The board of the greater Vancouver transportation authority, TransLink, will vote for a third time today on whether to build a rail rapid transit line from Vancouver to the airport and on to Richmond (dubbed the RAV line), as the CBC reports. Six weeks ago, the board shocked the region by rejecting RAV, despite big piles of money offered by the federal and provincial governments and by the airport authority.

The province, eager to get an airport train installed before the 2010 Winter Olympics, then promised to cover any cost overruns. The board revoted, but still rejected the offer: the plan was still a boondoggle, a majority said.

  • In a fit of apparent pique, BC Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon announced plans to build a freeway from Vancouver to Langley. Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was so incensed he called for the minister’s resignation.

    Now, the board will vote a third time, and they’ll likely approve the rail line, once they’ve placed further conditions on the project. By the time they’re done, it’s possible that the airport line will have gone from a net drain to a net plus for Vancouver. But it’s hard to say until all the numbers come out.

    UPDATE: Third time was the charm for RAV. It won approval yesterday.

    Rail is expensive; similar amounts spent on cheaper things, such as express buses, urban parks, and better pedestrian infrastructure can often provide larger, quicker urban benefits. Politically, though, rail tends to command more support.

    Two points:

    1. If you want to understand why many adherents of sound urban design and sustainable transportation have rallied against this rail proposal, read this column by Gordon Price from Business in Vancouver. (Full disclosure: Gordon, a former TransLink board member, is on Sightline’s board.)

    2. In announcing his freeway plans, Minister Falcon told the CBC, “what we need to do is . . . get traffic moving. That’s actually better for the environment because you don’t have cars sitting there idling away and just sending carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.”

    Many people adhere to this kind of reasoning but it’s false. Australian urban transport researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy thoroughly demonstrated in the 1980s that congested streets, while they reduce the fuel economy of individual vehicles, actually improve the fuel economy of whole cities. All else being equal, a smaller, more congested road network reduces a city’s emissions of carbon dioxide from vehicles, because it deters driving. (Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t appear to be online.)