The rub of the green – Vancouver’s Evergreen Line

15 July 2014

Construction of Vancouver’s Evergreen Line is on course for a mid-2016 opening. Barry Mansfield talks with Ian Jarvis, CEO of TransLink, Greater Vancouver’s transit authority, about the challenges posed by the construction and his personal emotional investment in the project.

In January 2013, Metro Vancouver awarded a contract worth US$889 million to have EGRT Construction design and build the Evergreen Line, an 11km rapid-transit extension featuring a 2km tunnel through mixed ground conditions.

When it opens in two years' time, TransLink will oversee an operation capable of transporting 50,000 travellers every day. The provincial government and TransLink (formerly the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority) had already announced a contract in December 2012 with the Montreal-based Bombardier Transportation to build 28 cars for the line.

TransLink chief executive Ian Jarvis, who grew up just 5km away from his 16th floor office in the Metrotown tower, says he has great confidence in the TransLink model - partly due to the combination of "local interests, provincial interests and federal interests" that the Vancouver area is able to draw upon.

"We're a port city," he states proudly. "The fact that we had a shelf-ready plan and a consensus on how to meet our objectives over the first decade meant we were able to take advantage of our partnerships to attract funding. So far, that has resulted in the Canada Line, the Millennium Line and a 40% expansion of transit service."

Advanced methods

2013 was a showcase year for TransLink; the organisation finished the 12-month period with a C$47.9-million surplus and maintained high customer satisfaction while exceeding cost-reduction targets, according to a year-end financial report issued by agency officials. The year's performance highlights include C$14.3 million in cost-saving efficiencies through improved scheduling, reducing the spare ratio of various fleets, an ongoing programme of service optimisation and weekend frequency reductions on SkyTrain. In total last year, TransLink carried 233.9 million passengers.

"We have a bold vision with respect to shifting people onto active modes. One of the ways you do that is to price for those services. People will make choices based on what it costs them, whether that’s with transit or the roads."

As for Evergreen, the working group has settled on advanced construction methods that will minimise disruption to residents. For example, Italian tunnel-boring company SELI, which is part of the SNC-Lavalin-led consortium, has been appointed to complete the bored tunnel portion.

After taking two months to assemble, the tunnel-boring machine (TBM) was put into action in March 2014. Named Alice after Canada's first female geologist Alice Wilson, the machine is expected to progress at an average of 8m a day as it cuts the 2km tunnel to Burquitlam.

Bored-tunnel construction aims to avoid inconvenience to local homeowners, businesses and traffic on the surface above. It will take just under a year for the TBM to break through at the tunnel portal located just south of Kemsley Avenue on the west side of Clarke Road

Another advantage of the TBM approach is that the machine's trailing gear uses a conveyer belt system that can remove tunnel spoils and assist in the placement of concrete tunnel liner rings. Starting in February 2014, crews began construction of the columns in Coquitlam. This work involves utility relocations, excavation and piled foundations. Once the columns are complete, crews will begin construction of the elevated guideway, which will be built using a launching truss. The truss will lift the concrete segments into place and join them together once they are in position. This assignment will take place in late 2014 and is likely to be completed by early 2015. Crews will subsequently install the necessary track and power systems, with a target of late 2015.

Some tricky workarounds have been necessary so far. For example, to build Inlet Centre Station, crews needed to construct a portion of the station guideway and platform underneath the Barnet Highway. To minimise traffic disruption and extensive night work, a section of Barnet Highway was closed over Canada's Remembrance Day weekend. During this public holiday, 30 hydraulic jacks were used to slowly push the massive structure under the highway, setting a record for the largest structure ever jacked in Canada.

An extensive community relations programme was implemented to ensure that residents and businesses were aware of the highway closure, detour routes and that access to all businesses would be maintained.

Crews worked around the clock to ensure the highway could be opened in time for the next rush hour on the Tuesday morning. In the event, the Barnet Highway was reopened on the Monday evening, eight hours ahead of schedule.

A bold vision

Evergreen is already impacting the wider transport network in Vancouver. For instance, downtown bus routes are set to be redrawn. In early April, TransLink requested public input on whether the proposed changes are likely to meet the needs of the city's burgeoning population.

Meanwhile, EGRT Construction has been told that it must pay for part of the line in Burquitlam that shifted when a concrete spacer failed in March. Roads were shut for repositioning repairs around Coquitlam's Como Lake Avenue and Clark Drive because of the incident. Amanda Farrell, Evergreen Line Project executive director, said steel braces were put in place to secure the damaged section of the line. She advised that these types of concrete spacers will no longer be used.

Jarvis asserts that Evergreen is only one component part of his big plan to rejuvenate Vancouver.

"We have a bold vision with respect to shifting people onto active modes," he says. "One of the ways you do that is to price for those services. People will make choices based on what it costs them, whether that's with transit or the roads. We can provide a discount at times when we have capacity on the system."

This method, he believes, would mean less investment and less infrastructure would be needed to satisfy demands on the network. "Everybody benefits," Jarvis says, but he admits that variable pricing is "some way away", as it still involves significant upfront costs.

Overall passenger satisfaction is not just down to the quality of engineering, maintenance and prompt services, but also the physical safety of travellers. Here, the 58-year-old strongly praises the work of local police in Vancouver, and the transit police in particular.

"As we bring in the Evergreen Line, there’s no assumption of additional officers being added. We’re looking at applying more of our resources to that portion of the transit system."

"For them, it's not just about collecting fares," he points out. "Crime against individuals is down. With the implementation of the fare gates, there will be less work around checking fares. As we bring in the Evergreen Line, there's no assumption of additional officers being added. We're looking at applying more of our resources to that portion of the transit system."

In the blood

Jarvis had an early introduction to getting around in Vancouver. He recalls a childhood where a five or six-hour bike ride for weekend camping trips in Alouette Lake was considered run of the mill. His own father, a piledriver, worked on the Deas Island Tunnel (later renamed the George Massey Tunnel), in addition to the Arthur Laing, Alex Fraser and Port Mann bridges.

In his office, Jarvis has positioned a framed certificate atop one of his bookshelves. Signed by the 27th British Columbia Premier Bill Bennett, it was awarded to his father in recognition of his work on the inaugural SkyTrain line. It is no wonder that he feels the region's transport system is "kind of in my blood."

Still, Jarvis's tenure has not been without controversy. In the summer of 2013, TransLink's double transit-fee for cash-paying bus passengers was opposed by a 7,000-signature strong petition, while press attention was focused on a controversial C$12,000 increase to Jarvis's annual salary, which took it to C$395,000 - although, the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation factored in pension contributions and other benefits to reveal that the total compensation package is closer to C$438,000 a year.

In his defence, Jarvis says he took C$30 million of costs out of the budget in his first year by reducing spending in all areas within the organisation; his initial plan had C$300 million of efficiencies built in.

On the question of how to fund TransLink, Jarvis emphasises: "There are all sorts of options and myriad alternatives, but I think it's very important that we have a discussion. As a region, we need to go back and ask what makes sense here on the mainland? What do the people who pay the bills accept as a fair and equitable way?"

A link between worlds: the line will join Coquitlam to Vancouver and is a significant step towards integration of Vancouver’s transport modes.

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