Proposed LRT rings warning bells

By Leslie Campbell, September 2011

A fast-track to Langford…or to bankruptcy?

It’s ironic that the politicians who jumped on the light rail transit bandwagon in August labelled as “premature” a suggestion that we hold a referendum on the subject. If anything is premature it was their endorsement of the billion-dollar proposal.

Ever since BC Transit came out with its report recommending LRT from Downtown to Langford, many have been scratching their heads at the idea of making Greater Victoria the smallest metropolitan area in North America to be served by LRT.

Jane Sterk, leader of the BC Green Party, (echoing many others) has come out calling for a region-wide transportation plan before we invest in LRT, as well as suggesting that “a better immediate investment would be upgrading the E&N line to move people—including those who work at Naden Base, one of the region’s largest employers—between the western communities and downtown Victoria. This would alleviate the most congested routes in the region at a fraction of the cost of building an LRT.”

Recently, Bev Highton of the CRD Business & Residential Taxpayer’s Association noted: “The Association has encountered many unanswered questions about the LRT proposal, some of which are as basic as: How many riders would be anticipated? What revenues would be produced? And what are the numbers behind the so-called business case? Surprisingly, none of the information is included in the project final report, or the project website, or any other public source, and none of this information has been provided under the Association’s outstanding Freedom of Information requests.”

The Chamber of Commerce and others are calling for an independent review. A good idea in light of the apparent conflicts of interest: First, it was discovered that a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Inc, which builds LRTs, co-ordinated the Rapid Transit Study that led to the proposal of LRT for Victoria; and then on August 23 the Taxpayer’s Association pointed out that “the Chairman of BC Transit is also the Chairman of InTransit BC. InTransit BC is one-third owned by the same SNC-Lavalin Inc that is in a position to bid on a Victoria LRT line.”

As Highton said, “It’s a rather flimsy way to proceed.”

But that didn’t stop Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, councillor John Luton, MLA Rob Fleming, MP Denise Savoie and a few other politicians from endorsing LRT and talking about getting funds from the federal government.

I support investment in public transit; we need to rely less on cars to move us around. But the current proposal, with it’s mega-price, seems more like business-as-usual thinking, based on the same kind of constant-growth model that brought us urban sprawl and traffic congestion in the first place.

Megaprojects have a way of being costly disappointments. Research by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School shows that megaprojects tend to cost more than projected and underperform—on economic, social and environmental fronts: “positive regional development effects, typically much touted by project promoters to gain political acceptance for their projects, repeatedly turn out to be non-measurable, insignificant or even negative.” Flyvbjerg notes, “Megaproject development today is not a field of what has been called ‘honest numbers.’” As if that’s not enough, he continues: “Project promoters often avoid and violate established practices of good governance, transparency and participation in political and administrative decision making.”

Edinburgh is the poster child for how wrong things can go with LRT. With a budget overrun of more than 50 percent and construction running three years behind schedule, their city council was forced to shorten the line by about one-third. Most recently, after considering options to borrow $374 million more to complete the shorter line or scrapping it altogether (with $986 million already spent), council voted to shorten it even more, abandoning tracks already laid to the centre of the city (which caused months of unpopular disruption to lay). News reports are rife with words like “cock-up,” “fiasco” and “madness.”

Edinburgh’s council denied its citizens a referendum. Hopefully that won’t happen here. Everyone in the CRD will pay for LRT even though only a small portion of the community will benefit from it. 

We also need comprehensive, community-wide transportation planning and priority setting. Infrastructure is expensive so we can’t do it all, or at least not all at once. We certainly shouldn’t commit $1 billion to any project without a clear understanding of what else needs doing, both in terms of transportation infrastructure and other needs—or before relatively inexpensive tweaking of our current transportation system: adding some designated bus lanes, getting an E&N commuter train going, building the McKenzie interchange.

The rush to LRT, a proposal that seems to have deep roots in the ever-hungry engineering/construction industry, has attracted politicians eager to be seen as “progressive” and willing to commit vast amounts of public funds to ensure Victoria is not somehow doomed. It brings to mind Langford’s Stew Young warning that if the Spencer Road interchange wasn’t built, it would ruin the region’s economy. He was wrong. Instead, the region got a Bridge to Nowhere and resources that could have been used to eliminate the bottleneck at the McKenzie Avenue intersection were misspent on his miscalculation.

How much transportation miscalculation can one small city take before it wakes up and demands a thorough effort at creating a regional plan?

Leslie Campbell has been immersed in the plans and recommendations at www.transitbc.com. Some chapters of Flyvbjerg’s book Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition, are available online.