Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 2009

Canada Line Pictures

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During the course of construction I have been trying to keep up with photographs as it progresses. I was very pleased to get onto an ITE tour of the construction, including a walk through one of the tunnels under False Creek. But Rebecca Bollwit (Miss 604) has scooped me by getting invited onto a pre-opening tour. No doubt she will be blogging about it as part of her blogathon – she has not done so yet – but the pictures are now on her flickr stream.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Posted in transit

CNG is not worth the extra cost

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This has been a bit of an issue for me for some years. I knew little about alternative transportation fuels before I came to BC – but then I had nearly three years doing little else. I had also been involved peripherally in the decisions about the future of trolleybuses in both Toronto and Hamilton – where compressed natural gas  (CNG) was the preferred choice for replacements – so I have seen some of the ways these decisions have been made in the past.

There is a new “peer-reviewed, open-access journal that provides a platform for the dissemination of new practices and for dialogue emerging out of the field of sustainability” called “Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy”. In the first issue I have seen there is a comprehensive review of the data that should be driving these decisions. It is written by

Thomas Hesterberg and William Bunn [who] are employed by Navistar, a major manufacturer of diesel engines and vehicles. Charles Lapin is a consultant to Navistar. All authors declare no other financial interest in the subject matter of this study. Results and conclusions presented in this paper were drawn independent of the interests of the sponsor.

I thought I would put that in front. Navistar (who make International) do not – so far as I can determine – offer alternative fuel engines. But the paper “An evaluation of criteria for selecting vehicles fueled with diesel or compressed natural gas” does seem to be objective, is well referenced and – as noted above – peer reviewed.

The most frequent charge levelled at diesels is that they are “dirty” but the emissions from diesel engines have been subject to progressively stronger emissions regulations and new technologies have been developed which are now required to meet current standards. Since we only buy new buses (the last two excursions into the used bus market were mixed: Seattle does not maintain old buses like Everett) they meet these standards – and do so no matter what fuel they burn. Both diesel and CNG are fossil fuels – and several full life cycle cost analyses contradict each other on whether or not there is a ghg case one way or the other.

So the choice comes down to cost – and CNG is more expensive – and operational considerations which do not offset these costs but rather emphasize the case for diesel.

P3307 Braid Stn 2009_0126

This region recently undertook a side by side comparison of CNG and other alternate fuels, including hythane (CNG with extra hydrogen added). Despite poor experience with previous fleets of CNG buses Translink bought more of them – the triumph of hope over experience. They simply hoped that the CNG converters had finally sorted out the problems of adapting a diesel to run on gas.

Translink P3355 Braid Stn New Westminster 2007_1220

There are also hybrid buses on order. Again hybrids should offer much better fuel economy – after all they can capture energy lost by braking, and also reduce transmission energy losses – but full life cycle cost data will take some time to acquire as hybrid buses have been only recently available as production vehicles.

For many politicians, the venture into alt fuels was all about “spin” – not reality. For instance some of the first CNG buses got a special livery.

P3262 and 3267 BCT G40HF New Flyer March 1996

But the zero emissions trolleybuses that had been operating for years never got the “Clean Air Bus” treatment.Based on the data reviewed in the referenced article, the CNG buses were probably no cleaner than equivalent diesels. Yet they cost so much more that BC Gas (as it then was) organised a special deal to finance both the fleet and and its refuelling facilities so that the cost appeared to be similar to diesel. That is not good public policy. In the case of the trolleybus purchase, it was a much clearer decision. Yes trolleybuses were much more expensive – about twice the capital cost to buy, and they did not include the cost of the overhead as that was already in place – but it was worth that much more to get zero emission, nearly silent buses that could use electricity which in BC is nearly all from existing hydro. So no tail pipe emissions and negligible ghg  – and the abilty to power the buses from what ever became available to Hydro in future.

E40LFR 2259

But the case for CNG – which I never thought very compelling – seems now to be no longer in question. Even if the authors are thought to be biased by their employment, the evidence they present and the conclusions they draw seem to be quite sound. There really is no case for expensive “alternatives” which offer no real advantage.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Mayors kick off quest for ways to fund transportation system

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Globe and Mail

Frances Bula writes about the problem of funding transit expansion as though it were a dialogue between two levels of government – the province and the Mayors of the region. But it clearly is not a dialogue of equals. Transit expansion is necessary of course. That is not new – it has been a critical issue for as long as I have been around here and has never been dealt with properly. The province has always expected that local property taxes will be a major part of the funding formula. That is because the province does not have to take the political consequences that raising local taxes will bring. The municipal governments have always said that they do not think property taxes are the right way to pay for transit – and the senior levels of government have much more “headroom” than they do.

The debate is old and tired. The province also has much more power than the Mayors do. The province has now framed the debate with its new arrangements which leave the Mayors holding the bag – but without any powers to influence (let alone  control) how the money is to be spent. “The mayors’ council legally has until Oct. 31 to approve a plan for the next decade.” And what happens if they don’t? The province decides anyway. So there is no pressure on the province at all to reach any kind of settlement – they “win” even if they do nothing. So that is what they are doing.

According to several sources, provincial politicians have been pressuring local councils to approve the $450-million-a-year improvement, but pay for it through property taxes. Local mayors have been adamant in saying that’s a no go.

So if they do not agree, there is no transit expansion and the provincial politicians can say it was the Mayor’s decision. Meanwhile, the massive road building projects will be steaming ahead at full speed.

Fances Bula quotes Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

“The provincial government legislated greenhouse-gas-reduction targets and they announced a $14-billion capital plan for transportation and now that we’re at the nitty-gritty of how to fund those two commitments, we’re not seeing a solid dialogue with them about how we do it.”

But the province does not actually give a damn about greenhouse gas reductions – its actions speak much more loudly than its words. The revenue neutral carbon tax has not – and will not – reduce emissions by one iota. The Gateway program – by its own calculations published as part of the environmental assessment will greatly increase emissions – but of course by far more than they admit. The “capital plan” was no such thing. The $14bn included the under construction Canada Line – and of the rest two thirds had to come from federal and municipal governments who had not even been consulted let alone committed. So that’s not a PLAN – that’s a wish list – and not even an original wish list but a hastily cobbled together rehash of old plans designed as a PR spin on an untenable position – that the Gateway “included” transit when it never did because it was designed by the port and the truckers association and a few Liberal supporters in the “Gateway Council”.

Gordon Campbell is a bully. He is also self centered and mainly interested in his own image. There is no intention whatever of reaching a deal with the Mayors – they either fall in line and take the hit of the wrath of the local taxpayers – or don’t and take the wrath of local transportation users – who are, of course, the same group of people. This is not governance – it is politics. Which is neither pure nor simple. In BC it is a blood sport. It does not serve us – or our environment well. But do not expect Mr Campbell to lose much sleep over that. He has at least four more years in power and no doubt has something cushy lined up for afterwards – well rewarded and requiring little effort.

There is only one, very faint, hope. That the corruption scandal of the BC Rail sale will finally blow apart and bring down the provincial government. For they are the architects of the present mess – and until they are removed we are stuck with it.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

Port Mann Bridge Expansion Plan “Cannot Succeed” – report

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Vancouver, BC – “The BC government’s proposed solution to congestion on the Highway 1/Port Mann corridor cannot succeed” according to a new report released today by local business consultant Evan Robinson, MBA.

When the Public-private partnership to build the bridge fell through earlier this year, Premier Gordon Campbell decided to borrow money on behalf of the province to build the bridge. Campbell claimed that the project would be revenue neutral because tolls would cover the cost within the timeline of the 40 year maintenance plan.

The report entitled The Port Mann Mega Bridge – Taking it’s Toll on the Tax Payer, shows that BC residents will still be paying for the proposed new Port Mann mega-bridge even after it’s older than the current 40 year-old bridge.

We took a close look at traffic and revenue projections, and it’s clear we simply cannot both break even financially and reduce congestion over 40 years. The two outcomes are completely incompatible. If traffic grows enough to pay for the bridge with tolls, there will be too much traffic for the bridge to carry,” said Robinson.

“We have been working with Evan and others with a background in business and economics to see if the province’s numbers add up, and we have learned that not only does this project not make ecological sense but it doesn’t make economic sense either,” said Ben West, Healthy Communities campaigner with the Wilderness Committee.

The Wilderness Committee along with other groups has raised concerns about increased global warming carbon emissions as the result of the Gateway project highway expansion which includes the Highway 1/Port Mann expansion. Currently 35% of BC’s emissions come from automobiles, the single biggest source.

“Relying upon toll revenue builds in an incentive to increase automobile usage, but even if we double traffic over the new bridge it won’t cover the cost, and doubling the traffic leaves us idling in place just like the commuters on the Port Mann do every day. This sort of investment is the opposite of what we need to do if we are serious about reducing traffic congestion, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing our dependence upon a dwindling supply of fossil fuels,” said Robinson who is a member of the Vancouver Peak Oil Network executive.

“If this project goes forward as planned we will be paying the price for decades to come in more ways than one. There’s just no way it works out right,” said West.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 17, 2009 at 8:13 am

Posted in Gateway

Tagged with ,

TransLink to yank Evergreen Line funding

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The consultation on the plan has not yet been completed. No decision has been made on funding. But even so Ken Hardie is saying that the Evergreen Line is toast. This line from Lougheed to Coquitlam has been a political football for twenty years. It should have been a priority since the North East Sector was identified as part of the Growth Concentration Area. Population there grew significantly – but nearly all of the growth is low density – and necessarily (since there is no rapid transit) almost entirely car oriented. The new people who came to the area to occupy the new houses saw that there was no transit and drove everywhere. Huge amounts of money were and are being spent – but all of it on roads, either funded by the developers or the province. The prospects of increasing transit mode share in this sector are thus slim to none.

The funding gap – given that the province has committed $400m, the feds $350m and Translink itself $400m is the relatively modest $173m. Of course Translink can devote its commitment to balancing the books if it does not have to find that $400m. But if it had that money in its capital fund – there are, surely, ways to trim some or all of the $173m. That is what happened with the Canada Line, after all, to keep that within budget – actually quite significant scope cuts – fewer trains, less stations, no down escalators and so on – plus the now very expensive decision to abandon the promised bored tube along Cambie for cut and cover. That is now going to cost Translink dearly in compensation to the merchants.

The timing of the announcement is curious. A bit like the way the results of the Iranian election were announced an hour after the pools closed long before many of the ballot boxes could have been collected into the counting places let alone counted. To those of you who have been taking part in the “Be Part of the Plan” process – do you really think they are listening? Or were the most significant decisions already made?

The province, of course, had previously had to announce that the private sector would not be funding the replacement of the Port Mann Bridge or the widening of Highway #1. There was no provision in any budget for the province to bear the brunt of this financing – $3bn or more – but yet that project proceeds with almost indecent haste. The provincial government was elected on the understanding that it was in control of the province’s finances, was better able to handle them than the opposition, and made very specific commitments about the deficit. All of which turns out to have been hogwash – the economy is in much worse state then they admitted, revenues from the business sector are way down – yet no-one thinks of turning off the tap for highways. Indeed the Gateway – a program born during the boom and designed to accommodate exponential growth in imports – is now touted as an essential stimulus to an economy which cannot afford to import anything like previous volumes of consumer goods from China.  Apparently, costs of construction have fallen significantly – but that is not mentioned when the Evergreen line is discussed. Somehow building highways is an investment in the future – but rapid transit isn’t.

Supposedly, we are in the process of converting Metro Vancouver from a “Liveable Region” to a “Sustainable Region”. Apparently BC is ahead of the rest of North America because it has a carbon tax. Yet we are not building transit – or transit oriented development. We are not tackling the car dependance of the suburbs – we are increasing it. And how we travel is one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. Transit is widely acknowledged to be one the most effective ways of cutting emissions – and increasing health – both personal and social.

Indeed it is not just the Evergreen Line which is being cut – transit service across the region will be cut – “unless we find new revenue, starting probably in 2010, 2011, we are going to have to start cutting transit service.”  Well, of course, the  Olympics will still get their special services – money will be kept aside for that – the cuts will start soon afterwards. The services that will be cut will be those that have “low ridership”  – which means the places which now have the worst service levels will see even less. The suburbs will be hit hard because they already have 96% of the trips on other modes. Given that there are few operational savings made by reducing service on SkyTrain and the Canada Line (you need nearly the same number of staff whatever the service level) the cuts will be in the bus service. Translink will get some more funding – up to the levels already permitted by the legislation. Which we know is inadequate. And most of that will be spent in the places where transit is “well used” now (i.e. around 20% of the trips at best). The Premier and the new Minister of Transport will shrug – if they acknowledge the issue at all – and pretend it is nothing to do with them. Which of course is not true but that will be the spin.

When the previous GVTA Board agreed – under duress – to allow the Canada Line to proceed – even though the Evergreen Line was their highest priority – the commitment was made that the Evergreen Line would proceed at the same time. It did not, of course, and now will not. Commitments made by this provincial government mean absolutely nothing. You cannot plan a region  that way. And you cannot expect people to change their mode of travel with this type of cynical double dealing. The present BC government is not green at all – it is simply a neoconservative, dogmatic and purblind, business controlled oligarchy. And we, I am afraid, voted for them and are stuck with them. We have an elected dictatorship – and there is no point at all in taking part in their dog and pony shows. They are simply designed to co-opt the willing – labelling the participants “reasonable, thoughtful” and thus by default those who decline to participate unreasonable, marginalising opponents. There can be only one allowed view – anything else is scoffed at.

TransLink is expected to make a final decision on the fate of the line by October

So why is Ken talking like this now? Because he wants you to support Translink’s demands more money. That is what “Be Part of the Plan” is all about – to build consent for more taxes regionally – but also to soften up the anger when that money turns out not to be enough to build the things that the people who went to the meetings said they wanted. And it is pointless saying that there are other alternatives – like cutting costs, or diverting other taxes. That is not going to happen. What will happen is that both taxes will increase – and fares – and other fees and charges – and service will get worse. Transit mode share will probably fall back once again to 11% – its not the end of the world – just more of the same. No real change. No acknowledgement at all that real change is what is needed  – has been needed for years – is  now more desperately important because the predictions of the rate of climate change turned out be grossly over optimistic. That chimera of sustainability has now receded farther than ever.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 16, 2009 at 10:39 am

Paul R. Landry: The TransLink tax merry-go-round

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The head of the truckers’ association has a longish opinion piece in the Straight. It is not exactly helpful. The province has, predictably, rejected out of hand the suggestion from the Mayors, “business, labour, and environment leaders” to use $450m from the carbon tax to support Translink’s proposed ten year plan. The problems Translink faces are, after all, almost entirely of the province’s making. The province decided to build the Canada Line – and resorted to legislation to remove local control when the GVTA Board had the temerity to demur. But of course they were right – because they had learned from the SkyTrain experience that these very expensive grade separated rapid transit schemes cost so much that other needs – mainly lots more buses for the rest of the region – go unmet.

The province has also committed billions to road expansions – widening Highway #1, replacing the Port Mann and Pitt River Bridges, building the South Fraser Perimeter Road and so on. What the province refuses to do – and has done consistently, and no matter which party is in power – it regard transit provision in the lower mainland as in any way different to the rest of the province. Not that there is any other conurbation of 2m people anywhere else in BC.

Here is where Landry loses the plot

“Much of the burden will be borne by the 70-percent-plus residents who are road users, many of whom have no option but to use their car.”

Well exactly. the reason they have no option is that there is inadequate transit in much of the region – and it has been that way for years. That is what the GVTA was supposed to tackle – but was denied the financial ability to do so by the outgoing NDP provincial government. The problem now is the same only more so. In ten years, population growth, increasing decentralistion of employment and lack of investment in rapid transit in most of the region has made matters worse. Transit mode share has hardly changed – except at SFU and UBC thanks to UPass, which Translink simply cannot afford to extend to other post secondary institutions. And isn’t the Gateway program designed to meet the needs of Landry’s members? It certainly doesn’t do much for anyone else .

The outgoing Transport Minister was always very clear – he was quite happy to spend money building roads even if the P3 projects he favoured weren’t feasible. But he was not going to allow provincial money to be spent on increased transit supply unless both the region and the federal government each carried a third of the burden.  Shirley Bond seems to be singing the same tune.

There is very little to indicate that the over 35 percent of TransLink funding likely to be collected from road users will result in any change from the historic average of four to five percent invested in roads and bridges.

And why should there be? We do not allocate the tax from tobacco to simply treating smoking related diseases. We do not impose a tax on sugar to pay for diabetes treatment – though that might not be a bad idea. And we only tax carbon as a way to reduce other taxes.

At one time Landry himself acknowledged that the more people gave up their cars and used transit, the better traffic conditions would be for his members. In nearly every city in the civilised world it has long been recognized that designing cities for cars does not work. Cities are for people – and until the middle of the twentieth century worked quite well, since most people did not insist on driving a car everywhere. Recent urban history shows that trying to accommodate cars is self defeating – traffic expands to fill the space available. Moving – and storing – cars is dreadfully wasteful of space. If all you had to do to be succesful was to build roads and parking lots then Detroit would be the most successful city in the world. Talk to most people about traffic and they will point to Los Angeles as the place they would least like to have to commute in.

Importantly, the plan does not include strategies to reduce operating costs by, for example, involving the private sector in transit operations or maintenance.

This is simply a red rag to a bull. We had a four month transit strike over this issue. Which, by the way, Translink won. It established that it does have the right to contract out services – but in order to preserve labour peace has committed to the present arrangements. HandyDART, some of West Coast Express – and shortly the Canada Line – are the only parts of the system that are contracted out. Whether or not extending this practice could actually cut costs matters not at all. The CAW will not let it happen.

This time around the province hopes that Translink will be able to force through an increase in taxation in the region that they hope will be blamed on Translink. And this sort of article will help that. The provincial politicians also know that it is four years before they have to go to the electorate again – and as the recent poll showed you can fool enough of the people enough of the time. Whether or not Translink gets it ten year plan the province has washed its hands of the problem will be busy taking credit for the short term congestion relief its road building program will provide at the next election. The fact that the present strategy is short sighted and unsustainable will not matter to voters then, but it will do eventually. I think it is unlikely that given the present economic climate, and the probability that things do not seem to be getting better any time soon, that Translink will get endorsement of its revenue raising proposals. Some kind of half measure is likely: the compromise that dissatisfies everyone equally.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 14, 2009 at 10:28 am

Twenty ideas that could save the world

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A good positive way to start the week. Humanity faces a crisis, and much angst is spent on the dithering of our politicians who seem to be incapable of grasping the importance of actually doing at least some of the things they keep talking about.

The Guardian organised a meeting in Manchester to review some of the “countless ingenious ideas for tackling the problem emanating from universities, thinktanks, front rooms and sheds across the planet” and to select some of the best of them.

Not all were technological. One or two I have actually heard of, and in one case an organisation I volunteer with is already implementing. has been distributing the ONIL energy efficient woodstove to impoverished Mayan villages in Guatemala. Global warming was not our first concern – but a useful by product. Women who have the stoves do not need to spend so much time collecting firewood, their children are healthier since the stoves get the woodsmoke out of the house, and the damage to the forest  of fuel collection is reduced. There is also a much reduced risk of children burning themselves which happens a lot when there is cooking over an open fire.

Two ideas that I find immensely appealing are Rosemary Randall’s ““carbon conversations” in which she encourages people to explore their attitude to consumption, identity and status. People who have been on her course of six meetings typically reduce their emissions by a tonne immediately and then plan to cut in half within two to five years. Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation offered an even simpler prescription: consume less. It might even make us happier too.” But I am sure that you will have your own ideas and I encourage you to check out the links and learn more, a well as voting for your favourites.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 12, 2009 at 9:42 pm