SFU gondola project put on the backburner

Current projects, such as Evergreen Line, take priority

The residents of Forest Grove can breathe a sigh of relief now that TransLink's business case study of the Burnaby Mountain gondola project has been released.

While the report considers a gondola line up to Simon Fraser University as the best solution for upgrading transit service on the mountain, it also stated the project is not currently a priority for TransLink while it completes the projects it has already committed to, such as the Evergreen Line.

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"(Citizens Opposed to the Gondola) is relieved that we can take a bit of a breather, but clearly TransLink isn't finished with the gondola," said the group's spokesperson, Glen Porter, in an email to the NOW. "It looks like they've just moved it to the back burner while they look for funding."

The ad-hoc group was formed by Forest Grove residents concerned about the impact a gondola would have on their neighbourhood.

The business case, prepared by CH2MHill, estimated that the capital cost for the gondola project would be $120 million, with annual operating costs of $3 to 3.5 million - in 2011 dollars.

However, Porter added that the group is happy TransLink plans to conduct further discussions throughout the region on the project and its status as a priority for the Lower Mainland.

"That's something we in COG have been advocating all along," he wrote.

Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart, who conducted a poll on area support for the project, said he's also pleased with TransLink's cautious approach to the potential project.

"I'm happy that they decided to put this on the shelf for a little while until they can go back and look at ways of making it cheaper, and that they can consult the community and find a way to perhaps make this more palatable for local residents," he said.

Stewart had only gone over the summary of the case before he was interviewed by the NOW, but said he was surprised it would cost more than continuing bus service up the mountain for the next 25 years.

"I was a little surprised that it was going to be $12 million over the buses, because some of the people I talked to said it would save money," he said.

The impact on the neighbourhood and on the environment needs to be explored further, according to Stewart, and further public consultations need to be done.

"I believe TransLink has said they'll do that," he said, and added he still plans to hold community meetings on the business case in the spring, most likely in February or March.

Gordon Harris, the president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, is hopeful the project will move ahead in the future.

"I am certainly encouraged by what I see," Harris said in a phone interview regarding the business case. "It demonstrates there's a strong case for the gondola."

But Harris doesn't expect the project to be added to TransLink's list of priorities soon.

"It doesn't mean there's suddenly (going to) be a gondola, but it does mean it is something TransLink thinks is worth taking a closer look at," he added.

The business case study is conservative in its estimates of the costs, which Harris said is a good idea, but he hopes it would come in at less than $120 million to build.

SFU regional planning expert Gordon Price pointed out that while the initial costs sound like a large amount, the overall benefits - as well as the savings from replacing the majority of the aging bus system that runs up the mountain - would be well worth it.

"In the scheme of big transit projects, it's a wash," Price, director of the university's city program and a former Vancouver city councillor, said. "You've got to compare it with what you're going to pay to maintain a bus system over time."

But the current issue is, where does TransLink find the money to do it now, Price added.

"It's doable. It has some benefits - tangible and intangible - but how are we going to get it on a priority list?" he said.

The business case estimated that the benefit-to-cost ratio for the gondola would be 3.6 to 1. It recommended a 3S or Funitel aerial gondola system as the best alternative transit technology for the area, going from Production Way SkyTrain station to SFU. The business case estimated the gondola could cut travel time from 15 minutes by bus to less than seven minutes.

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