The opening of the Canada Line on Aug. 17, 2009, came after years of squabbles over rising costs, shrinking timelines, lost business revenue and traffic nightmares in Vancouver and Richmond.
But it was popular the moment the trains started running, with lineups snaking around the block at all stations — and ridership has only increased from there.
Projected ridership goals that were seen as unrealistic were met three years early. And the Cambie corridor has largely bounced back from years of construction woes, with high density around stations already adding more riders.
That continued growth means TransLink has little time to celebrate the anniversary of one of its most controversial yet successful projects.
“It needs to expand,” CEO Kevin Desmond said this week. “Our first piece of that is better circulation in the stations and getting more cars out next year.”
Work is already well underway on adding new escalators to some stations to improve passenger flow, with the project set to be completed by the fall.
And early next year, 12 new trains will be added to service, which TransLink spokesperson Ben Murphy says will be able to carry an additional 1,400 people per hour through the line while shaving a minute off wait times.
“Right now in peak hours we see [trains arriving] roughly every three minutes,” he said. “That’s going to come down to every two minutes or so.”
The new cars were purchased for $88 million, half of which came from the federal government. The rest was split between the province and TransLink, which has made funding for the line a key part of its 10-year transportation plan.
Murphy says that investment is necessary for such a popular line, which saw 48 million boardings last year alone.
“That’s a more than five per cent increase from the previous year,” he said. “So what we see is every year, the Canada Line gets busier and busier.”
Too much money and not enough need
Flash back more than 15 years ago when the project was approved, and it was rare to find someone outside of politics who was confident in the 19-kilometre line’s eventual success.
Richmond city council nearly scuttled the project entirely, crying foul over the visual impact of an elevated line.
There was uproar over nearly every detail, from the location of the stations to the additional fee applied at the YVR Airport station, which helped cover some of the project’s cost.
Those costs continued to skyrocket — despite the TransLink council promising to scuttle bids that went over the projected $1.7 billion pricetag — eventually reaching $2.05 billion.
And after TransLink opted for a “cut-and-cover” method of construction up Cambie Street rather than tunnelling, business after business took the authority and its partners to court over lost revenue.
Three stores were awarded a combined $181,040 by a B.C. Supreme Court judge, a decision TransLink is still appealing. A reward of $600,000 to the owner of a maternity clothing store was overturned in 2011.
There were human rights complaints over unfair treatment and payment of foreign workers, which forced constructors SELI Canada and SNC-Lavalin to cough up more than $2.4 million.
To top it all off, critics argued the line would only see popularity during the 2010 Winter Olympics, and would otherwise fail to meet the 100,000 daily average ridership TransLink said was needed to break even.
That goal was ultimately surpassed four months in a row after the games left. By the time the first anniversary rolled around that August, 36 million people had boarded the trains.
Desmond, who became TransLink’s CEO well after the dust settled on the project, says the line’s success is due to its speed and connectivity to several major existing hubs in Vancouver, Richmond and beyond.
“You can get downtown to all the activities, you can get out to [Vancouver] City Hall, the Richmond Night Market, to YVR, and further connections to Delta and White Rock,” he said.
“It created so many new mobility opportunities, it opened up lots of ways for the region to develop smartly. It’s really the story of TransLink.”
As TransLink works to expand service and space ahead of continued development around stations like Marine Drive and Oakridge, it’s also using the Canada Line’s fraught history as an example of what to avoid.
Desmond says the key lesson is to ignore so-called “sticker shock”: the desire to scale back or dump projects entirely after balking at the eventual costs.
“Clearly, they had a mission to build this for the Olympics, and there were only so many dollars available,” he said. “In retrospect, I think everybody could have said, ‘If only there was more money, if only we could build this bigger and really envision the explosion around the corridor.’”
That lack of foresight has been blamed for some of the line’s continued issues — chiefly that the platforms are too small to accommodate longer trains.
It’s also something Desmond wants to avoid as TransLink looks towards two major SkyTrain projects: the Surrey extension to Langley, and building the Millennium Line down Broadway to Arbutus and eventually UBC.
Both projects are already valued at more than what the Canada Line cost, with the Surrey-to-Langley extension topping out at $3.12 billion.
The Mayors’ Council this year voted to move ahead with that project, but only with the money allocated for the earlier plan for light rail transit. That means, for now, the extension will only reach Fleetwood. TransLink is working to secure additional provincial and federal funding for the rest of the project.
But Desmond says the Canada Line stands as proof that projects should be seen through to their full potential.
Otherwise, you’ll be left scrambling to add trains and expand platforms years later.
“I think the lesson for all of this, if you build it, they will come,” Desmond said. “If you build really, really good connectivity … it will be used, and used well.”