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RAV 'Bait and Switch' Charged

Secret negotiations, part of doing P3 business, kept public in dark about torn up streets. Last night an angry audience heard it's too late to change course.

By Scott Deveau 1 Feb 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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Hundreds of angry people showed up last night to a public meeting in Vancouver after learning that building the RAV line will mean tearing up busy streets for years.  They heard a Vancouver city councillor decry the project's approval process as a "bait and switch" that "lulled" citizens into believing construction would be far less disruptive.

After years of planning, weighing of bids from private companies, and the eventual awarding of the contract to SNC-Lavalin, only now has it come to light that the firm plans to put the train underground using a "cut-and-cover" method that will lay open Cambie Street for months.  It was widely assumed that a different method, bore tunneling, would be used, leaving intact the surface of Cambie Street's busy shopping thoroughfare.

Such details of the RAV line remained under a shroud of secrecy until the contract was awarded and it was too late to turn back. RAVCO officials tried to console the crowd by saying last night's meeting was the start of an 18-month dialogue between the company and the public on how they can best mitigate the disruption during construction.

But two questions loomed over the meeting: Would the RAV line have gone ahead had the Cambie community or city council known in advance that a cut and cover method was going to be used?

And in this and other Public Private Partnerships (P3s) must proprietary rights of the private companies bidding for contracts trump the public's need to know?

'Cut-and-cover'defended

The rub of P3s like the RAV line was quickly felt when the crowd realized their concerns about the project's tunneling were not going to be addressed.

It was only last week that the residents and merchants of Cambie Street got a look at the RAV line construction plans. The details were not rolled out by the proponent or RAVCO, they were revealed in an environmental assessment that went out for public consultation. 

It was only after reading the environmental assessment that the residents and merchants on Cambie realized the extent of the disruption they would face during next four years while the RAV line was being built.

The plan called for a cut and cover method to be used, which rips up huge sections of the road for a three month period while the tunnels are constructed. 

RAVCO engineer Raymond Louie (not to be confused with the Vancouver city councilor by the same name) said there are many advantages to the cut and cover method.

Cut and cover is much cheaper. It allows for shallower stations, which Louie says increases ridership.

The cut-and-cover method also prevents delays if a problem occurs because the construction can be easily moved to another location while the problem is remedied.  Whereas with the bore method all construction comes to a standstill if a major development occurs.  The other proponents, Louie said, had used the bore method through the business district on Cambie but their bids were more expensive and refused, because of the increased risk of delay, to assume sole financial liability if a major delay occurred.

'We all got lulled'

Despite its virtues, the cut-and-cover method is going to cause considerable disruption to the Cambie community. But by the time the plans were looked at, it was too late to do anything about them.

Throughout the preliminary consultation with the public and city council, the less intrusive method of bore tunneling was discussed.  Boring, while considerably more expensive, is done entirely underground with little disturbance on the surface.  The bore method is what council and the public thought they were considering, according to Vancouver city councillor Anne Roberts at the meeting last night.

She said RAVCO pulled a "bait and switch."

"I think looking at the political lay of the land, they decided that the only way to get this approved was to promise no disruption, no traffic congestion, and no parking problems and the only thing you could promise then was the bore tunnel. That has always been the position," Roberts said. "I call it a bait and switch because we all got lulled into thinking it was a bore tunnel. That was the preference."

Roberts said during the consultation with the city and the public, RAVCO presented its plans explicitly outlining a bored tunnel and it was made clear to RAVCO that was the preferred method.

RAVCO CEO Jane Bird said construction methodology was always on the table, but now that a proponent has been chosen there is no way to revert to a bore method. She fell short of admitting RAVCO made a mistake.

"I've acknowledged this evening that our focus was on getting as much of the line underground as possible. We didn't really spend as much time on methodology."

'Nobody came to neighbourhood'

Lee Jensen, owner of the Funky Armadillo Café on Cambie Street, is one of the merchants who organized the meeting last night. He was unimpressed by RAVCO's promises.

"They don't care at all or they would have consulted us. We were never consulted.  They said they had dialogues with us.  No one came to see us. They talked to the Natives. They talked to the environmentalists. Nobody came to the neighborhood and asked us," Jensen said.

RAVCO engineer Louie defended the cut-and-cover approach saying the disruptions on Cambie need to be weighed against long term benefits. "You look at the proposal, not just the net cost. You look at capital cost, operating cost, and ridership and also risk transfer. So trying to protect the public purse and trying to find the best value for public money, you have to look at the overall picture and after a 30 year period of operation, you have to decide what is the best solution for the citizens of Vancouver."

Critics of the RAV approval process echo opponents of other recent high profile moves by B.C.'s government to negotiate deals with private partners.  Public scrutiny of such negotiation has been legally prevented in order to protect companies' proprietary information. That was the explanation offered by Bird for why SNC-Lavalin's cut and cover approach wasn't revealed earlier.

In a different case with some parallels, when the B.C. government entered into secret negotiations with Bermuda-based Accenture Corporation to privatize some B.C. Hydro operations, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union filed a Charter challenge, arguing that the process should include public consultation. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled against COPE, denying the challenge and affirming the rights of private firms to have their dealings, and methods, protected from public scrutiny.

Scott Deveau is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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