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

Archive for December 15th, 2014

Why are Roads different to Transit?

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One of the twitter responses I got to my last post

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Now I must admit that even when I was with Translink – many years ago now – I was not required to do much about the Major Road Network (MRN). It exists because the province was going to download some provincial highways and bridges to the municipalities  anyway. So if they all joined up into Translink they would have access to some of the new funding that was to come with the new authority. The only exception was the City of Vancouver which did not have any provincial highways within it to be downloaded. Fortunately one of the strongest proponents of the new authority was Councillor George Puil, and he came up with the formula that persuaded Vancouver that being part of the MRN would be a Good Idea. Some roads within Vancouver are now identified as part of the regional MRN.

You can refer to Translink’s web site for more information (and a map) which also includes the rather odd list of bridges, one they built themselves – partly paid for by tolls – to replace the free Albion Ferry, two important links that cross municipal boundaries and one bizarre little ancient wooden swing bridge wholly inside Delta. Oddly the Annacis Swing Bridge which connects Delta’s Annacis Island to New Westminster – and also carries the Southern Railway of BC – remains with the province even though the road it carries is not a provincial highway either. Basically the Knight St and Patullo Bridges were overdue for expensive upgrades so the province was eager to get rid of them.

Translink committed to spend $45m on the MRN this year – which out of a total spending of ~$1.4b is not a very large amount. Translink does not itself have any operational involvement – all of that spending is passed through the municipalities and nearly always on jointly funded projects. The MRN is actually run by a committee made up of the Chief Engineers of each of the municipalities, with Translink providing administrative support. Day to day management and operations remain with the municipalities. For cities like Vancouver and New Westminster there is no real interest, or opportunity, for major capacity expansions. The cities are built out and land acquisition costs are huge. And as Seattle is learning (and Boston learnt) tunnelling for additional freeway capacity is not only expensive but very risky. The only real stumbling block has been the lack of willingness to give up road space to more efficient modes. There are no busways here – and very few dedicated separate cycling facilities. No one has ever seriously considered here what the French call “the art of insertion” (link to presentation) to devote more of the space between building frontages of a street to wider sidewalks, tram tracks or dedicated exclusive bus lanes.

It must also be noticed that municipalities themselves do not spend very much on new road building. A lot of new roads get added to the network every year, and “improvements” are made to the existing roads, by developers – or by cities thanks to development cost charges. Many major developments are made conditional upon increases to local network capacity. No-one, so far as I am aware, ever does any examination of the combined network effects of these developments.

The big spender on roads in the region is the province. While other jurisdictions have cut back on road spending to free up funds for more efficient and environmentally friendly public transport, BC continues throw billions at freeways and other major highway expenditures. It has never suggested that any of these projects be subject to dedicated funding – or referenda of local populations. It is merely continuing with business as usual – blacktop politics has long dominated the BC agenda. In part this is due to the fact that BC only has one major urban metropolis. The Ministry of Transportation is in reality the Ministry of Highways since no other mode grabs the attention of the provincial politicians in quite the same way. BC Ferries, of course, being a whole ‘nother topic best left for another day.

The reasons the province gives for its obsession with road construction is always framed in the context of jobs and the economy. It is always referred to as an “investment” which sounds so much less profligate than “spending”. In urban areas like the Lower Mainland it has also been tied to the port – the “Gateway” – even though the vast majority of the import and export tonnage moved through the Port of Vancouver moves inland by railway – and probably increasingly by pipeline in the future.

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INSERT The Port of Metro Vancouver has recently announced that it is changing the way it licences trucks that serve the Port. Apparently there are too many of them. Of course none of this was ever anticipated the Gateway proponents and their demands for a much wider Port Mann Bridge and the South Fraser Perimeter Road

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In reality, the major growth in traffic on these new roads is single occupant cars and trucks used as cars. Traffic in urban areas expands and contracts to fill the space available – and this induced traffic is seen long before land use changes add their contribution to congestion. Which in any event is not an all day or everyday phenomenon. Most roads, much of the time, have spare capacity. Like the parking lots, they are overbuilt to meet the peak need and the rest of the time are underutilised. It was ever thus.

It is very significant I think that only two new major bridges have been funded by tolls in recent years – and in both cases revenues have been below forecast. Gordon Campbell early on decided to court popularity by cancelling the tolls on the Coquihalla Highway and no-one has ever seriously suggested tolling elsewhere, though a P3 on the Sea to Sky uses “shadow tolls” to calculate payments to the contractor.  User pay is a prerequisite for transit – and ferries. On highways and bridges, not so much.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm