Opinion: If you thought building bikes lanes was controversial, wait until they start converting traffic lanes to bus only lanes on major commuter routes

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VICTORIA — Metro Vancouver transportation authorities were laying out a bold, new vision for public transit this week when they were brought down to earth by two inevitable questions from reporters.

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How much is this 10-year plan going to cost?

“We are not at the point where we have the specific funding for the overall plan,” admitted Jonathan Coté, chair of the mayors’ council on regional transportation.

Ditto, grant TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn. “I don’t have a cost, sitting here today.”

Second question, no less calculated to cool the most heated vision than the first: How were TransLink and the mayors’ council proposing to fund the plan?

“The traditional way that we fund public transit in the region is likely going to make it very difficult to achieve such a bold vision and a bold plan to improve public transit,” said Coté. “So, we are going to have to look at doing things a little bit differently.”

Quinn agreed: “We will need to be creative with revenue opportunities in the future.”

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The traditional “revenue opportunities” being the fare box and fuel and property taxes.

Both suggested that creative solutions would entail new partnerships with senior governments and probably developers as well.

Neither mentioned specific new revenue sources, which is not surprising, this being a civic election year and all.

But don’t be surprised if the plan revives discussions about the need for some kind of road pricing.

Just don’t call it tolling, OK? It would give the first a headache.

The plan itself arrived with a sense of urgency, which in turn drove a shift in planning, away from SkyTrain and toward greater reliance on dedicated bus services.

“We want to be able to move quickly and we want to move as cost effectively as possible,” explained Coté. “There are lots of really important transit corridors that need rapid transit in the region. … But if we were to wait for SkyTrain, we’d probably be sitting here 100 years from now.”

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TransLink CEO Quinn emphasized the comparative savings in time and money.

“Rapid” bus transit can be built for $15 million a kilometer compared to about $400 million per kilometer for SkyTrain.

Where a SkyTrain line can take 10 years and more to plan and construct, a dedicated bus transit line can be done in two to three years.

The key to the revised plan is what is formally known as bus rapid transit or “light rail on wheels.”

These buses would not be struggling along congested roads with the rest of the traffic.

Rather the plan calls for dedicated bus routes, physically separated from general traffic in their own lanes. The buses would have signal control to expedite passage through intersections.

The system promises “fast and convenient boarding” at bus exchanges built at street level for easy access. Customers would prepay then board through several doors.

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Zero emission buses with advanced drive assistance controls (“ensuring a smooth ride”) would complete the hoped-for transformation in transit services.

What’s not to like?

Well, the plan will entail a makeover — and a takeover — of some of the main commuter routes in Metro Vancouver.

TransLink proposes to implement bus rapid transit service along nine corridors, including the Lougheed Highway, King George Boulevard, Scott Road, Marine Way and Hastings Street.

Metrotown would be connected to West Vancouver via the Second Narrows Bridge and to Richmond via the Knight Street Bridge.

Lynn Valley in North Vancouver would be connected to downtown via the Lion’s Gate. Maple Ridge would be connected to Langley via the Golden Ears Bridge.

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If you thought dedicated bike lanes generated a fuss, just wait until they begin tearing up some of the busiest routes in the region to carve out one lane in each direction for buses only.

Oh, yes — the plan also calls for another 450 kilometers of traffic-separated cycling paths.

The emphasis on buses means that SkyTrain is pushed down the priority list.

The plan retains a commitment to extend the Millennium Line’s Broadway extension, now under construction as far as Arbutus, all the way out to the University of BC

Not costing on that one. But the current extension, being tunnelled, is costing $500 million a kilometre.

Figure another $5 billion or so to get out to the Point Gray campus, depending on the chosen route.

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Otherwise, the plan pledges to “explore other potential SkyTrain extensions, including Newton in Surrey and Port Coquitlam.”

But the real sidelining entailed in this plan isn’t mentioned — the (often) single-occupancy vehicle that has been the mainstay of commuting for generations.

Cars will be crowded off some of the busiest streets in the region. They’ll probably be taxed more as well one way or another.

The plan is visionary all right. But for those wedded to traditional modes of commuting, it could also prove to be a nightmare.

Coté believes the plan will go ahead once this year’s civic elections are out of the way.

“I’m feeling really confident that all three levels of government seem to be aligning in their priorities,” he said.

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“So, I’m certainly hoping after the municipal election, we’re going to be able to hit the ground running and very quickly work on actually implementing this plan.

But after two terms as mayor of New Westminster, Coté has chosen not to run for re-election.

When all this potential controversy really hits the fan, he’ll be retired.

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