The provincial government was right to choose SkyTrain technology to build the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam, but it did so with incomplete information, according to B.C.’s Auditor General.
John 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.
But he also found the 2008 and 2010 business cases for the 11-kilometre line left out information needed to understand the cost, benefits and risks of comparing SkyTrain, light rail and bus rapid transit options.
“They also did not explain that the SkyTrain ridership forecasts were based on assumptions that placed them at the upper end of the estimated range,” Doyle said.
“Omitting this information meant government did not have the opportunity to understand these risks and endorse actions for protecting and enhancing the benefits of the Evergreen Line over its useful life.”
While the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line is already under construction, the findings may influence the debate underway in Surrey and Vancouver over whether rapid transit extensions in those cities should be done with grade-separated SkyTrain or street-level light rail.
If the province takes the same approach with future lines, Doyle’s audit said, it runs the risk of making different decisions than if it understands all costs, benefits and risks.
Among the concerns raised by Doyle, is that information presented to the Treasury Board didn’t meet the government’s own Capital Asset Management Framework guidelines, and ridership projections were at the top end, and assumed “extensive” investments in other parts of the transit system.
The higher range ridership forecasts for use of SkyTrain in part assumed Broadway and Surrey SkyTrain extensions would be built by 2021, very frequent bus service to Evergreen Line stations and that owning and running a car will be much more expensive in the coming years.
The report noted TransLink does not yet have committed funding for broader transit expansion.
Nor, it said, has the provincial government yet decided to increase the cost of car use – the province assumed the cost of driving would jump 70 per cent between 2021 and 2031 to 23.5 cents per kilometre, spurring more motorists to take transit.
Despite the information gaps, Doyle said he was “satisfied” the cost estimates for using light rail were in line with comparable North American light rail systems – addressing a key complaint of SkyTrain critics who believe light rail estimates are routinely inflated here due to pro-SkyTrain bias.
The audit also noted the Evergreen Line will carry many more riders to the big SkyTrain pinch points at Broadway-Commercial and Main Street stations.
“Not effectively addressing these capacity issues means Evergreen ridership is likely to suffer as downtown commuters face more crowded and less reliable journeys.”
Parking capacity is also a risk not adequately considered in the business plans, although a decision was later made to add 500 stalls for Evergreen Line users.
Doyle backed the use of a short-term P3 partnership to build the new line but not operate it, as happened with the Canada Line. Instead TransLink will maintain and run the northeast sector line.
Meanwhile, the province has accepted the results of the audit, and will take steps to carry out the recommendations.
“The Evergreen Line has been studied and reviewed extensively for years by multiple levels of government and transit experts,” Transportation Minister Mary Polak said in a statement.
“We are confident that the Evergreen Line can achieve ridership projections as we have seen with the popularity of the Millennium Line and Canada Line where ridership has met or exceeded projections.”
– with files from Diane Strandberg