Vancouver Province Column: Vancouver needs to show far more desire to finish this streetcar line

The Province
Monday, May 28, 2007

Vancouver’s proposed streetcar network has taken another small step forward recently, to the surprise of those who had written it off as dead.

A three-kilometre section of the line, linking Granville Island to Science World along False Creek’s south shore, has just been given the green light by City Hall.

With the necessary financing in place, at least a portion of the $60-million line should be ready to ride before the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Then, the plan is to extend the line to Waterfront Station, Yaletown and possibly Stanley Park.

And based on the modern streetcar lines of Portland, Ore., and Melbourne, Australia, it has the potential to be a serious people-mover for commuters and tourists alike.

Relative to other transit options, it makes eminent environmental and economic sense.

The fact that it’ll go through neighbourhoods in need of a shot to the arm — including Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside — is a bonus.

Indeed, given Vancouver’s transit crunch, you have to wonder why it’s taken so long to resurrect the streetcars — and why TransLink bosses and other civic leaders mostly continue to overlook one of the best ways to ease congestion in the city core and beyond.

After all, it’s not as if this is a radically new concept. From the 1890s to the 1950s, electric street cars and interurbans took folks from downtown to the farthest reaches of the Lower Mainland. Then the automobile took over, and we forgot all about the benefits of this convenient form of public transit.

Now is a golden opportunity for a streetcar renaissance.

But as Dale Bracewell, the City of Vancouver’s streetcar project manager, pointed out to me recently, the line can only be successful if it’s fully integrated into the region’s existing transit network.

This is what has allowed

Portland to ambitiously develop its streetcar network. The city started construction in 1999, and has been building the system out ever since. It now provides inner-city transport to 9,000 riders daily on a 11.5-kilometre loop.

Portland isn’t the only Pacific Northwest city to leave Vancouver in the dust.

Seattle, which started planning its South Lake Union streetcar line after Vancouver, expects to have it in operation as early as December.

Seattle brought together a number of parties to kickstart the deal. Businesses, the city and even the federal government are helping to pick up the $50-million US tab.

That’s roughly the same cost as that of the planned Vancouver line. And it’s a bargain compared to the billions spent on other public transportation projects.

Three hours north, however, and we’re still listening to the drone of naysayers who insist the streetcar is a costly frill.

We need TransLink to join senior governments and the business community in jumping aboard this low-cost, low-emission form of mass transit before it gets stuck on the tracks — or goes off the rails for good.

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