B.C. Premier John Horgan announced on Sept. 3 that Acciona-Ghella was awarded a $1.7 billion contract to begin construction on the Broadway subway line, an extension that will enable SkyTrain service from VCC-Clark Station to Broadway and Arbutus.
With a hefty price tag and 5-year timeline before the line is complete, B.C. officials have insisted that the extensions will help with Vancouver’s economic recovery from COVID-19 pandemic losses, while also ensuring a more sustainable future. The train is set to increase transit capacity by three-and-half times along Broadway, one of the city's busiest routes.
“Public transit actually has very good job creation per dollar invested if you compare it to other kinds of infrastructure spending,” said Eric Doherty, a registered city planner at Ecopath Planning and environmental consultant. “That being said, subways are kind of at the bottom end of that, they're very capital intensive.”
While overall the extension is a “very, very” good investment in improving traffic flow, Doherty said considering that Canada is in the midst of a climate emergency, the subway line won’t do enough in terms of quickly cutting down the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.
On the same day that the construction contract was announced, an independent analysis from five groups found that based on the federal government’s own numbers on methane emissions, Canada is far behind its goal to cut down the greenhouse gas by 40 to 45 per cent below it’s 2012 levels by its set deadline of 2025.
This discussion about greenhouse gases has persisted for many years.
A 2017 study from the University of Toronto found the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the construction process of subway lines can take up to 11 years to offset, in optimistic cases. That timeline can lengthen to 35 years in worst case scenarios.
“Rapid Transit on the surface, electric bus rapid transit lines, bus lanes, bike lanes, pedestrian streams —- all of those things have a much bigger impact per billion investment,” says Doherty.
Subway constructions are difficult and costly projects because of the labour and material needed to dig underground and lay tracks. On top of that, stations need to be built and additional cost for access to the lines, things like escalators and elevators, also come into effect.
Given the time and billions of dollars that need to be spent — why do many governments steer towards subway lines?
Doherty said expanding public transit on the surface comes at the cost of getting cars off the street, especially in dense cities like Vancouver. While Vancouver has dedicated some money to expanding and increasing the efficiency of bus routes, Doherty said they’re not a “leading city” when it comes to sustainability — that is, focusing on getting more cars off the road and reallocating that space to public transit, bikes and pedestrians.
Vancouver's Broadway subway project comes with a hefty price tag of $2.8 billion. Is it worth it?
“If you shrink the amount of road space, people change how they get around and the number of cars and the greenhouse gas pollution shrinks,” said Doherty.
Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is the busiest bus route in North America recording more than 100,00 0 trips each day, according to TransLink, the organization that runs the city’s public transit.
On Thursday, Michele Ladrak, president of B.C.’s Rapid Transit Company said that Vancouver expects to see one million new residents and 600,000 news jobs.
Lawrence Frank, an urban planning expert and professor at the University of British Columbia, said while sustainability is a goal to keep in mind, Vancouver has to deal with the more important, pressing issue of increasing its transit capacity, especially as people return to work and the city’s population is expected to grow.
While above-ground transit routes such as streetcars and buses may be quicker to build and marked as more sustainable, Frank said they wouldn’t do much in terms of increasing capacity to the level the city requires it.
“If we’re going to spend this much money, we should solve the transportation problem that we have,” said Frank. “Spending this much money and not increasing the level of service on Broadway would be very poorly received by the public.”
And in terms of sustainability, while Frank agrees that subway projects produce more greenhouse gases in their construction phase, he said in the long term it’s not that big a deal.
“Over 30 years, once those two systems were built, those initial greenhouse gas emissions would become irrelevant, kind of a rounding error.”
The focus, in Frank’s opinion, should be on the greenhouse gas emissions created by ridership. And in high density areas like Broadway, increasing capacity will create efficiencies in getting more people across in less rides, offsetting its initial emissions issue.
When it comes to balancing the issue of sustainability against addressing the immediate need for increased transit, Frank said the best option is a little bit of both systems, dividing the costs between rapid transit lines above ground, and increasing capacity through subway lines where needed.
But both Doherty and Frank can agree on one thing — infrastructure spending will always help in an economic downturn.
“The actual construction of the line is a job-creation activity,” said Frank, adding that the funding put into the project from the federal and provincial governments will create a “multiplier effect” -- with increased mobility giving people opportunities to make and put more money back into the economy, the province has a better chance of reversing its pandemic losses.
Premila D'Sa / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer