SkyTrain just another (sigh) Glendoggle

Friday 2 February 2001

Vaughn Palmer Vancouver Sun VICTORIA - Three years ago, the New Democratic Party government executed a total reversal on the expansion of rapid transit services to the eastern suburbs of Vancouver.

The New Democrats abandoned light rail, long their preferred option, and substituted an expanded version of the SkyTrain service, which they had long reviled as too expensive. The switch was undertaken with breathtaking speed for a construction project of that size and cost.

In early 1998, the province was discussing cost-sharing arrangements with Lower Mainland municipalities based on a light rail service. The government agency for the project -- pointedly known as the light RAIL transit office-- had already issued a call for proposals to begin engineering work on a light rail line.

Then in late June then-premier Glen Clark convened a lavish media session in Vancouver and announced that SkyTrain was the way to go. Never mind that he had previously branded the elevated system as "a toytrain -- a crazy, expensive, outrageous exercise." Now he was insisting with precisely the same degree of certainty that it was the answer to the Lower Mainland's transportation needs.

The announcement had all the other earmarks of the standard Glendoggle:

  • A media extravaganza that concealed more than it disclosed.
  • A dubious cost analysis showing SkyTrain would be no more expensive than light rail.
  • An opinion poll proving the public was with the premier all the way.
  • And an impossible-to-keep construction schedule. (The line was supposed to be in service as of last fall, whereas next fall is more likely.)

"Yes it had Glen's modus operandi all over it," a senior New Democrat conceded with a sigh Thursday. He was reacting to the release this week of a confidential report that details the outlandish means by which the switch from light rail to SkyTrain came about.

The report, written by a consultant working for the government, was obtained by the Opposition Liberals via the province's freedom-of-information legislation. The 12-page document is of the read-it-and-weep variety.

Consultant Alan Greer tells us that the information advanced by the government in support of the switch from light rail to Skytrain was "misleading, incomplete and insubstantial." The cost comparisons were "contrived." There was no proper analysis of the construction costs or the environmental impact. And the famous opinion poll was skewed to produce the result the government wanted.

In short: Another reckless decision, ramrodded by a reckless and incompetent government. The cost is still a matter of speculation.

Mr. Greer says the working estimate for a light rail line along the currentSkyTrain configuration (the so-called T-line along Broadway to Lougheed Mall, with branches to New Westminster and Coquitlam) was $1.5 billion.

The current estimate for the SkyTrain expansion is close to $3 billion, or about double. And given this government's record, it is hard to believe the costs won't spiral upward.

Currently, the major contractor on the project, SAR, is asking the government to pay for $60 million worth of overruns because of unforeseen delays and other obstacles to construction. The firm has retained former premier Mike Harcourt to help press for compensation. I gather it has a good case.

For months, too, the government has been refusing to release comprehensive reports on the status of the project, which are prepared on a month-by-month basis.

None of this will surprise anyone familiar with the horrors of the fast ferry project. Likewise, it should be recorded that many of the flaws in the cost comparison between light rail and SkyTrain were identified in stories by reporter Tom Barrett in The Vancouver Sun more than two years ago. Mr. Barrett's stories were, in turn, based on an excellent analysis by Peter Boothroyd, a professor at the University of B.C., and Tamim Raad, one of his graduate students.

The New Democrats scoffed at those stores at the time, as they scoffed Thursday at the Greer report. SkyTrain is the right system, they claimed, and what's more the decision to go that way was based on -- wait for it --"common sense."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Premier Ujjal Dosanjh presided at the unveiling of the new Mark II SkyTrain cars. Reporters were invited on board to examine the many improvements, including better seats. The old upholstery was vinyl. The new material is wool. The better for the New Democrats to try pulling it over our eyes.

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