bridge construction

In February 2008, the Bear Mountain interchange at Spencer Road and the Trans Canada Highway became the center of controversy. Protesters occupied the proposed construction site, demonstrating against Langford Council’s plan to build the interchange and its financing methods. The clash escalated when RCMP officers arrested several unarmed citizens, sparking outrage among civil liberties groups defending citizens’ right to engage in civil disobedience. Langford taxpayers were left to bear the undisclosed expenses after the mayor withdrew his threat of a lawsuit against the protesters.

Case No. 1: The Spencer Road Decision

The absence of a binding regional transportation plan in the CRD (Capital Regional District) has fueled the challenges faced by municipalities like Langford. When Langford decided to support the construction of the Spencer Road Interchange, they justified it with claims of traffic congestion and the need to provide access to the Trans Canada Highway for residents of the expanding Bear Mountain development. However, the reality contradicted these justifications.

Langford’s own Official Community Plan (OCP) identified congestion at the McKenzie intersection, not Spencer Road, as the pressing transportation issue. The regional and provincial government plans from ten years ago highlighted the urgent need to address traffic congestion at the McKenzie Road intersection. Unfortunately, other projects of lesser importance took precedence, bypassing the regional priority queue.

Moreover, Langford’s decision-making process failed to consider sustainable alternatives, such as increasing urban density and providing commuter rail, to tackle traffic congestion. Critics accused Langford Council of prioritizing the interests of Bear Mountain developers over public input and democratic principles.

Content Background

Case No. 2: The Johnson Street Bridge Decision

In 2009, an engineering report suggested necessary upgrades for the 86-year-old Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria. The City Council rushed to secure federal and provincial stimulus funding and decided to borrow $42 million for bridge replacement without public consultation. The lack of transparency triggered demands for a referendum and widespread criticism of the council’s arbitrary actions.

Following public pressure and the gathering of enough signatures, Victoria Council had to reconsider its decision and face the possibility of a referendum on the borrowing plan. Subsequently, additional costs for engineering consultants inflated the proposed replacement and refurbishment prices to nearly $100 million. A referendum has been scheduled, but given the flawed process and escalating costs, approval for any option remains uncertain.

Victoria’s strategic plan and the capital works priorities outlined in the current OCP failed to address the bridge’s significance in relation to other local and regional needs. The absence of a regional transportation plan and decisions made without considering the context of transportation demands led to inefficient use of funds and limited public involvement.

While advocating for sustainable transportation, such as cycling, the lack of a regional transportation plan makes it difficult for taxpayers to assess the wisdom of incurring a substantial debt for the bridge. The burden of costs solely falls on Victoria residents, although users from neighbouring municipalities benefit as well.

A proposed trial that converts one car lane into a cycling lane preserving the rail bridge for commuter traffic has been suggested as an affordable alternative. However, without meaningful public engagement and limited options defined by the council, residents may continue to feel excluded from the decision-making process. In case of a majority “no” vote during the referendum, the bridge’s deterioration may persist until a new city council proposes a different plan.

The importance of a comprehensive regional transportation agreement, empowered with substantial authority, becomes evident when examining the consequences of the present situation—an unfortunate state of affairs marked by imprudent decisions and mounting costs.

Case No. 3: The McTavish Interchange

Adding to the examples of Langford and Victoria, the McTavish interchange stands as another contentious decision made to secure federal stimulus funds under the guise of addressing non-existent traffic issues. The claimed traffic congestion, resulting from the convergence of ferry and airport-bound traffic, has faced widespread skepticism. Critics, such as UVic’s lawyer and economist Michael M’Gonigle, denounce the project as a “$24 million waste” and lament the lack of meaningful consultation by the provincial government.

While the Victoria Airport Authority advocated for the interchange extension to support a proposed runway expansion, the decision’s final push came from the availability of large-scale federal stimulus funding. However, the potential increase in airport traffic to justify the interchange extension remains uncertain. Instead, there are economic prospects for developers as the accessible land near the airport becomes suitable for industrial and commercial growth. This development-driven decision-making pattern echoes the situations observed in Langford and Victoria.

M’Gonigle expresses serious concerns about stimulus packages driving developments without prioritizing public transport and mitigating climate change impacts. In his view, investing in public transport to reduce car usage would be a more sensible approach. The decision to prioritize motor vehicle access to the airport contradicts regional objectives to promote alternative transportation modes.

The mayor of Langford, Stew Young, views the McTavish Road project as a politically driven choice that doesn’t align with the region’s logical investments as a whole. He suggests that such decisions prioritize business interests rather than the pressing highway needs of the region. This imbalance in decision-making is causing frustration among the public.

The Need for Regional Transportation Coordination

To be fair, the Capital Regional District (CRD) has a regional transportation policy outlined in the TravelChoices Strategy, which aims to reduce single-occupancy vehicle usage and discourages road expansions. However, the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, responsible for the CRD’s public transit service, primarily focuses on bus services and lacks decision-making authority due to provincial legislation.

With 13 municipalities and three electoral areas in the CRD, the absence of a regional transportation plan and coordination leads to local demands overshadowing regional issues. A 2003 working paper by transportation consultants Urban Systems Ltd highlights the lack of regional coordination as a major barrier to obtaining government funding and effectively allocating existing funds. The cost estimates for managing and maintaining the primary road network alone pose a significant challenge for municipal agencies in the region.

The absence of a coordinated approach results in waste, inefficiency, and a disillusioned public. The availability of stimulus funds often leads individual councils to compete for projects without considering priority lists. Similarly, developers with deep pockets influence road infrastructure expansion decisions to support their projects, exacerbating the lack of coordination.

Considering the three cases presented, a regional decision-making body and a comprehensive regional road network plan deserve serious consideration.

Striving for a Better Approach

The new approach emphasizes “coordination and cooperation.” The CRD’s Regional Sustainability Strategy is under review, and the board intends to take a more assertive approach to obtain member support for regional transportation policy and priorities. The CRD has been studying primary corridors in the region and exploring ways to enhance inter-jurisdictional coordination in investment decisions.

Robert Lapham, general manager of planning and protective services with the CRD, proposes three potential approaches: a voluntary agreement among member municipalities to adhere to plan standards and priorities, a binding agreement, or a separate decision-making body with authority to make binding decisions. The challenge lies in reaching a consensus on the hierarchy of priorities.

While some mayors express skepticism or concerns about regional models like Vancouver’s TransLink, others remain optimistic. The potential benefits of a regional authority include prioritization of regional objectives over local priorities and effective decision-making power over transportation matters. Alternatively, amalgamation is considered by some as a way to increase strength when applying for funding, but there is limited enthusiasm among local politicians to relinquish individual municipal autonomy.

Amidst the challenges posed by conflicting priorities and politics, a commitment to regional collaboration is crucial to prevent repeated costly mistakes and public discontent.Katherine Gordon, an author and freelance writer based on Gabriola Island, where the provincial government holds authority over roads and public transit options are limited, shares her observations of the need for effective regional transportation planning.