that ridership figures for Evergreen were inflated to build the case for Skytrain and Doyle agrees that the numbers used were at the high end of the range. He also cautions that the forecast assumed significant further investments in Surrey and Vancouver by 2021, more frequent bus service to Evergreen stations, and steadily rising costs of automobile use.

While no vehicle levy has been implemented, tolls on the Port Mann and rising fuel costs are certainly making it more expensive to own a car. And Doyle warns that in the absence of further transit investment, “Evergreen ridership is likely to suffer as downtown commuters face more crowded and less reliable journeys.” In other words, Evergreen will underperform unless capacity grows system-wide.

What’s missing is that strategy to complete the rest of the transit system.

Work is already under way to prepare Commercial Drive and Main Street stations for the increases anticipated from Evergreen completion in 2016, just three years away.

But those improvements won’t do the job on their own. Demand for transit services is growing faster than supply, particularly in Vancouver and Surrey. Doyle’s report effectively endorses the need for larger capacity solutions, not bare minimum ones.