Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for November 2007

Why the rush on public-private partnerships?

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Globe and Mail

Nice to see that a journalist at the Globe can question conservative dogma. Usually the Report on Business does not show this kind of objectivity. Being Toronto’s national newspaper, it is all about the federal government’s determination to go for P3s. I would have thought that it would have been easy to find a lot more examples – especially in the UK but also Australia and the US.  From what I read, the bad and the ugly outweigh the good when it comes to P3s. Not only that but the critics of P3s are certainly more than just civil servants worried about their jobs. People in Toronto impacted by the toll structure of Highway 407 for a start! Not to mention hospital patients in the UK, prisoners in the US and the victims of Blackwater in Iraq. I may be wrong but I also have the distinct impression that there are some investors who are not too happy either.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 30, 2007 at 3:58 pm

Posted in privatisation

Premier changed his tune on helping merchants hurt by transit construction

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Vancouver Sun Editorial

I have passed along here several times the general complaint of the merchants impacted by Canada Line construction. They have not got anywhere

the response, whether from the province, TransLink or InTransit BC, has been consistent: Each has adamantly denied any responsibility to compensate business owners for their losses.

In the case of “Cambie Village” this is egregious, since the only reason Vancouver accepted light rail along Cambie (home of the “heritage boulevard” a designation invented to frustrate an earlier surface LRT proposal) was Ken Dobell’s solemn promise that it would be in bored tube and thus would have no impact on surface businesses. This promise was forgotten once the P3 was awarded and the In Transit BC consortium came up with a cost saving proposal for cut and cover along Cambie (not something they talked about for downtown either, but once again bored tube only related to running tracks not station boxes – detail, details) . Despite this major change in project scope, nothing was to be allowed to slow the indecent haste of the project’s progress, as it was “essential for the Olympics”. So essential that they don’t work on weekends, or at night. In other cities 24/7 construction schedules for major infrastructure projects are not uncommon. Indeed, with underground projects’ surface impacts, night shift working is often the only way to avoid massive disruption to traffic. The extent that this is avoided in cities like London would probably surprise the merchants of Cambie Village.

But what the Sun’s leader writer has noticed is that there is a precedent.

In 1987, construction on the Expo SkyTrain line extension was creating many of the same negative effects that the Canada Line is creating today. In an effort to seek compensation for declining property values, many homeowners thought of taking legal against against the province.

But ultimately, it was the City of Vancouver that stepped up to the plate, and decided to launch an action against the province. And who was the mayor of Vancouver at the time? Why it was none other than Gordon Campbell.

But Gordon Campbell has shown that he has an infinite capacity for holding two conflicting priorities at the same time. He is after all the man who has adamantly insisted that Highway #1 will be expanded and at the same time that we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Perhaps what is most damning is that the people who think they are represented by the BC Liberal Party and the Vancouver NPA, and who vote for them and provide both monetary and volunteer support are small businesses. A lot of them are shop keepers – or were until the road outside their shops was dug up. Because those two political organizations calculate that they can afford to offend quite a few of these people since they will not likely turn to the NDP or COPE respectively.

And because the BC economy is still seemingly going great guns, the BC Liberals are riding the crest of a wave of electoral invulnerability at present. And Gordo seems set to win a third term even without Carol Taylor. Who might also prove to be a better Mayor of Vancouver than Sam Sullivan – which is not such a high standard, after all.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 30, 2007 at 2:49 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with

Mayors obliging Falcon’s rule

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The Courier

The pilgrimage by Metro Vancouver mayors heading to Victoria to kiss Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon’s ring is a sign of things to come.

Now that TransLink is on the verge of disintegration, with one more meeting left before the new provincial legislation is put in place, politicians are reverting to form. That is to say, in a manner reminiscent before 1999 when the NDP turned responsibility for transit over to the GVRD, mayors are directly lobbying Victoria for transit favours.

This matters because Victoria – and especially Kevin”done deal” Falcon – does not give a stuff about a “Livable Region”.   Or indeed anything much beyond his own political ambitions and the financial success of his backers.

So anything that has been committed to paper in terms of priorities for investment goes back into the pot for reconsideration. And the first victim will be of course the much delayed “Evergreen Line” to Coquitlam. Ahead of the silly Rapid Bus for the Port Mann Bridge announcement, a lot of people thought that line would be diverted to the median of Highway #1 and blast off down to Langley. And, in an odd kind of way that did make some sort of sense, when seen through Falcon’s spectacles. But that would cost lots of money, and the private sector is getting more and more nervous about governments’ offers of P3’s.  The credit crunch and growing distaste for “commercial paper’ (i.e. corporate debt) is going to affect the ability of these companies to raise finance at reasonable rates, and I would expect that what I knew as “gilt edged stock” in Britain (government debt backed by taxing ability) will look a lot more appealing to investors seeking a bolt hole.

But what now will happen is that instead of brokering deals at the big gold building on Kingsway, the mayors will be stabbing each other in the back and spending a small fortune on HeliJet tickets.  Though the outcome may not be that different. After all, the last two rapid transit lines were determined by the Premier of the day, and neither had featured in any plan in the way they were built. And for all the bluff about ridership and economic necessity the political allegiances of the areas they served and the government of the day were notably congruent.

Unfortunately that is no help at all since Falcon needs Vancouver west side support nearly as much as he needs south of the Fraser – and neither are going to vote NDP any time soon.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2007 at 7:15 pm

New Look

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Canada Line Bridge

For some time I have been thinking the blog needed a new look. For one thing I did not like the small size of the photos. I do recognize that a narrower column may be easier to read, but I prefer the new layout and I hope that I will be able to post more pictures and conversations.

For what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations, thought Alice

Feedback welcomed of course – and let me know if a page is not loading properly since the images in the old layout got resized automatically – these have to be done manually, which does take a bit longer


I have worked back to the beginning of October – my word I am prolific – and I stopped there. But I did discover that the new format can handle one task – and I have to do is reset the width of the picture, and it now resizes and preserves the proportions. The old one used to screw up photos royally if you did not give it width and height. I have also deleted some notices of events that have now happened and cleaned up some poor quality imported html. I really would like a button that just cleaned out all the html tags automatically.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2007 at 6:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Bill 43 forced through

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The Georgia Strait on the NDP response to Bill 43 and the quite realistic expectation that it signals the start of a process.

After all it worked to free the port and airport from any kind of control – and elsewhere Falcon is also announcing a continuation of the favourable tax treatment of the Port. And of course the people who run those operations are able to operate with almost no public oversight or the need to report to any elected body. It is therefore no surprise that airport operations are increasingly the subject of completely futile complaints by the people affected by aircraft noise, the shooting of protected species of birds proceeds with no interference and the building of a completely unnecessary port expansion is proceeding now with spoil dumping at Roberts Bank shown on the latest map from Metro Vancouver as a site of “very high biodiversity value” as well as fish and waterfowl habitat

“Ensure the long term proection of critical habitat areas”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2007 at 4:19 pm

Canada Line rolling stock in Richmond

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Canada Line rolling stock ii Richmond BC 2007_1129, originally uploaded by Stephen Rees.

I tried to get some pictures of the newly delivered rolling stock. The only way to do this at present is to stick a lens through the chain link fence. It looked like there are four, two-car sets at the operations and maintenance centre (River Road and Van Horne Way). I suppose I could have walked across the Oak Street Bridge, but trains wrapped up in plastic really do not make much of a subject.

According to one of the construction workers the wraps will stay on for a week or so but some kind of public event may occur before Christmas. At the time of writing nothing appears on the official web page, although usually reliable sources inform me that there will be a media event in mdi-December after the livery is applied

UPDATE Saturday December 15

There is a (very poor quality) image of the train in its new livery at the Richmond Review web page, and three press releases at the Canada Line web site which includes a cut out drawing of the new trains and a blurb on the new logo.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 29, 2007 at 3:49 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

Tagged with , ,

Mr Rees Takes the Bus

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It has been a while, but since there is an upcoming transit camp, and downtown parking prices are becoming alarming, I decided to buy a book of two zone tickets and try the bus for a change.

Before I get on to that though, I do want to reiterate my complaint that parking pricing in Vancouver is actually perverse. Most commercial parking operators try to maximize the turnover of their spaces. But in Vancouver commuters are given discounted prices, while short term parking off street is penalized. Moreover, many spaces are taken out of the market permanently through long term contracts. For instance, if you try to park at SFU downtown you will find that nearly every space is reserved. What this means is that visitors who come downtown for various reasons are actively discouraged from coming by car, but those who work downtown are given preferential treatment. In terms of generating revenue for downtown businesses this is not a very clever policy. And in terms of making money on scarce off street parking space, very poor business.

Translink has introduced a new travel website – but it simply bumps you back to their strange trip planner when you try to use it to find out about buses. I feel sorry for those unfamiliar with the transit system who rely on this tool. They must have some very odd trip experiences. For instance, it suggested that I take the Community Shuttle to No 3 Road, the 403 southbound to Highway 99 and then a 601 to Vancouver. Which might seem faster by the schedule but is actually quite a high risk scenario. Two transfers means twice the opportunity to miss a connection, which with infrequent routes can be very expensive in terms of time wasted. And these are not timing points, so there is not a very high probability that any operator will wait for you to make the connection. And, by the way, though I specified I wanted to be downtown by 11 , the offerings all had later arrival times. Geographically, the most direct route is 401 to Richmond Centre then the B Line, which is what I did. And B Line being frequent, if I missed the connection that way it did not really matter too much. In fact due to the bus company’s policy of installing far side stops, any connection is longer and more hazardous than it need be since it imposes at least one if not two road crossings, back across the intersection – and where you were probably not let off the bus while you watched your connection sail past.

B Line on NO 3 Road

I had thought that the B Line passenger information system had been taken out – but it was working, and working well. I will have to find out more about that. The buses were running in bunches, of course, with two trying to work “skip stops” but forced by people determined to get off and general traffic to stop everywhere. Anyway, door to door time just over an hour from home to SFU’s Wosk Centre arriving about 11am. Which is both as advertised and really not bad compared to driving. Of course, I should have been better prepared as the stops do not have shelters. My jacket might be adequate for driving, but not for hanging around on street corners in the rain, which you have to do when you take the bus, if only to ensure you do not miss the one you want through running early.

The return trip was much worse. The shelter at Waterfront is completely useless as it has no back or sides. The info system was being very pessimistic, and the promised “next B Line in 20 minutes” turned up in ten. There was, inevitably, a large youth asleep across the courtesy seats at the front – with his feet on the seat. He remained there unchallenged. But as with the morning journey I did get a seat all way. The driver was one of those lead foots who ensure that standing passengers get thrown around due to sudden stops. The transfer at Richmond Centre was over a twenty minute wait – again no shelter and heavy rain, but I eventually got a bit of a doorway and the 401 was on schedule. So the one ahead must have either run early or not at all. Either way the crowding was significant. The bus had no heating working in the passenger area. The windows were fogged and wiping away the condensation did nothing to improve visibility as the exterior was so filthy – probably from salting the previous day due to a rare early snowfall. For a stranger to the area or someone not used to the stopping pattern of a bus route this is not a trivial issue, but I did note that passengers were ready to assist each other. And I even heard the “thank you” call to the operator as they left by the back door – something I have only ever encountered here. Journey time coming back 90 minutes – mostly because of the transfer at Richmond Centre and the low frequency of local buses even at the afternoon peak period.

Overall, what would have been a quick run into Vancouver for a lunch time meeting turned into an all day trek. And this is without anything actually going wrong. Yes it was cheaper – though that Translink journey planner showed that driving a small car (if you don’t put in parking) for that journey is cheaper than the bus. So if you get free parking as a perk of your employment then the chances of you putting up with this level of service is not great.

Why cannot buses be heated in the passenger area? Why is there no requirement to turn on the interior lights for all the time when passengers are on board? (Vancouver bus operators seem to be more sensitive to reflections on the windscreen than any other transit system I have used). Once upon a time, Canadian buses had a warm wall system that pumped hot air between the inner and outer skins – and up through vents in the sills to keep the windows clear of fog.

And I did try that text message service – you send the stop number to 33333 and it texts back the next scheduled buses. It didn’t work. But then if I try to call the traffic station (#730) that doesn’t work either so maybe it is an incompatibility with the Rogers network.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 28, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

Canadian Tire big box hearing–the fix was in: Ned Jacobs

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Photo: Ann Grant

The following is a first hand report from last night’s City of Vancouver hearing on the proposal for a new, very large store on Marine Drive by Ned Jacobs, who originally distributed his report to the lrc mailing list.

It is reproduced here by courtesy of the author


I understand that when the planning staff report on EcoDensity came before Council Tuesday afternoon, “sustainability” and “reducing our eco-footprint,” and “improving neighbourhood centres” were the words on every councillor’s lips. But when night fell on City Hall, councillors belonging to the party known as the Non-Partisan Association underwent a dramatic transformation which would have made Count Dracula and the Wolfman of Paris drool and turn green with envy; for suddenly EcoDuncity and EcoLarceny reigned supreme.

It wasn’t just that every NPA Councillor voted for the rezoning that will result in a 255,000 square foot highway-oriented retail power center sprawled across a site larger than 4 (Canadian) football fields, adjacent to one of the lowest density areas of the city; it was the specious excuses, soaked in greenwash and dizzy with spin. Councillor Suzanne Anton made much of the few hundred car trips a day Canadian Tire’s PR rep had claimed the development would “repatriate” from big box centres in Richmond and Burnaby, completely ignoring the thousands of additional car trips it would have to generate to turn a profit. Peter Ladner focussed on how “unfair” it would be to turn down the rezoning after the applicant indicated they had already spent $20 million on the site and proposal; but he conveniently disregarded the South Fraser Street BIA , whose representative had protested that it would suck business out of their neighbourhood centre. Several Non-Partisans praised Canadian Tire to the skies for agreeing to build to the LEEDS gold standard. It was really just a smart business move as the increased capital costs will almost certainly be paid off in energy savings over time.

Staff were in a somewhat awkward position–tasked to ensure that the application fit within the existing policy guidelines for “large format” (formerly called “highway-oriented”) retail, while at the same time developing “EcoDensity.” At one point, planning director Brent Toderian expressed willingness to examine the application in light of the new sustainability guidelines–if Council wished. But they didn’t wish hard enough; David Cadman’s amendment to that effect was voted down by the Non-Partisans, 5 to 4. One speaker, Richard Campbell, astutely observed that the proposal didn’t even satisfy the old policy which limited retail uses to those inherently unsuited for neighbourhood centres. Originally, the zone was not supposed to include clothing sales, but the Non-Partisans have also chipped that protection away, making the Marine Drive large format retail zone even less consistent with CityPlan or EcoDensity. But for me, the saddest aspect of this dreary business is the missed opportunities: this site and neighbouring parcels–so well situated in regard to transit–have been relegated to a car-oriented single-use monoculture, when they could be put to much more productive use (for more on this see my recent article in The Tyee.

I figured the fix was in several months ago when planning staff mentioned to our delegation of concerned citizens that they felt they couldn’t just return the same application that the previous Council had rejected. So they had improved the proposal with two left turn bays and reduced access from the Ontario Street bikeway. I realized then that Canadian Tire must have been unofficially assured by the Non-Partisans that this time it would pass, and therefore felt no pressure to introduce significant changes. The clincher, though—and it was a shocker even to this jaded observer—was when out of the blue Anton moved an amendment that the area devoted to clothing sales (tenants Mark’s Work Warehouse and Winners) be upped from the 40,000 sq. ft. limit recommended by staff, to 60,000. Her only explanation was that staff hadn’t convinced her that it would hurt business in neighbourhood centres, and that Oakridge shops were always marking up their prices, anyway (very scientific). When another Councillor reminded her that there was a Zellers at Oakridge, and it showed no signs of going upscale, her face turned red and she hung her head, but refused to utter another word to justify the amendment, nor would any other NPA councillor, despite urging from the opposition. A telling point was that Canadian Tire hadn’t even asked (publicly, that is) for the bonus. This amendment passed, of course– by one vote.

Vision’s George Chow had been away on leave when the hearing commenced two weeks ago, and therefore couldn’t vote, allowing Sam Sullivan to conveniently absent himself from the final night of hearings, the debate and the decision. But it sent a clear message to the big business community: EcoDensity will be available when you need it, but if it gets in your way, don’t worry—EcoHypocricy is here to stay.
Ned Jacobs

Written by Stephen Rees

November 28, 2007 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

CUTA Reinforces Call for Tax Law Changes

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CUTA Reinforces Call for Tax Law Changes to Support Employer-Provided Transit Passes – UK Transit Benefit Programs Begin

An open letter to:

The Honourable James M. Flaherty
Minister of Finance
Department of Finance Canada

TORONTO, Nov. 27 /CNW/ –

Dear Minister Flaherty,

The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) would like to draw your attention to a new development in Great Britain that supports CUTA’s call for changes in Canada’s tax law to allow for employer-provided transit benefits, also known as “tax-free transit benefits”. Being used in Britain since earlier this year, transit benefits are a strategy used to promote public transit use, reduce emissions and reduce oil consumption. CUTA has called for the introduction of tax-free transit benefits in Canada since the early 1990’s.

CUTA is again calling on your government to support tax law changes to allow this initiative as a non-taxable benefit. The proposal for a National Transit Strategy, endorsed by CUTA and other stakeholders, calls for increased incentives to encourage transit use. Employer-provided transit passes would offer Canadians greater reason to choose transit for their urban travel needs.

The tax-free transit benefit idea was initially considered a US initiative, where it has been in place for over 25 years with increasing popularity. The recent British development is already gaining significant attention and is seen as an important new tool for addressing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas concerns.

The program allows employees paying top-rate taxes to save 41% on their travel costs because gross income tax and national insurance is not taken from pre-tax funds; accordingly, basic rate employees save 33%. Employers also save 12.8% for the foregone national insurance tax.

In the US, transit benefits can be either an employee-paid pre-tax deduction, or an employer-paid tax-free benefit. Presently, the US provisions allow up to $110 per month tax-free. Effective January 1, 2008 the maximum benefit will become $115, and legislation to increase it to $200 per month has been introduced in both the US Senate and House of Representatives. Transit benefit programs now serve all major US transit markets, and it is estimated that well over 1 million US transit riders receive tax-free transit fares.

In Canada, public transit accounts for approximately 11% of work-related travel. Each 1% increase in transit ridership will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 12,000 tonnes.

Tax-free employer passes have been a good idea for years and their introduction in Canada would be complementary to the transit pass credit your government introduced last year. We are pleased to see that Britain appreciates this and are setting an international example of the success we would also like to see in Canada. CUTA is calling on the federal government in Ottawa to take steps to make this benefit an important part of Canada’s transport, environmental and tax policies in the near future.


Michael Roschlau
CUTA President & Chief Executive Officer

Copy: The Honourable Lawrence Cannon
Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities

The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) is the national association representing public transit systems, suppliers to the industry, government agencies, individuals and related organizations in Canada.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 27, 2007 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Transportation

The real cost of privatisation

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This story comes from Britain, one of the pioneers of the Public Finance Initiative or “P3” as they are called here. The idea was that the private sector was so much more efficient than public sector organizations (seen as blundering bureaucrats) that bringing in companies to run public services would save taxpayers money. Well, on the whole, it cannot be said to have been a happy experience – although there is a pleasing symmetry to note that it is the public sector that is taking the blame. Because, it is said, they don’t know how to award contracts.

Just to whet you appetite here is the first para

The huge cost to the taxpayer of Labour’s commitment to the private finance initiative since it came to power a decade ago is revealed by the Treasury in a report by MPs published today. It shows that Gordon Brown has committed future governments to pay back £170bn by 2032 to banks, investors and private entrepreneurs for more than 800 schemes for new hospitals, schools and prisons.

Now in case you wonder why I am bringing this to your attention you should be aware that any project over $20m in BC gets the once over for a potential P3 – including municipal projects. And Jim Flaherty thinks the pension funds should help him to repair our crumbling infrastructure

Written by Stephen Rees

November 26, 2007 at 5:02 pm

Posted in privatisation