Last week the University of British Columbia announced its possible willingness to help fund a $3-billion, seven-kilometre extension of the Millennium Line (from the current planned terminus at Arbutus Street to the UBC campus). This is not a good use of the public’s money, nor will it help solve Vancouver’s housing and transportation problems.
First off, a disclaimer and a credit: I have been a UBC faculty member for over 25 years. UBC has encouraged me to investigate issues deeply, and to share my findings broadly, no matter who it might impact. It’s called academic freedom and for that I am grateful.
With that said, I raise my voice, not for the first time, to suggest there are better ways to spend public funds.
I have found, in discussing this issue over the years, that the concept of a billion dollars is impossible for most people to grasp. So let me put it in more accessible terms.
Three billion dollars is 3,000 million dollars.
Three billion dollars is enough money for UBC to build, on campus, 23,000 additional housing units, more than enough to house the entire daily population of UBC.
Three billion dollars, were it to be paid off by just Vancouver families, would amount to $10,500 per household.
But it doesn’t end there. Infrastructure projects such as these are typically financed through loans with long repayment periods. The eventual bill after interest can be two to three times the principal. So figure up to $9 billion for the Arbutus to UBC extension before we are done.
This would not be so bad if the tunnel was not carrying a toy train. The Millennium Line extension, which is what this subway is, would have to use the same track and vehicles as the rest of the line. Those who ride it frequently may have noticed that the cars seem small. Well, they are. They have a cross section that is about two thirds the size of a “normal” subway car. For this reason, and others, this system is not currently being installed anywhere else in the world. In fact, the only other Canadian version of this system, the Scarborough RT, will soon be torn down. Toronto officials justify this radical act because they have determined that it is not worth fixing.
But it gets worse. The peak transit load on this corridor is now far less than 6,000 people per direction per hour (ppdph). Back in 2012, TransLink determined that a surface rail system would provide more than enough capacity for the corridor, now and in the future, and could have connected Commercial Station to UBC for $1 billion, or one-fifth the cost of a subway. But the Vision mayor and council insisted on the subway (against the objections of the current chair of the Mayor’s Council, Derek Corrigan) based on the premise that Vancouver needed a system capable of delivering 20,000 pphpd.
In order to ever conceivably get that level of ridership, the city along the corridor beyond Arbutus would have to be completely transformed, all the way out to and including UBC. What it would take is at least 50,000 new condos, none of which would be affordable by students, faculty, staff and Vancouver wage earners. Doubt it? Currently housing out at UBC is selling for up to $2 million for a 1,000 square foot unit.
Who then would this new housing be for? Certainly not for students, staff and faculty. Far better to look for ways, and they exist, to create affordable housing, yes at UBC but also throughout the city — by working with existing housing stock and neighbourhood character, to create housing for the people who live and work here.
In the end, students, staff and faculty at UBC don’t have a transportation problem, they have a housing problem. There are over 6,000 people on the waiting list for housing at UBC. Thousands more would gladly live there if they could. The university could build at least 23,000 units for the same cost as the UBC subway extension.
Heck, for the same $3 billion, UBC could even give them away for free.