Caveat lector

This site is a Blog. It started because I like to write, and often have many things to say.

Back in the ‘naughts, I started by blogging about things going on in New West, my experiences with the New Westminster Environmental Partners, local/regional/national politics, general “environmental stuff”, and random thoughts about whatever struck me at the time. I had a lot of opinions (and still hold some of them), but tried to draw from my scientific training to keep things factual and informative. This blog was also an excuse for me to dig deeper into topics important to me, so I could work on my writing and learn, and that learning continues today.

When I ran for City Council a couple of years ago, a major part of my platform was the idea that the City needed to communicate better. Not necessarily “more”, as I think the City is pretty transparent and rises above most others in public engagement efforts, but “better” in not just explaining what is happening, but in telling the story of why. I vowed to continue blogging on City issues, and to use this forum to explain my thinking when I am making decisions on behalf of the members of the New Westminster community. I have managed to keep that promise by reporting here on every decision made during my time at Council, and giving people some insight into how we got to where we are.

I was initially a little worried (and warned by some!) about blow-back in this social media world. People might take something I said a few years ago out of context (or even in context, frankly) and use it against me. I have had a couple of very minor examples of people attempting to discredit me with my own words, but the cranky Facebook Quarterbacks don’t seem to catch traction for what I (perhaps naively) think is a simple reason: I put my opinions out there and use own my words. I am happy to discuss my ideas, and to disagree. If you bring a contrary opinion with good data to back it, I’m compelled to look at your point of view, because the best conversations are when you don’t agree. Sometimes I even change my mind.

Everything I write here is in my own words (outside of quotes, of course), and opinions are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the City or of my Council colleagues, and this is in no way City-endorsed communications. Similarly, I have a another job (these are not the opinions of my clients) and I volunteer for various causes and organizations (these are not the opinions of any of those organizations). I am very aware of conflict of interest, and will not be commenting here on topics that are related to my work. I do use my professional education and experience to inform my opinions, but please don’t ask me about my work directly.

I am an Environmental Scientist. I have a science degree with a major in Physical Geography and a Minor in Earth Sciences. I have a Masters Degree in Earth Sciences. I have studied active volcanoes in Hawaii, mapped aquifer sensitivity for the Great State of Illinois, dropped out of a helicopter to spend weeks in remote flycamps far from the nearest nowhere in the Canadian Cordillera, and have bobbed around the Gulf Islands mapping sedimentary units while trying my hand at genetic stratigraphy. I have drilled many holes in many pieces of ground to avail myself of the secrets held in the soils and groundwater below. I know scary things about ichnology. I am a registered Professional Geoscientist with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia. I also read a lot of science and am skeptical by nature (thanks to Carl Sagan and James Randi). However, nothing sciencey that I write here should be construed to represent a professional opinion.

I am both an environmentalist (political opinion) and an environmental scientist (scientific discipline). My environmental concerns are informed by science, not by fear mongering or by conspiracy theories. I am convinced by the body of scientific evidence that WiFi does not cause cancer, and that homeopathy cannot cure it. I am a strong believer in both Hanlon’s and Occam’s Razors. I do what I can to reduce my impact on the planet, but I also live in a modern North American city. I own a car. I fly in planes. Sometimes, I use a plastic bag, I sometimes take a longer shower, or shower more frequently, that is absolutely necessary. I do my best to reduce my personal impact on the planet, but ultimately, I believe what we do on the ground in our day-to-day lives will make much less difference than fundamentally changing how we govern our society and attribute “externalized” costs in our economy. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite, I can take it.

I don’t have a copy editor, and do most of my writing in frenzy, late at night when other pressures on my time and consciousness are abated for a few hours. If I took the time for sober second thought and reflection (never mind fixing spelling), nothing would ever be posted. I often start sentences with conjunctions and end them with prepositions, and my favorite piece of punctuation is ellipses. I know these are bad habits, but I suppose, like it or hate it, but that is my voice. Please forgive the typos and recognize this as a volunteer effort, with volunteer results.

I have, more in the past than the present, used profanity to make a point. So going back through the archive, you will find the occasional adult word. I don’t apologize for it, and will not, now that I am “An Elected Official”, retroactively censor myself. I learned to use profanity from my Mom, who was of the notion that overuse of profanity was lazy, and demonstrated a lack of vocabulary or comfort in self-expression. As a result, when she (very rarely) swore, you know she really meant it.

I have a sense of humour; despite how those last few paragraphs read, I don’t take myself too seriously. Still, I reserve the right to call people jerks, and would argue for their right to call me the same (although I would expect them to make a compelling case). I will tend to treat anonymous commenters here with less respect than people who stand behind their comments with their real names. I love to debate, and can get passionate about topics, but I respect those who make me think about an issue more than those who agree with me without knowledge behind their convictions. I often sound like a know-it-all, but that is mostly bluster. Proving me wrong and changing my mind are the best ways to get a free beer out of me.

So, fairly warned, please read, enjoy, share with your friends and neighbours, and tell me what you think.

Pattullo Consultation 2 – the options.

Now that the public consultation events have come to a close, and we have a week left to give TransLink our comments, I want to follow up my discussion of the Consultation Process with my reactions to the options provided.
So as to not bury the lede, and to allow for great summarizing and generalization, I am going to list the options provided by TransLink in the consultation documents grouped into four categories based completely on my own (as informed as possible) opinions: Optimal, Sub-optimal, Bad, and Untenable.
Optimal: If I was voting, this is where I would cast my ballot.
Options #4 and #5.
Fixing the bridge we have seems the simplest, most cost-effective solution, and it can easily be financed through a moderate toll, similar to the cost premium for crossing a “Zone” on any other TransLink infrastructure.These options (and I prefer the three-lane counterflow to provide better comfort and lower wear for road users) meets all of the listed objectives. It fixes the core problem (an old bridge) while respecting local and regional planning goals and existing transportation networks. Meanwhile, the historically significant structure can be preserved to grace our skyline for another generation, and safety for cyclists and pedestrians can be improved.
The bonus in these “difficult economic times” is that this is the least expensive option, and can easily be funded through modest tolls. Back-of-the-envelope estimates suggest that the $3 tolls of Port Mann are not necessary here, but a toll pegged to the zone-crossing premium of the adjacent SkyBridge (currently $1.25) would be more than enough to cover the repair and maintenance costs. The toll would be enough to disincentivize avoiding the Port Mann, but not so high as to be a burden to regular users. It may even help encourage the use of the alternative next door.
Sub-optimal: Not ideal, but I could probably live with it and not whinge too much. 
Options #2, #3, #19.

All pictures zoom if ya click them!

All of these options keep the Pattullo standing, and that satisfies one of my major criteria: protecting the heritage of the structure. Each is less perfect than the optimal choices in different ways.

The first two don’t seem to provide any real benefit over the Optimal choices. I cannot imagine this region spending $300 Million on a single piece of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure these days, when a bike lane in Vancouver that costs less to install than a single left-turn bay for cars on an adjacent street is used as evidence for a “war on cars”. This is politically untenable, and probably just disruptive enough to transportation systems already established that it doesn’t really serve the purpose. There is nothing a 2-lane Pattullo provides us better than three-lane Pattullo, so these are just lesser versions of a good idea.
Option #19 has been the source of much talk, speculation, dreaming, and idolation since the consultations began. I have never been a big fan of the Sapperton Bar crossing (for reasons outlined below), but have to admit, when I saw this option presented by TransLink, I started to reconsider, mostly because the speculated cost of $1.5 Billion is much, much lower than I anticipated for a crossing on one of the wider parts of the River. This makes the cost recoverable from tolls on the two bridges (the new one, and the refurbished 2-lane Pattullo).
The obvious upside is that his option may facilitate the closing of the Pattullo to trucks, and provide the most cost-effective solution to the problem that the “Stormont Solution” purports to solve: getting vehicles from Surrey to Highway 1 ASAP, at a fraction of the cost of a 4-km tunnel through New Westminster.
My problems with this option (besides suspicion around the projected cost) are built around the fear that this is really a “NIMBY” solution that, once again, adds to road capacity when that is not the problem we are trying to solve. Nothing in the problem set for the Pattullo supports building another bridge to the east. We also don’t know if the residents of Bridgeview or Coquitlam want this new Highway connection in their neighbourhoods. The connections on the north side are especially problematic- are we envisioning a road through the Brunette Industrial Area connecting at Braid (spanning the rail yard), or something over by the King Edward Overpass (which would be impossible to connect to Highway 1)? It was suggested that the projected cost of this option would only take the new bridge to United Boulevard, which is actually no-where, except a congested narrow 4-lane with access to Lee Valley.
Mark me down as intrigued, but not informed enough to actually feel positive about this one.
Bad: Just a bad idea, and hard to see how to make it good. 
Options #1, #6, #14, #15, #16, #17, #18, #20.

The first option here – the removal of the bridge – is a bit of a dream for some in New Westminster, but I think fails to acknowledge both the importance of the established transportation networks, and the importance of the Pattullo as a heritage structure. I like the bridge on our skyline, I like crossing it on foot and on my bike and even, occasionally, by car. I would be sad to see it go.

Option #6 is for a new 4-lane bridge, which has the unique combination of making the situation no better than it is now traffic- and transportation-wise, but losing the heritage structure at a much higher cost than the refurbishment option. So not individually terrible; just a combination of so many sub-optimals that the sum is bad.
#14, #15, #16 and #20 all rely on the Sapperton Bar crossing being built, which is actually a pretty crappy idea. It takes the Surrey-Coquitlam version (with all of it’s uncertainties) and adds a road connecting to a tunnel under Sapperton – for no apparent reason or understanding of the neighbourhoods it is launching into – to presumably access a non-existent (and un-budgeted) Stormont connection, yet still doubles the cost. I cannot imagine why.
#17 is lesser than #19, for not much less cost, except that we no longer have a Pattullo at all. Meh. Meanwhile #18 has the same critical flaw as #2 in that no-one is going to spend something like $300 million to refurbish the Pattullo for bicycles and pedestrians only in MetroVancouver in 2013 when we cannot even scrape together a couple of million to fix the BC Parkway. Give me $300 Million for bike infrastructure, I can spend it much better than this.
Untenable: They just threw these in here to see if we were paying attention.
Options #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #21, #22, #23, #24, and #25.

The first three options bring progressively bigger bridges into the location of the Pattullo Bridge. It was these ideas that brought us all out to last year’s consultations, and no defensible case was made for them last year, which is why we are all here a year later reviewing better ideas. This idea has not improved with age.

The four sub-river tunnel options are dead on arrival. Without the “branch”, and with no specific idea about what happens along McBride, it provides no advantage over the bigger Bridge options, but at 2-3 times the cost. With the “branch” along Royal, the cost rises well over $4 Billion (an unlikely sum for TransLink to cobble together), all to move one inevitable traffic pinch point from the South end of McBride to the North end of McBride, and to increase the congestion on Stewardson. It is a road-builders dream that spends a lot of taxpayers money but makes worse most of the problems it claims to solve. I’ve said it before: tunnels are for trains, not cars and trucks. 
#21 and #22 have all the bad parts of #14 through #20, but with increased traffic and cost.

The final 3 options are all related to a new crossing way over by “Tree Island” – a misnomer peninsula that currently hosts a steel wire factory and will soon be home to a TransLink bus parking facility – to connect Richmond to Burnaby. Richmond has been clear that they are opposed to this idea, and no-one at TransLink was really clear how this in any way related to the Pattullo Bridge – it surely does not replace any capacity needs at Pattullo, doesn’t directly address the “old bridge problem”, nor does it cross most of the Fraser River. This is so off topic, it is just a distraction not worth discussion.   

That’s it folks, this is what we have to work with. You have another week or so to get your opinions to TransLink by going to this site. Just for the fun of it, you can also tell Surrey what you think by going to this site.
Good luck.

Are trees part of our Heritage?

Last week’s local papers covered extensively the loss of another heritage home in Queens Park. The general consensus coming out of the stories was that it was a shame: a house with an historical character that should have been saved, but couldn’t be. There was much discussion about the reason why it could not be saved, that any municipality would have had some difficulty if they tried to enforce community standards of “heritage” on private landowners – setting themselves up for lawsuits, etc.

This is especially difficult in Queens Park, where much of the City’ inventory of historic homes is located, but where the traditional champions of heritage run up against those who are the strongest defenders of individual property rights, free enterprise, small government and avoiding bureaucracy and “red tape”.

The reality is, as suggested in the stories, it is logistically and legislatively difficult for any Municipality to protect the heritage quality of private homes. What isn’t difficult is to protect the natural heritage in the form of trees that exist on the same private property.

In the case of the currently-lamented 221 Third Ave, there were at least 5 significant trees on the lot. Two mature cypress trees shaded the front of the home, a gigantic incense cedar stood on the corner of the lot in the front yard, and two mature trees guarded the back corners: one an ornamental plum, one a large English hawthorn. All met the chainsaw the day after the house was demolished.

The home will be replaced in a few months – if the neighbours are lucky the builder will respect the heritage character of the surroundings – but those mature trees will take decades to replace, and if the buildings are constructed to their maximum allowable footprint, there may never again be trees of this scale on those lots again.

Tree Protection Bylaws are, in contrast to heritage building preservation, simple and defensible. In the same week that the chainsaws were at work in Queens Park, Burnaby was bolstering its Tree Protection Bylaw to increase the protection of these important components of their natural heritage and their community’s ecosystems.

The site at 221 Third Ave makes for an interesting case, tree-bylaw wise. With a well-developed Tree Protection Bylaw, the two cypress trees would likely be preserved. The landowner may apply to remove them, if they really could not be fit into the redeveloped lot, but they would have to pay a penalty for their removal, and plant compensatory trees- likely (since the trees were healthy) at a 2-for-1 ratio. So the developer would have the simple economic incentive to keep the trees or pay cash for their removal and re-planting, as subtle shift of the economics to encourage the protection of trees.

Two large cypress trees on the right, incense cedar on the left, all now gone. 

The grand incense cedar in the front yard would, perhaps ironically, not be preserved. It is a large, historic tree, but it appeared to be not doing well. With generally sparse branches, little new growth, and a big crack up the middle of the trunk, an arborist would probably have no problem declaring the tree a hazard and approving its removal. In this case, the Landowner would not have to pay a fee for removal, but would still be required to replace the tree, in this case on a 1-for-1 basis, so the “net tree crop”of the City is not reduced.

Bad pruning, or just old age, this incense cedar was not long for this world. 

The two mature trees on the back corners would probably not be permitted for removal at all. Both were healthy, and were located very close to the property line where they would not interfere with eventual land development. The developer would have to plan the new buildings so they avoided disturbing these two trees, which would ultimately be not much of a hardship, considering their location.

This English hawthorn could use some pruning, but was healthy and worthy of preservation, and being right on the property line where it wouldn’t have hampered redevelopment of the site.
Same story for this ornamental plum tree – it took decades to get this size, an hour to cut down.

These trees in Queens Park were taken down almost two years to the day after New Westminster Council unanimously supported Councillor Lorrie Williams’ motion to develop a Tree Protection Bylaw. I attended that Council Meeting on behalf of the NWEP, asking why New Westminster remains one of the few jurisdictions in BC without such protection. Council seemed united, seemed to understand the issue, and passed a unanimous motion. Two years later: still no Bylaw.

How many more trees will go until we see action?

Pattullo Consultations & Cautious Optimism

Call me cautiously optimistic.

As promised, TransLink is back in town, talking Pattullo. I have attended a small-group talk on June 4th, and dropped into the open house on the 6th to hear the public feedback part of the event. I have also poured through the presentation materials.

Interesting that this new round of consultation is starting in New Westminster only a week after TransLink moved their office to the Brewery District, not two blocks from the Sapperton Pensioners Hall where the meetings were being held. This is no doubt a coincidence, but damn convenient for staff.

What is not a coincidence is that much of what we are seeing at this consultation looks very much like what the New Westminster community was asking for a year ago when the first attempt at consultation took place in New Westminster. At the time, New West was clearly not happy with the several iterations of 6-lane Pattullo offered, or with the lack of discussion of higher-level policy directives that were pushing us towards placing a bigger bridge within an already-constricted road system.

There is a lot of information provided in the consultation materials this time around, and I want to give some of it time to breathe, so this will be a multi-stage blog as I try to wrap my head around the various topics and options. Classify everything that follows as “first impressions”.

Without getting too deep into the options, there is much in the consultation documentation that should make New Westminster happy.

First look at Page 5 of the booklet where TransLink presents the problem statement:

“The Pattullo Bridge may not survive a moderate earthquake or ship collision, the piers are at risk of being undermined by river scour and many bridge components have surpassed their useful life”

Right up front, this is a vast improvement from the earlier consultation, because (as I suggested last year) TransLink is no longer talking about solving a traffic capacity problem, they are talking about solving an old bridge problem. This is the biggest reason why there is a much broader range of solutions being presented to deal with the problem, including the fundamental idea that fixing the bridge we have is viable.

Beyond the problem statement, there is a list of other issues that are to be considered while seeking an approach to solve the old bridge problem:

1. The Pattullo Bridge does not meet current roadway design guidelines, including for lane widths and curvature, potentially contributing to collisions.
2. Pattullo Bridge facilities, such as sidewalks and barriers, and connections for pedestrians and cyclists, are inadequate and do not provide sufficient protection from traffic.
3. During rush hours, travel demand on the roads leading to the Pattullo Bridge results in queuing and unreliable travel times for the movement of people, goods and services.
4. Current traffic (including truck) volumes affect the liveability of adjacent communities due to air quality, noise and resulting health impacts, as well as due to neighbourhood traffic infiltration.

Again these messages are very different than last year. Only point 3 acknowledges current traffic volumes, and point 4 correctly characterizes the biggest issue with traffic volumes is their negative impact on livability.

This problem set simply does not add up to adding lanes within the Pattullo Bridge corridor.

Looking at the traffic discussion on Page 7 provides some interesting context to the recent changes in traffic patterns. Notably, traffic on the Pattullo is not, as most would contend, worse than it was a decade ago, or even 20 years ago.

TransLink graphic, click to zoom in. 

Perhaps more interesting is the preliminary traffic data showing the impact of the new Port Mann tolls and connection to the South Fraser Perimeter Road. Anecdotally, traffic has been worse in New West since those changes in December, and data does support a slight increase in numbers. Although the data is preliminary, there has been a 4% increase in traffic of all types (both on weekdays and the weekend). Truck traffic has only increased 3% on weekdays and is apparently unchanged on the weekend.

This doesn’t seem like much, but 200 extra trucks a day might be noticeable if they are all going the same way after crossing the bridge (you have to think during business hours that is about one extra truck every 5 minutes).

Still, the numbers reinforce what the real traffic load on the Pattullo is: not trucks carrying lettuce and cheese to New Westminster stores, but cars moving people though town. 92% of weekday traffic and 96% of weekend traffic is cars. Keep those numbers in mind when anyone talks about alleviating traffic congestion by building truck-only lanes.

Probably the most important new info in this package is on page 11- the statement of Objectives for the review, because these will be the measuring stick used to measure the various options. The option that best fits these eight objectives should be the one chosen, if the evaluation is a good one.

So let’s look at them in turn:

1. Moves towards the regional goal that most trips will be by walking, cycling
and transit.

This objective is straight out of the Regional Growth Strategy, TransLink’s Transport 2040 long-term planning document, and the goals of the draft City of New Westminster Master Transportation Plan. It also coincides with several Surrey long-term policy documents (Cycling Plan, Walking Plan, Sustainability Charter) and the Provincial Cycling Policy and Climate Action Plan. So easy to see where this is coming from.

2. Minimizes single occupant vehicle use and vehicle kilometres travelled.

Again, this objective fits all of the above plans, and speaks directly against any plan of expanded road capacity for the Pattullo.

3. Minimizes emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and pollutants.

Interesting. People taking transit, cycling, or walking produce much less GHG and pollutants than drivers, including trucks. Moving freight by rail instead of truck reduces GHG and pollutants. Building transit infrastructure South of the Fraser will reduce GHG and pollutants much more than any road-building project crossing the River will. Keeping the old bridge will produce less pollutants and GHG than building a new one, just in relation to the amount concrete that would be saved.

4. Is capable of supporting neighbourhood liveability by minimizing and
mitigating impacts, including during construction, and provides an aesthetically pleasing structure.

Here is a big one that should make New Westminster happy. Livability of the surrounding community is taken into account. Another strike against bigger road capacity. Unless all of that traffic goes into the mythical McBride-Stormont Tunnel, but we will address that later. Aesthetically pleasing might be a challenge- I think the existing bridge looks great, but needs a coat of paint. “Pleasing” is pretty subjective, though.

5. Supports local and regional land use plans and economic development.

Once again, the regional landuse plan and local community plans for New Westminster and the portion of Surrey right across the bridge, are for compact, dense, urban centres where alternative transportation modes dominate.

6. Provides reliable access and predictable travel times for all modes, users, and
for an appropriate level of goods movement.

Some interesting wiggle words here. “Predictable” travel times don’t mean reduced travel times. A fully congested bridge is predictable, a bridge where traffic moves at 50km/h is predictable. A closed bridge is predictable. A bridge where traffic sometimes goes 50km/h and sometimes goes 80km/h, and is subject to accidents and poor visibility and crumbling bad pavement produces unpredictability. Transit and bicycles? Super predictable.

7. Provides a safe crossing for all modes, is structurally sound and meets current
standards for seismic and ship impacts.

No-one can argue against that.

8. Is cost-effective.

No-one can argue against that, except that there is no description of what they mean by the term. As TransLink has no money, one has to presume they are going to have to toll this bridge to pay for it. At the consultation I attended, it was strongly implied that tolls were the most likely option to finance the bridge, but they were not discounting the potential for contributions from senior governments.

For some reason, I doubt there will be a referendum to decide how to pay for this bridge (like was floated during the election as a proposal to find funding sources for TransLink operations). However, the question of Tolls is not secondary to this consultation, many of the goals around GHGs, improved livability, and predictability of travel times can be effectively addressed through Transportation Demand Management, including road pricing. The needs of this crossing, and other crossings in the region, will depend on whether they are tolled or not.

Ultimately, I am for the least-expensive option that maintains a link while improving alternative transportation access. Clearly, fixing the existing bridge is a viable and affordable option. At the other end of the spectrum cost-wise are the various tunnel modes. As I’ve said before, tunnels are great for trains, but for cars full of people, they are monumentally expensive. But I will save a complicated options analysis until another post.

Short version: This is what we asked for, folks. Last year when New Westminster showed up in force at the consultations and asked TransLink to go away and come back with something better, this is what that something better looked like. We are early in the process this time around, but looking at the problem formulation and evaluation criteria being applied, it is hard to see how anything larger than a 4-lane Pattullo (refurbished or new) could be accepted as the best approach.

If you have questions or opinions, your last chance to take them to TransLink in person is on Saturday at the Inn at the Quay. The on-line parts of the consultation will be running for a couple of weeks yet, and there have been reports of phone polls happening in New Westminster. There are lots of opportunities for you to take part here.

Do the Math (the Movie)

Every month or so, the NWEP hold an informal get-together of like-minded folks to chat about sustainability issues. This follows the international movement known as “Green Drinks”. The original Green Drinks model was to have a regular informal networking and conversation session for environmental professionals, sustainability activists, and like minded folks to create a crucible for action. There are literally hundreds of Green drinks held internationally, and each has its own character.

Here in New West, we are trying to attach a small-scale event to each Green Drinks, a speaker or such to lubricate the conversation and to increase the reach to the general community. As per the Green Drinks code, the evening is not “about” the speaker or a specific topic. The conversations after are broad-reaching and held in small informal groups constantly migrating, really it is just a cocktail party not a rallying session. Above all, it is a social night out where folks can meet new people and share new ideas. As a bonus in New West, we can meet in the Back Room of the Heritage Grill, where the license if food primary, so it has a “pub” feel, but people under 19 can attend, and there is no expectation to imbibe in alcohol if that isn’t your thing. There is even live music up front for those who do feel like hanging out a little later.

Last week’s Green Drinks was moderately well attended, considering short notice and the burgeoning nature of this new iteration. 25-30 people gathered to see a short documentary film that was just released last month:

Just to put things into a local perspective, I gave it a short intro, and tried to put the local and personal spin on it all. For the record, here are my speaking notes from the night (of course, I ended up speaking more off the cuff and may have missed some of this or added new stuff- you’d have to have shown up to recognize the difference).

INTRO:
Tonight we have a short new Documentary; “Do the Math”

Don’t be afraid of the title, there are only three numbers discussed, and the movie is less about the math behind those three numbers, and more about what those three numbers means to us as denizens of Earth in the 21st century.

The film revolves around Bill McKibben, who has become one the most vocal environmental activists in the Land of Freedom, therefore the subject matter is almost exclusively about our southern neighbours – but maybe that is an interesting thing to keep on your mind during the film: how does the situation there relate to Canada? Or does it relate? What are the similarities and differences?

Finally, I like this film because after the first third talking about the problem, McKibben makes a compelling case about how it is time to stop playing defense for the environment, and if we are going to make any difference at all before it is too late, we had better start playing hard offence, and hitting the people who are perpetrating climate change right where they hurt: their stock value.

Clearly an academic who got dragged into activism (much like Marc Jaccard, Andrew Weaver, James Hansen, Michael Mann, etc.), McKibben has an academic’s speaking style. He wants to be understood more than heard, so what he lacks in bombastic, he makes up for in factual information.

So without further ado: on with the show.

AFTER:
I want to mention a number that was alluded towards, but not part of the “big three numbers” in McKibben’s argument. That is the number 400, as in parts per million CO2.

Sometime last month, while many of us were distracted by a Provincial election, the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeded 400ppm for the first time in about 3 million years. This number is much higher, I hasten to mention, than 350 – the number that the globe agreed was the limit we had to shoot for long-term to prevent unpredictable and catastrophic results of the global atmospheric temperature increasing by more than 2 degrees due to fossil carbon in the atmosphere.

It might be seen as ironic that this arbitrary milestone was passed in the middle of an election where the winning party set as their main policy goal – as their great vision of the future and economic salvation of our Province – a rapid expansion of fossil fuel extraction and quick sale through the most energy-intensive and unsustainable means possible. That this position was supported tacitly by the poll-leading opposition party might be part of the reason we saw a strong surge in support for the Green Party.

Look, mea culpa: I own stocks in Exxon. I own stocks in Encana and Suncor and BP. Not by choice, mind you. I work for a municipality, and am required to contribute to the Municipal Pension Plan. All of those companies are listed amongst the holdings of the MPP. I also have a small personal RRSP, and until recently, Suncor (a large bitumen sand producer) was included as part of my “Ethical Fund” investment. For many of us, we either cannot know where our retirement savings are invested, or have no influence over how they are invested. Maybe the first thing we should take out of this film and McKibben’s “disinvestment” idea is to find out. See if we can change that.

But even if you are not lucky as I am to have some retirement savings, think about what those election promises meant. We have a government right now who wants to invest in hydrocarbon extraction and burning in order to put the Provinces’ finances in order. That is your money they are investing in extracting part of that 2000 GigaTonnes of carbon that needs to stay in the ground if we hope to leave a recognizable global ecosystem to our kids and grandkids. Maybe here in BC, that is where divestment starts. But in this case, we are not just the shareholders- we the voters are the corporation.

There is a coal terminal proposed for across the water that will be responsible for more GHG per year than the City of New Westminster, all its citizens and businesses and cars and schools and everything puts out over 200 years – but our local Chamber of Commerce is all for it because it promises 25 local jobs. Is that a good investment?

There are two pipeline proposals to make BC the export port for bitumen bound for gas tanks and boilers around the Pacific Rim – risking our coastline and our water supplies to expand bitumen sand extraction in Alberta. Is that a good investment?

The big proposal on the table right now is to use your tax dollars to double BCs electrical generating capacity, not to wean ourselves off of less-sustainable energy sources, or even to sell to neighbouring jurisdictions to offset their more carbon-intensive electrical generation, but so we can refrigerate methane extracted through fracking, transported in pipelines, with up to 20% of the methane lost during drilling, pumping, and transportation activities, letting all of our chips lie on the roulette table known as the global natural gas market. Is that a good investment?

To quote the film- we need to start taking money from people causing the problem, and start giving it to people solving the problem. But first, we, as British Columbians, need to stop being former, and start demanding that our government become the latter.

Is there enough shame in being the “Second Worst Road”?

It didn’t start last month. I have lamented the BC Parkway for quite some time.

There was a time, back in the late 1980’s when I lived on Royal Avenue and worked in a warehouse just off Royal Oak, and I would ride my bike along the Parkway to get to work. Back then, it was great – an actual road just for bikes and pedestrians! In hindsight, the connections and some of the route choices were a little sketchy, but that is only with the benefit of hindsight. For ca. 1988, it was a kick-ass bikeway.

Twenty-five years later, I live two blocks from that crappy apartment I shared with my brother on Royal, and the lovely Ms.NWimby has a new job in Downtown Vancouver. A fair-weather bike commuter (the Skytrain ride is only 20 minutes!), we pulled out a bike map and tried to figure the route to her new job for those sunny days when the bike is calling.

We both immediately ignore the BC Parkway and look for alternates: CVG? (stays at low elevation, but seems a long way around New West). Cariboo to Adanac? (nice, but a little out of the way- and killer hill on the way home) Tenth to London to Griffiths to Rumble to Patterson to Moscrop to Smith to 22nd to Slocan to Charles to…(ugh).

Nope, the near-straight line, on a gentle slope (as it used to be a rail grade) that makes the most sense is the BC Parkway. If only it was safe or lived up to its promise. Instead, 28 years of local re-development, new roads, and failing pavement (along with a few original design elements that look hysterically outdated now) have made the route one to avoid for most cyclists.

So now that my little campaign to get the BC Parkway noticed is having its little media push– the whinging has gone as far as it can- so what to do?

First off: Jurisdictions. The BC Parkway is almost completely on TransLink property, and is ostensibly TransLink’s responsibility. Portions of it, however, are clearly on the property of and subject to the decision-making of, the three municipalities through which it passes. Any comprehensive refurbishment will require partnership between TransLink and the Transportation Departments in those Cities.

It’s not like TransLink doesn’t know the Parkway needs help. Back in 2008 there was an assessment report prepared for TransLink. I quote from that report:

Over the years, the dual trail design has proven to be less popular with BC Parkway users while land use adjacent to the trail has intensified, resulting in the paved portion of the BC Parkway becoming a heavily used, mixed-use facility that is generally narrower than the Transportation Association of Canada’s guideline of 4.0 metres for a shared, bi-directional urban path. Intense use of this inadequate facility and lack of proper maintenance has lead to its physical deterioration. The route is indirect in some locations and wayfinding is poor, making navigation difficult, particularly where the route transitions between the off-street pathway and urban streets. Efforts to upgrade sections of the Parkway have resulted in disjointed designs and application of the TAC standards that are not contiguous with other sections of the Parkway.

Yeah, that’s what I said!

Stakeholder meetings and concept plans were drawn up to fix the problems in 2009. Then what happened? Two things come to mind: the Canada Line, and the entire TransLink funding crisis.

The Canada Line Bridge is a great piece of cycling infrastructure (worthy of its own blog post, which I will do at some point soon), but few know it wasn’t actually part of the original Canada Line plan. Canada Line was not, strictly speaking, built by TransLink, but was a PPP dedicated to getting the damn thing in the ground before the Olympics started. The idea of putting a pedestrian-bicycle path on the side of the bridge came from strong lobbying by cycling groups in the City, and concomitant support from Richmond and Vancouver Councils. However, strapping the path to the side of the bridge was not part of the original plan, so the concessionaire building the Canada Line was certainly not going to pay for it, leaving TransLink holding the bag. The only solution was for TransLink to take it out of the bicycle infrastructure budget.

Notably, the cost of attaching the pathway to the Bridge (about $10 Million) was only 0.6% of the Canada Line budget, but represented 200% of TransLink’s annual bicycle infrastructure budget. So for two years, little other bicycle infrastructure got built by TransLink.

After the happy glow from their massive success moving people during the Olympics wore off, TransLink somehow became the whipping boy of the media and most levels of Government – for reasons poorly understood by anyone. I have gone on at length about this in the past, but short version: everyone has decided it is time to stop paying for the transit system at the same time other sources of revenue have been failing (some the fault of TransLink’s own success). The bicycle program budget is alternating between deep cuts and complete defunding. In this financial climate – when TransLink is actually cutting bus service as the region continues to grow – it appears the BC Parkway was simply not high enough on the priority list to see the plans realized.

I recognize I am only pointing out the problem, not what to do about it. I wish I knew.

The first obvious answer is to fund TransLink. There seemed some real promise that this was going to happen before the last election, but the surprise winner seems to think tax collected for Public Transit is the one type of tax that requires a referendum! There is no doubt, based on TransLink’s plans and policies, that they want to have safe, accessible bike routes as part of the integrated regional transportation system, especially ones that connect to their stations and bike lockers. People who ride bikes to SkyTrain stations buy tickets on SkyTrain, the business case is obvious. They just can’t afford to prioritize this right now.

So that leaves the Cities, Vancouver, Burnaby and New West all have budgets for cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and all are challenged in setting priorities when transfers from senior Governments increasingly come in the form of responsibility, not compensation. For the BC Parkway to be improved, the Cities will need to take them on as a “Pet Project”, and through direct infrastructure spending or finding innovative funding strategies (remember, 7-11 and Molson paid for the first iteration of the Parkway) they will need to come to TransLink with some kind of matching fund. Given an opportunity to “share the cost” will be the only way that TransLink is likely to push this route to the top of the priority list when so strapped for funds.

Ultimately, the BCAA “Worst Roads” campaign is about shaming whomever owns the “Worst Road” (Municipality, Regional Government, or Ministry of Transportation) into in prioritizing the identified roads in their medium-term planning. Note that last year’s #1 finisher also finished first again this year- despite the $19 Million this particular “Pet Project” has recently received. Finisher #3 this year is also in the middle of a multi-million dollar planning process to find what will no doubt be a billion dollar solution. So maybe shame works.

But I don’t want to shame TransLink – I think they know the problem, and they wish they could do something about it. The shame here should go back to the multiple levels of government who have consistently failed to fund alternative transportation programs with the fervour used to provide smooth driving surfaces for cars.

Fix it.

Not sure how you haven’t heard- but TransLink is back in New Westminster to talk about the Pattullo Bridge. Consultation meetings start this week, and go on for most of June. You really should think about attending one. Or more.

This got me thinking that it was this time last year that Pattullo Consultation Part 1 occurred. It was 13 months ago that I wrote this long Blog Post about how the Pattullo was showing signs of neglect. Short version: the Pattullo is an old steel structure, and like all old steel structures from the Eiffel Tower to my Honda, they will last nearly forever if properly maintained, but will turn to dust in a flash if neglected. In that post, I showed some pictures of the bridge, demonstrating that TransLink is leaning towards the dust-making approach to maintenance.

So it being a year on, I went by the Pattullo Bridge today to see if there was any sign of the alleged $3 Million a year TransLink once claimed they spent on maintaining the Pattullo. Just for fun, I tried, as best I could, to repeat the photos I took a year ago. So here are the before-and-after photos:

No change here. 
Pretty much the same rust
Paint continuing to peel
This catch basin still jammed, with some of the same debris!
I guess wheel-damaging potholes are a bigger priority than failing bridge structures
Admittedly, it looks like a couple of the more potentially tetanus-causing pillars had
their jagged metal sawed off, and a bit of new paint applied to them. 
It’s been a slow year for Plaque-taggers.
…and for those concerned, the plants in the trusswork are still doing fine!

I took a few more pictures this time, just for the fun of it:

There is still a healthy mix of rusted-through railings and pillars, even if a few have been painted.
Along with new potholes, this one demonstrating what happens when a catchbasin
is blocked for too long, and the water needs somewhere to go.

The point I want to make here is not that the bridge is rusty and unsafe; it is certainly rusty, but TransLink assures us it is safe (but ominously won’t be for long). The point is that TransLink is, for whatever reason, still failing to do the maintenance that might keep it safe.

The Pattullo is an historic structure, the most iconic structure on New Westminster’s skyline for 75 years. It is every bit as historically significant as its contemporaries at the First Narrows of Burrard Inlet and Sydney Harbour. Allowing this historic structure and vital transportation link to degrade to its current state is shameful, and an irresponsible way to manage public infrastructure. It is time to fix it.

That is the position I am taking into TransLink’s consultations, one that can be summed up in two words: “Fix it”

Fix it: We don’t want or need a new bridge, or a wider bridge, or more bridge or the bridge to be moved or removed. The bridge serves a purpose, and can continue to for the next generation, but it needs to be fixed.

Fix it: The bridge is iconic, historic, and an important part of the heritage of the City and the region. It must be preserved, protected, and celebrated.

Fix it: The bridge can serve its users by replacing the sidewalk with a lighter, wider structure (similar to the approach on the Queensborough), and by reducing the driving lanes to 3 with a central counter-flow, much like the Lions Gate.

Fix it: The bridge suffers (like most of TransLink’s infrastructure) from a profound lack of funding for a transportation authority in a rapidly-growing region. The funding model for TransLink needs to be fixed.

Fix it: Transit in Surrey is woefully underdeveloped and underfunded, forcing residents to be overly dependant on this bridge to get places. The region’s transportation options are broken – fix it!

Fix it: yes, TransLink has provided us a compelling list of the current bridge’s problems, but they have not talked about how they will fix them. Time to get started.

C’mon TransLink, we are all in the same camp here. Let’s agree on a plan, let’s lobby the senior governments to get you the funds you need, and let’s fix the damn bridge.