LRT = tail wagging dog

By David Broadland, January 2012

Two competing visions emerge on how to mitigate climate change at the regional level.

This community’s most notable response to the threat of climate change—BC Transit’s proposal to spend $1 billion on light rail transit (LRT) from Downtown to Langford—has been guided by the belief that the bulk of population growth in the CRD over the next several decades will inevitably occur in Langford and Colwood. The idea is that LRT will lower the carbon emissions associated with more people travelling between Langford-Colwood and the core municipalities (Saanich, Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, View Royal).    

Although support for LRT has not come exclusively from politicians aligned with the NDP, that party’s local elite, including MPs Denise Savoie and Randall Garrison, MLAs Rob Fleming, Maurine Karagianis and Lana Popham, Victoria mayor Dean Fortin and various municipal councillors, have given the project its most substantial support. 

The current provincial NDP position on the LRT goes back to just before the 2009 provincial election when the party flip-flopped on its previous support for a carbon tax and launched their low-brow “Axe the Tax” campaign. The NDP’s regressive position threatened to turn green voters off and local NDP MLAs no doubt wanted to reassure those voters they weren’t going completely Neolithic. So the Victoria NDP MLAs attacked the Liberals for supporting LRT in Vancouver but not in Victoria. At the time, Maurine Karagianis said, “The Campbell government’s transit plan focuses almost entirely on projects in the lower mainland while the rest of BC, including Victoria, has been ignored. The Capital Region seeks to avoid sprawl by building an innovative, high quality public transit system with LRT between downtown and the western communities.”

At that same time Rob Fleming said, “The region should stick with its Regional Growth Strategy and pursue an LRT system between Downtown and the western communities.” Fleming seemed to forget that the 2003 Regional Growth Strategy actually called for bus rapid transit. So the NDP’s LRT position evolved not out of any detailed study that made a rational case for it in this city, but rather as a strategy that could help in an election. More recently, in a letter to Focus, Fleming wrote, “The debate that small and large cities in Canada and around the world are having is about how to positively link inevitable urban growth with enhanced economic prosperity that is green and sustainable. That’s the debate we should be having in Victoria.”

True enough. But part of that discussion would involve carefully working out how much of that “inevitable urban growth” should take the form of sprawl: low-density development on the western edge of the CRD in Colwood and Langford (or on the Saanich Peninsula). Such development chews up farmland, Garry oak meadows, wetlands and Douglas-fir forests, and then spits out blasted rock, low-density subdivisions and more cars on the roads, all of which exacerbates climate change.

Yes, there is a Regional Growth Strategy. But the RGS is a compromise that allows  Langford and Colwood to sprawl to their borders if they so choose, even if that’s not in the best interests of the rest of the CRD or the planet. So is sprawl in Langford and Colwood inevitable?

One aspect of the LRT study released last spring by BC Transit (and later endorsed by the CRD Board) that received little public discussion was this question about the inevitability of population growth in Langford and Colwood. Without a much larger population, there’s no good reason to build LRT to Langford. So where does the idea come from that vast sprawl is inevitable?

The ridership projections presented in the BC Transit study (co-authored by SNC-Lavalin, a company that designs, builds and operates LRT systems all over the globe) actually rely heavily on another study delivered to the CRD in 2009 by the Vancouver planning firm Urban Futures. That study, A Context for Change Management in the Capital Regional District, predicted that over the next 30 years the population of the CRD would grow by 111,000 with the West Shore receiving 51 percent of that growth. The numbers gathered by Urban Futures to define the trends they thought would play out were heavily influenced by data from the years 2006-2008—the height of the building boom in the CRD.

Now an interesting fact about that time is that there were a number of proposals for high-density developments in Langford that would have been tallied by Urban Futures but that were later cancelled, or were started but never completed. Not least among those doomed projects for which a building permit was obtained was Robert Quigg’s $1.4 billion 650-unit four-tower luxury condo/vineyard project on the east side of the Bear Mountain development. Quigg apparently killed his project after learning Bear Mountain had inflated their real estate sales figures. Other victims of those wildly reckless times were Bear Mountain’s own 14-storey Highlander project and the South Skirt Mountain development. The Bear Mountain and South Skirt Mountain developments triggered construction of the $30 million Spencer Road interchange, now widely known as Stew Young’s Bridge to Nowhere. That overpass now sits unfinished—and obviously unneeded—across the Trans Canada Highway, its only useful purpose being a monumental warning to passing drivers about unrealistic projections.

So it was out of this over-wrought period that Urban Futures’ report, which formed the statistical backbone of the LRT study, was born. 

Urban Futures predicted that as the region’s population aged, there would be a long-term shift towards multi-storey housing. They went on to predict—and who could blame them given the condo-mania hype that was coming out of Langford and Colwood at the time?—that over the next 30 years, the West Shore’s share of multi-storey housing would grow while the core municipalities’ would shrink. But the last three years have seen the opposite. The core’s share has held steady while West Shore’s has steadily declined.

Moreover, Urban Futures noted that its projections assumed there would be no substantial changes to any of the municipalities’ policies around density. The numbers it came up with didn’t take into account the possibility that, over time, the City of Victoria could adopt new policies that would encourage and expedite dense residential development in and around the Downtown core. Urban Futures projection didn’t foresee someone like recently-elected councillor Ben Isitt coming along and changing the City’s direction. Isitt has said he will work to increase the Downtown residential population and thereby shift future population growth away from the western periphery of the CRD.

So there are two competing visions emerging about how to mitigate climate change in terms of how the region develops.

On one hand you have the tail-wagging-the-dog vision that sprawl in Langford and Colwood is inevitable, and so transportation infrastructure should be reshaped in the hope of reducing the accompanying traffic congestion. The LRT proposal, which depends heavily on future growth in Langford and Colwood to make it viable, plays right into that vision. You accept sprawl’s deforestation and destruction of rare ecosystems, the loss of farmland and the immense emissions price tag of the LRT itself, and hope that, on balance, you are reducing emissions.

On the other hand you have the dog-wagging-the-tail vision: the core municipalities develop new policies that encourage and expedite denser residential development, which would then out-compete the West Shore for the lion’s share of future population growth in the region. That vision doesn’t need a billion-dollar LRT to Langford. That vision understands the proposed LRT would only encourage urban sprawl and thereby defeat the long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions by shortening distances travelled. It encourages denser, more energy-efficient forms of housing, and avoids deforestation, destruction of wetlands and loss of farmland. And more people living closer to Downtown would strengthen the economic prospects of businesses there.

Currently, most regional politicians seem to prefer that the tail wags the dog.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.