Transportation solutions: sexy not necessarily better

If there’s one aspect of the 2010 Olympic bid both opponents and proponents of the bid can agree on it’s that transportation between the Lower Mainland and Whistler needs to be improved, and that the Games are the most likely way to bring that about.

Highway 99, the primary link between the Lower Mainland and Whistler, is generally seen as the greatest weakness of the 2010 bid. However, dreams of a dedicated high-speed rail line whisking people from the Vancouver International Airport to the lobby of the Chateau Whistler are just that, dreams.

While alternatives to Highway 99 are needed, the final "solution" is likely to be something a lot less sexy than a bullet train.

Terry Wright, vice president of bid development for the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Corporation, spoke to Whistler council Monday, updating members on a fact-finding trip he and other members of the bid corporation made to Lillehammer, Norway in May. Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and Councillor Kristi Wells were also part of the contingent that toured facilities used for the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Wright, who has been involved in Expo 86, Commonwealth Games in Winnipeg and Victoria, the Sydney Olympics and next month’s World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton, has always advocated that the starting point for determining Olympic legacies should be examining what the community’s needs are over the long term. Once that is determined then those legacy facilities and systems can be tailored to meet the community’s needs.

Lillehammer, in some instances, went a step further and set out to design solutions and legacies that could be used around the world. For instance, the technology developed to bore out the interior of a mountain, where the main hockey rink was built in Lillehammer, is now used internationally in dam building. As well, a new type of para-lam wood beams was developed to support the huge ceiling in the Lillehammer speed skating oval.

Lillehammer also developed a computerized ticket system for bussing people to the Games. Lillehammer is about an hour and a half drive from Oslo, comparable to the distance between Vancouver and Whistler, although the terrain is not as rugged. A passenger rail line connects the two towns, but buses were the real people movers. Less than 10 per cent of spectators travelled by train, while about 60 per cent travelled by bus. The computerized ticket system, which linked event tickets to seats on buses, has since been incorporated into Norway’s national transportation system.

In the days since the 2008 Olympics were awarded to Beijing, and focus on the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 bid has increased, there has been more and more talk about buses and computerized ticket systems as being a significant part of the transportation plan for 2010. The Pemberton airport, Whistler heliport and ferries between Vancouver and Squamish, augmented by trains between Squamish and Whistler, have also been discussed. There is little talk of bullet trains and building brand new highways.

This is good. Transportation in the Sea to Sky corridor needs to be improved, but it needs to be done as part of an overall plan for the region, including the Lower Mainland. A new highway or railway would cost billions, and could only be justified if it were part of such an overall transportation plan.

At the heart of such a plan is the Lower Mainland, the transportation hub of British Columbia. But the Lower Mainland which has its own internal transportation problems, and improving Vancouver’s connections to points north and south does not seem to be high on the city’s agenda. Discussion of a third crossing of Burrard Inlet has ceased.

B.C. Rail, which is only in the money-losing business of moving passengers because the provincial government has said it must be, might be part of a transportation solution, but it’s not likely to be the solution unless billions of dollars are thrown at it. Even if the rail line is straightened to allow higher speeds, it still terminates on the North Shore, rather than in downtown Vancouver.

Which brings us back to buses and the transportation legacy the Olympics might bring. It’s not sexy, but Lillehammer’s experience suggests it could work.


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