Metro column: Vancouver transport at centre of stimulus debate

Transport at centre of stimulus debate

22 December 2008

John Baird, Canada’s Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, was in the Lower Mainland last week to collect funding wish lists from regional government leaders.

He and his boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, want to breathe some life into the national economy with major stimulus projects that will create jobs and bolster consumer confidence.

Not surprisingly, Baird’s appearance on the West Coast attracted plenty of fanfare. And like toddlers at the mall lining up for their two minutes with Santa Claus, politicians and lobbyists were quick to make their respective cases for the loot presumably coming out of Ottawa.

It’s hard to blame them. They are wise to the fact that amidst the bleeding from this financial crisis, there is unprecedented opportunity — opportunity to address Canada’s “infrastructure deficit.”

Previous economic disasters have given way to visionary enterprises. Local historian Chuck Davis points to the iconic Lions Gate Bridge, which was approved and built during the Great Depression, as an example.

While funding for Vancouver’s most famous crossing came from the private sector — specifically the Guinness family of Irish beer fame — the need for jobs at the time overcame any objections to building a road through Stanley Park, and a bridge across Burrard Inlet.

Fast-forward to 2008, and bridges and roads are once again front-and-centre in the stimulus debate.

But while it’s appropriate for transportation to be a spending priority — look no further than the stimulus plans being drafted up by U.S. president-elect Barack Obama — the focus here needs to be on rail-based public transit above all else.

In Metro Vancouver, three key rail projects — the Evergreen Line in the northeast, the SkyTrain extension to UBC, and rail expansion in Surrey — are all in need of federal government support.

There are also smaller but still-significant ventures being planned, such as the modernized False Creek streetcar known as the Olympic Line.

The return on investment for these plans has the potential to be huge, given this region’s ongoing commuting crunch.

Vancouver can look to New York City for leadership in this regard.

A new report shows that during the Big Apple’s population boom between 2003 and 2008, more new residents opted for public transit rather than an automobile when getting around.
Transit — especially well-funded, sprawling, rail-intensive transit — always trumps traffic. It also makes the most economic and environmental sense.

Are you listening, Minister Baird?

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