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A near empty waterfront train platform in downtown Vancouver, April 20, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Metro Vancouver’s transit agency has made a network of bus rapid-transit routes a key priority over the next 10 years, an effort to accommodate increasing public demand for better transit in a sprawling region while also having to control costs.

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a form of transportation previously untried in Vancouver. Buses travel in dedicated lanes with SkyTrain-like stations, similar to what is used in Bogota or Brisbane, Australia.

The new routes added from 2024 to 2034 would more than double the current 100 kilometres of rapid transit built in the past 40 years. The SkyTrain system and Canada Line are hugely popular but took decades of political wrangling and many billions of dollars to achieve.

If the TransLink priorities are approved after the next round of public consultation, the agency would create at least nine BRT routes to serve the North Shore with a Metrotown to Park Royal route, Surrey, Richmond and White Rock to the south, Langley to the east, and Hastings Street in Vancouver and Burnaby.

“SkyTrain has served the region well. But the traditional way of expanding was not going to deliver as fast as we need to,” said TransLink mayors’ council chair Jonathan Coté as the agency’s priorities were announced Wednesday. “We’re looking at bus rapid transit as a way to quickly expand rapid transit at a pace we’ve never seen in this region before.”

He and others emphasized that it takes up to 10 years to plan a new SkyTrain line, in comparison with two or three years for a BRT line. The building costs for BRT are estimated at $15-million a kilometre, while a SkyTrain-type line is pegged at $400-million a kilometre. A BRT line can transport people much more quickly than the current rapid-bus routes in the region, which still have to navigate through regular traffic.

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The agency’s priority list also includes doubling existing bus service overall, a gondola from an existing SkyTrain stop to Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain, the SkyTrain extension from Arbutus to the University of British Columbia, 450 kilometres of traffic-separated cycling paths, and a 60-per-cent increase to the HandyDart service for handicapped riders.

TransLink also says it will start to plan for SkyTrain-type rapid transit for North Vancouver as part of the 10-year plan, along with exploring SkyTrain extensions to Newton in Surrey and Port Coquitlam.

But even though the agency is opting for what it calls a more cost-effective way to provide a big new jump in service, it still has money problems that mayors say will require a complete rethinking of how to pay for transit.

Each round of transit expansion since TransLink was created in 1999 has led to painful haggling over how to pay for it, especially when it has involved SkyTrain or Canada Line rapid transit. Mayors and provincial politicians have debated everything from vehicle levies to sales taxes to increased gas taxes to cover the costs.

The current TransLink operations budget is around $2-billion and it’s paid for through three main sources: property taxes, fuel taxes and passenger fares. Big construction projects, such as SkyTrain, are usually paid for through a combination of federal, provincial and regional money.

Now, local politicians and planners say there needs to be more than the past incremental tinkering for money.

“The traditional way we fund transit will make it difficult to achieve a bold vision,” said Mr. Coté.

TransLink chief executive officer Kevin Quinn said there will need to be a “larger conversation” about a new mix and formula for revenue sources.

But neither Mr. Quinn nor Mr. Coté are saying what those mechanisms might be, aside from allowing for the possibility of more transit services financed by developers who are building around new or improved lines. That’s how some transit stops in Richmond and Coquitlam were paid for in recent years.

The focus on buses means there is no immediate plan for SkyTrain to the North Shore, which the three municipalities there have been lobbying for heavily.

But the two mayors in North Vancouver, Linda Buchanan at the city and Mike Little at the district, said getting a rapid bus to their cities from Metrotown in Burnaby will help a lot of people who commute in from the eastern suburbs to jobs on the North Shore.

Mr. Little said the Ironworkers bridge is the biggest pinch point in the region and BRT buses, which might operate with a grade-separated right of way or some other queue-jumper mechanism at the entry points to the bridge, will make an immediate difference.

“Right now, people aren’t going anywhere at those peak periods.”

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