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The case to abort LRT, October 21 1982

Jul 21, 2009

Alan Hart, one of VIA’s principals, recently found this newspaper clipping that he had saved from a 1982 British Columbia paper, that talks about the new SkyTrain system coming to Vancouver and why the government should “scrap” the system now and go back to more conventional methods — a great read.


The case to abort ALRT

Is system unproven and too expensive…

Or far-thinking step to meet area needs?

from The Province, by Andrew Ross

Bob Bose, chairman of the rapid transit committee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, calls the Advanced Light Rapid Transit system a billion-dollar gamble.

“The wisest and most prudent thing to do,” says the Surrey aldermen, “would be to abandon this unproven technology and begin converting immediately to a conventional system.”

At, he says, only one-third of the cost.He sounded this alarm to the GVRD last week, sparking a new round of debate on the costs and merits of the ALRT system, and calls from the GVRD’s transit committee for a full accounting from the provincial government.

Education Minister Bill Vander Zalm, Victoria’s minister in charge of transit, notes Bose is seeking re-election to Surrey council Nov. 20, and declares: “Mr. Bose obviously is running a campaign.” But it is finally becoming clear to the members of Bose’s committee that the ALRT system is a highly expensive technological experiement that will cost Greater Vancouver taxpayers enormous amounts. The Social Credit government neglected to mention a few things when it announced, at a breakfast meeting in Vancouver on Dec. 6, 1980, that it had chosen a space-age technology (Which uses a magnetic propulsion system and has computers instead of engineers) to answer the needs of a region suffering from hardening of the traffic arteries.

For more than a decade prior to the announcement, the GVRD and Vancouver-area municipalities had pleaded with the government to help them build a conventional light rapid transit system, using an updated version of the streetcar system on ground-level railroad tracks. Finally the government relented. That announcement almost two years ago took them by surprise because they had little or no knowledge of ALRT. But mostly they were relieved.

The decision to build ALRT, after all, included a commitment to use the line long advocated by the GVRD and member municipalities. And, perhaps more significantly, the decision seemed to contain a government promise to build the system without reaching into the wallets of Greater Vancouver’s taxpayers. As Bose puts it, municipal leaders “assumed” that, since the system was being “imposed” on them by Victoria, the provincial government would be paying for it.

Last month, it became clear to civic leaders that, by agreeing to become willing partners in the development of ALRT, the GVRD had made a tacit commitment to contribute financially to the system, and in a big way.

And that leads to the first of some key questions:

How much is ALRT going to cost to build?

The government has, for more than a year, placed the cost of constructing the system at about $718 million in 1986 dollars. But B.C. Transit, the Crown agency helping to administer the project, now concedes that the estimate omits interest on capital borrowed for the job. Socred MLA Jack Davis, chairman of the Rapid Transit (1986) Committee, said last month that almost $600 million must be borrowed through a government bond scheme for ALRT. (Both the federal and provincial governments have already contributed $60 million each for the project).

Bose says ALRT will cost $40 million a kilometer to build – something like $1 billion including the cost of borrowing – and he says that is three times as much as a conventional aystem.

B.C. Transit says his figures exaggerate the interest rates it hopes to obtain when it borrows the $600 million. It hopes to persuade the federal government to make interest-free loans available for ALRT and thereby help reduce the cost of borrowing.

How much is ALRT going to cost to operate?

Bose predicts annual operating costs of about $160 million. Neither Davis nor B.C. Transit project administrator Mike O’Connor was able to give an estimate, and won’t until B.C. Transit negotiates a price with B.C. Hydro for electricity to power the system.

And who pays?

Davis confirmed that Greater Vancouver municipalities will be required to share operating costs once the system is operational. And he and O’Connor agree that operating costs will include not only any deficit that remains after fare-box revenues are deducted but also the amortization costs of the capital borrowed for building.

That’s what municipal leaders didn’t realize at first. The cost-sharing formula, according to Vander Zalm, will be the same one now in place for the operating deficit of the existing transit system in Greater Vancouver. Under this formula the GVRD must pay 35 per cent of the transit deficit, from funds collected via the fare box. If those funds fall short of 35 per cent the GVRD must make up the difference. It also must pay one-third of the remaining 65 per cent of the transit deficit. In all, the GVRD faces a bill of up to 57 per cent of the operating costs. Victoria will pay the remainder.

Bose predicts that only about six per cent of the GVRD’s share will come directly from the fare box, leaving the region’s taxpayers with a bill amounting to 51 per cent of the annual operating costs—about $80 million a year.

The only options open to civic leaders to pay it will be to sock taxpayers with yet another surcharge on gasoline and Hydro, or with higher property taxes.

How many people will use the system?

B.C. Transit confidently predicts that ALRT will have about 30 million passengers annually. O’Connor himself goes further and predicts 40 million.

But the GVRD, which spent more than a decade analyzing commuter patterns and transit “ridership,” has predicted that a conventional system – which would travel basically the same route as ALRT – would attract only about 15 million passengers annually. (However, the GVRD has no ridership predictions on ALRT). The ridership figures, Bose says, are something else civic leaders failed to pursue when they attended the Socred breakfast meeting almost two years ago. If they had asked some hard questions then, Bose suggests, their long-held commitment to conventional light rapid transit might not have been relinquished so readily.

Which raises another question:

Why this system rather than a conventional one?

Vander Zalm said almost two years ago that ALRT stood a better chance of qualitying for federal funds than a conventional system because it’s exclusively Canadian in design and construction. Ottawa subsequently contributed $60 million toward the capital cost of Greater Vancouver’s ALRT. (It was never asked, though, how much it would be willing to contribute to a conventional system.) Also, Vander Zalm said, an ALRT vehicle will be cheaper to run than a conventional one because it will have no driver.

But critics of the system reply that many people will be leery of riding a train that has no operator. Opponents also suggest that ALRT was also chosen by the government because it promised something different and innovative – something to brag about when Greater Vancouver becomes the transportation showpiece of North America during Expo ’86. All that a conventional system had to recommend itself, by comparison, was dependability at a low price.

The critics also contend that, if ALRT doesn’t work as planned, its tracks and elevated system simply cannot be converted to carry conventional LRT trains. Meaning that if the gamble doesn’t come off, the bills are going to be that much more horrendous.

Whether the choice of ALRT was a wise or foolish gamble won’t be known until it’s too late to turn back, the critics say. Scrap it now, says Bose, and go conventional.

“It’s not too late. The government (B.C. Transit) has only spent about $40 million so far, and getting out at that price would be a bargain considering the eventual cost.”

copyright The Province newspaper, division of Canwest Publishing Inc.


  1. Wow! Amazing find! I love reading old articles like this. There’s so little information on the history of the SkyTrain system online, at least anything pre-Millennium Line. Thanks!

  2. This is a fantastic find. That’s for the effort, and all of the insightful posts on the blog.