Councillor Ahmed Yousef is tired of waiting. In 2018, he brought his vision for an all-electric Fraser River Bus Service to Maple Ridge council and he’s yet to see it come to life.
The proposed route would connect communities such as Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows, Port Coquitlam, Surrey and New Westminster to major transit hubs via a short river ride.
Soon after presenting it to his local council, Yousef brought his proposal to the Metro Vancouver Climate Action Committee in 2019 where it was unanimously voted to present it to TransLink as part of their Transport 2050 plan.
However, since its positive reception by the Climate Action Committee, the project has come to standstill.
“As it stands, TransLink has been made aware of the proposal on numerous occasions,” Yousef said. “And thus far they have not really started any moving, actual steps on the ground to get this up and running.”
Waiting on a sign from the Metro Vancouver transit operator, Yousef says he understands this will be a sizable shift for the organization.
“TransLink, I understand, is a huge organization and for them to shift gears will take a little bit,” he said. “But I'm hoping that they can be leaders in this field and really bring this about.”
In an emailed statement, TransLink said all ideas from the 2050 elected officials forum — including the river bus service — were considered in the development of their Transport 2050 plan. The commitment to explore more water-based transit options is one TransLink says it has included in both its 30- and 10-year transportation plans.
"We will work with the Mayors’ Council on next steps for studying the potential for more passenger ferries as we execute the actions outlined in our 10-year priorities plan," a TransLink spokesperson wrote.
Recently, Yousef says FortisBC has taken an interest in the project, lending their electricity infrastructure expertise and adding to the ever-growing list of benefits of the service that Yousef is compiling.
“The prospect of travelling on the water is soothing and calm,” Yousef said. “Many people have said, ‘I can do my reading and catch up on some work in a leisurely fashion where I'm floating down this beautiful river, surrounded by greenery.’”
The psychological effect of being on the water versus the road is one Yousef really believes will help commuters, especially those coming home to families.
“I'd be no longer seeing red, literally from the taillights of the vehicles ahead of me, for three hours of my day,” he said. “I don't think [commuters are] in the best of moods to be able to deal with small children, for example, [after that].”
In his research, Yousef says he’s spoken to West Coast Express train users, private vehicle commuters and bus users to understand the motivations behind their transit choices.
“For [those commuters], a 20-minute sailing to New Westminster to connect now to a TransLink hub where they can get on a SkyTrain or get onto a bus is instrumental,” he said.
“It's a dream come true.”
In his own community of Maple Ridge, Yousef says residents are generally underserved by TransLink and he believes this electric connection could save significant amounts of travel time.
Large investments needed to power vessels
Keeping the production of the river buses local is another thing Yousef is passionate about. With the help of Kelowna-based electric boat company Templar Marine, he believes it’s possible to build the system, create local jobs and retain investment dollars within B.C.
However, Mark Fry, owner and founder of Templar Marine, says a number of barriers remain in the way of making the service a reality.
“The speed that the Fraser River runs at is not suitable for electric boats because they're simply not powerful enough at this moment in time,” he said. “And therein lies the issue.”
With the Fraser River moving at a speed of around six or seven miles an hour, Fry says the infrastructure to power the boats would need to be extremely powerful.
“The best way I can describe this is, if a sniper fires a bullet, he can hit somebody from a mile away,” Fry said. “If that same bullet fired into a swimming pool, it will go six feet before it disintegrates.”
It’s not that it’s impossible, Fry says, but the amount of money needed to build infrastructure powerful enough to run the boats will be a costly sum.
“To run electric boats on the Fraser River would take an enormous amount of power to counteract the current,” he said.
“Is it possible? Absolutely. But it will require a boat that has substantial battery power and propulsion power to make it happen.”
On top of building a boat powerful enough to handle the currents of the Fraser River, Fry says if the vessel exceeds 12 passengers its operations can get complicated in terms of safety and legality.
“The minute you exceed 12 passengers, you have to put in life rafts, fire-suppression systems, separate bulkheads and have a highly qualified crew and deckhands. It can't just be operated by one person,” he explained.
But again, Fry said it could all be possible with enough funds. If everything came together perfectly today, Templar Marine would “absolutely” be happy to tackle the project, he added.
First Nations collaboration “absolutely needed”
Working with local First Nations on the project is something that Yousef says is necessary. As a newcomer to Canada himself, he says he would like the river buses to represent First Nation’s history, culture and philosophy so that commuters can learn as they ride.
“[To] utilize the philosophy that our First Nations have of utilizing nature to our advantage without doing harm, is something that I believe future generations are desperately needing,” he said.
Yousef said he spoke to both the Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations, and both were receptive to the idea. Glacier Media reached out to the Katzie First Nation for comment, but councillor Rick Bailey said he doesn’t recall much of the discussion.
Conversations aside, Yousef said it’s hard to have serious discussions with any potential stakeholders without knowing if TransLink is willing to take on the project and work with these proposed partners.
Initially introducing the idea to TransLink at its 2050 elected officials forum, Yousef is now having second thoughts about just how long he may be willing to wait for action.
“2050 is way down the line,” he said. “We have the ability to do this today if there's the willpower to be able to put some dollars behind it and begin to really shift the mindset and our way of doing things into a much more sustainable manner.”