Update: Gondola business case sound, but costs $12M too much: TransLink
A proposed gondola zipping people up to Burnaby Mountain in seven minutes flat won't be built anytime soon, after TransLink announced it isn't willing to fund the additional cost.
The project has a sound business case, according to a business case report by engineering consultants CH2M Hill. But it determined it would cost $156 million to build and operate over 25 years compared to $144 million for maintaining and expanding the current diesel bus operation, an eight per cent difference.
Acting Mayor Dan Johnston wasn't surprised by TransLink's response.
"They can't fund what they're having to deliver now, so an additional project, it may make sense to some people, but it's $10 million that they have to come up with that they don't have now."
The benefits of a gondola project, including a reduction of at least 6,900 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, travel time savings, reduction in vehicle use and its related operating and collision costs, were calculated as being valued at more than $500 million over 25 years.
A gondola system would also operate in a wide range of weather, including snow, which currently shuts down the bus system to Simon Fraser University for an average 10 days a year. Travel times would be cut from the current 15-minute bus trip to seven minutes between Production Way-University SkyTrain station and the SFU bus exchange.
"Accordingly, this business case indicates that the benefits of improved service exceed costs, making a gondola a cost-effective means of meeting existing and future travel demand and promoting transit usage," said the report. "The project also meets transportation, financial, environmental, urban development, social and community, and deliverability objectives."
However, TransLink is not sold on the project. The regional transportation authority said in a cover note to the report posted on its website Wednesday that a gondola to Burnaby Mountain is not in its current strategic transportation plan.
"Although CH2M Hill's business case analysis found that the concept has considerable merit, it will not be placed ahead of existing priorities as it would require additional funding. The cost to TransLink of building and operating a gondola is $12 million greater than continuing to serve the SFU campus by bus over the next 25 years."
TransLink said its approved plan currently includes funding for the Evergreen SkyTrain line, transit service improvements across the region, with about half of that earmarked for south of the Fraser River, and increases in capital funding for road and cycling infrastructure.
But since the business case found the gondola had significant benefits, TransLink intends to keep the concept for potential inclusion in a future strategic transportation plan, it said.
"This will allow time to explore ways to close the financial gap as well as find sufficient funding to support the reallocation of Burnaby Mountain buses to improve services in other parts of the region," TransLink said.
"If and when the project moves towards inclusion in a funded plan we will return to the community to explore ways to mitigate the issues that surfaced in our early consultations."
Burnaby-Douglas MP Kennedy Stewart said the business case does show the concerns he's been hearing from constituents, such as costs and environmental impacts, are valid.
Forest Grove residents, who were concerned about a loss of privacy, will be relieved to hear the project is on the backburner for now, Stewart said.
"[TransLink is] going to have to explore significantly different options, I think, in order to get the local buy-in that they really require to go forward."
Some issues, such as environmental impacts, were partly addressed with the report's choice of the two preferred systems, 3S and Funitel gondolas. The two systems were deemed to provide "the best performance due to its high-capacity, all-weather operation combined with its ability to be built well above the forest and developments, thus reducing the social and environmental impacts."
Such systems would require less tree removal with disturbance at ground level to be localized at the towers. Two suppliers consulted also indicated five towers would be required, with specific locations, heights and cable profiles being "somewhat flexible."
Of the two, 3S, used at the Peak 2 Peak in Whistler, was recommended by the suppliers for its lower power consumption and larger cabins, the latter being significant as the population of SFU and the UniverCity development is expected to increase by 70 per cent over 2007 levels by 2030.
"It sounds like a really interesting and exciting project with lots of benefits to it," said SFU spokesman Don MacLachlan.
While he's not surprised TransLink isn't putting it on its current priority list, MacLachlan is pleased that the business case now has independent experts putting numbers and analysis to what has just been an idea up until now.
"We can understand TransLink's planning priorities ... TransLink has a lot of work to do yet, let's hope it happens."
Johnston said Burnaby council has yet to take a position on the project and is aware of both the benefits to SFU and the concerns of area residents.
He noted that if TransLink does go ahead with the project it would have to go through an approval process at city hall and gain access to city right-of-ways.
But for now, it's on hold.