Struggles Over the Rav
August 1, 2005
By Jean Sorensen
Long before the first shovel of dirt flew, the $1.7 billion Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line -- known as the "RAV" -- was mired in controversy. Court challenges, allegations of exploding...
Long before the first shovel of dirt flew, the $1.7 billion Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line — known as the “RAV” — was mired in controversy. Court challenges, allegations of exploding excavation tunnels, irate merchants and nose-to-nose debates marked the wrangling. The RAV’s controversy, though, highlights the increased struggle large projects face today. It’s a double whammy — higher city densities require mass transit solutions, but large-scale projects unearth complex social, economic and environmental issues.
Nation-wide, mass transit needs are growing. Minister of State (Infrastructure and Community) John Godfrey recently announced $800 million in federal help to provincial public transit infrastructure over two years. This money was extra to the $5 billion over five years promised from gas taxes revenues for environmentally sensitive infrastructure. Ontario’s ReNew program pledges $6.9 billion by 2010 to be spent on infrastructure, with $3.6 million going to GO Transit, the TTC and Ottawa’s north-south LRT extension.
The RAV line with 18 stations is seen as a speedy 19-kilometre connection from downtown Vancouver to neighbouring Richmond, with a western branch spurring to the Vancouver International Airport. The rail rapid transit system uses an electric propulsion system. The line is to be equipped with an automatic train control system based on proven technology similar to that used in the Vancouver SkyTrain.
Sprawling Richmond has embraced the project; while residents and businesses along Vancouver’s Cambie Street corridor are less than cheery.
The earlier route proposed had involved bored twin tunnels through the downtown core following Cambie Street south to 37th Avenue, where a cut-and-cover tunnel method would take over to 49th Avenue. South of 49th Avenue, the system used would be an open trench to 63rd Avenue. The track would emerge on an elevated guide-way at 63rd and Cambie and span the Fraser River’s northern arm on a bridge entering Richmond. The elevated track would run to the airport over a second bridge spanning the Fraser River’s middle arm.
The cut-and-cover construction in the earlier proposal would have bypassed the majority of Cambie’s businesses on the street. However, when InTransitBC’s (SNC Lavalin/Serco’s) winning P3 bid became known, it had opted for cut-and-cover over most of Cambie. InTransitBC have won a 35-year contract to design, construct, operate, maintain and partially finance the project. Their design is deemed the best value for taxpayer money and faster to build as several sections can progress simultaneously. Tunneling will stop at 2nd Avenue and cut-and-cover tunneling continue down to 63rd.
At RAVCO, which is overseeing the project as a subsidiary of TransLink, Raymond Louie, P.Eng., manager of technical and municipal integration, says the confusion over the construction method arose because Ravco was bound by confidentiality agreements during the selection process. Once InTransitBC’s proposal was chosen, Ravco immediately moved on December 10, 2004 to post the amendment to the environmental assessment review application on the web site.
RAV watchers screamed switch and objected to the cut-and-cover section’s length. The Cambie Street neighbourhood on the south side is near some of Vancouver’s most exclusive real estate. It also has clusters of apartments and condos for those working in nearby institutions such as a major college and Vancouver’s central hospital. The north end nudges False Creek where trendy condo and marinas await the Olympic athlete village. The street’s heritage boulevard of trees divides the south end, and at mid-point and north are knots of organic shops, boutiques, restaurants and quaint bookstores. The area’s residents are upscale, have the wisdom, the financial wad, and ways to be heard.
Most do not oppose RAV, but fear the impact: traffic disruptions, noise, unearthed contaminated sites and months of upheaval as utilities are relocated. The Do RAV Right Coalition (www.doravright.ca) of residents and business owners formed. Leading the DRR fight has been Rand Chatterjee, a long-time environmental consultant now managing high-tech start-ups, who moved from Boston a few years ago, landing just a few blocks off Cambie by 17th Avenue.
Exchanges between Chatterjee and Ravco executives were spirited. Ravco senior vice-president John Eastman P.Eng., who retired in June (he oversaw construction of Vancouver’s two other lines as well as mass transit projects in Hong Kong), wrote to the Vancouver Sun in April. He said that Chatterjee’s claim of thousands of contaminated sites along Cambie was “irresponsible exaggeration that is clearly designed to scare people.” Eastman says independent environmental consultants identified six high-risk contaminated sites downtown and “only the potential for low risk sites along Cambie.”
Chatterjee disagrees, citing areas along Cambie that have high-risk sites (dry-cleaners or old gas stations). “Even if three out of four have contaminated soil and require remediation — that’s 20 or 25 sites,” he says. A geotechnical consultant, Stanley Feenstra, Ph.D., P.Geo., who was hired by the DRR coalition, reported that there are a total of 111 sites along Cambie that are high or moderate risk from soil and groundwater contamination.
The DRR concerns as well as those of the Cambie Merchants Association failed to sway the B.C. Environmental Assessment office, which granted the environmental assessment certificate in early June after federal and provincial ministry reviews. A few weeks later on June 30, the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed a DRR challenge to that decision.
With Eastman’s retirement, the individual who has slid into the Ravco hot seat is Jeffrey Hewitt from the U.K., who is not surprised by the controversy. It has become almost a benchmark of large projects. “My experience, although outside Canada, has been that people generally don’t want the disruption that goes with benefits. They don’t want the construction in their backyards. And, this is a well built up area.”
IntransitBC has begun preliminary design and other preparations. Hewitt explains: “Preliminary work consists mainly of mobilizing the teams to undertake the work, putting in place the packages of design and construction work and also doing further investigation for geotechnical and physical surveys.”
The good news for the engineering community is that the project will provide employment. SNC-Lavalin is starting to bring in engineers to Vancouver from within its own organization and recruiting other engineers from outside Canada. They have already retained Buckland and Taylor, Triton Environmental, Trow Associates and EBA to do advance work on the project. Project leaders at SNC-Lavalin are Scott Anderson, P.Eng., Mario Laudadio, ing., and Roger Woodhead, P.Eng.
A provision of the environmental assessment certificate, reflecting broadening social concerns being encountered in large scale projects, is the province’s request that Ravco set aside $1 million for a community business liaison program. A coordinator will handle the two area offices in Richmond and Vancouver. A month long study conducted in June by the Mustel Group looked at shopping patterns in the areas affected. Ravco, though, has repeatedly stated that it cannot compensate merchants for financial losses.
The impact of large cranes used to place precast concrete sections, the noisy equipment, and dirt and dust from the construction area are all aspects that worried merchants feel will drive away their business. InTransitBC estimates that placing the precast tunnel components or casting them in place will close stretches of Cambie for no more than three months and only the east lane of the street will be affected. Critics of the RAV claim six months and major business losses.
Hewitt is not immune to the concerns. “It is inevitable that some impact will result from construction in front of businesses.” He hopes that by providing advan
ce notification to customers, area residents, and stores, as well as by providing alternate access and parking, the blow will be softened.
Hewitt says the majority of construction should be complete by the latter half of 2008. However, as such large-scale projects become more complex in urban neighbourhoods, the largest hurdle is satisfying the public. Pleased with the win in court, Hewitt says he’s simply moving over the hurdles one at a time.
Jean Sorensen is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.