Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tramway to Hell, part 2

Translink has just published their consultants' report on the business case for the gondola they were musing about, joining Production Way Skytrain station with SFU at the top of Burnaby Mountain.

I'm interested in this project; I attended one of the open houses last year (ooo boy, there was a lot of screamin') and have been following this thing a bit.

So here is how Translink introduces the report:
1. this project is not funded
2. if it does ever get funded, there will be more community consultation.
3. it's more expensive than running buses.

So there.

But crack the cover on this baby, and really, the report is pretty positive. It confirms that the only technology that can
1. compete with bus transit times
2. have minimal impact on the environment
3. can handle the stiff constraints of the topology, and
4. still handle lots of passengers a gondola of some kind. They considered a pile of technologies including
an escalator and personal rapid transit (! These are things that I wouldn't've even started on myself, but...). The Whistler-type gondola comes out best due to its proven ability to handle lots of people in bad weather, and the fact that it can be built so high up, over the forest canopy. The point that it would function as a tourist / business draw is also noted.

No change in the routing has been suggested (the only real option here is from Production Way to the bus loop in a straight line - and yes, this does overfly some residential units).

To build this thing would require a capital investment of $114M and an annual operating budget of $3.4M.

How does this stack up against running diesel buses up the hill for 25 years?

The consultants retool the bus system and model how much ridership is expected to change with the growth (according to the official community plan). The most significant benefits they see are:
1. travel time reduction,
2. auto and bus use reduction, resulting in less collisions, and less parking.
3. reduction in bus operating / maintenance costs and the ability to redeploy the existing fleet (which means Translink doesn't have to buy as many buses for other routes)

They put a price on these benefits, and come up with a total of $560M over 25 years (they do calculate the GHG reduction benefit, but come up with a mere $2M over the 25 years, so you can ignore this). By far the largest share benefit ($355M) is in trip reduction time. Don't ask me how they come up with a dollar figure for the value of the time saved, but they do. I'd like too see some details here, but really, there is obviously a tangible benefit, so I'm willing to take this at face value. The report references some kind of government guidelines, so I'm sure these are conservative numbers generated by trained bean-counters.

Transit operating cost savings are estimated at about $60M. The report does not detail how they calculate these savings either, so I don't know what's included. I suspect they just calculate the difference in the extreme wear-and-tear these buses see on Burnaby Mountain, relative to what they'd expect if these vehicles were deployed elsewhere.  I'm pretty sure fuel costs are not included (the buses, after all, would be driving other routes). But, what happens, for instance, if in the next 25 years we get into a scenario of oil price spikes / shortages, which seems to me entirely possible? Such apocalyptic scenarios would blow all their cost/benefit modelling out of the water; they would have a large effect on people's ability to travel by fossil-fuel-powered means. These scenarios aren't part of the simulation, but they only increase the benefit of the gondola.
So the total benefits are very large, and from this perspective the proposal makes total sense. Putting up a gondola would result in benefits greatly exceeding the initial investment. But the benefits would not accrue directly to Translink. (Which, of course, is the reason why you don't turn the strategic management of public transit over to a private company.)

The report then compares the capital cost + operating budget of installing and running the gondola, to the dollar savings you'd see from not having to run those buses. All other benefits are now removed from the picture - only the transit operating cost savings are included. In this picture the project makes no sense; it is more expensive than business-as-usual with buses. It will cost 8% more over 25 years to install the gondola. After 28 years the prediction is you'll break even. (This is the type of analysis a private, for-profit company would do.) I emphasize though, that this is based purely on transit operating costs extrapolated over 25 years. Hm. 'nuff said.

So, my conclusion is that the gondola wins, hands-down!


  1. " (Which, of course, is the reason why you don't turn the strategic management of public transit over to a private company.)"

    KB, this little throw-away phrase, so little you put brackets around it, should be the title of pretty much every blog post about TransLink. From line-ups causing unsafe overcrowding at Brighouse Station to 20 minute service in the evenings at the Airport; to paying out money to the builders of the Golden Ears because we don't deliver enough cars to it, to pissing away money building fare gates when their own economic study says they won't pay for themselves.

    The only thing wrong with TransLink is the entire governance model.

  2. Tranlink governance model broken? I agree totally.

    But, Translink is not a private company. And it isn't clear to me that the Libs are trying to "privatize" it, either.

    They just interfere with all big-ticket capital decisions. And this is not new, nor would changing the governance model necesarily "cure" political interference. BC Hydro and the Ferry Corp suffer from the same interference, although to a lesser extent because of the intercession of the BCUC. Maybe Translink needs the BCUC also...

  3. Tranlink governance model broken? I disagree totally.

    As a person who doesn't work at translink, but regularly ignites conversation with their workforce (small workforce), Most Recently Ken Chow and Drew Schnider, (Ken Chow being the most intellegent planer in metro Vancouver), And Can you not trust Jhen or Robert at the buzzer? Remember, the head of the council are the mayors, who are elected. It is the mayors who appoint the commisioner, and the province the audict. It's clear, Definately Clear that the Governance model is not broken.

    So the recent report about bonuses? bogus. The truth is that these bonuses are there, but the execs rarely ever are able to get them usualy at most 70% if they work well. I.E. Mr. Hardie is able to save translink $500,000 a year in idling costs, and still get scolded by the public.