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

Archive for October 24th, 2008

This is a BC NDP Press Release

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I am not a member of the NDP – or indeed any political party. In fact I am bit disgusted with the way the NDP has decided to use the carbon tax as a stick to beat Gordon Campbell. But this press release gives plenty of reasons why we should not even think aboit voting Liberal in either of the two byelections or in next year’s provincial elections

Oct. 24, 2008


Gordon Campbell wants us to believe that he will curb wasteful government spending, but his record shows just the opposite. Time after time, Gordon Campbell has squandered billions of dollars on pet projects and handouts for his friends, funding that could have been put towards lowering child poverty or combating our homelessness crisis.

Hundreds of millions on cost overruns…

    • $400 million in cost overruns on the Vancouver Convention Centre, and it’s not even complete.
    • $560,000 for a fancy, over-budget renovation at the MCFD head office, while at the same time the Campbell government was denying funding to the Mary Manning centre for sexually abused children.

Hundreds of millions in benefits for B.C. Liberal friends and insiders…

    • $327 million this year alone in subsidies for big oil and gas companies.
    • $220 million in tax breaks for banks.
    • Hundreds of millions in benefits for forestry corporations after the Campbell government gave away more than 120,000 hectares of forest land on Vancouver Island and the Coast, with no benefits for local communities.
    • Over $90 million to private liquor retailers since 2004.
    • $23 million in overpayments to B.C. Liberal-linked job placement contractors GTI and West Coast Group.
    • $600,000 that Campbell insider Doug Walls milked from the government, plus the hundreds of thousands spent on special prosecutors and independent auditors required to sort out the mess.

Millions for B.C. Liberal-friendly advertising…

    • $63 million over the next three years for unaccountable advertising from the premier’s Climate Action Secretariat, in addition to the $9 million ad budget in 2008.
    • $30 to $40 million per year for Campbell’s Public Affairs Bureau spin-doctor shop.
    • $29.5 million this year in government advertising, the budget for which has increased by over 150 per cent since 2001.

Millions in pay raises for Campbell’s top advisors…

    • $3 million a year for Campbell’s secretive pay raise for his top executives.
    • $710,000 per year for the 60 per cent pay raise for the Liberal-linked B.C. Ferries board of directors.
    • $460,000 a year for the 500 per cent wage hike for the TransLink board of directors, even though they’re no longer publicly accountable.

Millions on pet projects…

    • $20 million for the ill-fated “B.C. Experience” tourist project.
    • $15 million from the Ministry of Forests for an ice rink in then-Minister Rich Coleman’s home town of Langley.
    • $10 million for the premier’s ill-conceived “Conversation on Health”.
    • $6.4 million spent backing out of the B.C. Liberals’ deal to privatize the Coquihalla.
    • $4.2 for Leading Edge B.C., which was supposed to promote the high tech sector but was plagued by accountability issues, before it was brought back under public control in 2006.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 7:16 pm

Posted in politics

A mini-break on the M1?

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The Guardian

In these straitened times, there can be few better ways to holiday than touring the motorway

On the contrary I can think of many better ways to holiday. I rather think that this is not meant to be serious. Or maybe not

Now the School of Life, a new cultural enterprise offering “ideas to live by” is challenging these assumptions about where we should spend our vacations. This weekend it is organising a mini-break on the M1, to “unearth the story of the motorway’s construction, reveal the poetry of its monumental architecture, dine in its historic service stations and recover the utopian thrill of its early days”. The sightseers will meet historians, architects and one of the original serving staff at Leicester Forest East. A holiday at Heathrow is also in the offing.

Curiously, the “Comment is Free” page did not include a link but as usual, Google is my friend, so I added it. And it looks like this really is on offer. I would caution against it. The British Motorway service area was designed to avoid the need to do what you have to do on most North American freeways – get off the freeway to look for gas and food. They are much more elaborate than “rest stops” but wholly commercial. No picnic areas or dog walking – and not much reference to the local surroundings either. No one would think of them as “destinations” – they are merely places to refuel your vehicle and yourself. They have been improved a bit over the years – mainly because the habit of taking foreign holidays has raised expectations. Catering in Britain has been transformed, and some of the worst providers like Little Chef have simply gone out of business. Thank goodness.

Service areas have also spread to major intersections of non-motorway routes, and begin to look very like food courts in North American malls – and often with the same outlets. They have absolutely no sense of place,as they are are designed to be modern, corporate and branded. So it does not matter where you are – you can buy exactly the same things in exactly the same environment.

In one of the odder moments of my early career, I was asked to do a survey of transport caffs. No seriously, I mean it. The new A12 (not a motorway – they have M numbers) was built as a series of by passes, taking through traffic out of towns and villages and through quite good agricultural land. This had two related impacts. Lorry (truck) drivers had nowhere to stop for a meal and small places lost business. No-one could get planning permission for a service area then because of the regulations against “ribbon development” along major roads. We produced a map with indications of where services could be found that was distributed by the Road Haulage Association to its members, and I became a connoisseur of sausage, eggs, chips and beans.

At one time it was possible in North America to follow the signs at the freeway exit and find somewhere that is distinct and local. There are still a few places like that. Grandma’s – just off I5 in Yreka is one such.

Food next right

Food next right

But mostly the strip just off the freeway is now almost the same mix of gas stations, big box stores and fast food wherever you are. In Britain that is not the case. Towns and villages are still real places – though many have lost their services as pubs and post offices across the land have fallen to breathalysers and rationalisation. And it is worth getting off the motorway and seeking them out. Indeed as a tourist I urge you to do so, to support the sort of independent operations that will never get a franchise on a motorway.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Abbotsford’s new direction

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For the last few months I have been attending the Select Committee on Interregional Transportation set up by the City of Abbotsford. To some extent this was prompted by a meeting I spoke at there a while ago, when the University of the Fraser Valley students Environment Society held a forum on rail for the valley. There have been all kinds of proposals and studies done on this subject over the years – and more are under way now in various guises. The FVRD, for example, has been trying to damp down citizen enthusiasm for rail with its own study that dismisses it as uneconomic. The potential for rail as an alternative to freeway widening was, of course, always blithely dismissed by the Province, who never really wanted to look at any alternatives. And in a spectacularly inept bit of back pedalling when the Province did announce its “transit plan” (the $14bn one that was to paid for by everyone else – not one of whom had been consulted) the Fraser Valley was left out completely, and promises for Langley and Surrey were as far off into the future as possible. Some SkyTrain extension beyond its present King George terminal, but it would not get to Langley before 2030 at the earliest.

The general mood of the South of the Fraser seems to be one of simmering discontent. The BC Liberals seem to have regarded this as home turf where they could not be displaced, and therefore seem to have stuck to the “not enough people” argument for far too long. These communities are where growth is going to occur, and the Mayors of Langley, Surrey, Abbotsford and Coquitlam have all signed a “Livability Accord”. 65% of the growth in the Lower Mainland in the next ten years will be accommodated in these four communities. Even right wing politicians like Jordan Bateman in Langley are promoting streetcars or light rail as a way of making transit more attractive and permitting denser, transit oriented development. Indeed, the developed parts of Surrey are denser in total the developed parts of Burnaby. But the level of transit service is abysmal.

Sensing this mood, I have been advocating that a pilot or demonstration project is what is needed now – not more studies. This is because studies actually do not win many arguments, and tend to lead to more debate and more studies. Indeed, as a consultant in private practice, I was only too happy to be commissioned to do a study – because of the high probability of subsequent work created by the release of the “final report” – which was usually anything but. People are, of course, skeptical – and quite rightly. But the fond memory of the interurban between Chilliwack and Vancouver is strong, and local enthusiasts have been fanning those flames for a while.

Modern transit is actually rather different to the electrified Pullman cars that shuttled up and down the Valley for fifty years – until more than fifty years ago. But in 1968, for Expo, train service was restored briefly. And a lot of people are still wondering why trains seem to have been left out of most Olympic plans.

The Select Committee turned out to be an interesting and diverse crowd. There were two (sometimes more) councillors – and different staff at different times. Most members were local citizens who had expressed an interest or were members of one of the rail advocate groups. There were a smattering of others, like myself, with some professional interest but who came from away. The Committee, by the way, did not pay for travelling expenses, so I picked up the tab for my monthly treks out to the east, and most times for supper too (except for last night when pizza was brought in). I tried hard to find a way to do the trip by West Coast Express but was defeated by the lack of transit accessible accommodation near City Hall.

At the first meeting, back in June, I thought we were going to be arguing about freeways and intersections. Much was made of the need to incorporate Abbotsford Airport as it draws passengers from a wide area. The Interurban is also problematic for Abbotsford. Interregional connections that are most important are east-west. Mostly to Langley. Chilliwack having been, for most of recent history, sucessfully isolationist (most people who live in Chilliwack work there too). Mission has West Coast Express of course – and there is a timed bus that meets every train to connect to and from Abbotsford. But even so it is only really useful for travel to Vancouver in the early morning, and most of the travel in general (not just commuting) around Abbotsford is to adjacent communities.(Abbotsford and Mission share local transit service provision).

The Interurban was built before Sumas Lake was drained, so its route is not direct. In fact in Abbotford it runs due north – south from the river to the US border at Huntingdon. And travel in those directions really did not concern us very much at all.

For years, Abbotsford has had very low transit service,as local politicians were reluctant to pay towards empty buses. Kelowna, which is of comparable size, has twice the amount of transit service.

South Fraser Way - the main drag through the centre of Abbotsford

South Fraser Way - the "main drag" through the centre of Abbotsford

But a quick glance around the city shows low density development, quite a lot of farmland and a major freeway, with a new lane being added in its generous median. So at the first meeting, I was not at all surprised that the Chamber of Commerce made a strong pitch for a “multi modal” approach.

But over the summer the world changed. And so did Abbotsford. Abbotsford’s OCP calls for higher density development. But without better transit, that will not happen. In the fall sheet change, transit service increased significantly, with an emphasis on higher service frequencies on the busiest routes. This will not be an isolated change but is a signal of more to come. Oil prices peaked, and house prices tipped over the crest too. Development faltered, and then the credit crunch hit.

People travel in the summer – and so do their families – and people on the committee started talking about what they and their children experienced elsewhere. Modern transit no longer seemed a distant prospect but both doable and necessary. I am not going to reveal what our recommendations are before Abbotsford Council has seen them, but I will say that I have been surprised – not least because last night we approved the report unanimously. Throughout the discussion has been positive and respectful. We are also getting a bit worried about what the outgoing Council might think. But we do know that the staff – and the new City Manager – are very progressive. We did promise to report before the Civic Elections, and we will do so.

What is also relevant is that my shtick has also been going down well in Chillwack and Langley. Not just me of course, but a whole band of rail advocates – although there have been some fissures, I’m afraid. And in local politics they do seem to be inevitable. Turnout in local elections is notoriously low – below 30%. But those who do get involved are committed – and often driven. There is also change in the air. Simple demographics and aging boomers, with lots of new people arriving. Some of whom are now comfortably established and secure enough to raise their heads above concerns of simply getting established. It is probably significant too that Abbotsford has grown by incorporating neighbouring communities – and that at a time when bits of Langley and Surrey were splitting off those cities. So they know about building consensus.

After the Council Meeting on November 3, I will either put the report on here, or post a link to it. Be prepared to be surprised and, I hope, pleased

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Bridges and blacktop likely targets of Liberal accelerated spending

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Vaughan Palmer speculates on the projects that are “ready to go” that may get accelerated funding as a result of the Premier’s announcement this week.

The premier says B.C. will be pitching to bring forward some of the road and bridge projects it is building on a cost-shared basis with the federal government. …

B.C. will also be pressing the federal government to come up with a full share of construction on the $1.4-billion Evergreen transit line to the Tri-Cities area. To date, the feds have put up $67 million of a hoped-for contribution of $400 million.

Still, that project is not ready to go. It needs environmental approval and a private partner to build it.

The Liberals are more optimistic about another $1-billion undertaking, the South Fraser Perimeter Road.

The premier himself cited it Wednesday as an example of a major project that could be “accelerated.”

The project involves construction of a four-lane, 40-kilometre freeway and truck route linking the Deltaport at Roberts Bank to the Trans-Canada Highway near the Port Mann bridge.

The road is one of several elements in the so-called Gateway project, crafted to improve access for trucks and commuters to the port and along and across the Fraser River. The best-known element is probably the $1.6-billion plan to twin the Port Mann Bridge and widen the adjacent 37 kilometres of Highway One.

The transportation ministry is negotiating with a private consortium to build and operate the bridge as a toll crossing.

Falcon said Thursday he expects to award the contract this year or early next. He’d earlier vowed that construction will be underway (“pilings rising from the river”) by the next election.”

All of this is based on the assumption that construction work on private sector projects will have slowed and contractors will be available for these projects. But building bridges – and to some extent highways too – is actually quite specialised. I am not an engineer. But I have worked for consulting engineering companies, and have been watching the road builders for some time. In fact here the engineers working on major transportation projects are a few companies – and every so often we see outside outfits trying to get into what in reality has been a rather cozy little market.

As Eric Doherty was pointing out earlier this week in Delta, some of the major P3 players are now in serious financial difficulties. Indeed some government agencies have also found themselves liable for sudden very large calls for cash as a result of loan guarantees underwritten by failed insurer AIG becoming worthless. Despite billions of dollars being thrown at the problem, credit is still hard to come by for both private and public sector organisations.

Then of course we should also be concerned about some of the very dubious justifications proffered for these projects. The Gateway assumed that imports from China and the rest of the far east through Pacific Coast ports would continue to increase. But they have been steadily declining and with recession now established in the US do not seem to be likely to grow any time soon. Additional port capacity at Prince Rupert and Long Beach is already available – and they both have better landside connections now.  If I was still a consulting economist in the port business, I am pretty sure I would not recommend expansion here right now – and that is before we have even looked at the disastrous environmental impact of the Gateway.

The government has given itself a certificate, but that does not mean the environmental impacts of these projects is benign – or even decently mitigated. The entire process was a sham, and nearly every question that was raised by the proposal was never answered. The proponent did not provide any further information but simply repeated what was already in the published – and deeply flawed – documentation. EAs in BC cannot stop projects – and now it seems offer no protection to communities or local ecosystems.

Shovelling money as fast as you can off the back of a truck did not do Glen Clark any good – and I do not see it working any better for Gordon Campbell. It’s just that he has been better served by the media who have been a great deal easier on the scandals surrounding this government than they were on the last one, even though the amounts involved are a whole order of magnitude greater. Quite why BC Rail is not as big an issue as a backyard deck and a pocket knife I do not venture to guess.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Gateway