The road to hell
by Katherine Palmer Gordon. July 2010
Three controversial infrastructure projects highlight the need for a better way to decide what projects are most important to residents of the region—and which get funding.
February, 2008: Dozens of RCMP, some armed with assault rifles, swarm a campsite in Langford and arrest six unarmed citizens, charging them with mischief. As many as 300 police officers surround a nearby neighbourhood for several days afterwards, questioning local residents as they travel to and from their homes.
The campers have been occupying the proposed construction site for the Bear Mountain interchange at Spencer Road and the Trans Canada Highway, protesting Langford Council’s plans to build the interchange and help finance it.
After being removed from the construction site, the protesters are threatened by the mayor of Langford with a lawsuit to pay for the costs of the police action. Civil liberties groups across the country react with outrage, defending the rights of citizens to engage in civil disobedience. The mayor backs off, and Langford taxpayers bear the undisclosed expense.
Another astonishing scene is played out a few days after the arrests, at the next public Langford Council meeting. Keen to get its hands on close to $5 million of provincial government funding, Langford bypassed public calls for a referendum and rushed through a decision to support the interchange at a hastily-called meeting just two days after Christmas 2007. Then, in another meeting in late February 2008, the room is packed with pro-development advocates cheek-by-jowl with infuriated opponents of the interchange. In complete chaos, the meeting is adjourned, but not before Councillor Denise Blackwell is caught on film raising her middle finger to the crowd of protesters.
Does that sound like part of a normal, reasonable and objective municipal decision-making process about road infrastructure priorities?
Case no. 1: The Spencer Road decision
Here’s part of the problem: There’s no binding regional transportation plan in the CRD that sets out clear priorities for spending on regional road infrastructure and to which individual municipalities like Langford can be held accountable.
When Langford decided to support the building of the Spencer Road Interchange, it cited traffic congestion at the existing lights, alongside the vital need to provide access to the Trans Canada Highway for residents of the ever-expanding Bear Mountain development and proposed adjacent subdivisions. Mayor Stew Young also stated at the time that failure to build the interchange would “kill” not only the Langford economy, but the Victoria economy.
The project was supposed to be paid for by a combination of developers’ contributions and provincial infrastructure funding: a freebie for Langford taxpayers. But so wedded to the new developments and their backers was Langford Council that they even agreed to carry the developers’ financing for the balance of the cost.
That decision flew in the face of a number of facts. Despite Young’s claims about “traffic backing halfway up the Malahat,” the reality is that there was, and still is, very little traffic trickling down the road from Bear Mountain. In addition, Langford’s own OCP identifies congestion at the McKenzie intersection—not Spencer Road—as its most pressing transportation issue.
The McKenzie Road intersection on Highway 1—the main culprit behind the infamous Colwood Crawl—was identified in both regional and provincial government plans ten years ago as a top priority for action to relieve traffic congestion. Yet it remains untouched while other less pressing projects have jumped the regional priority queue.
Even if there were congestion at Spencer Road, the OCP states that the solution is not simply to build new road infrastructure, but to increase urban density and provide sustainable alternatives such as commuter rail: “Any increases in the number of automobile focused roadways will attract people away from transit. Building more roadways will only encourage people to live in single family units.”
This did not however appear to be among the criteria applied to Langford’s decision-making, which seemed to be less about traffic congestion, as opponents suggested, than it was about meeting the wishes of the Bear Mountain developers. Zoe Blunt of the Vancouver Island Community Forest Action Network, who is now suing Langford on alleged abuses of public process, says unequivocally: “Langford Council ignored public input, due process and democratic principles. The people of Langford are being abused by the people who are supposed to represent them.”
At the height of the protests against Langford Council, respondents in various media surveys and in talk-back media were calling Langford’s approach “a blind rush to develop and destroy”; “ a lack of true democracy”; “corrupt”; and a “shut-out” of public participation. One caller into a CFAX radio show said bluntly: “This council seems to be accountable only to developers and their friends.”
In the meantime, as anyone who has travelled under the Spencer Road overpass recently will know, construction on what has been dubbed “the Bridge to Nowhere” has stalled. In March, the heavily debt-laden Bear Mountain Master Partnership was placed under creditor protection for defaulting on some of its payments, and the overseer has now has been given the go-ahead for bankruptcy. Langford Council agreed to defer payment by the Partnership of interest on the $7.5 million Council borrowed on its behalf.
Is this really how a major road intersection on the Trans Canada should have been dealt with? Stew Young, who was certain in the development’s early days that it would be good for the economy, is now shrugging his shoulders and claiming that no one could have predicted what the economy has done. But Gordon Denford, an experienced local developer, told the Times Colonist that many other developers questioned the risk behind the project right from the beginning: “Most of us felt the Victoria economy wasn’t big enough to handle it.”
In the meantime, Langford treasurer Steve Ternent told the same paper in late March that the interchange will proceed “when the market warrants it.” Hang on. Weren’t we told that the interchange was critical for the economy—not the other way around? Oh, and yes—wasn’t it vital to ease traffic pressure on the Millstream Road Connector? Is that no longer the case?
Clearly, the Spencer Road decision-making process leaves much to be desired. Contradictions abound, and the consequences of trying to have it both ways seem to have become painfully clear.
Case no. 2: The Johnson Street Bridge decision
After a 2009 engineering report suggested the 86-year-old Johnson Street Bridge needed seismic and other upgrades, Victoria Council, in a dash to obtain federal and provincial stimulus funding, decided to borrow $42 million to replace the bridge, forgoing public consultation (except on the three replacement designs) on the biggest infrastructure expenditure in the City’s history.
Demands for a referendum poured in. Online forums were quickly clogged with condemnations of council’s arbitrary actions. Councillor Lynn Hunter responded by saying she considered a referendum “an affront to representative democracy,” drawing even more ire from voters. A group of concerned citizens, after extraordinary effort, gathered enough signatures from electors to force Victoria Council to back off its decision or hold a referendum on the plan to borrow.
They backed off and now, after hiring more engineering consultants—at a cost of about $400,000—the price of the new proposals for replacement and refurbishment have both climbed to close to $100 million, give or take the railway span. A referendum on borrowing for one of the options will be held in late November. There is no guarantee, given the way the process has been conducted and the alarming costs, that the City will be given the go-ahead for any option they present to voters. (The referendum question must be a yes-or-no borrowing request for just one option.)
Council, observes Downtown Residents’ Association Chair Rob Randall, was “caught flat-footed” when the earlier stimulus funding was announced. It responded, he says, not with a considered decision in the context of the City’s and region’s transportation needs, but by “flailing around trying to hammer a round peg into the government’s square funding hole.”
The bridge does form an important link in a major regional corridor between the West Shore and downtown Victoria. Some 23,000 vehicles cross it daily, and, at peak periods, 800 bicycles and 800 pedestrians per day, according to the latest City of Victoria traffic study. But close by is the Point Ellice Bridge. And while CRD reports have identified the bridge as one to be watched for growing traffic congestion, they stop short of recommending upgrading or replacing it.
Victoria’s strategic plan is silent on transportation, and the capital works priorities identified in the current OCP do not include work on the bridge. While Council is keen to improve cycling and pedestrian access on the crossing—both of which are regional objectives—little attention was focused on the importance of the bridge in relation to other pressing local or regional priorities.
The rail bridge, which has long been touted as crucial to the future of commuter rail traffic, has just been dropped from the bridge plans by council (at city’s staff suggestion), unless they can get funding for it from other levels of government—indicating again the type of ad hoc decisions that are made when no regional transportation authority is in place. In a similar vein, the City has also decided to make the structure a “lifeline” bridge, an expensive decision, without any requirement or input, economic or otherwise, from the whole region that it serves.
Councillor John Luton justifies the decision to replace the bridge on the basis of the proposed cycling and pedestrian improvements that would result. “We’re committed to more sustainable transportation modes as part of the regional strategy…The bridge is a key link in the cycling network and at the moment it’s a very weak link.”
Bicycle ridership, he notes, is increasing nearly twice as fast as motor vehicle use in the CRD. “We can’t eliminate cars altogether but encouraging cycle use is an important tool for climate change,” he argues.
Fair enough. All the same, without a regional transportation plan to give it context, to weigh what have become expensive, competing options like rail and bike use, it’s difficult for Victoria taxpayers to judge the wisdom of a huge debt for the bridge. And why should they be the only ones footing the bill? Many who use the bridge, cyclists and car drivers alike, live in other municipalities like Esquimalt and the West Shore, yet those people will not bear any of the costs.
Ross Crockford, who helped lead the campaign for a referendum, is now advocating a trial whereby one of three car lanes is converted to a cycling lane to see if it’s a workable alternative. Besides affordable, it would preserve the rail bridge for rail.
He also notes, “the people of Victoria sent a clear message that the public want a say on the matter.” Yet, given that Victoria City Council and staff are still defining the limited and expensive options, even with a referendum, residents may still feel they’ve been bypassed for any meaningful role in the process. And if a majority of them vote “no” to the borrowing cost of the option chosen, the bridge will deteriorate further, at least until the following year when a new city council may be elected to come up with yet another plan.
A regional transportation agreement—one that had some teeth—might have helped prevent this sad, mad, increasingly expensive state of affairs.
Case no. 3: The McTavish Intersection
In case the Langford and Victoria examples weren’t enough to convince you, the McTavish interchange, on which ground was broken in November 2009, is a third decision that is publicly perceived as development-driven and made in haste to obtain federal stimulus funds under the thin guise of correcting traffic problems that don’t really exist.
The existence of traffic congestion—supposedly arising from ferry traffic pouring out of Swartz Bay meeting airport-bound traffic coming from the other direction—has been questioned widely. Peninsula resident Michael M’Gonigle, a lawyer, economist and political ecologist at UVic, calls the project a “complete waste of $24 million,” and says that, as with Langford and Victoria, locals have been up in arms about a lack of any meaningful consultation by the provincial government, into whose jurisdiction the decision fell. “They had meetings, but they were just information meetings, not real consultation,” says M’Gonigle.
The Victoria Airport Authority had lobbied for an extension to the intersection for several years, to support a proposed runway expansion. The VAA has even thrown $3 million into the pot to help pay for the new intersection. As with the Johnson Street Bridge, however, what clinched the decision to go ahead was the sudden availability of large-scale federal economic stimulus funding.
But whether the runway expansion will generate enough additional traffic to the airport to justify the interchange extension is unknown. There are, however, some potentially desirable economic spin-offs for developers, as land near the airport becomes increasingly accessible for industrial and commercial growth. CRD Chair Geoff Young anticipates inevitable development pressures on the land surrounding the new interchange: “That’s what we saw in Langford, and there’s no reason to think we won’t see it around the airport.”
Geoff Young likens McTavish to the Spencer Road Interchange: “Those decisions were made in large part in response, in the one instance, to private developers and in the other the Airport Authority offering to help pay if the interchanges were undertaken in those locations. They weren’t made in the context of the most logical investments to make in the region as a whole.”
M’Gonigle is seriously concerned about stimulus packages driving developments such as this. Spending $24 million to help commuters drive to the airport also seems counterintuitive to regional goals to mitigate climate change impacts, and is certainly contradictory to the CRD’s prioritization of use of alternative modes of transport. “If you want to stimulate the economy,” says M’Gonigle, “we should be investing in public transport and trying to get cars off the road, not make it easier for them to be used like they’re doing with McTavish. This is unbelievably stupid.”
Geoff Young concurs: “For the next 50 years it will be easier to get to the airport by motor vehicle, so people will be less likely to make use of transit or rail or other systems not tied to the highway.”
Langford Mayor Stew Young’s assessment of the project, incidentally, is a political one: “McTavish Road is at the bottom of the regional priority list. But it’s driven by politics.” He’s referring to the area’s Conservative MP and a government MLA, both incumbent cabinet ministers who heavily favour business interests. Add the two together, says Stew Young, and you get a brand new government-funded interchange that few regard as necessary and is fodder for eager developers, while other pressing regional highway needs languish.
That would never happen in Langford, of course.
Is it time to consider a regional plan?
To be fair, the CRD does have a regional transportation policy. The TravelChoices Strategy sets out objectives aimed at getting people out of their single occupant vehicles (SOVs) and frowns on further road expansions. The Victoria Regional Transit Commission, comprised of seven local mayors, also operates the CRD’s public transit service on a regional basis.
But the Commission is focused on bus services, and is constrained in its decision-making authority by the provincial legislation under which it operates. The CRD also has no teeth by which to insist on compliance by its members with the TravelChoices Strategy. Nor does it have authority to make transportation infrastructure spending decisions on behalf of its members.
In the meantime, there are 13 municipalities and three electoral areas in the CRD, which is intersected by three highways and several other heavily-used inter-municipal primary corridors. The provincial government manages the highways and the roads in the electoral areas within an annual operating budget that doesn’t factor in regional priorities. While the municipalities all have transportation budgets, they are focused on local roads, and their official community plans (OCPs) target issues such as speeding and parking bylaws rather than road priorities.
A 2003 CRD working paper prepared by transportation consultants Urban Systems Ltd states: “Local demands for changes to the way a roadway is managed are often made without adequate appreciation of the regional issues and trade-offs.” It also condemns the lack of regional coordination on transportation issues in the CRD as a major barrier to obtaining government funding and to the effective allocation of what limited funds do exist.
As recent cost estimates for the Johnson Street Bridge epitomize, road and bridge building are enormously expensive enterprises. The anticipated long-term capital cost of management and maintenance of the CRD’s primary road network alone is $23.5 million annually over the next 20 years, a figure that the working paper confirmed is “well beyond the current resources of municipal agencies in the region” and “clearly the most significant challenge facing the region.”
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that when pots of stimulus cash are dangled in front of them, individual councils jump to grab them, competing with other municipalities, regardless of whether the project is one that should be lower on the priority list. The same phenomenon exhibits itself when developers with deep pockets offer to subsidize road infrastructure expansion to support their projects.
But the costs of this uncoordinated approach are waste and inefficiency, often ineffectiveness, and not the least, a disillusioned, cynical public.
Given the Balkanized state of the region’s politics, and the fact that the provincial government makes its own decisions over provincial highway expansions, the concept of regional collaboration is challenging. All the same, held up against the mirror of the three cases presented here, a coordinated decision-making body and a regional road network plan are worthy of greater consideration.
Is there a better way?
The new mantra, apparently, is “co-ordination and co-operation.” Robert Lapham, general manager of planning and protective services with the CRD, says that the Regional Sustainability Strategy is under review, and that the board intends to take “a much more aggressive” approach in 2010 to obtaining member buy-in to regional transportation policy and priorities.
He says the CRD has been researching the primary corridors in the region and ways to enhance interjurisdictional coordination in investment decisions in those corridors. “We’re also defining a hierarchy of those corridors in terms of where they fit in strategically in the region. That will be the basis for a policy framework that municipalities and BC Transit can implement with operational decisions.”
Lapham knows that the trick will be reaching consensus on the hierarchy. CRD staff are suggesting one of three new approaches be adapted: a voluntary agreement between member municipalities to abide by standards and priorities in the plan; a binding agreement; or a separate decision-making body with authority to make binding decisions.
Mayor Stew Young says he’s all for road corridor decisions being made through a coordinated regional decision-making body: “It would mean better priority setting.” But he also says: “That’s been pie-in- the- sky dreaming for 30 years…There are too many different opinions of the priorities and too many competing interests. I don’t believe we need more bus lanes, for example, which is what BC Transit wants, when we have a train corridor with a much lower carbon footprint that could be put to use.”
Geoff Young is more optimistic. He doesn’t dismiss the possibility of a co-operative regional model working. “It’s not impossible. We already deal with conflicting politics at the CRD table and we manage. Voting decides in the end and that’s usually based on expert technical advice. You don’t please everyone but it’s not a bad way to make decisions. I assume a regional authority could run much the same way.”
John Luton says he has been lobbying for a regional transportation authority for years: “Municipalities would no longer be able to hold regional objectives hostage to local priorities.” He envisions an autonomous body with decision-making power over all transportation matters, including roads and transit, similar to Vancouver’s TransLink.
But Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard has serious reservations about a model like Vancouver’s TransLink: “You have to be careful what you wish for. The suggestion we should have something like TransLink—well, that’s a disaster. I’ve seen the books and they’re $2 billion in debt, and there’s a lot of animosity between Metro Vancouver municipalities because they pay for it but they don’t control it.”
At the end of 2008 TransLink’s debt was $1.8 billion and climbing. Border conflicts between Lower Mainland municipalities are rife, causing serious difficulties for the TransLink board in dealing with inter-municipal roads. The provincial government also intervened two years ago to constrain TransLink’s powers when the authority expressed resistance to some aspects of the provincial Gateway Project, leaving TransLink with all of its responsibilities for the road network and transit but subject, effectively, to the government’s direction.
Another alternative, of course, is amalgamation. Stew Young says enthusiastically: “I’m a supporter. It would be tough but it would give us strength of numbers with the province when we apply for funding. Instead of doing it individually we could work it out together and do a better job of getting enough money for what we need to do.”
In general, however, there appears little serious appetite among local politicians to relinquish individual municipal autonomy to a regional authority or an amalgamated city.
“It comes back to politics, like always,” reflects Ross Crockford. “The differences between municipal priorities are still potentially irreconcilable tensions. It depends on personalities. But if they are really committed to getting [a regional transportation plan] right, it could work.”
For the sake of CRD voters and taxpayers, let’s hope so. Without that commitment, it seems that the expensive mistakes of the past and the public outrage that accompanies them are only likely to be repeated.
Katherine Gordon is an author and freelance writer based on Gabriola Island, where the provincial government reigns supreme over the roads, a street without potholes is unheard of, and the only public transit system is one based on the time-honoured holding out of a thumb.