Vancouver council approves $125 million train bridge in Strathcona

Vancouver Courier

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A city staff proposal recommends city council approve a vehicle underpass be built across Prior Street to avoid an increase in train traffic in the neighbourhood. Image courtesy City of Vancouver

Vancouver city council voted 8-2 Wednesday to support a staff proposal that recommends a $125 million train bridge – that will double as a vehicle underpass – be built across a traffic-heavy street that runs through Strathcona.

Council agreed to the new infrastructure for a section of Prior Street – where it meets Venables Street near Strathcona Park – while simultaneously committing to calm the roadway from vehicles, and look to divert transport trucks to other routes.

“After working on this for 10 years, I’m looking forward to seeing Prior Street calmed,” said Green Party Coun. Pete Fry, noting he lost friend Paul Tynes 10 years ago after being hit by a car at Princess and Prior streets.

Fry, who lives in Strathcona, said Tynes’ death prompted him to get active in his neighbourhood and eventually propelled him into politics to call for changes along Prior-Venables.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the city’s head of engineering, warned council their vote wasn’t final, noting there was more work to do with the Port of Vancouver and CN about the design of the project, including having them fund the $125 million cost.

“It isn’t a fait accompli, it’s the start of the process for us to go forward,” Dobrovolny said. “We’ll definitely be back with council’s approval to give us authority several more times before [the project] goes forward.”

NPA councillors Rebecca Bligh and Colleen Hardwick voted against the main recommendation to proceed with the train bridge-vehicle underpass.

Bligh said she wasn’t confident the report gave enough detail to explain what will happen to traffic once vehicles get through Prior on their way to the viaducts.

“I have not seen any significant plan [in the report] to redirect traffic off of the viaduct away from Prior,” she said. “I feel traffic’s going to snarl. I think it’s going to slow traffic, but I don’t think it’s going to reduce it.”

Like Bligh, Hardwick said she was sympathetic to the residents’ need to calm Prior-Venables. But she argued the issue was part of a larger discussion on the transportation future of the city, and how it is intertwined with real estate and property development.

“So I feel in looking at this that we are being asked to look at one small component that will then be used as leverage into justifying larger decisions around the transportation land use and planning of this area in the city,” she said.

The primary driver of the project is the anticipation that freight rail activity will increase on the Burrard Inlet rail line running between the Port of Vancouver and the False Creek Flats railyards.

City staff also noted safety concerns of pedestrians and cyclists crossing street-level tracks, along with the need for reliable access through the East Side for emergency personnel, staff and patients to a new St. Paul’s Hospital on Station Street in the False Creek Flats.

A staff report pointed to incidents where pedestrians and cyclists frustrated from the frequent train crossings in Strathcona have climbed through train cars to get to the other side of the street.

Motorists are also making U-turns and “short-cutting” through the neighbourhood. On an average day, the report said, 13 trains across Prior-Venables and each crossing takes approximately seven to eight minutes.

Council’s decision came after hearing Tuesday from several Strathcona residents concerned about excessive speeds, vehicle volumes and the amount of air pollution produced along the Prior-Venables corridor.

Residents also made it clear that previous councils are on record of promising to take action to calm the street, which sees an average of 25,000 vehicles per day and connects with the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

The traffic-calming measures adopted by council Wednesday included:

  • That Prior-Venables be downgraded to a “collector street,” with a 30 km/h speed limit near Strathcona Park.
  • That staff implement an experiment to reduce traffic volumes and speeds on Prior-Venables that could include all-day parking on both sides of the street and temporary curb bulges.
  • That staff monitor travel time and reliability for transit and emergency services, “short-cutting” on local streets and traffic and safety impacts on other neighbourhoods and arterial routes.
  • Restrict the route to one traffic lane in each direction.

Council also agreed to have staff work with Strathcona residents to prepare a summary of capital priorities for the next 10 to 15 years, including investments in community facilities, parks and open spaces.

Council’s decision comes after several years of city staff consulting with the community and businesses – particularly those along “produce row” on Malkin Avenue – to agree on route options for a connector through the False Creek Flats.

A 42-person Flats Arterial Community Panel recommended a new arterial route that would connect Charles Street via an overpass over existing tracks near Clark Drive to National Avenue.

That route would have cost the city more than $280 million, said the report, which noted the National-Charles overpass was favoured by many residents but “not supported by many stakeholders or other impacted businesses and residents.”

In addition, “potential project partners” have “not expressed support for the National-Charles overpass, rather they support the most cost-effective grade-separation solution,” the report said.

The cost to build the train bridge-vehicle underpass includes acquiring property, roadway construction, excavation of the underpass, building the bridge deck structure, drainage, installing a pumping room and mechanical systems.

Project management, design and engineering are other costs.

The traffic calming measures, meanwhile, could be in place by early 2020, according to city staff.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart was absent for the vote because he was in Seattle for the Cascadia Conference.

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