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?
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.