Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for February 2009

Can Nothing Kill Highway Expansion?

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To its proponents and its supporters the idea of widening Highway #1 and the Port Mann has always been seen as hugely desirable. While they claim it would relieve traffic congestion, even they concede that it is, at best, a short term fix. But that is because, they think, the gold of property development along its route makes it worthwhile. But we are beginning to realise that this is in fact fairy gold. The conditions that once made low density suburbs worthwhile speculations are now gone – and probably for good.

The province released the news – on Friday afternoon, the best time to bury unfavourable stories – that its P3 with McQuarie bank and its partners has finally collapsed as unfinanceable. Falcon is of course not fazed by this and intends to proceed – using our money and not the banks – anyway. Of course the additional $3bn this will add to provincial indebtedness over th e next few years has not been in any budget or spending estimates.

I would argue that he does not have any authority to proceed. The project now bears little resemblance to its original proposal – or cost estimate. The world has also changed dramatically since then. Or rather many more people have now been forced to recognise the fundamental unreality of the assumptions they were then working on.

Oil is running out – and though cheap now, will not be for much longer. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not some vague commitment to the future but a desperate and immediate need. The idea that we can still truck fresh fruit and veg from California – which faces severe drought and has cut water allocations to farmers – is no longer feasible. Trade in containers from China is way down. Even – dreadful prospect – the price of local real estate is falling. None of the assumptions of the Gateway now hold true.

Yet Flacon still thinks we need his mega highway. And of course we never did – and need it even less now. We do need farmland, clean air and greenhouse gas reductions. We do need alternatives to driving. That means if we can borrow $3bn (and that seems doubtful too) we should not be spending it on roads but on transit. Many more buses – and bus lanes – as well as light rail. Low cost, easy to to construct, quick to deliver solutions that both meet the needs of the present better than freeways ever could but also allow for a denser, transit oriented region. That consumes less fuel, less land and provides a more certain future.

The BC Liberal party tried to pretend it was green with a feeble carbon tax and commitments to nonsense like the hydrogen highway. It is clear now that these ideas are barren. We must change course – and despite what they are claiming it is not at all too late to cancel the entire program and replace it with ideas that work.

The most bogus element of the current proposal is that the new Port Mann could carry light rail in the future. But it is fairly certain that is not intended to be built any time soon – and certainly not on opening day. There is no plan anywhere that shows what this light rail line would look like – where it would go on either side of the bridge. It has not been shown in any plan.

If the Province was serious about dealing with traffic congestion it wouldl have put traffic metering on the on ramps – signals that limit the amount of traffic allowed to join the crowded lanes just before the bridge. These are, oddly enough installed after the bridge already. A bus queue jumper lane could have been built on the hard shoulder northbound in Surrey years ago. One is under construction in Richmond now – so they know how to do it. They just don’t want to. They hope we won’t notice that what this project is all about as usual is property speculation. But Falcon seems not to have noticed that that bubble has burst too. Along with all his other delusions.

The saddest comment is that just before this inevitable announcement, carol James appeared to endorse the widening. A huge mistake. The NDP has now lost all credibility on transport and the environment. If these issues concern you the way they concern me we must turn our attention and our votes elsewhere.

If you really want a green alternative – you have to vote Green next time.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 28, 2009 at 8:18 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with , , ,

Carole James Caves to Blacktop Politics

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Perhaps it is not a safe assumption that readers of this blog also read the Livable Region blog. If that is not the case go there now and read what David Fields has to say about the way that Carole James seems to have accepted the “done deal” on Gateway.

It is by no means certain that the deal can be done. And it most certinaly should not be. It is one reason why I cannot support the NDP and one single very good reason that BC readers of this blog to consider voting Green next time.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 27, 2009 at 11:43 am

Posted in Gateway

Tagged with ,

Plan would close Strips of Broadway

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New York Times

Before Vancouver readers get the vapours, this story comes to you live from New York City. That is a place where they are taking placemaking seriously.

The plan calls for Broadway to be closed to vehicles from 47th Street to 42nd Street. Traffic would continue to flow through on crossing streets, but the areas between the streets would become pedestrian malls, with chairs, benches and cafe tables with umbrellas.

The idea is simple. Cities are supposed to be about people interacting – not cars blasting through as fast they can. Many other cities throughout the world have used similar projects to achieve places that actually encourage people to linger, which, it turns out is good both for business and for the general well being of citizens.

As luck would have it I was in the area today and have some pictures. But first you need the map

Mounted Police Officer in Times Square

Mounted Police Officer in Times Square

The area has already seen traffic lanes taken for better pedestrain movement as the area has increasingly attracted tourists since the rather seedy area was refurbished some years ago.

Times Square Bike Lane

Times Square Bike Lane

And as the Times notes Mayor Bloomberg wants to “Tto change the way the city thinks of its streets, making them more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and chipping away at the dominance of the automobile.”

It would be nice if Vancouver’s new mayor would adoor a similar policy but I won’t hold my breath on that one. The DVBIAis nothing like as progressive as the New 42nd Street group.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Thoughts for today

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I am on my way to New York so I hope you will forgive the US slant on this piece.

For the economic background on why the Gateway and the port expansion is so wrong headed you could do no better than to read this longish summary of dreadful economic news around the world this piece from the Alternet.

It is seriously proposed that truck congestion on the I85 freeway in Virginia could be reduced by the state investing in the railway – something that up to now the railways have resisted since they fear being dragged back to running passenger trains. But with investors being leery of putting money in anything right now even state investment looks attractive. I wish that could now find the story again I was going to link to when I started writing this yesterday, but even Google is not helping much today

Written by Stephen Rees

February 25, 2009 at 6:39 am

Posted in Gateway, Transportation

How to influence people

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but not win friends. Translink is currently running a survey on line as part of its “Translink listens” exercise. But it would seem it only listens these days when you agree with what is happening

Sample questions:
From the list below, please choose the three words that you feel should best describe Canada’s Pacific Gateway.
Which of the following statements do you agree with the most?
Please pick one only.
Canada’s Pacific Gateway increases mobility in our region, allowing people and goods to move more freely.
Canada’s Pacific Gateway improves our quality of life, reducing congestion and making trips safer.
Canada’s Pacific Gateway is important to our region’s economy and future prosperity.
Canada’s Pacific Gateway supports employment throughout our region, delivering opportunity.

Already email is flying and list serves grumbling. These questions are NOT open ended – they are multiple choice – but you can only choose things which support the Gateway. You are not allowed the opportunity to be critical of the program in any way.

When I worked for Translink – and its predecessor – the folks in the market research section were very proud of their reputation, and took great care to ensure that all the surveys they mounted – or commissioned from external consultants – were above reproach. I can only assume that the people involved have changed in the 5 years since I left. Or, since SoCoBriTCA is now in nearly all respects under the aegis of the Minister of Transportation, that standards have changed.

Quite disgraceful really. And it will colour my views of all subsequent research that Translink produces unless there is some public declaration that there has been a regrettable error, the survey is closed and a more balanced one replaces it pronto.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 23, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Posted in Gateway

Tagged with , ,

Will it be smooth sailing ahead, or rough seas?

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Pete McMartin in the Vancouver Sun has the second of his pieces on the port expansion.

Normally I would type a lot about this sort of thing, but that is not the case to-day because the second part of the article is a very fair summary of my views. These were collected over a series of telephone conversations over the last few days.

We also talked about the broader Gateway program – especially the freeway expansion and the SFPR. I am hoping that those will be the subject of his weekend column as he indicated he saw this as a three parter.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Gateway, port expansion

Patchwork policing leaves no one in charge

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Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail has a neat quotation from an unnamed  police chief

“If you were to design a policing structure for the region, would you design one like ours? Not in a million years.”

I have been advocating a metropolitan police force for Greater Vancouver on this blog for some time. This most recent thought has been spurred not so much by the recent spate of gang killings as the provincial government’s hastily thought out “strategy” for dealing with it.

But here’s the question that no one seemed to address at the Premier’s news conference on Friday: Who’s in charge of eradicating gang violence in Metro Vancouver?

It’s a question put to me by a Metro Vancouver police chief last week. I didn’t know the answer.

“No one,” he said.

You can’t have a successful strategy for anything without someone in charge. And in this case, there’s no one responsible because of the patchwork nature of policing in Metro Vancouver.

My point would be that it is not just for dealing with gangs that we need a co-ordinated policing system. It is every aspect of policing. The only people who advocate for the present system are the mayors who like the idea of having a police chief report to them and not some remote regional authority. But we can no longer afford this small town mentality.

Anymore than we can afford the arrogance and incompetence that has characterised the RCMP in recent years, and is now on daily display. If the Premier had actually been giving this issue any thought at all in the last couple of years – and there have been plenty of reasons why he should have – he would have seen that the need for change is inescapable. A provincial force for BC and metropolitan police forces for the Vancouver and Capital regions would be my first choice.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

An open letter to the Premier from Anna Rose

To the Honourable Gordon Campbell, Premier of British Columbia,

I am a BC resident who is extremely concerned about the so-called “Run of the River” Power Projects.  I live in the community of Gray Creek, and through my window I can see Kootenay Lake about 100 m away.  I grew up on another part of it.  I eat fish from it, I kayak on it, and observe close-up, among many wildlife species, the great blue herons that are rated “of special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.  I memorize the names of the creeks that flow down the narrow forested valleys into the lake, get my water from one of them at the edge of this property, and hike up them.  “Ecosystem” is not just a theoretical concept to me.  I have a deep appreciation and understanding of this one in the Kootenays from years of personal experience and self-directed learning.  Therefore, when I first heard about the large project north of here, which plans to divert water from Glacier and Howser Creeks through tunnels totaling 16 km, cut new roads and build power lines in territory important to grizzlies (another species-of-concern), I felt alarmed, outraged and incredulous.  How could our elected government let a huge corporation wreck a living ecosystem in our crown land, just for monetary gain?

Each week I hear of another megaproject, worse than the last.  The proposed Bute Inlet Project would divert water from 17 rivers, and require 142 bridges, 267 km of roads and 443 km of new power lines, all in a wilderness that is home to a dozen species of wildlife at risk and 18 species of plants at risk.  There are 6 other projects proposed near Bute Inlet.  We don’t know what the cumulative effects might be.  The only good news is that resistance to these over-sized projects is growing all across BC.  Experts, such as Dr.Gordon Hartman, retired from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, are speaking out.   He calls the way the government has allowed the situation to develop “totally irresponsible …reprehensible … It is not progress to just go out and build more dams, build more this, dig bigger holes … Progress for me would really mean changing our whole mental state about our relationship to this planet.”

Experts in other areas tell us that the projects are inefficient and not needed for BC’s own power needs.  Power will be sold to the US, and our BC Hydro will suffer due to new regulations.  MLA’s point out how the process of granting licenses is increasingly undemocratic.  The provincial government’s Bill 30 blocks objections from the municipal level.  Public hearings are few and far between.

One of the best public education websites I found is www.watershed-watch .org. I agree with what that group of scientists and citizens, initially prompted by the further threat to the endangered salmon species, is calling for our provincial government to do:

-re-think the energy planning process.  Provide incentives for energy conservation

-incorporate regional and provincial land use planning to decide which areas are
environmentally and geographically appropriate for energy projects

-make long-term data collection and adaptive management a legal requirement for
all water licensees

-be more open to public input.  Let it have a real effect on whether projects move
forward or are rejected.  Repeal Bill 30

-do not let the Glacier/Howser and Bute Inlet projects move forward, due to the
uncertainty around whether environmental risks and impacts can be adequately
measured, mitigated and monitored

Let us be stewards of this precious land, not exploiters with short-range vision.


Anna Rose

Written by Stephen Rees

February 17, 2009 at 10:50 am

Posted in Environment

Vancouver port may be left waiting for its ships to come in

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Last week I got a phone call from Pete McMartin at the Sun. Some time ago he had receieved an email from someone who has been reading this blog and also heard me speak at various anti-Gateway gatherings and suggested there was a story here he could cover.

The result is this article to-day and two more to follow later this week. There is nothing here that regular readers have not seen already – and he cites many of the resources that I have been quoting. But he has also been talking to Stu Ramsey and, of course, the Gateway proponents as well. But I do not think I am trumping his punch line if I tell you what we talked about at the end of the conversation – which had been interrupted  more than once and had to be re-started each time. I was impressed by the time he was devoting to the issue and the questions he was asking. I told him truthfully that I read his column every time it appears. I was, for example genuinely impressed by the column he wrote for Valentine’s Day (after our conversation) which dealt with that fluffy subject in a very constructive way. I told him I thought he was not only a good writer, but that he was getting better.

This provoked, of course, a surprised response, so I explained that he seemed to have abandoned his “Tim the Tool Man” persona – the redneck from the burbs who drives everywhere. He said his point was that people who do not live in Vancouver need to be given some real choice in terms of travel. Which of course is precisely the main point about Gateway. If we blow the budget on freeways there is not much left for transit expansion – which anyway will come after the roads are built and the sprawl that goes with them.

So I am very hopeful about the next two articles. The port expansion was always a risky bet. Even if the Panama Canal expansion and the opening of an arctic seaway were not on the cards, the prospect of continued container traffic growth was based on unrealistic expectations. The US economy could not indefinitely be run on deficits. Trade could not forever grow based on increasing US  consumer demand fuelled by real estate speculation. The whole enterprise assumed that there would be no effective competition for trade from US ports – when in reality they already had increasing spare capacity due to over construction of new terminal facilities.

I also take the view that the BC Liberal government knew that. The port expansion was merely a ruse – just as the Olympics are – to justify yet more real estate expansion based on low density suburban development. Which is the preferred method of making money for many of their most influential supporters. “Follow the money” as Deep Throat said. The Sea to Sky expansion was about housing development in Squamish – and other sites along the route. The South Fraser Perimeter Road is about changing land use in North Delta. The Highway 1 expansion is not about traffic congestion on the Port Mann but about yet more single family homes and big box stores all over the valley.

Kevin Falcon likes to assert that “the development will happen anyway” but he knows as well as anyone else that in real estate, location is what matters. And it is not just where the development occurs (preferably, for him, on land his friends already own or know how to scoop up ahead of the bulldozers starting work) but also what kind of development. Because you do not get high density transit oriented development if there is no transit.

The timing of these articles is also fortituitous. Because there is an election coming up – and because a lot of people who would normally vote Liberal are getting very worried. The recession is the big picture background, in the foreground is the Olympics and its massive cost overruns. The False Creek Athlete’s Village fiasco has made a huge impression. And there are many places where doubts about development – and that includes P3 hydro projects, waste disposal, salmon farms, oil and gas drilling – the list gets longer by the day – where it seems the developers are the only people who get the ear of government. Many communities are apalled by their experience of the “streamlined” processes produced by Mr Falcon in his previous post, as their concerns  even when they can be voiced are so blatantly ignored.  And the power lines in Pete’s home town are just one of a number of egregious examples.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

Posted in Gateway

Tankers present a very real risk of major disaster

with 3 comments

The Times Colonist has a poignant letter today from Bob Bossin of Gabriola Island. It starts as follows

“The greatest advance in oil-spill cleanup technology,” a cleanup expert told me almost 20 years ago, “is the move from the short-handled shovel to the long-handled shovel.” Nothing of significance has changed since.

The fact is, marine oil spills cannot be cleaned up; they can only be prevented.

Right now a lot of people are trying to use the current financial situation to get around the sort of controls that are needed to prevent another Exxon Valdez.  In fact that was quite a small spill – far less than the infamous Torrey Canyon that I recall going down off Cornwall in my younger days – with dead birds washing up for months afterwards.

We are being told that it is “necessary” to relax all sorts of environmental controls in order to dig our way out of this recession. This is the technique that was revealed by Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine”. We are told that in order to see a rapid wave of new investment bringing much needed new jobs “bureaucratic controls” and “duplication” need to be reduced. What they really mean is that if they can get around these safeguards, industry costs will fall and profits will rise – and the environment will suffer.

In BC there are two big issues being pushed like this. The Enbridge proosal for an oil pipeline between Kitimat and the oil sands, and the continuing push for the development of off shore oil and gas. The Kitimat terminal would handle imports condensate – a refinery byproduct used to help extract usable products from the sticky bitumen and sand mixture being hauled out of Northern Alberta – as well as exports of that oil. What might happen to oil and gas found under the sea bed is not yet determined. It will depend on locations and volumes but a common practice is to load tankers from platforms at sea rather than build pipelines from the well head to shore.

And if you think that the lessons of the Exxon Valdez have been taken to heart by the oil industry takes some time to read the Seattle Post Intelligencer special report on oil tankers – and the accompanying PBS documentary.

I am indebted to Karen Wonders and the BC Environmental Network list serve for raising this issue and providing some of the links

Written by Stephen Rees

February 16, 2009 at 3:06 pm