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Jeff Busby, manager of project planning, explains the Burnaby Mountain Gondola

TransLink’s study into a possible gondola up Burnaby Mountain has prompted a lot of conversation and questions about the idea since the blog post a couple of weeks ago. Local bloggers like Miss 604 have also been weighing in on the idea.

Gondolas can instill a lot of passion for and against their implementation, so I thought in preparation for our open houses and consultation on this project, I’d sit down with Jeff Busby, Manager of Infrastructure Planning at TransLink, and asked him some of the questions that are being discussed online.

Here’s a good chunk of the conversation I had with Jeff. There’s a lot to talk about, so I thought I’d post most of it since the subject matter is so rich.

Tell me Jeff, how did this idea to put a gondola on Burnaby Mountain come about?

Jeff Busby, TransLink's manager of infrastructure planning...with a mini gondola!

The idea of a gondola didn’t start with TransLink. We have been working with the SFU Community Trust, who is developing UniverCity, over the past two years on a new bus exchange. While looking at what the future of this new bus loop and the community they’re building around it will look like, the Trust thought of this idea of a gondola and commissioned a study about the feasibility of it. That study found that a gondola would provide a number of benefits including better reliability, faster travel time as well as removal of diesel buses and the challenges that come with them like noise as well as the generation of green house gases and other pollutants. The study showed that the magnitude of the cost to build and operate a gondola was similar to the cost that we will incur to operate our buses over the life of the project.

Why a gondola?

Well, we were pretty interested in this study and knew that we needed to do our own work on the idea. So, we did our own independent study that looked at the range of options for getting people up and down the mountain compared to continuing the existing bus service.

With technologies that run on the ground, there’s no obvious available right-of-way that would save any time compared to the buses running today. Technologies like funiculars and other trains would be very expensive. There are also many constraints on the land like the communities that are already there and the protected areas. We didn’t find other surface-based options any more compelling than continuing to run buses.

When we looked at aerial options, we looked at three different types: the aerial tram, like the Portland Aerial Tram and the Grouse Mountain Skyride; a mono-cable gondola, like the ones found in ski resorts all over the world and the three-rope gondola, like the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola in Whistler. A tram would service too few people, and the mono-cable gondola cabins are too small and require many towers. The three-rope gondola, which uses two cables as stabilizing and load-bearing tracks and the third to pull the cabin, can operate 35-person cabins that run very frequently with fewer towers that can be positioned further apart than other options.

Compared to buses, a gondola would be faster, more reliable, better for the environment and potentially less costly in the long run. Currently, it takes 15 minutes to take the #145 to the top of the mountain. The gondola would make the same trip in six and a half minutes. It would also be really frequent and would move a lot of people. We think we would need 19 cabins, and one would be arriving at a terminal every 40 seconds. This means you could move 3000 people in an hour compared to 1800 people an hour moved today by buses during peak hours. So, we could really help relieve the congestion of people that wait at the top and bottom of the mountain that happens every morning and afternoon. When it’s snowy, the gondola has no problem. The manufacturers claims the gondolas can operate in winds up to 100 km per hour. Because a gondola is electrically powered, it’s better for the environment. A gondola is also potentially financially better for TransLink. Unlike the demand for dozens of buses to run to the top of the mountain every 90 seconds, a gondola is consistently quick, and therefore, could be less to operate on an annual basis.

The challenge is you have to make a larger upfront investment to run a gondola compared to continuing with buses. Right now, we’re looking at a business case to look at the financial trade-offs to spend more money now to save in the long run versus spending money to run and expand the bus service.

So, through that process, we discovered that a gondola did make the most sense if we are to switch from diesel buses to something else.

Would the route include a connection to the SkyTrain?

Well, we had three requirements for the route: We wanted to minimized impacts on residential neighbourhoods, we wanted to minimize impact to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, and we wanted to maximize the integration with SkyTrain. The alignment that does this best would connect Production Way SkyTrain station to just south of the existing bus loop at SFU.

What would happen to the buses that services Burnaby Mountain now?

There would be bus changes, but there would always be buses going up the mountain. Most notably, the #135 and #144 would continue to operate because they service areas the gondola wouldn’t. The #145 would likely be eliminated entirely and the #143 would be shorted to operate only east of the future Evergreen Line station at Burquitlam when the Evergreen Line is built.

Why have meetings on the Gondola been scheduled?

This is the first time we’ve had a public meetings on the proposal of a gondola to Burnaby Mountain. We’ve had prior meetings with stakeholder groups including residents who live on Burnaby Mountain, students and some of the other communities including the Stoney Creek Environmental Committee and the Burnaby Mountain Mountain Biking Association. We met with all those groups last November when we started the planning study and business case for options to replace the diesel service up Burnaby Mountain.

Now we want to get advice from the public on the work we’ve done, if we’re headed in the right direction and the next steps. Part of what we would like to share at these open houses is information on the analysis of the different technologies we’ve studied and the analysis of the different routes because we’ve settled on a route we think makes the most sense for this particular project.

What’s next after these open houses and consultation with the public?

We need to sharpen our pencils and finalize a business case. Once we get a decision on whether or not to implement this idea, it’s really a three and a half year process to get a gondola system built. It would take eighteen months to build. The rest of the time would be spent on planning, environmental review and consultation time including gathering more input from the public.

That’s a lot to think about Jeff. Thanks for the time!

Jeff and his team have put a lot of time and consideration into this project thus far, so do take the time to read the analysis of the gondola proposal once it’s posted here in a few hours, or stop by one of the two open houses on the project. Once you’ve read through the material, we’ll be looking for your specific advice on the tower location trade-offs, as well as advice around changes to the bus service and any other advice you think is important.


17 Comments

  • By Matt, May 24, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    While I’ll gladly take the gondola as a solution to the current speed and capacity issues, my first preference would have been a spur on the Evergreen Line. Crazy? Hear me out….

    You’re already going under the corner of the mountain in a tunnel. By the point of the tunnel (from what I’ve seen) you’ve got about half the elevation you need already. With Skytrain LIM technology that can do somewhat steeper grades you won’t make it all the way to the top in such a short tunnel but you’ll be close enough that an underground station can be serviced by a few large elevators and stairs also won’t be out of reach. It would be no worse (just estimating) than one of the deep tube stations (Northern Line) in London.

    Yes financially more expensive up front, but better integration with Skytrain (you could have through-running trains straight to the M-Line sometimes if you wanted, at the least to Lougheed), better flexible capacity when needed (run more or less trains, unlike a gondola removing cabins in a lot more work), better for mobility challenged riders than loading in to a moving gondola car, and likely cheaper to run (you won’t need staff at all times at stations).

    Just throwing that out there…

  • By Jacob, May 24, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    Why was the first estimates for gondola cost about 70 mill, now, the cost is 120 mill? The peak 2 peak gondola is 3.03 km long, and cost 51 mill., about 17 mill per km. The burnaby mountain gondola is going to be about 2.8 km and cost 120 mill., or about 43 mill per km. I doesn’t make sense. 70 million is much more reasonable.

  • By Cliff, May 25, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    Gondolas are interesting and exotic. It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of love behind them. But I think the novelty of such an option has us all seeing stars.

    What needs to be done is to compare the gondola over other transportation choices. LRT, trolleybus, buses that use regenerative braking… There are a lot of options out there, I just want to be sure we’re making a fiscally responsible choice.

    And if it’s the gondola that wins out, well then… hooray!

  • By Eugene T.S. Wong, May 25, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    Matt, I like your spur suggestion.

    Has anybody considered just having 8 or 10 escalators go the whole way? There could be breaks in between, where the people get off. The breaks would allow portions of the escalators to be stopped and maintained.

  • By Tim Choi, May 25, 2011 @ 11:52 pm

    The thing about using the Evergreen Line is that it would make the trip quite a bit longer for most Burnaby Mountain users – I do believe that the majority come from the south and west, and for them to have to switch trains at Lougheed would be inconvenient (those coming from the south, since they’d have to switch trains) and/or take longer (for those coming from the west on the current M-line and having to ride an extra two stations).

    As for how the gondola performs versus other options, the new documents have been posted on the project page (on the right-hand side), that compares LRT, SkyTrain, and other methods.

  • By Dave J, May 26, 2011 @ 11:01 am

    Jacob – comparing the cost of gondola per kilometer isn’t all that useful, since gondola costs do not increase linearly with length. The cost of adding a few more kilometers of steel cable are relatively small compared to the static cost of building the stations and start/end towers– to build a 100m long gondola would probably cost on the order of 80% as much as building a 2km long one. The SFU gondola would still need stations and towers like the Peak2Peak, just a shorter cable– although it’d be considerably cheaper since the towers and stations don’t need to be built to handle the extreme span length and high wind loads (Whistler routinely gets 100km/h+ winds).

    Cliff – I believe the article does state that they’ve looked extensively at other ground-based options and that they provide no cost or time-saving benefits over the existing bus service. There’s no point in doing something new if it’s not cheaper or faster. The grades are too steep for anything rail-based unless it’s a funicular, which as the article says is not workable due to land access.

    Eugene – Escalators are pretty slow, and require lots of maintenance. I suspect it’d take far longer to get up with escalators going straight up at 3km/h than to take a bus around and up at 60km/h. They’re not accessible to the disabled, can’t carry bikes, etc. Also requires cutting a swath through parkland, trails, and private land.

  • By mitch grigoriev, May 26, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    We live at the Whattlekainum Coop. Our block is at 8740. Somr people from block A worry about the noise… Pls let us know about the impact or where we can read about it?

  • By Cliff, May 27, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    I don’t see why the 143 needs to be short-turned at Burquitlam Station. With a SkyTrain station on Como Lake at Clarke, the 143 could cover the 156′s routing on Como Lake, allowing the 156 to turn east on Como Lake instead and providing a much desired connection to Coquitlam Centre which much of Cape Horn and Millairdville currently don’t have.

    I firmly believe that if at all possible, the gondola station should be at Lougheed and not Production Way. I realize cost is an issue but not doing so would mean forcing an extra transfer for one stop (Unless all Lougheed Station routes are instead terminated at Production Way, which would mean extreme service duplication).

    With the gondola in place, just one thing needs to be done to avoid wear and tear on Burnaby Mountain buses. Using the express wires on Hastings and turning the 135 into a much desired trolleybus route! Although this is and has been a topic for another blog post!

  • By Steve, May 29, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    If it were to go ahead, we must remember that SFU does not operate at full capacity all year long. Residents in the UniverCity are unlikely to be frequent/regular users. It has never been mentioned that an intermediate station on the way up could provide the residents at the foot of the mountain better access to the skytrain system and potential to support the small businesses at UniverCity as well as easy access to Burnaby Mountain park. Weekend mountain bikers would use it too. An intermediate station would also offer different accommodation options for students & staff alike. I would also like to ask why they are not looking to intercept the Hastings Street bus as well – that bus will not get up there in snow. Communication between translink & students has never proved to be efficient enough to inform people of the route they should take in a weather event.
    We must remember though, that the residents that the proposed route passes over will need to agree to allowing the gondola to infringe upon their air rights. No deal – no gondola.

  • By Cynic, May 29, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    With the involvement of UniverCity, are we sure this isn’t simply to be a marketing gimmick to raise the profile and land costs for future condo development?
    If it is primarily to move students, it should arrive at the transit hub. I hope that before public money is invested, “stakeholder” motives are fully investigated.

  • By Steve, May 29, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    Would a skytrain spur along Gagliardi to the foot of the hill also be viable? No properties would be affected, the gondola would be short & direct & the potential would be there to connect to the Evergreen Line in future? This does nothing for students travelling along Hastings though.

  • By Cynic, May 29, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    Why were local residents not consulted on the route before the public presentations?
    On the whole, people who live locally, think a gondola is a good solution. The way Translink have gone about the project thus far lacks engagement and empathy. You may have missed out on a great opportunity for community involvement (there are two communities affected after all). Asking residents to suggest tower locations and colour schemes for the project is insulting and premature. Translink also needs to release the findings of the original stakeholder meetings. What did the residents feel? (those who were invited)

  • By tek, May 30, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    I’m not sure where the low capacity idea comes from for the aerial tramway solution – the Grouse Mountain aerial tramway easily carries over 50 people per trip, albeit standing up – but let’s be realistic, most of the people using this service would be able-bodied students who wouldn’t mind standing up, each cabin would only need seats around the edge.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that TransLink writes off good ideas because someone involved in planning thinks it should be done their way – by instilling negativity toward a certain solution, it may mean that a good idea never gets supported by the public.

  • By Robert Willis - Buzzer Editor, May 30, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    Hi tek: Regarding the Grouse Skyride and low capacity: To my understanding, the low capacity of the tramway is not in respect to the size of the cabin. It has to do with the number of cabins and how frequently they can pick up passengers. The Skyride picks up passengers every 15 minutes, the same frequency as buses on Burnaby mountain today. The three-rope gondola would pick up passengers ever 40 seconds with a total trip time of 6.5 minutes thus reducing congestion.

    That’s how I understood it from speaking with Jeff about the different alternatives.

    As for the other comments, I’m going to pick through them over the next day or so I try to find some answers as best I can.

  • By Leia, June 5, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

    I am a UniverCity resident who really doesnt see the need for a separate gondola that doesnt have a seamless connection to skytrain.. There isnt really a compelling argument to support the investment and a 25 year payback seems exceptionally long ….there appears to be more work needed on financial projections. Honestly,i would prefer to see my tax dollars spent elsewhere. Current routes and traffic flow are fine, even with the growth during the past few years. What’s the real issue a gondola is solving?

Other Links to this Post

  1. Gondola Transit on Burnaby Mountain: Production Way The Only Solution? « The Gondola Project — May 26, 2011 @ 2:32 am

  2. The Buzzer blog » Burnaby Mountain Gondola Business Case — January 11, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

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