Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for February 6th, 2009

Macquarie signals huge losses day after mega-bridge announced

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This story started popping up in my inbox – from several sources. First take a look at Now Public which has a big slab of stuff from The Australian. Then go to the horse’s mouth and read what they an “operational briefing” which of course is written in much more positive language than the Australian uses – and which you can expect to see sampled in the Asper family media outlets that dominate our local newscape in the next day or so. And certainly not the take used by the Sydney Morning Herald

I am not pinning my hopes on the outcome that the present package falls apart – though that does seem to be a distinct possibility. It would only defer the decision. It does not point to a region that takes a deep breath, thinks clearly about what is needed post peak oil, now the sea levels are rising fast kind of world, and realises that widening a freeway and  building a ten lane bridge is not “sustainable” in any terms. Becuase the current discussion is just about money. And there is far more at stake here than the $3.3bn price tag.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Economics, Gateway

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While the product is right, we’re still not sure about the price.

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That’s the Sun’s editorial view of the Port Mann bridge project. It pretty much reflects the attitude espoused by its commentator Vaughan Palmer yesterday. And it is quite wrong.

The product is a freeway expansion  from the Vancouver boundary to eastern edge of Langley that now is to include a 10 lane new bridge across the Fraser, which may or may not one day accommodate light rail. There is, of course, no plan to actually build the light rail line that would be needed on each side but there is a promise of Rapid Bus to Langley. I imagine that would terminate at Braid SkyTrain. The bridge is also supposed to include two lanes (one each way) for local traffic between Surrey and Coquitlam which at least recognises that much of the traffic on the bridge now is short distance.

Freeway expansions induce traffic. There is not a city anywhere that has managed to cure traffic congestion by building more freeway. Gordon Price long ago issued a challenge to freeway supporters to name one – just one – city where this has worked. The silence has been deafening.

There is a short period of adjustment as drivers assess the new opportunities available to them but very quickly more – and longer – trips are being made and congestion returns. There seems to be an equilibrium level of traffic delay. Road user charges are the only method that shifts this equilibrium point, which is why toll roads that work out their pricing properly can provide higher levels of service for a price. The bridge of course will be tolled – but only until the the $3.3 bn is paid off. And in order to satisfy that private sector partners it will be necessary to set prices in a way that maiximises revenue. That means the amount of traffic control will be less than it might be if other policy concerns were in play. And, of course, there will be no tolls on the rest of the widened freeway.

The road networks that connect to this new freeway will see a great deal more traffic. Municipalities will either have to come up with traffic management  plans to deal with this – or just decide which roads will see the longest line ups. You cannot solve congestion by road building but you can decide where to put the storage capacity. Many people who currently support this project will, soon after it opens, begin to wonder where all this new traffic on their street came from.

The reason this is a bad project is that it widens both the freeway and the bridge at the same time. Instead of the current bottle neck, we will have a bigger bottle – with a proportionately similar neck. If reducing traffic congestion was the real objective then just adding more bridge lanes but leaving the approaches alone would move the congestion off the freeway. And from a road safety point of view that might not be a bad thing – as freeways are supposed to keep moving and vehicles coming up rapidly to stationary traffic are a real hazard. But the plan is to make sure that there is going to be a lot more driving – because Mr Falcon and Mr Campbell are really determined that their friends the property developers will do well out of changing land use along the freeway. Lots of new development – all of it car oriented – is going to occur to take advantage of the new accessibility the freeway expansion creates. This by the way is in addition to the traffic induced onto the freeway by existing car owners.

Mr Falcon’s argument that development occurs anyway is beside the point. It is the type of development that must be of concern. Because if you do not have transit you cannot expect transit oriented development. And that has always been what this region needed, but only saw to a very limited extent in the few places favoured with transit investment. And hardly any of that (except Whalley) was south of the Fraser. Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is a definition of madness.

There are alternatives but they have never been seriously considered. Translink could be running buses across the bridge now between Surrey Central, Guidlford and Coquitlam. All they need is a short queue jumper to get onto the bridge. Just like the one being built now on the Highway #99 hard shoulder in Richmond. Indeed just such a bus service was in Translink’s plans but Falcon had it killed. A region wide tolling strategy would also work to both reduce traffic and provide funding for more transit. Not popular of course but the places that have adopted such strategies show that they can work if managed properly.

The plan also promises transit expansion – but only after the freeway has been built, which is too late for it to do any good. The great pressing need in this region now – and for at least the last ten years – is more transit service – especially south of the Fraser – and much better transit servcie everywhere. And transit that actually meets the needs of users would be a welcome novelty too. That means lots of surface transit with priority over cars for the use of the available road space. Because the same length of road lane accommodates either three car drivers or 40 (or more) bus passengers.

And absolutely none of this is new or ground breaking . We have known of the simple math of transit versus freeways for decades. And anyone who is aware of what it happening to this planet knows that the real problem in North America is our houses and our cars.They are the reason our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are some of the highest in the world. And they are also the reason that we have been so ineffective in doing anything about them.

It does not surprise me that a newspaper that thinks “the Liberal government has demonstrated in the past that it is capable of sound financial management” is also in favour of the new  Port Mann bridge. I would have thought that the premise was easily debunked. It is, after all, not hard to run a surplus when oil and gas (and other resource) revenues are high and you have cut spending on essential services to the bone and then some. But a whole range of programs and projects are now showing how thin their claim is to “acumen”.  But running a government is also a lot more than financial bottom line – or it should be.  To take one example, the province is not concerned that many schools are still at risk of collapse in the event of an earthquake in an area which is seismically active and overdue for a big quake. That may seem to the BC Liberals to make financial sense – but it will not bring much cheer to parents after the shake occurs.

The BC Liberals have also been telling us how smart they have been with the Olympics – and claim they will only cost taxpayers $600m. Does anyone now believe that? Is that evidence of “acumen”?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2009 at 10:42 am

Posted in Gateway

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