Letter: If you really support the environment, you'll back the Burnaby gondola


Letter: SFU gondola would disrupt wildlife and our peaceful life, NOW Letters

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We represent Build the SFU Gondola, a volunteer group not connected whatsoever to the City of Burnaby, TransLink, Simon Fraser University, or UniverCity; however, many of our supporters are UniverCity residents or SFU students. Even as volunteers, we have still read over 100 pages of consultation between TransLink and Forest Grove from 2011 in order to better understand resident concerns. 

First, we’d like to thank the residents of Forest Grove for their environmental stewardship shown to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area. One of our co-founders, Colin, frequented the Burnaby Mountain trails before a long-term injury made hiking and walking substantially more difficult. As a former avid outdoorsman, he appreciates the wildlife of the area and hopes to return more to the trails as soon as he heals up. In fact, the access to the trails was very much part of the reason he chose SFU for his post-secondary studies.

To be clear, Build the SFU Gondola supports the environment, which is why we’re so stunned Forest Grove would advocate against a project that would eliminate 1,870 tonnes of greenhouse gasses a year from diesel-belching buses in favour of an electric gondola, powered by British Columbia’s renewable energy. In addition, TransLink has said trees would not need to be removed between the gondola support towers (Simon Fraser Village Meeting Minutes, page 8), which would be located at existing major roads and the BC Hydro right of way so as to minimize impacts to residents of Forest Grove as well as the environment (Whattlekanium Meeting Minutes, page 4).  And, just as the Evergreen Line, Canada Line, and other transportation projects are subject to environmental reviews, so too will the Burnaby Mountain Gondola. This is an essential part of the process to ensure that any damage to the ecosystems is minimized or eliminated.

Privacy is another mutual concern of ours. Since 2011, it has been publicly accessible knowledge that the gondola cabins would travel 40 meters in the air above Forest Grove (Burnaby Mountain Gondola Information Boards, page 8). TransLink could also use a system that mists the glass when passing over Forest Grove, as seen in Brest, France, or a smart glass system that can switch from clear to opaque in sensitive areas, such as is used in Singapore near residential areas and on a gondola in Zermatt, Austria. Not a single person from either SFU or UniverCity we have mentioned this to was opposed to this concept, and it is something we feel would be a workable solution for both Forest Grove and Burnaby Mountain students and residents.

Make no mistake, if it were up to us, the gondola would not affect Forest Grove at all – if there were any positive business case supporting a gondola on the north side of the mountain to Barnet Highway (Hillside Meeting Minutes, page 8) or southwest to Lake City Way, we would readily support it. However, it must be understood that as the confluence of the Expo and Millennium Lines, Production Way-University Station is the most viable terminus for a gondola. This route is the most well-positioned to replace both the 145 and 143 routes, which together make up 62% of the bus all trips to Burnaby Mountain (2011 Business Case, Page 2-10). Any other locations would force additional transfers, which would lower ridership substantially.

With regards to alternative technologies, TransLink studied alternatives such as more buses, trolley/electric buses, light rail transit, and funiculars in 2011, as seen in the 2011 Burnaby Mountain Gondola Transit Technology and Alignment Alternatives Assessment, pages 5-1 to 5-10, as well as again in 2018, pages 6-1 to 6-2. These technologies were disregarded for various reasons. For example, a funicular was not chosen for continued consideration due to its excess capital costs, the varied grade along the route, and capacity limitations: only two funicular vehicles could be used at a time–one up, one down.  

While Mr. Porter’s claims of low ridership may have been true in the past, the recent growth in ridership has forced the extension of peak periods, wherein the 145 bus is operating at or near its maximum frequency. An email we received from Breanna at TransLink today confirmed changes to the 145 bus in 2018 were due to a shift in demand: scheduled peak periods that were previously 11-1 PM northbound and 2-5 PM southbound are now 11-3 PM northbound and 12-5 PM southbound. SFU has 9 peak hours of transit use instead of the previous 5, indicating a strengthened need for the gondola.

Transit use has also increased in UniverCity. While 69% of Metro Vancouver commuters use private automobiles to commute, the 2019 UniverCity Resident Survey from Mustel Group indicates that just 41% of UniverCity residents use private automobiles as their primary transportation mode. This is a sizable difference indicating that UniverCity residents are less likely to drive than an average commuter elsewhere in the region. Indeed, 64% of households own just one vehicle (page 3), 8 years after the cessation of the “discounted” transit passes for residents.

Snow days are not the primary driver for the gondola, but it is important to address the ability of different transit alternatives to meet the often-harsh wintertime realities of Burnaby Mountain. One time of the many this year Colin was stranded, he was fortunate enough to have a vehicle with him. He found that SFU had ploughed their roads, contrary to popular claims, as had the City of Burnaby. However, even with snow tires and special “tire socks,” neither TransLink’s 60-foot buses nor their 40-foot buses could handle the grades of the mountain.  He could barely make it down to the rest of the city, which was in much better condition.

With UniverCity on track to reach its 10,000 person capacity by 2022, there is no need to attract more residents and development via a gondola, as the development is already occurring. The gondola would provide this incoming stream of 5,000 more people over the next 3 years with a sustainable form of transit.

Eight years ago, SFU students and staff and UniverCity residents were told by Forest Grove residents and other stakeholders that other regional projects—such as the Evergreen Line, UBC extension, and rapid transit to Langley—were all bigger priorities and that the gondola must wait until then. With these projects completed or well on the way, and transit ridership to SFU higher than ever (and continuing to rise), now is the time for the Burnaby Mountain gondola. SFU is expected to approve funds for the gondola project as well as a land transfer for the station. The momentum is continuing to build, and we look forward to TransLink’s discussions with local stakeholders later this year where concerns will be more formally discussed to a level above what an advocacy group can do.

Colin Fowler and Daryl Dela Cruz, co-founders, Build the SFU Gondola


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