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SkyTrain to UBC – just build it, already

This proposal has its naysayers, says Daniel Fontaine – and they’re all wrong.
SkyTrain should go here. (Kaleb Kroetsch /

As a resident of New Westminster with a population of around 70,000 people, I feel blessed to live in a city with no fewer than five SkyTrain stations. In fact, two of them have been there since the original Expo Line opened for service back in the mid-1980s. Bus service in the Royal City is also, for the most part, quite exceptional.

No doubt this is one of the benefits of living in the geographic center of Metro Vancouver.

Given the obvious abundance of good transit options, you would think I’d be less inclined to weigh in on the emerging debate whether we need to expand SkyTrain out to the University of British Columbia.

On that front you’d be wrong.

I think the time has come for us to make a public investment in this major piece of public infrastructure – and the naysayers have got it all wrong.

A number of years ago, my previous employer relocated our office from atop Simon Fraser University to the UBC campus. My relatively short daily trip to Burnaby Mountain was replaced with an excruciating and lengthy 90-minute public transit commute.

There is nothing like spending three hours a day on the SkyTrain and 99B Line bus to make you a believer in the need for a UBC extension.

The facts in support of completing SkyTrain to UBC are very compelling. Broadway is not only a traffic congestion nightmare at the best of times – it also serves as the second largest downtown in British Columbia.

It’s a magnet for businesses as well as home to one of the largest acute care hospitals in Canada. It’s also a major east-west traffic corridor which relies on the free flow of goods and people.

In other words, it’s a vital part of our regional and provincial economy.

Expanding bus service along that route is simply out of the question. City engineers have been very clear that the current fleet of 99B Line buses are already riding bumper to bumper. More people on more buses waiting in line-ups is not a transit solution – especially if want to encourage more people to get out of their cars.

Opponents of a SkyTrain extension argue we should be looking at light rail options before making investments in a costlier rapid transit system. It’s a tired and worn out argument, almost as old as the line Expo Line itself.

Replacing electric trolley buses with fixed rail at grade system on Broadway would be an unmitigated disaster – not to mention it also doesn’t make financial sense.

Construction of light rail on Broadway will be highly disruptive to local businesses during the lengthy construction phase and would permanently alter the flow of traffic. There is also a good likelihood it would result in fewer parking spaces which some might consider a good thing. Don’t expect local retailers to be thrilled about the prospect of reducing the availability of parking which they use to attract customers.

Building SkyTrain to Arbutus Street then dumping everyone outside and forcing them to switch to a light rail system or rapid bus is also just plain silly. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would have been to take SkyTrain all to way from Surrey to the west side of Vancouver only to be dumped at a bizarre terminus station a mere few kilometres from UBC.

If all the partners (including the Musqueam First Nation, City of Vancouver, UBC, federal and provincial government) can get their act together, we can find the money we need to build SkyTrain out to UBC. It may take some creativity regarding land use zoning and future development cost charges, but it’s very doable.

Our region not only needs to build this major public transit investment, we also need to get it right. A short-sited plan that may seem cheaper to build today, will end up costing us more in the end.

We have a rapidly growing population that should be more reliant on transit, not cars to get around.

Just build it already.

Daniel Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer for a non-profit seniors care organization based in Burnaby. A former weekly civic affairs columnist for 24 Hours Newspaper, Fontaine has been a political commentator on Global TV and CKNW radio. In 2008 he co-founded one of Canada’s most popular civic affairs blogs. In 2012, Fontaine was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for public service.