Ask Pat: Medicine Hat

Alice asks—

Is there any reason the Medicine Hat approach of reducing Homelessness in their city can’t be applied to New Westminster? I know it has been said senior gov’t needs to step up but the Medicine Hat strategy involved very little additional funding from senior gov’t. Their population and homeless population appear to be in line with New West.

This is one of the areas of the City’s operations where I have had to climb a pretty steep learning curve. We have Councillors and a Mayor with much more knowledge of this than I do (and some pretty stellar staff, as a bonus), but I’ll take a dive at answering this with that caveat in mind, and keep myself open to correction from those with more knowledge.

Essentially, the Medicine Hat model is based on “housing first” – the idea that if we can first get homeless people into shelter, regardless of how temporary it is, we can get them services they need and start the process of moving them to more permanent and sustainable housing options, and (this is the bigger hope) access to services to help them manage the underlying cause of most homelessness – disabilities, trauma, exploitation, and mental health concerns including addiction. This has been standard operating procedure in New Westminster for a decade or more. So why is Medicine Hat different?

Medicine Hat is a rural community, so it’s 61,000 residents are surrounded by farms and wilderness. New Westminster’s 70,000 people are in the middle of an urban population of 2,500,000 people. New Westminster needs to work along with its neighbours and operate within that reality. That is both an advantage to New Westminster, and a disadvantage.

In Medicine Hat, the most recent homeless count put their numbers at about half the average of the province of Alberta on a per-capita basis. The numbers provided in 2016 news stories estimate there were 875 people moved to supportive housing over the six years of their aggressive program – one for every 70 residents. Extrapolate that to Greater Vancouver, and we would need to facilitate 36,000 supportive housing units in the same period – 6,000 per year. To make this work, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society received $3.9 million from the province of Alberta (plus about 10% that amount from a combination of the federal and local governments). It is clear the province of Alberta, even during difficult financial times, fulfilled their constitutional responsibility to provide housing. Extrapolate that to the Lower Mainland, and this becomes another boring post about lack of Provincial resources and the terrible priorities of the BC Liberals…

However, there is a persistent problem we have in the Lower Mainland that makes us stand out, and with which “Housing First” is of limited help: the flow of people being forced into homelessness by our out-of-scale housing costs, the erosion of our housing support programs (including the Co-op Housing model), lack of resources for people at risk (aging out of care, coming out of incarceration, or leaving protracted medical care), and our ongoing lack of rental vacancy. To avail oneself of “Housing First” assistance in BC, one first has to be homeless, which is like addressing gun violence by buying bandages: it has a value and is measurably effective, but does not address the source of the problem. This is a terrible way to organize public resources, but more importantly, it completely dehumanizes of the actual problem.

Which brings me back to the Medicine Hat miracle I keep reading about in the news. Considering it is not particularly groundbreaking in approach, and aside from the resources put into it, it’s success is not outstanding compared to many municipalities (including New Westminster), I wonder about the narrative of its success. I do not want to take even the tiniest bit of credit away from the City, the not-for-profits, or programmers (paid and volunteer) who put their lives work into helping less fortunate people, but there is a part this makes me twitchy.

Google any story of the Medicine Hat Homelessness approach, and you hear some version of the same narrative: how the “fiscally conservative” Mayor was convinced to support the program, because it turns out paying to put people in housing saves the City and the Province money in the long run. Now, this is true; so well established it isn’t even a point of debate, but quotes likes this fire my cynicism gland:

“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.” – Mayor Clugston

The fact that a leader describes his decision to provide basic human dignity to marginalized residents of his community in terms of its ability to turn fiscal profit is abhorrent to the way I view governance and society. Maybe he is just saying that to keep the Randian libertarians in his town off of his ass, or perhaps it speaks deeply of the state of western Canadian politics and the erosive influence of Calgary School neo-liberal fiscal policy projected by “Think Tanks” like the Fraser Institute on governments at all levels… I’m about to go on a long rant here, so perhaps I will save that for a future blog post… but this economically-driven “come-to-Jesus moment” narrative sound more like cowardice than visionary leadership to me.

Short version is we, in New Westminster, are regional leaders in providing housing support to our homeless residents, and I will hold our success up against Medicine Hat’s any day (not that this is a contest – when it comes to supporting marginalized populations in this country, we are all losing). New West is forging partnerships with senior governments and investing in supportive housing, and we are providing City lands to develop innovative housing solutions. We have incredible staff and NWPD liaisons partnering with an amazing suite of not-for-profit agencies to address the multiple causes of (and solutions to) homelessness at a person-to-person level. We did this before it was sexy, and perhaps we don’t brag enough about it. More importantly, I would like to think we do it not becasue of some fiscal bottom line calculation, but because homeless people in New Westminster are citizens of New Westminster, who deserve representation for their elected officials, and should have the same access to support, dignity, and opportunity as everyone else.

Ask Pat: Taxes – the western suburbs edition

westvandude asks—

I read your property tax comparison article as I was looking to compare West Vancouver to City of Vancouver taxes. For instance if we say what is the total tax paid on a $2.5 or $3 million house in either community (so property tax, garbage, sewer, water, etc) as I always thought City of Vancouver was more expensive…. when you compare Vancouver streets potholes and snow removal it seems Vancouverites are getting ripped off. Where would I find a comparison for total taxes for same value houses?

Hey, wait, this isn’t a New West question! It also sounds like you want me to answer one of those questions that a few minutes on Google could answer. That link I just used is a little old, but fresher information is pretty easy to find. For example:

Go to the City of Vancouver Property Taxes webpage, and it gives you a pretty good summary of what your Mil Rates are, and where they go:

taxes1

Unfortunately, no such page exists that I can find on the West Vancouver property taxes webpage.

taxes2

To find the Mil Rates, you need to dig a bit through the Bylaws until you come upon Bylaw No. 4885, 2016, where the Mil Rates Rates are set out:

taxes3

If we can ignore Metro, School, and other property taxes that don’t go to the City and are set provincially or regionally, on a house assessed at $2.5 Million in 2016, you paid $3,700 to West Vancouver (2.5M/1,000 x 1.4758), and $3,900 to Vancouver (2.5/1,000 x 1.56168). Of course, we also have to, just for a moment, put aside the absurdity of the phrase “$2.5 Million house in West Vancouver”.

Utilities are more complicated. West Van charges Quarterly for water and sewer. Water has a $60/qtr base charge, and rates that go from $1.15 to $1.93 per cubic metre of water depending on how much you use. Sewerage further costs you $32/qtr plus another $2 per cubic metre of water you use.

Vancouver bills for water on a Ternary basis, with about a $31 base charge, and rates that go from $0.95 to $1.20 per cubic metre of water based on season. Sewage costs a further $0.87 per cubic metre of water use. So it sure looks like for most users, Vancouver water rates are quite a bit lower, but it depends completely on your use. If you have typical household use, Vancouver is several hundred dollars cheaper per year.

Notably, West Vancouver charges homeowners a “Drainage Levy”, which is $400 per year for a typical home. Vancouver does not have a charge like this. That extra $400 charge easily exceeds the difference in property taxes between the Cities. And also points out how the deeper you dig into the comparisons between how different cities pay for their public services, you discover that simply saying “Vancouver has higher taxes than West Vancouver” is a bit of a meaningless phrase. This is why I tried to compare what cities collect in taxes per capita, using data normalized a bit by the provincial government. West Van looks pretty expensive when you look at it that way.

Finally, about the roads and pothole thing, you can look at the 2016 West Van budget, and see they have about $100M in revenue every year, and spend about $4.5M on all engineering services (about 2/3 of that spent on roads). Vancouver’s 2016 Budget showed $1,260 Million in revenue and spending of about $75 Million in all engineering services – so about a 33% higher proportion of revenues. Of course, the roads that Vancouver spends money fixing are way more likely to be used regularly by a West Vancouver resident than vice versa. Also note that Vancouver has (almost) the most roads by area and the most road lane kilometres per capita than any City in British Columbia, where West Vancouver has relatively sparse roads. So we are, once again, comparing apples to pineapples here.

New West taxes? We are about average per-household in the region, and are well below average on a per-capita basis. And the potholes this year are terrible, despite the $4.5 Million spent on asphalt annually. That December snow event was pretty hard on asphalt, and that is going to cost us.

Ask Pat: $1 Transit?

Terran asked—

Hey Pat,
Hope I’m allowed to still ask questions even though I don’t live in New Westminster anymore. (I’ll be back once affordability comes back)

Translink recently started asking about transit fares again. This was a long time promise for the compass card that we could better manage the system. The survey is quite overly simplistic but that’s not my question more concern.

My question stems for the comments below the Facebook post they have for the survey. The idea of $1 transit fares comes up. Considering only ~35% of the budget comes from transit fares could this actually be a realistic option? I know I would switch from using my car if I could get to work for only a $1. Would the increased ridership even come close to off setting the huge loss in revenue? Is there even a way to know?

Sure, I’ll give you one free question since you used to live in New West. Wait – was that your question?

As you mention (and I talked about a bit a few weeks ago), TransLink is going through a Fare Review process right now. This is likely in response to the integration of the Compass Card as much as to a newfound opportunity for the next stage of system growth, as the Mayor’s Plan for a decade of capital investment may be back on track.

This review is not intended to boost or reduce fare revenues, only to re-jig the system to make it work better; to make it more “fair” or more user-friendly. The working model is that any adjustment would result in about the same revenue from fares, it will just be collected in different ways. The survey therefore was designed to collect people’s feelings about fare structures such as whether people who travel farther should pay more, or the entire system should be a flat fee, but is basically silent on what the actual flat fee or distance charge would be.

What you are suggesting is not just a “flat fee” model, but one that sets the fee quite a bit lower than it is now, in hopes that it will boost ridership. Considering the purpose of the survey, what would that rate have to be?

TransLink receives a little more than 1/3 of its operating revenue from the farebox, or about $510 Million of a $1.4 Billion budget. Aside from roads and bridges and all the other things TranLink does, they annually have about 240 Million journeys on the multi-modal transit system, or 360 million boardings (obviously, some portion of journeys results in more than one boarding, as a person may transfer from SeaBus to the SkyTrain, or from one bus to another on a single journey). So depending on whether you want to issue transfers or not, you would need to charge $2.15 per journey, or $1.45 per boarding.

So a dollar won’t be enough, but would this simple and cheap fare boost ridership enough to make up for it? At current service levels, there would need to be a doubling in the number of journeys on the system, or a 45% increase in boardings. Anyone riding a SkyTrain during rush hour or standing on a 106 recognizes this is not viable without a significant increase in service levels, which would require investments in the capital part of operations (buying more trains and buses), not just increased operational costs.

Perhaps there is some wiggle room in the idea of flat $2 fares per journey, one might speculate that this would provide a 7% increase in ridership to make up for the lost revenue per ride, but that brings us back to the fairness question: should a person riding the 106 from Columbia Street to Uptown pay the same amount as someone riding SkyTrain from Surrey to Downtown Vancouver? Which type of journey are we trying to incentivize more? These are the questions the current review is trying to address, even at a relatively simple level.

Calculating an optimum fare, one that incentivizes use but also provides enough ridership to maintain a system, is some difficult calculus, even putting aside the political implications of increasing the various tax subsidies to the system (or the massive tax subsidies to the alternatives). I don’t think we are going to get there through this fare system review.

And seriously, we really need to talk about how much you are spending on your car now. If $1 fares would sway you, perhaps you might want to crunch the numbers and see where $2.15 fares put you, financially. The sad reality is that, regardless of how much we subsidize cars, they are still surprisingly expensive to operate if you do the actual math.

Ask Pat: Rapid fire

Wingate asks—

So my condo went up 31 percent so i can expect another increase over and above the percentage increase council votes approved? My net taxes went up 18 percent couple years ago in 1 year. Can you tell me the projected loss for the Anvil centre this year? Also how much last year? When will I be able to pick up copy this years budget at city hall. I did read some good news recently, Ford is going to make hybrid Ford Explorer police vehicle in 2019, so our police can enjoy the comfort and safety of a large SUV and the tax payer can save money on fuel. (Is the propane the city is using exempt from the translink tax on gasoline, hence the savings in fuel)

I hope people will use that Ask Pat button up there to the right to get a little more feedback on how the City works, or to answer a question that is grinding at them. My goal is to help people feel more engaged in New Westminster, and at the same time provide me some content ideas for the blog. I haven’t really been able to keep up with them as they arrive, and there are still a few the queue, so let’s see if I can get through this one quickly.

Question 1: Yes, becasue the City-wide average increase was about 28.5%, so you should expect your taxes to increase 2.5% plus whatever increase Council votes upon. See details here.

Question 2: No. See more details here.

Question 3: No. ibid.

Question 4: Not sure if they print paper copies anymore, but our 5-year Financial Plan for 2017-2021 was officially passed on March 6, and should be available on our Financial Reporting webpage.

Question 5: I don’t think that is a question.

(Question 6: Yes. The Gas Tax collected by the province to to fund Translink operations is only charged on gasoline and diesel)

Ask Pat: Anvils and elephants

Duke of Belyea asks—

Hi Pat, perhaps the notion of the Anvil Center being a white elephant could be dispelled if you or the City could show the actual revenue/expense numbers for the facility.

First, on the premise, I disagree with you. Second, on the solution, I wish it was that simple.

I do not think critics of the Anvil Centre (or indeed critics of Council) will ever be convinced that it is anything but a white elephant. Specific residents of Coquitlam will write occasional long-winded factually-challenged screeds to the Record for some time, using the Anvil as an example of New Westminster’s failures, regardless of any success seen around or within the Anvil. That is just political bullshit theatre we need to live with, and facts will not change it, because the Anvil is more than building, it is a totem around which previous elections were fought and lost. Some people never stop fighting yesterday’s battles.

The premise further relies on measuring the success or failure of Anvil on a balance sheet of effort-in & revenue-out. I simply don’t see it that way. To explain that, we need to clarify what the Anvil is, and what a City does.

For one building, The Anvil Centre has purposes to fill a long paragraph (noting, for full disclosure, that I was not on Council when these conversations and decisions were made):

The Office Tower was conceived as an economic driver for Downtown, but since the City sold it off for more than it cost to build (success?), the City no longer had much say in how it is operated. The owners have every right to set their rent and manage their incentives any way they see fit, regardless of whether it serves the larger purposes of the City. The restaurant space is finally leased, and although later than we may have liked, I think we will have an operating restaurant that fills a niche in the City, brings attention to Columbia and 8th, and becomes a revenue driver for the City. I’m not sure how you measure the success of the shift of the Museum, Archives, and Lacrosse Hall of Fame to this venue. They have been relocated from various other locations to a central cultural hub, which also freed up space in those other venues. The New Media Gallery has quickly become one of the region’s most important artistic venues, drawing visitors and raves from around the region. Conference services are on or ahead of target for bookings and revenues, the program at the Theatre is (slowly) coming along, and the numerous arts and culture programs on the 4th floor are similarly starting to fulfill the original vision for activating the Arts in our City. All of these tangible purposes are wrapped up in the larger benefit of turning a windfall (the DAC funding) into a community asset to replace a failing retail strip at the renewed gateway to our central business district.

This brings us to your solution to the inevitable political push-back: a simple spreadsheet that outlines the costs and recoveries from the Anvil. I suppose it is doable, as the City’s Financial Plan and backing documents are openly reported, and every input and output is buried in those spreadsheets somewhere. But it would be really complicated, simply because the Anvil is not a single entity operating separate from the rest of the City.

The museum and archives have always cost money to operate; moving them to the Anvil doesn’t change that. The old Hall of Fame site is now home to a very popular and revenue-generating recreation program: is that success part of the Anvil, though it is located at the Centennial Community Centre? The City’s Arts Programmer works out of the Anvil, but also administers the City’s Public Art program, which is funded through a combination of fees, sales revenues, and taxes – how does that balance sheet overlap with Anvil’s? Even the Conference Services, which are a revenue-generation aspect of the Anvil, share resources with other departments (especially the theatre and our catering contractor), and rely on an integrated operation to be successful. There are staff who spend part of their time doing Anvil-related things, and part of their time working at other facilities, just as the toilet paper and photocopier toner at Anvil are bought as part of City-wide operations. The tax revenue for the office tower is higher than it was when the space was a one-story retail space, but that tax enters general revenue, and needs to be measured against opportunity cost if a private developer had taken over that site… the list goes on.

I guess it sounds like I am creating a list of excuses of why not, instead of addressing your original concern. Lyrical gentlemen from Coquitlam will accuse me of “spinning” the facts here for political reasons – the same way they would accuse any spreadsheet produced of doing the same thing. So if you want a spreadsheet to solve a political problem, I suggest it won’t work. So why spend valuable staff time producing it?

I tend to agree with one idea buried in your premise, and maybe an answer to that last question: we need to find a better way to share our financial information in the City. Although all reporting is “open”, I am afraid our efforts towards “transparency” is a little clouded by the complicated way that Public Service Accounting Standards are regulated and performed. Even as a City Councillor exposed to this stuff all day, I am sometimes challenged to create connections between line items in spreadsheets. There is a lot of Accountant Talk here, and with all due respect to the profession, they are no better than others at explaining to lay people just what the hell they are doing. I’m not sure what the answer is from a public engagement viewpoint, but suspect (hope?) we can do better. I’m just not sure it will ever be enough to satisfy some Letter-to-the-Editor authors, and maybe that shouldn’t be our goal. However, we do need to find ways to translate our financial reporting so residents and businesses can be confident that their money is being spent wisely.

I am pretty sure of one thing: any honest accounting would reveal the City spends more money on operations at the Anvil than it receives in revenue from Anvil operations. Just as it spends more money on the Canada Games Pool than revenue earned, or the all-weather playing field at Queens Park, or the Queensborough Community Centre, or the Library. I suppose there is a discussion that could be had about which of these operations community assets would need to show a financial profit to be considered “successful” in the City, but I don’t think that is where you were going with this question.

I also think there are improvements we can do to make Anvil run better, especially in opening up the first floor to more public use and making the entire centre more inviting. That is an ongoing discussion, and one very much worth having.

Ask Pat: The Sub

Eric asks—

Ahoy Capt. Re: Das Sub

Great the Quayside playground is up for a needed rebuild. Has “what do we do with the submarine” come up?

After all this item has quietly slipped into historic artefact/ community heritage resource status.

We all know it came from Expo ’86. What might not be as well known: it was from a West Edmonton Mall attraction (at the time the mall had more working subs than the Cdn. navy); at Expo it was part of the brilliant public art piece Highway ’86 by James Wise of SITE, a cutting edge design firm all us young architects were in awe of.

The sub was the largest of dozens of transportation, including a tricycle and an aeroplane, all painted matte grey and set on an undulating grey asphalt “road”.

How about we hand the sub over to the Public Art Cttee. to reprise/resurface it in a new location? Our local transpo crowd – including a certain councillor- might get right into it.

Yes, the topic of saving or moving the semi-Sub has come up. Staff have even spent a bit of time looking at potential options. However, at the risk of sounding like a boo-bird, I need to point out some of the significant technical challenges staff have related to me about trying to save and/or move the Sub.

The Sub can’t stay where it is. The storm drainage pipe under it needs to be excavated and replaced, that is not an optional thing, but something the City needs to get done before compete failure of the pipe and related flooding. Try trying to remove the sub in one piece presents several challenges (not to mention the unknown unknowns, to borrow a phrase). It will need to be separated from the foundation built to support it, and the entire concrete-over-steel structure would have to be lifted and moved, which if not done with great care (read: expense) may end the entire “in one piece” part of the discussion.

20170308_112210(0)

The Submarine itself would need extensive restoration if it was to be made a permanent art installation, as the steel is not in great shape based on the concrete delamination and spalling – the piece was built for a 6-month installation 30 years ago. The modifications of it to install it in the park (removal of the wings, installation of the railing) probably didn’t help, nor did the various coats of paint that are now peeling off of, regardless is whether the concrete overcoast comes with it or not. We currently have no budget for, and have not even had evaluated, the form of this restoration, however safe to say it will be significant.

We have nowhere to put the submarine. If we remove it, we would need to find a place to store it where it can be protected from the elements, and where restoration work can happen. Unless a generous benefactor with spare warehouse space was to come along, I’m not sure where we can do this.

Finally, and this is, unfortunately, the biggest issue with all of the above – we have very little time to get the pipe replacement work done. As much of the drainage involves an excavation within the wetted area of the river, the work needs to be done within a “fisheries window” – a short period of time when Fisheries and Oceans Canada have given us permission to do the work in order to minimize the disruption of fisheries habitat and the injury of fish. Again, this is not something we have any control over, and that is creating a very, very tight timeline for the work, and it will be starting very soon. An extra week or two to design, coordinate and execute a potentially delicate removal plan for a piece we have no long-term plans for would be perilous. Never mind trying to find the (estimated – with significant contingency) tens of thousands of dollars to do the removal work.

As for the Heritage value, there already was a preliminary assessment of the Sub. The value is considered very limited and “sentimental”, but not representing a significant heritage artifact. Its provenance is not New Westminster, and it is separated from its context. Although there are legends about a connection to West Edmonton Mall, in reality the submarine was the only machine of the 200 that made up the Highway 86 installation that wasn’t a real, operating machine before it was installed. It is a semi-sub; half of a fake boat. The “U” in this U-boat stands for “Unecht”. You get the message.

That said, on kitsch value alone I’m not opposed to the idea, and wish we had more time to allow someone passionate about such a plan to cook up a solution to the above concerns. Problem is, this project has been discussed and on the books for many months (including a few public consultation rounds and public meetings), and the topic of saving the submarine has not been put forward as an important component of the engineering work or playground replacement. I also touched bases with a few people in the Publci Art realm, and they were… underwhelmed. Unfortunately, we are now well past the eleventh hour, and jeopardizing the timeline and budget of the planned work for the site at this point would be irresponsible.

So in sumary, I’m going to suggest this is an interesting idea, likely impractical, definitely costly, and probably undoable considering the pressures on the City to get the engineering work at the Quayside done. I would suggest the submarine is finally heasded off towards the sunny horizon it has pointed at for more than a generaiton: the metal recycling and junkyards south of the Fraser.

20170308_112433

Ask Pat: Working together

Matt asked—

So once again, the MOT (Ministry of Transpiration) rolls into town looking to save us from gridlock. I won’t bore you with my opinion on this strategy, but it got me thinking: Where and how does the wishes of the MOT mesh/clash with the wishes of the Mayor’s Transportation Plan.

I think you get my point, but let me expand. I understand the MOT is responsible for certain transportation needs, goods movement is one of them. So I know that truck corridors and the like are the purview of the provincial government and municipalities have to play ball. But on the other side of it, when and how does the Province have to place nice with the Mayors’ Council, or less formally, the wishes of Metro mayors?

There are clearly vastly different visions of how to move people and goods within our region between the current provincial government and the (some) regional mayors.

Square this circle for me.

It is pretty simple. Cities exist at the pleasure of the provincial government. Every power local governments have, including organizations of local governments like the Mayors’ Council and the regional government committees, exists at the pleasure of the provincial government. They have the ultimate ability to overrule any local government decision, and the only price the provincial government would pay for exercising that power unreasonably would be a political one.

This should be obvious when looking at the Vancouver School Board situation. A public body, elected by the public through open elections driven by politics, was fired by the provincial government for being “too political”, or more specifically, for acting in a way that was partisan and defiant of the provincial government.

In the case of transportation in the Lower Mainland, you are correct in identifying there are at least two ongoing visions, and some significant incompatibilities between them. The first is outlined in the Mayor’s Vision and TransLink Transport 2040 plan that it supports. This was developed by the region (with, notably, the approval of the provincial government) and was designed to reinforce the Regional Growth Strategy and the Official Community Plans of the 22 Municipalities that make up Greater Vancouver. The second is being driven by the Gateway Council, a business-government hybrid organization that is primarily interested in moving goods through the region by providing subsidies in the form of taxpayer-funded asphalt through our neighbourhoods and cities.

No point of hiding which of the two visions I support.

There is a lot of history to this transportation schism. It goes back at least as far as Skytrain planning and the setting up of TransLink. There are roots in technology choices for rapid transit that resulted in SkyTrain technology being chose, through the Mayor’s refusal to approve building the Canada Line before completing Evergreen, and the subsequent stripping of their powers by Kevin Falcon. It is reflected in the sudden interest in building a $4 Billion bridge to nowhere while putting every roadblock in place to delay funding of critical public transit expansion. It continues today in the Vancouver Board of Trade (a prominent member of Gateway) calling for a 6-lane Pattullo Bridge long after the regions’ Mayors and TransLink have already settled on a 4-lane solution.

It is not cynical to suggest MOT appears to take more guidance from the Gateway Council than from the Mayors. So it should be no surprise when a government so proud of its fiscal prudence suddenly finds $600 Million to build a highway expansion project, and that the residents of those communities are surprised at its sudden arrival.

I have some pretty significant concerns with the project that MOT has presented to New Westminster and Coquitlam. Efforts to improve the Brunette overpass have somehow brought the UBE back on the table, and it is pretty clear how our community feels about the UBE. That said, I also have reasons to hold cautious optimism about this proposal, because it has resulted in unprecedented conversations between the Cities of New Westminster and Coquitlam.

For the first time anyone can remember, staff and elected official from both cities are sitting down together to discuss our transportation connections, our concerns and needs, and are looking for the common ground, in the hopes that it can help define the best approach to the this project for both communities. I cannot speak too much about what is happening at those meetings (there will be press releases when appropriate), except to say that I have learned a lot about Coquitlam’s view of these issues, and I know they have heard and understood our community’s issues. I’m not sure we are going to come out with a perfect solution that satisfies all parties, but I am encouraged by the respectful and honest discussions going on, and the hard work staff from both cities are doing to make our political fantasies something that may be operational (that is more difficult that you may imagine).

If we hope, as local governments, to influence provincial policy as it impacts our communities, we need to work together like this towards practical solutions, and make it easy for the provincial government to agree with our vision. That doesn’t mean we need to fold over to political pressure when bad provincial policy hurts our communities, but it also means we can’t collapse behind our own borders and pretend our local issues have no influence on regional issues. In the end, we may fundamentally disagree, but let us at least assure we understand what the position is that we are disagreeing with, and why.

But to answer your original question – when does MOT need to play nice with municipalities? When the Minister determines it is required for political reasons. Vote accordingly.

Ask Pat: short questions

Sleepless asks—

A few short questions :

1. The trains are still whistling downtown as of the end of September. Any update on the progress w.r.t. whistle cessation?

Answered, for the most part.

2. Will New Westminster be following in the footsteps of Vancouver to require business licenses for Airbnb rentals?

I don’t know, but I suspect so.

I have done a lot of research and had a lot of discussions around Short Term Rentals. It was a big topic at the UBCM conference this year, I have brought the discussion to Council, and even organized a community conversation on the topic. It is an interesting topic from a Local Government perspective, and something I think we need to act on.

From what I have learned (and I reserve my right to change my opinion here if presented with better reasoning of evidence), I think Cities should regulate the practice of renting out residential properties to short term users (i.e. any rental situation not already regulated by the Residential Tenancy Act or the Hotel Keepers Act). I think a business licence should be required, and the City should be performing inspections to assure that rental suites meet building code and fire safety requirements. We also need a regulatory structure to manage the inevitable neighbourhood concerns and conflicts.

That said, I don’t think Vancouver’s regulatory approach is the most effective, and may be more punitive that necessary. I look instead at the approaches of Tofino and Nelson. New Westminster is unique city in that we are a small city in the middle of the metropolis. We also have a high rental population, and through progressive policies are seeing much more rental coming on line over the next few years, so although our rental vacancy is still low enough that it is a serious housing affordability issue, I think we are on the right track towards addressing that. We also, as City, have very few hotel rooms, and no serious intent (that I know of) for anyone to build more. With our walkable neighbourhoods and high transit connectivity, our well connected small business community and burgeoning “cool” factor, Short Term Rentals can be a positive economic driver for the City. We can make this a good news story – if we do it right.

3. Has the city considered moving the library downtown into the Anvil building? I grew up in a town where the city council built a white-elephant ‘civic center’, much like the Anvil building, but after seeing it going mostly unused for a couple of years, they converted one floor into a large and modern public library, and the resulting increase in traffic resulted in revitalization of the center and eventually the surrounding downtown area as well.

No. There is no room in the Anvil for a Library. And in that sense, I take exception to the idea at the Anvil Centre is a “White Elephant”. For the most part, the Anvil Centre is fulfilling expectations for the uses it was intended. The Museum and Archives are settled in their new home, the New Media Gallery is regionally lauded. The convention and rentals side of the business is doing great, and the theatre program is finally starting to come together. The community arts spaces are programming up, and although there is still more work to do on this aspect of the centre, it is already serving its intended role providing opportunities for residents to practice arts, with more positive development to come.

Yeah, the restaurant space is still empty, but we now have a solid tenant with a great vision. I remain a little disappointed about the street expression of the space – I think we need to find more effective ways to open up the ground floor to the street and vice versa to make that space more lively. Hopefully the restaurant will start that process, but I don’t think that the complete solution. I have a few ideas here, but will hold them close to my chest until we have a better opportunity to work with the Anvil staff and develop some of these ideas. However, the main point is that there simply isn’t any “unused” space in the building to allow for something like a remote library.

Conversely, we are investing quite a bit of money in the existing Uptown main branch of the library to fix some building issues and fit customer needs better. The Library is the City’s most used public facility, and it is suffering a bit from age and traffic, necessitating the investment of a few million dollars in repairs and refit. The second “satellite” library in Queensborough is by any measure a success serving a community separated by a bridge and a little too much distance from Uptown.

I would suggest, if we were looking at more of these satellite library locations, that Sapperton has a more compelling case for need than the Downtown. However, We also need to put that idea into the perspective that we are a small City: 70,000 people within 15 square kilometres. There is a serious question whether satellite campuses for the Library make sense across that space, or whether the significant investment should be better spent in making our single branch work more effectively. However, that bigger idea may be a question for the Library Board, of which I am not a member.

Ask Pat: Whistle cessation update.

I’ve been a little behind on my “Ask Pat” responses. There are a few questions on different aspects of the Whistle Cessation theme, so I’ll cover them all with my answer to this one:

J.S. asked—

RE: new westminster train whistle cessation

I do not understand this project. There is a law saying train has to sound its horn at every crossing. Is there a law require it to be so loud that the entire town can hear it? Instead of throwing money on all these cessation projects which seem to be going nowhere, can’t train horn simply be modified so it is less aloud like a car horn or even a bell? Canadian train travels slower than a car. And I believe the law meant for it to be heard at that intersection only.

Yes, that would make total sense, but the answer to your first question is a completely absurd “yes”.

Train horns are designed to call attention to a train approaching a lonely rural road on the Canadian Shield at 80km/h, and therefore blow at something exceeding 100db for a regulatory more-than-20-seconds-for-every-crossing. That might make sense on a snowy rural crossing 100 miles east of Thunder Bay, but in the middle of a busy urban area the volume of the horns is clearly absurd. Especially then the crossing already has gates, bells, flashing lights, and the train is rolling along at 20km/h with a gigantic diesel engine chugging away at the front of it.

But the Railway Safety Act has a tendency to err on the side of caution, probably for good historic reasons. So we are stuck with this absurdity.

I would normally say “call your MP”, except that I know your MP has been working on rail interface issues for years, and has been stonewalled by successive governments and the simple intractability of trying to get the rail industry to behave as a good neighbour in urban areas. There is a bunch of long history here, related to the railways that built the Nation thinking and such, which was at one time, when railways were part of the National Enterprise, compelling, but now seem so much hollower now that the rail companies are just another multinational corporation charged with the holy duty of returning shareholder value… but I digress.

The City is, as you may have heard, working on bringing “Whistle Cessation” to our level crossings. This requires a significant amount of safety engineering, most of it patently absurd, to provide redundant safety measures enough that the Act and the railway operators are satisfied that absent-minded pedestrians and drivers won’t physically be able to wander into the path of a train. The City needs to pay for these works, and the rail companies that own the crossings both have to approve them, then decide (after the work is done, natch) if it now constitutes adequate protection to no longer require every person in a 5km radius to be alerted of the trains’ presence.

The works in New West have been painfully slow. There were a few engineering challenges, including the need to order some special equipment that could only be provided by a supplier approved by a railway. The multiple steps of design, pre-approval, engineering drawings, waiting for clearance, approvals to work in the right of way, waiting for the rail company to do the bits only they are authorized to do, getting authorization to do the bits we are authorized to do… it was painful.

However, I am happy to announce that the City has officially notified all of the stakeholders who need to be informed* that the City will officially request that Whistle Cessation be brought into effect for the two Front Street crossings through a resolution at Council scheduled for February 6th, 2017.

There are also three level crossings in Sapperton, and I have no idea when whistle cessation will be brought to those. The engineering requirements as far as sight lines and approach angles for cars under the Skytrain pillars are such that it appears simply impossible to meet any existing regular whistle-free standard. We will try, and new road infrastructure along that corridor will be viewed through a lens of whistle cessation, but barring radical ideas, I’m not making any promises about when that will actually occur.

*The list of Stakeholders who were officially served letters informing them of the City’ intentions for the February 7th meeting included the four rail companies that regularly operate on that line, plus PLM Railcar Management Services (Canada) Ltd.; PROCOR Ltd.; General Electric Railcar Services Corporation; the Canadian Fertilizer Institute; the Canadian Chemical Producers Association; the United Transportation Union; the Transportation Communications International Union Systems Board; UNIFOR; Teamsters Canada Rail Conference; Travailleurs Unis Transport (1843); the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union; GATX Rail Canada; Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 279; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the Propane Gas Association of Canada Inc. Dear God I hope we haven’t missed anyone. It’s absurd.

ASK PAT: Q’Boro watercourses.

Someone asked—

Hi Pat,
My partner and I live in Queensborough. We are both plant lovers and native plant specialists, and have come to love our little place by the river – such a magical mix of water, plants, and living things… We often take walks along the waterfront and up and down the tattered side roads with their open ditches filled with teeming plant and animal life. We are constantly enjoying the native plant life that has been cultivated and also occurs natively in the area, but have a number of concerns.

First and foremost, we recently noticed that in the last month or so, a large number of big trees and shrubs were removed from the riverfront with no notice. This is the side that faces Annicis Island, and I believe a lot of the trees were deciduous. Willows, Mountain Ash, and other trees were chopped down as well as the other herbaceous and woody plants. This is something we notice happening on a small scale along the ditches as well. Most importantly, we’d love to know why these large trees were cut down, most likely because of disease or pests, but absolutely no signage was placed on the path in the Aragon where all the cutting happened, and we are very curious about the city’s policy on controlling these wild areas, if any. Could you send some information our way please in terms of this? We’d also love to know what the plan is for the large biodiversity of plant and animal species that are consistently being eaten up by the growing development and if these open ditches and waterways will somehow remain untouched. We are looking forward to new development, the Q2Q bridge more than anything and additional retail, but it worries us to see so much changing too. We would also like to know what to do when we see ditches and waterways which are being clearly polluted by the nearby industrial?

Thanks so much for fighting for a better city for us all. We look forward to your responses, and finding a way to make Queensborough more of an example of environmental stewardship. There are few places like this left – water, plants, and living things together – that have the potential for so much life and health, and unfortunately there is much work to do still, and remediation to be completed on what was done long ago.

This is going to be one of those good-news bad-news answers, depending on how you feel about ditches/watercourses. I’m likely to go on at length here, as there are actually several questions here, and I’m going to try to hit them all systematically.

I also love the Queensborough waterfront, especially the south and east sides where the City and developers have invested in the restoration of the waterfront, and have effectively made it a comfortable human space and an ecologically productive space. We just had the 4th (5th?) annual shoreline cleanup along South Dike Road, and the impressive recovery of native species and ecology along the river is always inspiring.

qb4

The fate of inland ditches in Q’Boro is, however, one of those political hot-button issues, where someone is going to be unsatisfied whatever the City does. For all the people in Q’Boro who love the frogs, the dragonflies, the ducks and even the occasional stickleback, there is at least another who hates the murky water, garbage accumulation, loss of parking, and general untidiness of having an open ditch in their front yard. I’m not going to opine whether you are outnumbered or not, but you are definitely outvolumed by people demanding that the City get rid of the ditches and install “proper” sewers as soon as possible.

From an ecology point of view, some of the watercourses in Q’Boro are protected by the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR), a provincial regulation that is, quixotically, managed completely by local governments. Not all “constructed watercourses” are protected, however, as ephemeral and isolated watercourses and those already severely impacted are not determined to have high enough ecological value to receive full protection of their riparian areas. Further, the riparian protection need on some of the larger ones plays second fiddle to the need for maintenance to keep the water flowing and houses from flooding.

The City performed an ecological mapping exercise back in 2010 that, amongst other things, showed the classifications of the watercourses in Q’Boro. Several of the larger ones (Class A and Class B) are protected, and are not likely to be filled in the long-term. There are provisions on in the RAR for preserving and improving the quality of the habitat around them, including trees and shrubs, which can curtail development and prevent them from being filled. When you balance the need to maintain these watercourses as conveyances with the need to protect the ecology, I wouldn’t say they will remain “untouched”, but more that our engineering folks will try to protect the native species and habitats as best they can while keeping people’s houses dry.

Filling in even the smaller, unprotected ditches creates yet another problem, this one purely engineering. An open watercourse can store and transport a lot more water than if a pipe was dropped into that watercourse and it was covered up. To replace the storm water management and flood protection capacity of all of the open watercourses in Q’Boro would require huge pipe infrastructure, and all of the associated catch basins, inspection chambers, and pump infrastructure. To make matters worse, the soils in Q’boro need just as much engineering and densification to hold up a sewer pipe as they do to hold up a housing complex, which significantly increases the cost. Don’t get me started on the shallow water table and the construction/maintenance problems it causes.

Therefore the City has developed a longer-term strategy to plan for, and pay for, drainage infrastructure improvements whee they are appropriate, and addressing the eventual filling of the smaller, disconnected ditches that are not protected by the RAR. New developments in Q’Boro pay into a special DCC earmarked for drainage improvements, separate from the mainland and dedicated to works in Q’Boro. When a developer builds in Q’Boro, we take advantage of the soil densification and drainage planning they are doing to make it more affordable to install new infrastructure.

Residents in the Single Family House neighbourhoods who wish to have the drainage closed on their block can do it through a “Local Area Service Plan”, where they get the work done in a cost-sharing with the City (and pay for it over time through their taxes), as long as it isn’t a watercourse protected by the Riparian Areas Regulation (i.e. Class C or worse). We received a report to council in September 2014 (see page 88 of this lengthy Council agenda if you are curious).

Now onto the trees. We do have a recently-adopted Tree Protection Bylaw that applies to new development, City lands and private lands. I don’t know the details of the tree removal you are talking about, but if it happened after the Tree Bylaw was adopted (January 13, 2016) and didn’t occur on Port-owned land, then there should have been a posted permit. If the trees were hazardous or dangerous (as determined by a professional Arborist) then they will be replaced on a one-for-one basis. If they were simply removed to facilitate development, they will be replaced on a two-for-one basis. It isn’t perfect (two young trees don’t necessarily provide the ecological benefit of one mature tree), but it balances the limits of power a local government can do when approving development on treed lots with our desire to have more trees in our community. When planning for trees, one must have a 20+ year vision.

What to do when you see industrial pollution in ditches? First off, you need to know if it is really “pollution”. The groundwater in Q’Boro is similar to adjacent Richmond, in that it is a product of being a former peat bog. The lack of gradient and boggy soils result in stagnant groundwater that, for a bunch of biochemistry and geochemistry reasons I won’t get into here (did I mention I’m an Environmental Geoscientist working in soil and groundwater protection?) has very low dissolved oxygen, low pH and lots of dissolved metals like iron and manganese. When that groundwater hits our ditches, it is exposed to atmospheric oxygen, causing those metals to precipitate out in to metal oxides (making it murky and rust-coloured), and in the presence of biology, more complex metalliferous organic compounds. What sometimes looks like and oil slick in the water may actually be a natural “metalliferous sheen

That said, all the ditches in Q’Boro connect directly to the Fraser River without any kind of water treatment, so real polluting substances going into the ditches will more than likely find their way into the river. Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act says you can’t do that, and enforcement of that law falls on Environment Canada. However, response to smaller spills in to fish habitat is a multi-level cooperative effort between EC, the provincial Ministry of Environment, the Coast Guard (if it hits the river) and local governments. In that sense, who you should call first probably depends on the situation.

If you see something curious, but you are not too sure, either use SeeClickFix or contact the City’s Engineering folks, and they will check it out.

If you see what is clearly a spill, and are worried about fish or see potential impacts to ducks or any such concern for wildlife, you should contact the provincial spill reporting phone / app, and they will triage and determine the proper level of response and response agencies.

If you see a dangerous spill, such as an overturned gasoline truck or a dump of dangerous substances where there may be human health or property damage implications, you should call 911 and ask for the fire department. They will be able to determine a safe response strategy, can arrange for evacuations or road closures, and can coordinate with the City’s engineering folks and senior governments whose job it is to stop the spread and coordinate the clean-up in a way that keeps people from getting hurt.

Finally, what can you do to see more ecological protection of Queensborough, and New Westminster in general? You might want to make contact with the New Westminster Environmental Partners. They organize the Q’Boro Shoreline Cleanup every year, and are always looking for interested and knowledgeable people to help with environmental protection advocacy and works. You can also consider joining the City’s Environment Advisory Committee, which advises Council on topics environmental. The application period for 2017 is open right now, and we don’t generally get a lot of applications from Q’Boro for City Committees. Bringing your voice to the table may help the City make better decisions regarding ecological protection of your neighbourhood.

Whoo Hoo! Two ASK PATs in a row that end with plugs for joining City Advisory Committees! People should really apply!