Vancouver's Gondola Dreams May Be Too Expensive To Come True

The Canadian city has good reason to want to install the somewhat novel transit option on Burnaby Mountain, but the numbers still don't add up

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A proposed gondola service linking Vancouver’s Skytrain line to a rapidly growing university campus community atop Burnaby Mountain, in the east end of the city, represents a clean, efficient and cost-effective transit service, according to a new business case analysis prepared by CH2M Hill last fall and released Wednesday by Translink, the regional transportation authority.

But agency officials say they haven’t figured out how to finance the upfront capital costs – an estimated $120 million – as well as a $10 million differential in the long-term operating expenses, meaning the much-publicized project has yet to get a green light to replace an increasingly crowded shuttle bus service. “On pure financial terms, the [gondola] is more expensive to operate than the bus service,” says Translink manager of infrastructure Jeffrey Busby. “The issue of how to cover that gap hasn’t been addressed.”

The gondola idea has been hanging around the Pacific Northwest city for the past two years, floated initially by officials with Simon Fraser University, which is situated on top of Burnaby Mountain and surrounded by the newly-developing UniverCity community. With 25,000 passengers riding diesel buses up to the campus every day, the CH2M report said the daily volume will likely double over the next 25 years, putting a huge strain on the existing bus service.

The proposed route for the gondola would mean commuters could reach the top in seven minutes, half the current duration of the bus ride. Using new technology featuring gondolas that can accommodate 35 passengers, Translink is looking at cabin departure intervals of less than a minute.

The broader benefits, according to Busby, are “quite significant.”

They include:

  • 1.5 million hours of saved travel time for current riders and an estimated 500,000 of auto travel time savings as commuters switch to the more efficient service;
  • Fewer transit service interruptions due to snowy conditions on the winding roads up to SFU;
  • Over 26 million in fewer vehicle kilometres traveled annually, which translates into savings on gas, collisions and an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of about 7,000 tons annually.

“The total value of these benefits, over the 25-year life-cycle, totaled more than $500 million, creating a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 3.6,” the report notes, adding that a BCR of greater than 1.0 indicates that benefits surpass costs.

Despite that, Busby says the Greater Vancouver Regional District, a federation of municipalities that oversees the Lower Mainland area, must still weigh the importance of the gondola project against competing transportation priorities.

He also offers a word of advice to other municipalities mulling over alternative transit modes. While New York, Portland and several South American cities already operate various types of gondola services (and in fact there's a tourist-friendly version already in the Vancouver area, on Grouse Mountain), the Burnaby Mountain scheme generated a lot of public and political attention because of the novelty factor, Busby notes. Gondola manufacturers are also looking at promoting urban transit solutions as a way of expanding their market beyond ski resorts.

In this particular case, the gondola made sense because of SFU’s elevated location. But it wouldn’t necessarily work in a more conventional urban setting, Busby added. “The technology is less important than the problem it’s solving.”

Top image credit: njaj / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist who covers urban affairs for The Globe and Mail, Spacing magazine, and The Walrus.