The SFU Gondola Project on Burnaby Mountain is a proposal by TransLink and the SFU Community Trust to build a mass rapid transit system from the Production Way-University Skytrain station to the residential and commercial development on top of Burnaby Mountain called UniverCity, beside Simon Fraser University. The project proposal calls for the gondola to be built through, and travel over, the Burnaby Mountain conservation area and the Forest Grove community, a conservation-like area consisting of 1370 town homes, an elementary school, two daycares, a small community store, a soccer field, tennis & basketball courts, parks, and playgrounds.
Gondola Project Facts
- Cost: $120 million est. (the original SFU Community Trust estimate was $68.9 million). In comparison, the Whistler Peak-to-Peak Gondola cost $51 million to build. TransLink’s preliminary findings indicate that the gondola could cost about the same to build, operate, and maintain as the existing #145 bus service, about $5.5 million per year.
- Technology: 3-rope gondola technology, same as the Whistler Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
- Length: 2.7 km. For comparison, the Whistler Peak 2 Peak Gondola is 4.4 km
- Capacity: 30-35 people per cabin; up to 20 cabins in operation at one time; up to 4000 people per hour. In comparison, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola carries 22-28 people per cabin.
- Operation Time: Up to 20 hours per day (5am or 6 am – 12am or 1am).
- Travel Time: 6.5 minutes from Production Way-University SkyTrain station to SFU terminal. Currently the bus ride from the SkyTrain station to SFU is 12 minutes.
- Frequency: Every 40 seconds – this means that a cabin would pass overhead every 20 seconds going in either direction.
- Infrastructure: 5 towers, each up to 70 meters high; the gondola cabins swing closer to the ground between towers.
- Effects on existing bus system: One out of four routes (Bus #145) would be reduced or eliminated. The three other bus routes (#135, 143 & 144) would still be required in order to service commuters to SFU & UniverCity.
Why is there opposition to the Gondola Project?
Why is this project so expensive?
The original report commissioned by the SFU Community Trust in 2009 estimated the cost of a gondola running up Burnaby Mountain to be $68.9 million. The latest TransLink report estimates the cost to be $120 million. In comparison, this project is 2.35 times more expensive than the Whistler Peak- 2 Peak gondola, but only 60% as long. This means the cost of the Burnaby Mountain gondola will be over 380% more expensive per kilometre than the Whistler Peak 2 Peak gondola. Keep in mind; building the Peak 2 Peak was over much more difficult terrain than that found on Burnaby Mountain. If comparing the Burnaby Mountain gondola to other urban gondolas you’ll find similar cost discrepancies – when compared to the urban gondola in Koblenz, Germany, which uses the same technology, the Burnaby gondola is 342% more expensive.
TransLink have said that their estimate is higher due to going through a more rigorous process and factoring in some mitigating expenses such as replacing homeowners’ skylights for increased privacy under the gondola line. TransLink has also admitted that the gondola project, even with the current one-leg route design, is more expensive than the bus technology it would replace.
Who is going to pay for this project?
TransLink is burdened with commitments to other projects and cannot afford to pay to build and operate a gondola on their own; committing to this project will likely require a public/private partnership, which means that taxpayers will eventually be on the hook for the majority of the cost. The $5.5 million per year savings from stopping the #145 bus route would only be captured once the gondola would be operating (3 years from project approval). In the meantime, financing would have to come from private sources and the cost of financing would be an additional cost for this project. An example of this type of partnership can be seen in our own backyard where building and operating the Golden Ears Bridge already has a cumulative shortfall of $63.8 million since 2009.
What other projects will be postponed or cancelled due to the cost of this project?
There are much higher priority transit initiatives that will have a greater overall benefit to the region – these initiatives are all threatened by this project. Examples of these are the Evergreen SkyTrain line connecting Coquitlam and Port Moody, development of the UBC Broadway corridor to improve access to the University of British Columbia, and transit expansion south of the Fraser River. Translink says that this is a smaller project that would only have to be approved by the TransLink Board and not have to go through the mayors’ council because it wouldn’t require a tax increase. Part of the reason it is a smaller project is that they did not design it with another station or two so it not only serves other neighbourhoods but could become a two or three-leg route that would avoid going between and over the homes in Forest Grove.
Is a gondola really that much better for the environment?
When comparing emissions between a gondola and the buses that currently run up Burnaby Mountain, the gondola is definitely more environmentally friendly. However, this is not the complete story; a gondola will not get drivers out of their cars, it would simply replace one form of public transit with another. The bus route that it replaces is only one of four routes to SFU, meaning there will still be diesel buses running up and down the mountain. The net environmental gain is not substantial enough to justify the costs to the region and the impact on the local community.
What effect will the gondola have on wildlife?
Burnaby Mountain is home to an abundance of wildlife, and is home to dozens of different bird species. Stoney Creek, which is fed by several tributaries and runs down Burnaby Mountain, is a salmon-bearing creek where chum, coho, cutthroat and steelhead spawn. A detailed environmental assessment of this project would only be done after the project is approved which means we cannot know the true impact this project will have. Even though TransLink doesn’t know the impact this project will have on the environment, they are still quick to tout the “environmental benefits”.
Won’t having transit that can run in the snow ensure that SFU does not shut down during the winter? Isn’t a gondola more reliable?
Up to 10 days each year during winters with heavy snowfall, the bus service to SFU may be interrupted. Although TransLink claims that students will be better served by a system that is not affected when roads become too dangerous for buses, a gondola will not prevent SFU from closing during the winter because the gondola only replaces one of four bus routes, and many commuters drive to SFU: school will likely still shut down during bad weather since the majority of students, staff, and faculty will not be able to make it up the mountain. There is no provision in TransLink’s plan for the gondola to handle any extra traffic that a road closure would cause.
Won’t a gondola make it quicker and easier to get to school? This system is for students after all, isn’t it?
According to TransLink’s website, the #145 Bus takes about 12 minutes to get from Production Way-University station to SFU Transportation Centre Bay 1 (next to the library) and a gondola would take about 6.5 minutes to get to a terminal station proposed at the eastern-most edge of the university, close to the UniverCity development. A walk from the terminal to the current bus drop-off location is about 5 minutes, making the total trip time for most students just as long as the existing bus ride. This system is not for students: the original gondola study was commissioned by the SFU Community Trust – an organization in charge of the UniverCity property development which is a private residential/commercial development on Burnaby Mountain. This development is currently home to 3,000 residents, but expansion plans call for a community of 10,000 when fully built. The motivation behind the gondola proposal is not to serve students, but to promote the UniverCity development and sell more condos.
Community Concerns – About Forest Grove & Impact of Proposed Gondola
Originally conceived by the Burnaby Planning Department in 1973 as a conservation-like area, Forest Grove is a unique community sharing many of the topographical features of the Burnaby Mountain Conservation area; forests, ravines, fish bearing streams and an abundance of wildlife including deer, bobcats, coyotes, black bears, and many different bird species.
Forest Grove is a high-density community of town homes that relies on forested strips to not only maintain the integrity of the mountainside during frequent rains and run-off but to reduce other stressors in its environment. Forest Grove is bounded on the south by industrial land, on the east and north by Gagliardi Way and on the west by Kinder Morgan’s BC head office and two tank farms. Oil pipelines run through the ground below the woodland trails and near homes in the community. The pipelines are monitored by helicopters that are regularly seen overhead. The community is already encroached upon from all sides, from underneath and from above. The proposed gondola would run right through the middle of this community, over people’s homes, children’s play areas, near the daycares and the elementary school. A gondola, if it were to proceed as suggested, would significantly impact the lives of the residents and the setting of Forest Grove.
What about the environment and transit service in Forest Grove?
The residents of Forest Grove would not benefit from this gondola line: they must still use a bus that emits exhaust in their neighbourhood to get down to the SkyTrain. In the winter conditions that are described as one of the reasons for the gondola, the #136 bus often cannot get up into Forest Grove, especially along Underhill Avenue.
Is a gondola running over homes safe?
When describing a gondola, most people picture a cabin holding 8 skiers and snowboarders soaring quietly over snowy chalets with ski-in/ski-out access during mountain operating hours (8am to 4pm). This is not the Burnaby Mountain Gondola; this is a mass rapid transit system consisting of up to 20 bus-sized vehicles holding 30-35 people, passing over homes and playgrounds every 20 seconds, up to 20 hours a day. Historically gondola technology is safe, but accidents can happen. In December 2008, for example, a support tower on the Whistler Excalibur gondola snapped, causing cabins to fall to the ground, injuring 12 and stranding 53 people; a similar accident above homes in Forest Grove would devastate this small community. Although gondola riders voluntarily assume all risks and waive liabilities by purchasing a ticket to ride the gondola (a total of 12 minutes of exposure to risk), there is nothing voluntary about it for the people who live underneath the gondola line and who are exposed to risk 24 hours a day.
Is building rapid transit over high-pressure oil pipelines safe?
Forest Grove residents are concerned that the construction, maintenance and operation of a gondola line near the high-pressure oil pipelines will incur unnecessary risk to the pipelines. A detailed safety study has not been done.
What about privacy?
Being situated in the middle of a forested, conservation-like area, Forest Grove is unlike any other area that is within the same proximity to downtown Vancouver. Rapid transit running through this community eliminates the peacefulness and privacy that attracted residents to move to Forest Grove in the first place. Residents whose balconies, yards, and skylights are not in the direct line of sight of the gondola line will still hear the noise of the gondola 20 hours per day. Residents are very concerned about not being able to live peacefully, about their properties and about their retirement plans.
About Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area
The Burnaby Mountain Conservation area was dedicated for park and recreational use by the City of Burnaby in 1957. In 1995, after a transfer of land from SFU, the conservation area totalled 576 hectares and is now one of the most significant natural areas in the Lower Mainland and is the largest component of the Burnaby Parks System. The area has been recognized as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) in the City of Burnaby’s Initial ESA strategy. Running a mass transit gondola line through the area would seem incompatible with the conservation values of the area.