Is Public Transportation 340% More Expensive Than It Needs To Be?

Post by Steven Dale

Why is the Koblenz system so cheap compared to public installations?

Cable Propelled Transit systems could prove a boon to public transportation scholars and researchers because the technology’s curious history could open up the ‘black box’ of public transportation funding in the developed world and throw into question our entire model of how we build things that move other things.

Because cable has a long history of being utilized in a variety of other installations, we have an excellent model of how much these systems should – and do – cost. Problem is, this model seems to increasingly run up against the cost estimates prepared by government agencies.

If history is any predictor of the future, then a cable system built in an english-speaking country for the primary purpose of public transportation is likely to cost 300 – 400% more than an equivalent system built for recreational purposes. That’s concerning because whether for recreational or public transportation purposes, both systems are essentially doing the same thing – moving people from Point A to Point B.

Now let’s not make any mistake here: Of course a system built by a public agency for public transportation purposes will be more costly than those built by the private sector for recreational purposes. But should the gulf between these two purposes be so wide?

Consider the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn: It was built for ~$20m USD. It’s state-of-the-art 3S technology and is just under 1 km in length.

Now compare that to the Burnaby Mountain gondola which is estimated to cost $120m CAD (note: at time of writing, USD and CAD were basically equivalent). Now the Burnaby system is 2.7 km long. That additional length should add no more than ~$15m USD to the line costs for the system.

Assuming an alternate universe where the Koblenz Rheinseilbah was the same length as the Burnaby Mountain gondola, the total cost of this alternate reality Rheinseilbahn would therefore be ~$35m USD. That means that the public sector Burnaby gondola is 342% more expensive than the private sector Koblenz gondola.

Granted, there are a few caveats to this analysis which are important:

  • Government is always more expensive than the private sector.
  • The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn doesn’t have any of the air rights or privacy challenges that the Burnaby Mountain gondola has to wrestle with.
  • We have little understanding of the funding mechanism used in Koblenz. It’s possible the system was built at or below cost in exchange for a cut of the gate – a situation that would be all but impossible to replicate in Burnaby.

Nevertheless, a 342% premium is startling. And we don’t have anywhere near enough information to understand why that premium exists.

This isn’t an argument against the Burnaby Mountain gondola. Let me repeat that: This isn’t an argument against the Burnaby Mountain gondola. It is instead a concern about how we build transit in a western, developed city.

After all, we’ve seen equivalent situations with the Portland Aerial Tram, London Cable Car and Oakland Airport Connector. All display similar price points that are simply out of line with what we know and understand about cable technology.

This suggests a problem that is not specific to Burnaby but is systemic to our public transportation model. Either we’re paying a price that’s 3 times higher than is necessary or we could be building 3 times as much transit for the same amount of money. Either situation is unsustainable and should be subject to intense public scrutiny as it undermines our ability to quickly and cost-effectively build transit.

Maybe after we look a bit closer, we’ll conclude that’s just the way the system is. But if so, then shouldn’t we at least be asking why that is?

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  1. Honestly? The private investor was also the manufacturer. Imagine a shoe maker producing a shoe for himself, being the shiniest and one of the first ones in the world. I'd say as the shoe maker: yes, even you can buy that shoe. I (just) need your size, "footprint", and you may even have a different type of walking: for that I (only) have to adjust my version to your requirements and everything else necessary...
  2. Ok, so the other important data is to compare and outblend the distance (I'll explain later): What was get for the money? Whistler 51 mio for 2 stations and 2 towers Koblenz 12 mio for 2 stations and 2 towers Only difference is the length of the ropes, right? Basically Whistler is three or four times the rope material of Koblenz - though almost the same work in the end (only one rope to splice). So what about Burnaby?
  3. I think transportation costs were an important factor (don't know where the cabins, station technics and tower were produced). I have a feeling half of it was produced near the alps - at least. So carrying the products half around the world has a massive impact on the costs. Terrain: additional to the global transport the material was needed on top of a mountain (infrastructure issue - while Koblenz is near and well connected and it is "just" a hill, no mountain). Terrain in between stations: on Whistler Blackcomb the trees needed to be cut. All of them. In Koblenz it must be far beyond 5% of the work that was needed to be done on Whistler Mountain. According to length and strength the WhistlerBlackcomb towers needed to be at least three times bigger/more stable than the ones in Koblenz. We need to find out what's the percentage of costs for towers and stations.
  4. Matt the Engineer
    I think it's time to remove the cost of cable from our cost discussions. Here's a listing of some steel wire rope costs, from RS Means (obviously the raw material isn't the only cost involved, but these costs are very small compared to the numbers we're talking about): 1/2" $1.36/ft, 3/4" $2.36/ft, 1" $4/ft, 1.5" $8.15/ft, 2" $16.70/ft For 1" cable that's $13k/km per length. For 3S multiply that by 6: $79k/km. Even quadrupling that price for labor and transportation, that's not a driving cost.
  5. I prefer an urban ropeway system / cable propelled transit system where the maximum distance of the stations is 600 meter, because 300 m is the ideal / maximum way for pedestrians to the next station (and one driving motor and transmission equipment for two 600 m-sections for each direction). At a distance of 600 m on plain you don't need expensive towers with frequent repairs of wheels with a BGD- or 3S-system. But at a distance of 600 m you need several towers at a MGD-system. Take this 600 m (1968 feet) and make your calculations for an example ! Or take 500 meters (1640 feet). A longer distance you only need across a river and there you also dont' need many towers.
  6. A section should not be longer than 600 m (it is better, that moved ropes are not so heavy AND if you have an accident or a standstill only 600 m of your ropeway-network are decommissioned), also you need for a BGD about 650 m carrying rope to this station, two motors, two transmissions (separate drives each direction) and 4 x about 650 m haulage ropes. Stations: If you use one drive for 2 x 650 m at THE SAME direction you need only one station with drives and the next station is without drives (or with drives for another 90 degrees direction). At a network only each second station needs motors and transmissions!
  7. sorry "you need for a BGD about 2 x 650 m carrying rope to this station"
  8. Do you know the height of the towers of the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn and the height of the towers of the Burnaby Mountain gondola ? Greater height means they are more expensive !
  9. In a transit application the station need to be placed where another transit station is or at a centre with a high passenger volume exist. This can lead to extra cost as stations and also teh route itself get more complex as if teh stations could be placed freely Stations for recreational gondolas can be placed where a cheap route is possible a few hundred meters left or rigth doesn't matter much as long as the skiers can run downhill. Also teh reliablity for a transit application must be much higher. Gondolas in ski resort can shut down for weeks for their maintenance. And even in season they don't rum more then 10 hours a day. A transit system needs to run 18 hours a day 265 days a year. This will need a much more reliable and expensive system. Maintenace can only be carried out in small portions during the night.. And for CPT you cannot just take a vehicle the the workshop and make and overhaul it. The major parts which need maintenance are the drive, Pulleys, roller batteries and the cable itself. So for any maintenance the whole system needs to be shut down.
  10. Bad idea. There I'm alone..
  11. Back to the topic. I've heard, the Rheinseilbahn is a recycled product. This ropeway was ordered from Val(l) Fosca (Spain) and has not been built. Perhaps it was cheaper ???
  12. By the way, there's nothing trivial about the cost of a galvanized 3S track-rope. Those ropes are a marvel of engineering and a thing of beauty. Far, far higher cost than typical wire rope. Things that will add to installation cost of an public transit gondola over a recreational gondola: City gondola will be run about four times (quadruple) the amount of hours per year as the country gondola. That means it will have to be much more robust. Integration with transit means footprint constraints at the engagement point. Tricky build site means higher cost to be sure! More carriers (cabins). Carriers are surprisingly expensive. Features that you won't find at any ski hill will be attached to the cabins and stations.. City gondola stations have to be architecturally designed to make them "prettier" than most country gondolas. although country gondola will still look better some days no matter what and will never need all that high maintenance But I digress. The tripling of cost is totally unconscionable. And 100% attributable to being a "public sector" job.