Tuesday, May 31, 2011

(I'm on a ...) Tramway to Hell

I went to Translink's consultation session on the proposed SFU gondola last week Wednesday at Cameron Elementary in Burnaby, because I'm interested in options for connecting Queensborough to the Quay in New Westminster. Who knows, a gondola might be an option, right?  After the session though, I was sure feeling in the mood for some aggressive rock 'n roll...

Man, I so do not envy Translink their jobs.

Since my experiences with the UBE sessions, I thought I was inured to hostile crowds. Boy, was I mistaken. I've never, ever, experienced the likes of the NIMBYism that went down in that gymnasium. After a short presentation by Translink, audience members began shouting over the moderator, demanding changes to the agenda so they could "ask their questions with their neighbours hearing them, right now!" Clearly there were a lot of people in the audience violently opposed to this project. But the atmosphere they created effectively shut down any reasonable exchange of views.

But I suppose this is not too surprising, given the community's eruption a few years back when Kinder Morgan started doing some unannounced thinning along their poorly documented pipeline right-of-way.

I suspect the open house at SFU the next night had a more receptive audience.

Anyways, here is some background on this project:
  • There is a lot of growth expected up on Burnaby Mountain. SFU student enrollment is growing and UniverCity has a projected population of 10,000 permanent residents. UniverCity is the name of the hilltop community materminded by SFU Community Trust, whose official community plan was approved by Burnaby Council more than 15 years ago. Like it or not, there is no turning back the clock on this. Translink's mandate is to serve these people.
  • Currently, the population is served by an endless stream of articulated diesel buses streaming up and down the mountain. At any given time, there are 20-25 buses on that hill. As a result, there are a lot of fumes, particulates, and noise being generated. There are accidents. There are shutdowns during bad weather.
  • Translink could just continue pushing more and more buses up and down the hill. They've done the financial planning for this and it's their "base case".
  • They've done a lot of thinking about alternatives. But there are severe constraints - the cost has to be less than the "base case" in the long term, they have to minimize impacts on the nature reserve, they have to maintain and grow passenger capacity. These constraints basically kill all ground-based alternatives (extensions of SkyTrain, funiculars, trolleys, etc etc). The only real option is an aerial route - and the best of those is a 3-wire gondola, very much like the Peak2Peak at Whistler (not like Grouse's gondola, or like smaller ski-lift gondolas).
  • They've done a business case for this type of gondola and it is looking very favourable. So now Translink has done some initial route planning - there are some constraints here as well. The route cannot overfly the Kinder-Morgan tank farm (BC Safety Authority rules). The route has to be straight, or it'll cost to much and likely will require chopping too many trees (you need a "midway station" to make the gondola turn a corner).
  • The gondola type they are considering is very stable (can withstand 100kmh winds) because it's attached by 2 wires and not one, can be configured to handle a car every 30 seconds (they can take cars out of service also), will hold 35 people/car, and the cars themselves will be equipped with communication to base. The system itself has highly redundant braking and propulsion systems. I doubt that 20 drunk SFU students rocking the thing could dislodge it from its cables (yes, this was a community concern).
  • The thing slows down so people can walk in, on the level. No stepping up or down. And yes, it'll be fully accessible (including to cyclists!).
  • putting in a gondola will eliminate express bus route 145 but of course not the local routes that serve the hillside communities. The transit time up to the top will be a mere 6 minutes, compared to a 15 minute busride.
I had a close look at the preferred route, which goes directly from Production Way station to the SFU bus loop. Here are some of the facts:
  • The proposed route directly overflies about 10 units in the Forest Grove community. 
  • The route would require 4 or 5 10-storey high poles, which can be placed straddling roads, in the forest, or along roads, but would not be near any homes. This is one thing that Translink wanted feedback on.
  • The gondola would be very high (40m above ground).
  • The operation is effectively silent - electric motors are at the endstations, and the only other noise happens when the gondolas pass over the towers - high in the sky and not near homes.
  • The gondola would not require a "cut line" to be bulldozed (they can helicopter the lines in). Of course if towers were to be situated in the forest this would require clearing some trees.
  • There is an elementary school in Forest Grove. The closest the gondola comes to this building is 100m. It does not overfly the playing fields.
Regarding visual impacts, Translink has done some (not very good, IMO) cartoons of what this thing would look like from the ground. To make things more real, I had a look at Google streetview of the overfly zone. This is a forested community; because of the dense tree cover, your line of sight is a fairly tight cone overhead, unless you are looking down a road or are in a sizeable clearing. So anything in the air will be invisible until it is almost directly overhead. If you are on a road, you might be able to see the gondola as it crosses your path.

{map from Translink's materials. School is in the upper left. Click to enlarge.}

This is a real concern, though, to the people living in the 4-6 complexes right underneath who will see the gondola 140ft directly above them. A good idea for the next sessions might be to provide some photos from ground level from the side streets and yards, looking up to a (scaled) Peak2Peak-sized gondola. The further you get from the route, the more the trees will cut your view.

Another issue here is that the part of the community being spared the noise and fumes from the buses is not the same that being impacted by the gondola. If any of those community members attended, they were likely cowed, as I was, into silence, by the extremely vocal opposition.

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