Burnaby Mountain in Metro Vancouver seems like a textbook site to test cable-propelled transit in a major North American city. Simon Fraser University, with 30,000 students and staff, occupies 200 acres on the western crest of the mountain. A growing neighborhood called UniverCity occupies the eastern hilltop with 5,000 residents. Both are surrounded by parks and conservation lands but are only 1.7 miles from a SkyTrain rail station. The mountain is 985 feet tall and served by a fleet of 48 diesel buses providing more than four million annual transit trips with poor levels of service. Snow cripples transit ten an average of days per year on a hill that 39,000 people will live on by 2030.
In 2010, TransLink commissioned one of the first comprehensive studies pitting ropeway technologies against the status quo and other alternatives in a North American context. One of the world’s largest engineering firms, CH2M Hill, led the team with financial analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers and technical consulting by Gmuender Engineering and the lift manufacturers. Commercially sensitive sections of the report were never released to the public in order to safeguard a future competitive procurement process, but what was published is a fascinating read for anyone interested in transit or ropeways.
The SkyTrain Millenium Line, opened in 2002, passes 1.7 miles south of SFU at a station called Production Way-University in Burnaby. Commuters wait an average of seven minutes for a bus here, which takes 13-16 minutes to go the less than four miles to SFU. Increased frequencies of already articulated buses would result in proportionally greater emissions, traffic impacts, staffing needs, required layover space and capital costs.
The study looked at a wide range of alternatives – from bus rapid transit (BRT) to light rail, funicular, subway, trolleybus, reversible aerial tramway, monocable gondola, 2S gondola, 3S gondola and funitel. These were narrowed down to three major categories for further study – diesel bus, monocable/2S gondola and 3S gondola/funitel. Other surface alternatives proved too expensive, had significant neighborhood impacts, or both.
CH2M Hill concluded a 3S gondola or funitel would be the best solution to serve Burnaby Mountain with long spans limiting impacts, the ability to operate in nearly any weather and high capacity that’s scaleable with minimal costs, energy consumption, emissions and noise. Both Leitner-Poma and Doppelmayr/Garaventa recommended a 3S system over a funitel due to its lower power consumption and larger cabin capacity. From there, four lift alignments were studied.
The preferred route would cut the 15-minute bus ride to under seven minutes with a maximum waiting time (headway) of 34 seconds at build-out. The gondola would have five towers, 32 cabins and a design capacity of 4,000 passengers per hour/per direction with 35-passenger gondolas, exceeding the estimated 3,400 passengers per hour/per direction required at peak times in 2041. The gondola would be part of Vancouver’s frequent transit network, providing service so often that no schedule would be required at least 18 hours per day. The bottom terminal at Production Way would include significant bike parking as a result of the lessons learned at the Portland Aerial Tram and construction would take 18 months. A design-build contract could also include options for the lift manufacturer to finance, operate and/or maintain the system.
The only area where diesel buses came out on top was 25-year life-cycle cost. The gondola was estimated at $101 million in initial capital with $3-3.5 million annual operating costs for a total cost of approximately $155 million over 25 years. Bus service cost $11 million less over the same 25 years. The report noted over a longer life-cycle, the gondola would become more cost competitive. We know many US and Canadian ski resorts have already operated detachable lifts for 30 years or more.
For that $11 million extra, the gondola would save riders 1.5 million hours of commute time annually with 16 million fewer vehicle-miles traveled. Collisions and traffic would be reduced for cars remaining on the roads. Environmental benefits would be significant with 7,000 tons in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. All of these benefits converted into dollars net a benefit-cost ratio of 3.6 over 25 years (a benefit-cost ratio of 1 is break-even, anything over that means a net positive.)
Ultimately the gondola was not included in TransLink’s 2012 regional plan, Moving Forward, despite having a good business case and $500 million in tangible benefits. There were simply too many other projects competing for limited regional dollars, such as the Evergreen Line that will open next year. TransLink notes on its project page that the gondola is a good candidate to be included in a future regional plan. This week, SFU president Andrew Petter revived talk of the project, telling Burnaby’s local newspaper, “If we are able to build a fixed aerial link or ‘sky bus’ as some call it, I can see it becoming as vital to our Metro Vancouver transportation system as the SeaBus, which was considered ‘nice to have’ in the early days but has since become a ‘need to have’ component of our regional transit system.” If it ever does gets built, southwest British Columbia will have two of the most unique 3S gondola systems within 80 miles of each other and become a showcase for the world.