Thursday, December 09, 2010

A comparable rail project to consider

There is currently a project underway in Honolulu to build a 32 km rail transit line.

Honolulu County covers the whole of island of Oahu and has a population of 876,000.   This compares closely to Vancouver Island's 750,000 people.   The area of Oahu is roughly the same area of the primary populated areas of Vancouver Island.  I raise these to give you some idea that the two locations are roughly the same.   Admittedly Honolulu has a much higher number of tourists.

Here in the CRD and the east coast of the island people are looking at two rail based transit options.   The first being the E&N line and the second being some form of rapid transit from downtown to the Westshore.   We may not be looking at a 32km elevated line like in Honolulu, but we are considering two significant projects that will have many more kilometers of track than anything on O'ahu.  In the order of magnitude, our two projects compare to the one project in Hawai'i.

Honolulu and Victoria have one more thing in common, both cities are avid bus riders.

The reason I raise Honolulu is that their project was slated to cost about $5.5 billion but is now going to be at least $7.2 billion.  This includes the construction costs and subsidies needed to operate the line.

Other than the classic rising costs during the capital stage of the project, there is a major concern that ridership will not be achieved.   The line is being built in the hopes of getting people to leave their cars behind and take transit and has some very optimistic assumptions.  If the numbers are not achieved, the system will have to have large per rider subsidies.

One of the few cities in North America that has approached rapid transit in a reasonable way is Metro Vancouver.   The Canada Line was built along a route that had enough existing bus riders to warrant a rail based transit solution.   There was no attempt to socially engineer the city with the Canada line, it was built to match where the demand was at the moment.

The demand in our region is from downtown to UVic.   There are not that many people on the Westshore taking transit.  Once they take transit is when rapid transit should be considered.   Till then any rapid transit should be focused on access to UVic.

Metro Vancouver also managed to dodge the capital cost problem by using a P3.   The price for the Canada line may have looked expensive at the time at about $80,000,000 per kilometer, but when comparing it to other projects in North America lately, the price is looking more and more like a good deal.

More and more rail based projects in the US are coming in at costs over $100,000,000 per kilometer.  Honolulu is only one example of the costliness of rail based transit and it is not the most extreme.   There are projects that come in on time and on budget but they are the exception and not the rule.   Rail based transit projects have been more of a gamble on a hope for the future than a reflection of reality.

A Canadian comparable project is the Region of Waterloo rapid transit project, currently estimated at a cost of $925,000,000 for about 20 kilometers or about $26,000,000 per kilometer.  I expect that number to rise once the project is underway.   The estimate has a range of +50% to -25% placing the cost range from $20,000,000 to $39,000,000 per kilometer.  This project does not follow existing transit traffic, does not have a good business case and assumes significant transit ridership growth due to the line.

Any rail based transit needs a very detailed and realistically costed business plan.   There have to be mechanisms in place to ensure there is no danger of cost overruns in the projects.   And finally, rail based transit has to follow the people and not try to be an expensive social engineering tool.
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