New Surrey LRT study wastes taxpayer money

The City of Surrey has released a new report by Shirocca Consulting titled “Economic Benefits of Surrey LRT”, available on the city website. Unfortunately, as I also detailed in a previous release on the SkyTrain for Surrey website, it fails to address what actually matters to commuters and transit riders.

What’s wrong with it? One of the first big issues I found with this study when I looked into it was that it basically concludes the obvious. It neither provides important information that decision-makers actually want, nor that which actually has meaningful relevance to the project stakeholders (city residents). To put it shortly and bluntly, it was a waste of taxpayer resources and has poor value in promoting Surrey’s LRT project.

There are 3 main issues I have identified in this study. You can read in detail about them below.

Issue 1: Over-emphasis on construction process

Firstly, the study promotes the very obvious conclusion that if you start a major construction project, you create construction jobs. Building absolutely anything would achieve the same results.

In this stage of planning where the final design and business case is not complete, what needs to be looked at is not the results of the construction process – but the results of the outcome, which measures how efficient a project is as a use of our money and resources.

One of the reasons I reckon the Shirocca study does not touch on this at all is because the original Surrey Rapid Transit Study, commissioned by TransLink and endorsed by Surrey, came to the conclusion that Light Rail fails. The benefits of LRT failed to outweigh the costs in a multiple account analysis. It is an inefficient use of our money.

One of the reasons the benefits of LRT failed to outweigh the costs in the previous study was because this study looked at a certain aspect of construction that the Shirocca report refused to touch on: the economic impact of construction, negatively.

Construction will close lanes, disrupt traffic and snarl our major corridors for years, costing the economy thousands upon thousands of man-hours sitting in idling cars and stuck transit buses. On King George Blvd and 104th Ave, the exchange for years of construction pain is only 1 minute in transit time-savings over the 96 B-Line.

104 Ave: No benefits from LRT – Express riders save just 1 minute on the proposed LRT vs. 96 B-Line
I detailed the kind of disruption residents will face in this graphic I sent last year to the City of Surrey.

Decision makers aren’t un-educated in this matter: they know that major transportation projects will create substantial jobs in the construction industry. This is why I have firm doubts that those at the provincial and federal level will take the estimates on construction jobs in this study seriously – especially as it doesn’t measure against potential alternatives, like a combination SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

Issue 2: “Only rail creates development” myth

Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”

Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines.
(Surrey LRT study)

The author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

This notion that BRT can have no “permanence” and doesn’t attract economic development is simply incorrect – it has been challenged by numerous transportation professionals.

According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America were outperforming LRT in terms of how much development was generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.

That’s because BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. BRT can be equipped with sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance, just like LRT.

As an example, this video from York Regional Transit in Ontario, detailing its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, challenges that notion. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.

Myth #2: Light Rail investments create “permanence”

Rails do not create “permanence”, and may actually harm the maintenance of it. LRT service can be seriously affected by things such as popularity and financial factors, particularly as LRT systems are costlier than BRT.

As an example, Portland, Oregon’s streetcar system had vibrant beginnings,promising high-quality service every 10 minutes, and connecting new developments in the downtown core. Because the service not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often found to be slower than walking or cycling, the ridership on the streetcar did not materialize to the point of demanding the higher-frequency service.

So service was cut back severely – initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey. This has had a major effect on the system’s ridership, viability, public image, and support from economic investors.

The Portland Streetcar’s ridership suffers to the point where it has a low farebox recovery ratio of just 6%. It is so heavily subsidized that City Auditors have reported that the cost of operating & maintaining the streetcar has taken away from other basic services.

“We remain concerned about how projects like Portland Streetcar displace other transportation services,” referring to street maintenance.
City audit questions management of Portland Streetcar – Apr 2014

Today, even the transit-oriented developments that have been described as the ‘justification’ for the streetcar investment required additional subsidies to be actually built – and the only advocates of the streetcar in Portland are the ones who think that frequency and reliability of service doesn’t matter – people who are clearly in the minority.

“I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let’s say there’s a 20-minute [wait].  You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer.” — Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency of the Portland Streetcar’s new Eastside loop, quoted last August in Willamette Week.

While I do recognize it may not be as fair to draw development outcome comparisons between “rapid” bus or rail systems and a non-rapid streetcar, what was clear about the Portland streetcar situation is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference.

When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.

Issue 3: Ignoring the transportation aspect

Adopting an urban-style neighbourhood design, it will result in direct links to key destinations, with more stops than SkyTrain, which operates more on a railway format.

Investing in LRT rather than SkyTrain also makes both economic and land use sense in Surrey as it can provide more kilometers of line per dollar spent, which is what Surrey needs given its geographic size, variation, spread of its component communities and rapidity of its expected growth.

(Surrey LRT study)

The suggestions that followed the aforementioned sentence underscore the study’s ignorance of the transportation aspect. Simply put, the study refuses to consider or attempt to measure what actually matters to transit riders.

It’s a very risky assumption to think that an LRT would attract a superior ridership because it would offer more stops and local access than a SkyTrain extension, at the expense of journey times for riders.

The original Surrey Rapid Transit Study, commissioned by TransLink and endorsed by Surrey, found a better transit outcome out of a combination SkyTrain extension with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). This study reasoned that the benefits of this option would be higher, finding over 2x the travel time savings for existing transit users and 3x for new transit users, on opening day.

This is going to make a huge difference to potential riders. Here in Metro Vancouver, studies, surveys and the results of our transit projects have repeatedly demonstrated that travel time is one of the biggest factors in our commute mode choice.

The most in-your-face one is that SkyTrain has a ridership per kilometre that is unmatched by any single Light Rail system in Canada or the US (numbers from APTA, CUTA – compiled [HERE] and [HERE]). Speed is the #1 reason our ridership is achieving these record levels. It is the most versatile feature of our regional rapid transit system.

When the Canada Line on our SkyTrain network opened to the public just over 5 years ago, its trains witnessed ridership levels that surpassed projections already high for North American rapid transit systems. When Canada Line riders were then surveyed, trip time was found to be the most-liked aspect. In essence, the Canada Line’s speed and reliability as a fully grade-separated transit system was responsible for its excellent ridership results.

The speed of the trip is a “most liked” aspect of Canada Line service. This was mentioned by more than four-in-ten riders (42%). Mid and high frequency riders also valued the frequency and on-time reliability of the service.

Metro Vancouver doesn’t just have some of the highest rapid transit ridership per km rates on SkyTrain – our entire transit system has one of the highest transit ridership per-capita rates in all of North America.

From South Fraser Blog
From South Fraser Blog

That fact in itself really underscores the success of our SkyTrain system. The effects are clearly seen across the region, with many riders coming to SkyTrain on buses and taking journeys that mix the two modes (bus, SkyTrain) or more (i.e. SeaBus). This kind of transit coherency, where people are using transit from the beginning of their trip to the very end, is unique to our region. In other medium-sized cities, the success of their rapid transit systems has generally relied on park-and-rides – fostering trips that might finish with transit, but start with the car.

Calgary, which provides free park-and-rides at nearly every LRT station, is a notorious example of this.
Calgary, which provides free park-and-rides at nearly every LRT station, is a notorious example of this.

A SkyTrain extension to Langley would have nearly 75% more boardings per km than the proposed Surrey LRT network. The Surrey Rapid Transit Study predicted that investing in SkyTrain and BRT would generate 2x as many new daily transit trips in the region as an LRT.

Surrey is indeed a big city, and because of that its commuter base extends far beyond where the LRT lines can go. In the end, the system we choose to build could make the difference between whether someone who doesn’t live very close to the line would be willing to start taking the bus (using the line to complete his/her commute), or not do that at all.

Among other issues

By far the biggest failure in the new Surrey LRT report is its failure to address the numerous issues raised by LRT opponents, including myself.

The Township of Langley recently raised questions regarding the proposed LRT, with an engineer questioning its merit to Langley. He noted that the City of Surrey’s desire to add more stops for a more localized service come at the expense of ensuring the corridor is competitive as a regional backbone.

The new Surrey LRT study simply suggests that having more/local stops will foster higher ridership, without any suggestions on how much it would be (against how much could be lost as a result of the travel time trade-off), completely ignoring the concerns raised by the Township.

But an even bigger issue, ignored by not just this study but by every pro-LRT party to date, is safety.

From The Seattle Times, 2011:
From The Seattle Times, 2011: “Light-rail service was held up for three hours Tuesday after a train struck a pickup at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Dawson Street.”

Collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians are an inevitable reality with LRT systems. They also president further cause for concern in terms of the impact on service reliability. Accidents – including those that don’t involve trains – can block tracks and disrupt LRT lines for hours.

There is a financial and economic implication that will come with every accident. Where tracks are blocked, commuters are delayed and we lose hundreds of man-hours in productivity. Where trains are damaged, it costs a lot of money to repair them. Where lives are lost… they’re irreplaceable.

There is also a cost to the entities providing insurance, which could be passed on to the public in the form of higher insurance rates.

Dublin's Luas Tram is often featured in LRT promotion by the City of Surrey. Here it is from another perspective, having crashed into a bus. Photo: CC-BY-SA Flickr: William Murphy
Dublin’s Luas Tram is often featured in LRT promotion by the City of Surrey. Here it is from another perspective, crashed into a bus. Photo: CC-BY-SA Flickr: William Murphy

This is further amplified by the fact that Light Rail is one of the most dangerous and deadly forms of transportation. In a 505-page National Transportation Statistics report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Light Rail systems were found to have the second highest fatality rate of any transportation mode, second only to motorcycles. Nearly every other mode of transportation, including bus rapid transit and motor vehicle travel, was found to be safer than Light Rail.

Average fatality rates per 100 million miles, 2000–2011. Source: US Department of Transportation
Average fatality rates per 100 million miles, 2000–2011. Source: US Department of Transportation

Most LRT systems in North America have segregated, private rights-of-way – but of the few LRT systems that have been built so as to be entirely at street level and on the street, those were found to be the most dangerous systems in North America. The Houston Metrorail is a prime example, having suffered from a track record of frequent accidents, since its opening and continuing up to today.

The Surrey LRT system will be built this way, running at-grade through some of the most dangerous intersections in the region and introducing a massive implication to transit riders, drivers and pedestrians in terms of safety.

By far, the only comments from LRT advocates in the city have been the denial of the safety issues presented with introducing trains to an on-street environment.

We deserve better than wasted money on studies for something that isn’t going to work. With consistent failures by LRT supporters to address safety, risks and the transportation case, on-street Light Rail is clearly inappropriate for Surrey, Langley and the South of Fraser.

Below: New ‘SkyTrain for Surrey’ campaign video