Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for November 2006

The cost of privatisation will haunt us for years to come

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Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | The cost of privatisation will haunt us for years to come

PFI, and indeed much of the government’s case for privatisation, is predicated on a myth that the Tories naturally do not challenge, given that PFI and mass privatisation were originally their ideas. That myth, the false premise of PFI, is that government borrowing – its gross financial liabilities – must be held down at all costs. This is nonsense. The Treasury has persuaded our leaders that it is vital to keep government borrowing as a proportion of GDP at around 40%. It has risen above that in recent years, but it is still very low by historical and international standards.

The latest available international comparisons from the OECD show that Britain has kept government borrowing (at 44% of GDP) well below those of the successful Scandinavian economies (Denmark 53%, Sweden 63%), and even further below those of the major eurozone countries (Germany 68%, France 75%). US borrowing (64%) is also well above Britain’s, and Japan’s (156%) is off the scale. In some of these countries there have been economic difficulties, but none has experienced anything like economic disaster.

This is a splendid political polemic. Directed at the current change in leadership of New Labour in Britain, it is worth noting here too. This particular mantra – about the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement – is not heard here. We tend to be lectured in simpler terms – debt and deficit, and the cost to future generations of interest payments. But the fallacies are similar, and I suspect that we will regret most of the decisions now being forced on us by a similarly doctrinaire approach to public investments that now requires private finance for all projects over $20m – municipal and provincial.

There is an alternative method of finance that avoids borrowing altogether and is used in some European countries. The project is put to a public referendum in the area impacted. If approved the project is paid for out of a one time fixed increase in a tax. So there is no borrowing required public or private, it is simply “pay as you go” – and once the asset is built, the maintenance is simply a charge against operating cost, which is also an incentive to build it properly, with an eye to life cycle or full cost accounting. I don’t know if it is still the case here, but up until recently schools could not be built by school boards to standards which lowered their heating cost – because it was not allowed to spend more in capital to save on operating cost – because they have different funding mechanisms.

But if we are going to borrow to pay for infrastructure the first thing to bear in mind is that public debt is always much cheaper than private debt. And public enterprises do not need to make profits to satisfy the holders of equities. Simple, ain’t it.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 30, 2006 at 7:35 am

“In Search of Stupidity”

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“Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters”

Merrill R Chapman

ISBN 1-59059-104-6

If you have used, or bought, a software product or a personal computer in the last twenty years, read this to understand why the experience was almost certainly less than stellar.

My father always twitted me. “Oh, you are working for fools and idiots again.” I am glad now that I did not work in IT.

But I love this quote – actually from one of the footnotes

 “This experience drove home to me the realization that a herd of lemmings in the act of flinging themselves over a cliff are primed to discuss the importance of teamwork, the need to stay focused on the task at hand, and the necessity of maintaining a positive attitude”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

‘Dear Friends of Formosa Nursery’ ::

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‘Dear Friends of Formosa Nursery’ ::

The Tyee prints the complete text of a letter from Corky Evans on the treatment of the Formosa Nursery. Here are two paragraphs to give you the flavour, but I urge you to read the whole thing

TransLink is not, it seems to me, a legitimate institution. A legitimate institution needs to have, at minimum, the integrity to do its job. I have no trouble with unpopular decisions. Indeed, often the unpopular decisions an organization needs to make are the measure of its maturity and the seriousness with which they approach their mandate. TransLink, however, has failed any test of leadership or governance.

The TransLink board, apparently, desires to devolve their mandate to their staff and will not use their decision-making power and responsibility to make decisions of any kind. When governing bodies do not exercise their capacity to govern, but instead devolve decision-making authority to operational staff, terrible things happen. This is not something we are experienced with in Canada. This tends to be the method of governance we expect from false democracies and tyrannical systems in other parts of the world.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 28, 2006 at 7:52 am

Shock, Horror – Front Page space on The Sun wasted!

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Crossing that bridge will cost you more than $100 a month

Which was pretty much as forecast from the start. Drivers were asked if they would be willing to pay to save the time they currently spend either driving long distances or waiting for up to four or five sailings at peak periods at the Albion Ferry. Most said that they would be willing to pay – and two or three dollars or so per trip seemed ok to them then and still does to me. How much do you value your time? In transport economics we use the average wage for journeys in work time, or half that for leisure time – which includes commuting. It seems to me that the proposed toll ($2.50 a trip for a transponder equipped car) is a bargain in terms of the time saved. Indeed, I would suggest that it leaves quite a big chunk of “consumer surplus” on the table. That’s the amount some drivers would be willing to pay i.e. there will be some people whose time is more valuable, and have the wherewithal, who would pay much more than $2.50.

So how does this story get the front page treatment? Well, it starts out as a fairly ordinary business piece about Translink awarding the toll collection job, after a competitive tender to a US/French consortium. Bit of a yawner that. But if we can get Angry of Langley all of a lather about gouging by the wicked Translink … I wonder how much the editors are responsible for this spin? Or is this evidence of a news reporter wanting to get in to the opinion business? To think that the Editor in Chief was recently declared one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada. Does this strike you as a responsible use of power?

Written by Stephen Rees

November 28, 2006 at 7:44 am

This nonsense has to stop

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Richmond Review

At the corner of Williams and No 3 are two adjacent shopping areas – Broadmoor and Richlea – with separate ownerships. There is no fence between them, or any signage indicating the boundary. But people who dare to park at one and then shop next door get a $65 parking ticket. The malls defend the practice by saying we have “to protect the parking space for our own shoppers”. Bizarre. If I shop in Safeway, I’m their customer, but as soon as I go to the bank or buy a lottery ticket I am fair game for $65 fine. This is not the first time that this ridiculous situation has happened. City Wide Towing got itself in all sorts of trouble for following shoppers and then towing their cars if they left the lot to shop next door. Diamond Parking seem to be following in their footsteps.

Never mind the commercial idiocy of chasing people away from a Mall that is already a commercial failure (vacancies in the indoor section of Broadmoor now exceed the space taken up by the few remaining tenants). Forget that the banks in Broadmoor bring people to the adjacent shops at Richlea. Just think about what these idiots think you are supposed to do. Find a spot to park in: do some shopping, then get back in your car, start it up and drive a few metres just so you can continue shopping. Know what that does to emissions? Do you have any sense of civic responsibility?

Richmond expects every shopkeeper to provide his own parking. They accept no civic responsibility except for a few on-street spaces which have pay and display meters. Which is why No 3 Road from Richmond Centre to Bridgeport is a total traffic disaster. Lots of parking lot entrances with tight radius turns and lots of cars driving short distances from lot to lot. Most cities in Britain have municipal parking facilities adjacent to their major shopping areas. It is the only way to keep a vibrant town centre going in the face of megabox stores on the edge of town.

But I am not about to waste my time talking to Richmond civic leaders. I just expect these two mall operators to realise that they sink or swim together. There are many places I can go to shop. Indeed, I regularly drive to do the big grocery shop at Thrifty’s in Tsawassen.

So if you want my business, you had better clean up your act sharpish!


An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Richmond Review as a letter to the editor (Nov 30)

Written by Stephen Rees

November 25, 2006 at 2:45 pm

Union demands more buses

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Georgia Straight

I am pleased to able to endorse the union’s sentiments. The trouble is that new buses cost a lot of money and take newly two years from the date of the order to the date of delivery. And they need operators. I understand that CMBC is not only short of operators, but is having trouble recruiting more. And these additional buses are needed right now.

Buying second hand buses from the States (where transit systems get new ones every twelve years) might work, if you are picky about where you buy them from (smaller systems like Everett look after them better than big ones like Seattle – or rather keep up the maintenance as they near the end of their service life). You might be able to rent a few from other systems – though I suspect that most Canadian cities see transit ridership increase in the winter as cycling and walking is less attractive in cold weather. Dave Stumpo (former President of CMBC) once bought back a load of scrapped trolleybuses, thinking they could be put back into service. They weren’t.

How about hiring some coaches? I imagine that the private sector has quite a few standing around underutilised from the tourist season. Very high floors and narrow entrances on most of them, so they are not exactly suitable for inner city service, but they might free up some city buses by using them on longer, suburban routes. Of course, the union might have something to say about that too. And no fareboxes on them of course.

Could BC Transit help? Does transit use decline in Victoria off season? Probably not, but maybe transfer some in from other places?

Are we scrapping buses being taken out of service as the replacements arrive? Can some of the better examples be cannibalised to keep some in service a bit longer? Can we step up deliveries of community shuttles to get bigger buses off low ridership routes?

I have the feeling that both CMBC and Translink would dismiss all these ideas out of hand. But something must be done, and soon. And I have little faith in either organisation suddenly becoming creative. Except in coming up with excuses about why nothing will be done any time soon.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2006 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Transportation

Underwater real estate | Vancouver

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Underwater real estate | Vancouver

Oh dear, oh dear.

Not what one wants to read after a week of heavy rain. Maybe I have to move.

I have little to add, except that I doubt the LRSP will get a new iteration. Like the article says, it is too contentious. Richmond should not have been developed the way it has been, and should not be growing this way now. It is too late to stop it, we cannot turn back the clock and we need to make sure that the population here is safe. And that will cost a lot and they (we) will have to pay for it.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2006 at 11:37 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Bombardier wins Vancouver SkyTrain contract

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Bombardier wins Vancouver SkyTrain contract

Is this news? No one else can build SkyTrain cars. They are Bombardier’s proprietary technology. I suppose at a stretch you could put someone else’s car bodies on Bombardier’s running gear, but that is not likely cost effective. There is no competition for building SkyTrain cars, so why pretend there is?

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2006 at 11:12 am

Posted in Light Rail

Authorities propose increasing use of Vancouver International’s northern runway

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Vancouver Sun

NavCanada officials said Wednesday they are examining a number of proposals involving increased takeoffs from the north runway at Vancouver International Airport as part of plans for improving efficiency there.

The proposals involve allowing between 20 and 45 per cent of departures to use the runway, those headed for northerly and westerly destinations. That would include jet and propeller aircraft headed for Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Orient, as well as Canadian cities such as Prince George and Edmonton.

The north runway, which is closer to houses than the main south runway, is currently restricted to use between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. except during emergencies or maintenance of other runways, or by the quietest of the modern aircraft. The vast majority of its use is for landings

“It is a two-runway airport,” added NavCanada service analyst Rob Bishop “At some point we must use both runways to full capacity.”

I used to live under the flight path of the north runway. Over five years ago but even then it was awful. And we lived off No 5 Road. At the airport end of Bridgeport it was much worse. And sure newer planes are quieter, but you would be surprised how long old planes keep going – and the hours that the older planes used for air freight keep. And if you ask why I would choose to live in such a place, you only have to look at the cost of housing and the shortage of available to places to rent, especially if you own a dog. BC still has not established the right of tenants to own animals (something Ontario did years ago). So putting up with aircraft noise was the price we had to pay to keep a member of our family.

Perhaps we need to utilise some of the data we have readily to hand to calculate what the benefit of more flights costs society at large. I find it hard to believe that the needs of a realtively small number of air travellers outweigh those of the population of north Richmond and south Vancouver.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2006 at 10:25 am

Offshore drilling may be several years away: premier

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Offshore drilling may be several years away: premier

I have a better idea. Why don’t we leave it where it is for now? Whatever the risks and costs of extracting it shortly might be, you can be sure that the payback is going to be very much higher in future. Because the price of oil and gas, while it will continue to wobble around, will inevitably be much higher in the longer term. And while we may (in sh’alla) find alternative fuels, as chemical feedstock for a huge variety of products oil and gas are going to be in increasingly short supply even as demand rockets. By then we will be (probably) in dire need of the resource. At the moment we seem to be managing – not well, but getting by. And we can do much better through conservation and better planning at a much lower cost per unit of energy saved than current energy production costs. We know how to insulate homes better – both retrofit and new build. We know how to utilise our new engine technologies to get better gas mileage – it is currently being wasted in performance we can’t use legally and bigger vehicles that spend most of their time more than half empty. We could easily develop ways to make shutting down ship’s engines and diesel locomotives economic: they are currently left running on idle, or to generate “hotel power” which would be easy to tap from the existing electricity supply. We could even burn used chip fat in our diesel engines instead of exporting it as “yellow grease” – unfit for human consumption here we seem to have no qualms about selling it to third world countries for this use.

No Gordon. We don’t need it yet. We probably will, but that can wait until we have sorted out how to do it without wrecking what is left of our increasingly fragile marine environment.

And by then we may also have figured out how to get the gas out of the deep sea hydrates. They are still there too.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2006 at 9:48 am