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June 2003

    UnRAVelling RAV

    The tangled politics of the Richmond-Airport- Vancouver rapid transit line

    Ivan Bulic

    Public debate is beginning to rage across the lower mainland over the intense politics around the controversial proposed $1.5 billion Richmond-Airport-Vancouver Skytrain line, the cost of having it run by the for-profit Bombardier Corporation and the BC Liberal government’s efforts to push the project through without the standard public review process, according to municipal leaders.

    Months of increasing debate among public officials exploded into the public realm after a marathon four-hour directors’ meeting of the Greater Vancouver Regional District on May 28, which voted by a narrow margin to spend at least $1.5 billion for the new line.

    Many were fuming over the bitter tangle of motions and counter motions. Others were trying to unravel exactly what happened. Since then, the RAV debate has threatened to split Vancouver’s left-leaning COPE council, and has pitted labour, environmental, consumer and community groups against a provincial government intent on pushing what many fear is the privatization of the public transit system.

    Former Greater Vancouver Transit boss Ken Dobbell, now Deputy Minister to Premier Gordon Campbell, and former Vancouver city manager and long-time Campbell confidant, spearheads the project. His January 2001 report calls for an underground Skytrain from the Airport to downtown Vancouver, ready for the 2010 Olympics, and run as a “P3”--public-private-partnership--where a private corporation designs, builds and operates RAV for a profit.

    RAV project director Jane Bird included Dobbell’s P3 angle in her February 2003 report to Vancouver City Council. She proposed a RAV line under Cambie St., surfacing at 49th Ave. and running to the airport and Richmond. Local Fraser, Main, Cambie, Oak and Granville St. buses would be cutback as new feeder lines divert passengers to five new stations on Cambie.

    Bird said the RAV would carry 5200 passengers an hour from downtown to the airport in 25 minutes, with ridership peaking at 100,000 a day by 2010. According to independent transit analyst Phil LeGood, only Skytrain technology can meet those expectations.

    The cost of RAV would be funded by $300 million each from the provincial government, the Airport Authority and Translink, and $450 million from Ottawa. The rest would come from a 35-year contract with a P3 partner.

    During three nights of heated public debate at Vancouver City Hall in mid-May, RAV critics noted that only 38,000 daily commuters now take transit across all three Fraser River crossings the Arthur Laing, Oak and Knight St bridges, as well as on the Granville, Oak, Cambie and Main St. bus corridors. Vancouver Councillor David Cadman noted that If RAV doesn’t hit the 100,000-passenger mark, Translink will have to subsidize the P3 operator out of tax dollars.

    “Our concern in the RAV project is that the projections show there will be just a marginal impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” said SPEC director John Whistler. “Another concern we have on the financing is that there’s going to be some reduction to local bus service to pay for this. Bus service is the backbone of public transit.”

    Jim Houlihan, of the Canadian Autoworkers Union Local 111, the drivers and maintenance workers on the transit system, told Council “RAV will make the fast ferries look like a good investment.” Even Vancouver chief engineer Dave Rudberg admitted he was worried about the P3 and urged Council to proceed “very carefully.” Big business, developers and the Olympic lobby supported RAV. But in the end, it didn’t matter what decision Vancouver’s elected officials made.

    While public debate raged in Vancouver on the night of May 14, Translink CEO Pat Jacobsen was conferring with Dobbell. They were finalizing details of Bill 64, an amendment to the Greater Vancouver Transportation Act that would jam RAV through Translink and the GVRD. Bill 64 revoked section of the act that requiring public consultation. Bill 64 also cut the time in which the GVRD must approve RAV from 120 to 3 days. If the GVRD takes longer than three days to decide, then Victoria would consider that a yes vote.

    Surrey Mayor and current GVRD Chair Doug McCallum supports the project in its entirety. But Vancouver Council and the GVRD Board would be a tougher sell.

    Knowing he needed at least token public input, McCallum hastily organized a public meeting on RAV with one-day notice for Tuesday, May 20, following the Victoria Day holiday weekend. Translink directors then approved the RAV at their May 23 meeting, with Vancouver directors Cadman and Fred Bass, New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright and Port Coquitlam Mayor Scott Young voting no.

    Burnaby mayor and GVRD director Derek Corrigan had just passed a motion at his council for a review of the P3. Corrigan and other mayors in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam and Port Moody were angry that the existing transportation plan calling for rapid transit in their region was being dumped for a fast-tracked RAV.

    All of Vancouver’s GVRD directors, except Mayor Larry Campbell, sided with Corrigan and New Westminster’s Wright in voting against RAV and the P3. Surrey, Richmond, Delta and Langley solidly backed RAV. In the end RAV was approved.

    Within days of the GVRD vote, Bird announced that the giant Bombardier Corporation, which developed the Skytrain technology, topped a list of four multi-national giants bidding on a P3 RAV.

    Meanwhile, Bill 64 is being challenged in BC Supreme Court by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who service and operate the Skytrain system. CUPE President Barry O’Neill, a veteran of the 2001 battle to stop GVRD’s $700 million P3 water filtration plant, launched the challenge, arguing that Translink failed to consult with the public as required by the GVTA Act.

    If a BC Supreme Court judge agrees with CUPE, then both Translink and the GVRD’s votes could be thrown out, and RAV would be back at square one. However, according to O’Neill, a successful CUPE challenge would not necessarily stop Victoria from ramming the project through without public input.

    As one long-time legal expert described the Victoria and the RAV offices machinations, “it may be neither fair, just nor democratic, but it is legal.”



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