No doubt the biggest let-down last Council meeting, indeed the biggest disappointment of my time on Council, was the releasing of the updated projected cost numbers for the Q2Q bridge preferred concept.
A short version of this project is that the City will receive “DAC” funding from casino revenues to spend on a fixed pedestrian link between the Quayside and Queensborough, based on a 2007 agreement between the City and the Province. Based on some very preliminary cost estimating, the project was put in the $10 Million range, so Council placed that amount in the budget to support the project. The idea has seen several rounds of public consultation, with several design concepts sketched out and debated. Ultimately, a design that would be acceptable to the regulatory authority that controls river crossings (i.e. a design that allows safe and unfettered barge traffic) and still allows reliable pedestrian use was developed to the point of doing detailed cost estimating. That cost came back at a little over $39 Million. The City doesn’t have $39 Million, and it is hard, with so many competing capital priorities, to see how we can get $39 Million to make this project work. I’m frustrated and disappointed.
However, regular readers (Hi Mom!) know I rarely stick with the short version, so I thought I would go into a bit more detail about how we got here, and where we may go from here, because I want to slay some of the social-media-derived myths about the project.
This project was not killed by NIMBYs. Over the last 10 years or so, the Q2Q project has gone through several iterations. The DAC agreement was in 2007, but it was always anticipated that the Queensborough Community Centre update, other park improvements in Q’Boro, and the MUCF (now called Anvil Centre) would be the completed before the Q2Q project began. The DAC funding did not arrive as one big cheque in 2007, but is allocated as projects come along, and as casino revenues come in. Q2Q was a little further down the timeline.
During those 10 years, preliminary planning work was done on a few concepts for a “fixed link”. At several times, early concepts with very preliminary sketches were bounced off of Quayside and Queensborough residents. For lack of a better term, these concepts were “focus grouped” to test public reaction and determine what potential concerns residents on either side and other important stakeholders may have. They were also run past pedestrians and cycling advocates (like me) to see if their needs were being met.
Three different “high level” crossings were evaluated about 8 years ago. These would completely span the navigable channel at a height that met regulatory requirements (and therefore be about the same height as the Queensborough Bridge). There were some concerned neighbours about the mass of the structure, and some were concerned about the fate of the “Submarine Park”, but there were also some functional and cost concerns with this early concept.
At the advice of the Council of the time, staff stepped back a bit to take a look at options that didn’t go so high as to span the navigation channel, and would require a lift, swing, or bascule section to open and allow boat passage. This opened up a large number of potential options, including new alignments. For a variety of technical reasons, a bascule was determined to be the best option for a lightweight span with a limited footprint. This evolved, through a type of value engineering, into a couple of models of twin bascules – one at a moderate height (but requiring elevators to be accessible) and one at a low enough height that grades were accessible (but requiring more opening/closing cycles, due to reduced boat clearance).
These also saw some limited public consultation, and some neighbours expressed some concerns about the location of one of the “elevator” options. However, Council felt we had enough information to do a more detailed cost analysis of the most practical alternative. That alternative is the one that came back to Council with the $39 Million price tag. The concerns of neighbours were part of the considerations, but the $39 Million was the deciding factor.
Cost estimates are necessarily iterative.
Someone asked me how this project ballooned from $6 million to $39 Million? The simple answer is it didn’t.
The original DAC funding formula envisioned a ~$10.5 Million crossing. I can’t speak to how that number was arrived at (I wasn’t even a local blogger in 2007!) but I can guess it was a simple bit of math: pedestrian bridge, 200m span, look at a couple of recent examples around the country, don’t worry too much about details (the City can always make up a shortfall if needed from their capital budget), and since we aren’t building it for another decade, any estimate we make now is likely to be off anyway. The point wasn’t to plan a bridge at that time, but to earmark parts of this one-time funding source towards worthy projects.
The City then went to work on some of the other DAC projects: the Anvil Centre, the Queensborough Community Centre, and other waterfront improvements in Queensborough. To better make the financing work without having to enter too much long-term debt, they re-allocated some funding between DAC project areas. Consequently, the DAC funds for the Q2Q are now only a little over $6 Million, but another $5 Million in capital reserve funds was earmarked to cover the difference, meaning we still have the ~$11 Million originally earmarked.
As far back as 2009, order-of-magnitude cost estimates for the high-level crossing were in the $15 – $22 Million range. This is when the City went back to the drawing board to see if there were more affordable options, and also started to look around for sponsorship and senior government grant opportunities to see how much of a funding gap could be filled. By 2013, preliminary estimates for the first bascule concept were given as cost of $10.4 Million.
Fast forward to 2016, after Council asked staff to spend a little money on getting some detailed cost estimates on the more refined design, where $11 to $15 Million was still the general thinking, as we became aware of some of the significant engineering challenges. These included the need to install pillars in the river (not just on shore), the barge collision at Queensborough back in 2011 which definitely triggered a closer look at the safety factor for large vessels through the north arm, and the mechanical and operator costs for a bascule bridge. It seemed likely these would offset cost savings that might be realized by not going 22m high and building 1km of ramps. Add a few shifting project priorities as the public consultation and interest in the project increase (Strong enough to carry an ambulance? Wider than 2m for greater pedestrian comfort? Offset to reduce impact on vulnerable riparian habitat on the Q’Boro side?) and things start to add up.
That said, cost estimating for engineering projects is a complicated business, and like most engineering, you get what you pay for. Early estimates were preliminary, in that a lot of the project definition we not yet completed. After working to refine a project enough that we could confidently define important parts of it, Council recently directed staff to get a Class ‘C’ cost estimate, which is considered to be accurate to about 30% variance (i.e., costs are unlikely to be 30% higher or lower than the estimate). We could spend a lot more money to get that estimate down to Class A level, but when the estimate we have is well outside of our affordability range, we need to decide whether the extra design work required would represent money well spent.
I can’t speak too much about the decisions and work done before I was elected, but this webpage has links to the reports that have come to Council since 2013, where you can (if you care) walk through the public process planning for the Q2Q has been.
This project only appears simple
I wrote a blog post a little while ago that talked about some of the complications and compromises required to make this project work, then followed up to answer a few questions, so I don’t want to go through all of that again. This is not a simple project to build, for a variety of reasons, and it is very different than a simple pedestrian overpass. Strapping a sidewalk onto the side of the existing train bridge raised other issues that seemed insurmountable. Many other proposals I have heard (a bridge to Poplar Island then a second to Queensborough, for example – why build one expensive bridge when you can build two at twice the cost?) have also been similarly evaluated, and either didn’t make sense at the time, or had significant issues that seemed to prevent it happening. If it was easy, we would have done it already.
Q2Q is still a good idea!
This is a serious setback, but I want to make it clear that I am still a big supporter of this project concept. A fixed pedestrian link between Quayside and Queensborough makes so much sense at so many levels. It has a certain tourist appeal (especially if you can build something aesthetically pleasing), but it isn’t for tourists. It is to connect people and businesses on both sides of the North Arm better, it is to connect the great pedestrian and bike routes on both sides of the North Arm, it is a vital piece of transportation infrastructure for the people of New Westminster, and for the region.
Is a passenger ferry a good substitute?
No. I do not think a passenger ferry service is a substitute for a fixed link. As a vital piece of transportation infrastructure, a fixed link provides certainty and reliability that a ferry service can’t. I think of it like a bus route (which can always be cut at the whim of a government) compared to a light rail line (which is a fixed asset difficult to remove). There is reason the bus lines running down Hastings have not resulted in the kind of development that the Skytrain running down Lougheed has – the latter is something people can count on still being there and reliable 20 or 30 years down the road – certainty is an incentive to investment. There is also the strange psychology of having to schedule/wait for a ride, vs. just being able to hop on a bike and spin across at the drop of a hat. The former “feels” like a tourist attraction, the latter more like a transportation link.
However, in the meantime, I think it is worth trialing a ferry service to determine the interest, and perhaps to argue the need for a more permanent link. Or maybe (I sincerely hope) the trial will prove my skepticism wrong. These cannot be the little aquabuses that run to Granville Island – currents and logs and heavy industrial traffic mean the Fraser needs a somewhat more robust design. We will need to invest in some dock upgrades and look for a partner to run the show. It is highly unlikely that a ferry can be made accessible for people with mobility issues. However, with luck we can have something running in the late spring.
To me, the fixed link dream is not dead, but it is definitely suffering a bit. I am hoping for
a miracle some really creative thinking to come along that makes the transportation link more accessible and permanent. I am interested in looking at a more stable and reliable ferry option (like a fixed cable ferry), and wouldn’t turn my nose up at urban tramway ideas (could we connect to New West station?), or a pedestrian tunnel as is common in England, and would get us out of our 22m clearance issue. There may even be more efficient and elegant bridge designs that haven’t seen complete costing analysis but may thread the needle between what is acceptable to the river users and what works as urban transportation infrastructure.
It breaks my heart that we don’t have an immediate path forward on a bridge. I think it is a really important idea for the City, I just wish I could responsibly say the cost as presented made sense for the City.