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Letter: The Burnaby Mountain gondola is unnecessary, expensive

The Stop the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Citizens’ Group hopes the TransLink-approved SFU gondola project won't be funded.

Editor,

Re: Burnaby NOW article titled “SFU students celebrate approval of Burnaby gondola project.”

How sad that in this time of multiple world crises, the former president of the Simon Fraser Student Society characterizes SFSS’s advocacy for a gondola, instead of a bus, to transport students to SFU to be “probably the biggest accomplishment of student activists of the decade”! Also sad is that students would commend Burnaby city council for voting in favour of a gondola when these students know full well that the vote took place behind closed doors.

The students’ activism relates to alleged service and capacity concerns on the 145 bus route between the Production Way station and SFU, and yet TransLink’s own data points to both service and capacity being within system average ranges at this time.

TransLink’s ridership information can be found online at:

https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/translink/viz/2019TSPR-BusSeaBusSummaries/1_BusRouteSummaries (type in the route you wish to look at). TransLink’s most recent posted data is from 2019, since that was the most recent year not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We assume that current ridership will have recovered to near pre-pandemic levels.

TransLink says that its buses on the 145 route are currently moving about 1,000 passengers per hour in peak periods.

Although 1,000 passengers per hour may sound like a lot, the fact is that in 2019, according to TransLink’s online data, the 145 route was ranked only the 42nd busiest route out of 212 Metro Vancouver bus routes – not even in the top 10 busiest routes! By comparison, the R5 (95 B) route along Hastings Street and the Burnaby Mountain Parkway was much busier, carrying over three times the number of riders per day as the 145 route (24,130 average daily weekday boardings compared to 7,270) – and almost three times the number of boardings per bus during the weekday morning peak time range (122 boardings vs. 44), according to TransLink’s data. (We don’t mean to imply that all the riders on this route started or ended their rides at SFU.)

A map provided by Stop the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Citizens' Group showing the number of boardings that start or end at SFU.

Image: Contributed

It is worth noting that according to TransLink’s data for 2019, the 145 bus route was also well within the average of Metro Vancouver bus routes in terms of overcrowding (88th best out of 205 routes) and bus bunching (150th out of 207), and it was first out of 207 routes for on-time departures. While we do not dispute the students’ stated experience of bus overcrowding at peak times, this experience is not captured in TransLink’s online data. The data shows that the 145 route is well within the average range of performance for Metro Vancouver routes.

The 143 bus route between Burquitlam station and SFU is also intended to be replaced by the gondola. Pre-pandemic, this route had 3,100 weekday boardings (compared to 7,270 for the 145), and it was running with about half as many buses per hour as the 145. Could this route take some of the load off the 145?

Even TransLink does not suggest that the 145 bus route is “over capacity” at this point, preferring to describe it as “at capacity.” The gondola is being proposed to address potential future capacity requirements. In reality, it would handle the peak-time rush, and then run mostly empty for the remainder of it’s operating time. We believe that there are some obvious solutions to meet future capacity requirements that do not require the installation of such expensive – and underutilized infrastructure.

The most obvious solution would be for TransLink to run another bus up Burnaby Mountain. It has been argued that Production Way bus terminal is too small to run a second bus concurrently. There is, however, no need to run a second bus via Production Way. For example, TransLink could:

  • Run a bus from Lougheed SkyTrain station, along Lougheed Highway and up Gaglardi Way, or
  • Run a bus from Lougheed SkyTrain station up to Burquitlam SkyTrain station, pick up students at Burquitlam SkyTrain station and take everyone up to SFU, or
  • Run a bus along the 122 bus route and up to SFU.

A partial solution to capacity concerns on the 145 bus route would be for SFU to fulfill its promise of creating housing for 5,600 students within the University enclave (it has currently only created housing for approximately 2,000 students).

Another partial solution may be for SFU to increase its online learning offerings as students have been requesting post-pandemic. Furthermore, moving classes online for a day or two would also be a good alternative to requiring students to travel on occasional snow days.

Instead of taking sensible measures such as reducing the need for students to travel up and down the mountain and adding another bus to SFU, the “powers that be” propose spending approximately $260 million+ of our transportation dollars (taxpayers’ money) to build a gondola. (Note that the $210 million figure cited in the Burnaby NOW article is already out of date.) The millions being proposed for a gondola represent money that could otherwise be spent on improving bus service throughout Burnaby as a whole, building washrooms at SkyTrain stations, expanding the bicycle network in Burnaby, buying more electric buses and generally addressing far more urgent transportation priorities.

TransLink’s plan is to convert all of Metro Vancouver’s natural gas and diesel buses to electric. Electric buses are ideally suited to Burnaby Mountain: they would handle the incline far better than the current buses and they would be able to recharge coming down the mountain thanks to regenerative braking. EV buses also operate well in winter as long as they have appropriate tires and slip control. Unlike a gondola infrastructure, when EV buses wear out, they can be easily replaced.

Another big advantage of a bus solution is that buses can use the existing road network. This means that, unlike a gondola, adding a bus would not cause further encroachment into the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and the Burnaby 200 Conservation Area. It also means that the community of Forest Grove would not have to live with the safety concerns, visual disturbance and noise of having a gondola travel over top of their homes and community day and night.

Although the gondola idea was approved by Burnaby city council in a closed-door meeting, the decision whether to fund this project fortunately does not rest with Burnaby city council alone. It will be up to the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council on Transportation and the province to look at all the transportation proposals listed in TransLink’s 10-year Transportation Plan to see which ones will proceed and when. Let’s hope that these broader institutions will bring more impartiality and common sense to this issue than we have seen locally.

Yours truly,

Jennessa Kilroe (in her personal capacity)

Margaret Flaherty

On behalf of the Stop the Burnaby Mountain Gondola Citizens’ Group

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