LMLGA 2018 – Part 1

I’m out in Halifax at the annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which is a nation-wide conference for local government types. However, I don’t want to report on this yet, because I still haven’t reported on my trip to Whistler last month for the LMLGA. Sorry, things have been busy!

The Lower Mainland Local Government Association is a networking and advocacy group that serves the local governments of the southwest corner of the mainland of BC, which I talk about a little more in my report on the 2017 meeting here.

The 2018 conference was at Whistler in the first week of May, and it was a full couple of days. Here is a quick run-down of what kept me busy over that time.

Pre-conference Sessions
There were two plenary workshops on Wednesday afternoon (I am on the LMLGA Executive, so I had to go up early for Wednesday morning executive meetings). One was on challenges that cities have in attracting and retaining family doctors, the second on the latest updates on cannabis legalization. I did not have a lot to say about the first session, as there was a lot of details about the problem (from how we teach Doctors to how we pay them and how we attract them from other jurisdictions – all firmly in the Provincial realm) and the solutions local governments could apply were a strange mix of making your city more livable and selling the benefits of your community to young professionals and their families.

The second session was more compelling, as there was a lot of new information about how other local governments are approaching legalization. There is a strict division between what the federal government and provincial government will be regulation, and there is a fairly well defined role for local government. As always, our role is land use (where will these businesses be able to set up?), business licensing (how will a local business operate –hours, signage, staffing, etc.), and nuisance management (where will we enforce smoking, growing, etc.). In New West, we expect to have a report back from Staff early in the summer to set up our local rules, though it seems obvious that the roll-out of federal regulations will be delayed from the July deadline set up by thr federal government.

The opening day ended with a Keynote by Chris Syeta’xtn Lewis from the Squamish Nation, who gave a informative and poignant summary of the history of his people, and the context of where the amalgamated Squamish nations exist today, and what they see for the future of their region. A follow-up discussion with Mayor Patricia Heintztman of Squamish talked about the opportunities all Cities have for not just starting reconciliation, but finding a respectful space to have conversations about our shared future. It was an inspiring evening.

Day 1
Our Morning Plenary was a talk by author James Hoggan, whose discussed his book “I’m Right and You’re and Idiot”. It was a long dissertation on the current problem of public discourse (including there are too many people intentionally disrupting it for personal or political gain), and some techniques to address this (“speak the truth, but never to punish”). Any summary I give here will give short shift to his great multi-faceted talk that covered what Hoggan calls the “social pathology” of our natural predisposition to form teams, the opportunity to be found in embracing cognitive dissonance, and how all of us on every side of every issue think we are David and the other is Goliath.

I then ran a Transportation Connectivity session, which was in two parts. First, Don Lidstone gave a talk on the autonomous vehicle and vehicle-sharing future from the perspective of local government legal issues. Don is, among many I have heard on this topic, at the techno-optimist side of things, anticipating that our entire vehicle landscape will shift dramatically in the next decade to something we do not recognize. He switches quickly to pessimist, however, when he talks about how completely unprepared the province and local governments are. Nothing in our Motor Vehicle Act addresses driverless vehicles. The liability that falls on a Local Government if our infrastructure is not read correctly by an autonomous vehicle (say, if someone vandalizes a stop sign or road lines are buffed off) is uncertain and untested. There is also the not-minor problem that every local government has its own Street / Traffic / Parking Bylaws, and there is no system to an autonomous car to know this, or even any understanding of who is responsible for teaching a car that drives into New Westminster from, say, California, what a flashing yellow light means here or what the local parking restrictions are.

The second part was a panel discussion moderated by Mayor Cote, where a Planner from the City of Abbotsford, the Mayor of Squamish and a staffer from BC Transit discussed the opportunities and challenges of connecting the entire Lower Mainland (Hope to Delta to Pemberton) with Public Transit. Abbotsford and Squamish are both growing quickly, and both are becoming denser, more –transit oriented communities well served by Transit, but barriers exist between the area served by TransLink and those served by BC Transit. This is a bigger issue for Squamish, where up to 4,000 people a day commute to Vancouver, but Abbotsford is all about connecting local communities as opposed ot getting people to the “core”, as job growth is being pushed out to Abbotsford in a major way. So clearly, needs differ around the region, but the need for coordination does not.

We then had a unique program element: An actual honest-to-goodness debate. Seth Klein and Josh Gordon each had teams debating the question: “Does the Speculation Tax go far enough?”, which was fun to watch and quite informing about the strength of the tax as public policy (which resulted in the audience shifting somewhat from slightly in favour of the tax to slightly more in favour of the tax).

The rest of the Day 1 was spent doing AGM-type activities, including Bylaw updates, passing a budget, and electing officers for the upcoming year. You may now congratulate your new Lower Mainland LGA Second Vice President. Jason Lum of Chilliwack has been an excellent President for the last year, and Jack Crompton from Whistler will no doubt fill his shoes well, as he has already been a real driving force behind some of the new initiatives LMLGA has brought into assure it serves its members. We also had resolutions, which I will talk about in Part 2 of this report, which will be arriving soon…

UBCM 2017 – Day 3+1/2

This is part 4 on my reporting out on what I did at the 2017 UBCM conference. Part 3 is here

On the Thursday of UBCM 2017, I again caught the early train downtown for a morning clinic, this one on Socially Responsible Investing. The CAO of the Municipal Finance Authority and a gentleman from an Investment Management company came to speak to a pretty small audience about repeated calls from several local governments (including New West) towards divestment from fossil fuel industries.

Long story slightly shortened: most local governments in BC place most of their reserves in pooled funds held by the Municipal Finance Authority. Through pooling our savings, we can get pretty good returns, the investments are quite secure, and we can re-invest back into our communities – it’s a pretty good model. However, about 8% of these funds are invested in fossil fuel extraction companies, and another 4% or so in fossil fuel transmission companies – like the same Kinder Morgan that communities across BC are trying to prevent from fouling our landscape. We are paying to prevent Kinder Morgan from threatening the lower Brunette River, and at the same time, financing their fight against us. Many of our communities would like a better option – a fund where we can invest that doesn’t include that 12% of carbon-intensive industries.

The presentations were (alas) essentially a long justification for why this is not possible. Every tired argument against divestment was brought out, but the most bothersome was the industry-sustaining argument that the “fiduciary responsibility” of the fund manager will not allow them to make ethical decisions – they are required by law to return the maximum investment possible, and it isn’t up to them to make ethical judgement around climate change. This argument follows that it is up to legislators and regulators to remove impacts of unethical industrial activity, not the investor (which is strange, as *we are the regulators*, so our own investment is being used to battle our own efforts to regulate the industry). They also argue that it is difficult because we would need to divest from every industry that may produce greenhouse gasses like plastics companies and convenience store companies that share land with gas pumps… a familiar and bullshitty slippery slope argument. These arguments were, understandably) met with some pretty strong opposition from some members of the audience, but the circular reasoning used to prop up the oil industry is well lubed.

The MFA is attempting to put together a “Socially Responsible Investing” option for local governments, but are (perhaps not surprisingly) getting a lukewarm response, partly because the poorly defined and wishy-washy way the idea was presented to local governments. Altogether, a frustrating morning session.


A much more positive experience was attending an afternoon workshop on Transgender Inclusion: Preparing for the New Reality. This was an interactive workshop about evaluating whether our local governments are integrating inclusion to our operations and our infrastructure. The “new reality” part is not that transgendered people are living in our communities (they have for as long as communities have existed), but that both the BC Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act have been updated (in 2016 and 2017, respectfully) to include the protection from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. So what used to be the right thing to do is now the law.

The session included a lot of training for those less familiar with the modern reality of cultural inclusion, as simple as defining the difference between birth-assigned sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. There were also representatives from Vancouver and Vernon, two BC cities leading the way in inclusivity. But mostly, the session left us with a bunch of questions to ask ourselves when we get back to our communities – how are we designing our spaces to be inclusive? Do our photos and written materials demonstrate an inclusive city? How are we addressing single-gender sport and arts programs? Do our Housing Agreements protect access for transgendered peoples? What are the feedback mechanisms we have put in place to make changes where needed?

We were also pointed to resources to guide our Local Governments (staff and elected types) to do more, and to do better. This was easily the best session I attended at UBCM this year.


Aside from these sessions, forums and workshops, the UBCM conference includes an Annual General Meeting, with things like Bylaws and Financial Reports and election of new Officers. These events occur throughout the week. There is also a Resolutions session which occurs on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning.

This year there were something north of 150 Resolutions on the Agenda for 2017. These resolutions are put forward by member communities, and are voted upon by the membership in an open meeting, some on a consent process, some debated on the floor. You can read all of the resolutions for 2017 here, although note not all were passed by the Membership. You can search the database of previous resolutions here.

This year there was a rigorous debates on topics as wide-reaching as the fate of the Martin Mars water bombers to repealing Daylight Savings Time. The only resolution New Westminster put forward this year came to the floor for debate on Friday morning. It was a call for action to prevent a renoviction crisis in our City. The text was:

Whereas the practice of renovictions, by which some landlords evict their tenants under the guise of performing major renovations and then significantly increase the rent of those units, is on the rise in our province; And whereas this practice is very disruptive to those impacted, including the elderly, low-income families, and new immigrants, and contributes to housing unaffordability and homelessness; And whereas municipalities are limited in their ability to address this issue and many tenants are unaware of their rights or are reluctant to exercise them: Therefore be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to:
• allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;
• eliminate or amend fixed-term tenancy agreements to prevent significant rent increases upon renewal; and
• permit one tenant or applicant to represent and take collective action on behalf of all tenants in a building.

…and I am happy to announce it was passed by the Membership, after being well motivated by Councillor McEvoy.


There is one final aspect of the UBCM that isn’t really on the schedule, but is really valuable. It is an annual chance to network with local government types from across the province. I had great informal chats over coffee and/or beers with councillors from several other cities; told them my stories and they told me theirs, from dealing with internet trolls to frustrations of slow policy development to excitedly explaining how our City attacked a problem their City is having right now. Being a City Councillor is like any other job in that your cohort are often your best mentors and the best source of inspiration. They share your view and can see your challenges better than most. I always find inspiring people doing great work, and am re-charged by our conversations.

UBCM 2017- Day 1

This is part 2 on my reporting out on what I did at the 2017 UBCM conference. Part 1 is here.

Tuesday, September 26, was the first day of the UBCM 2017 conference, and it started early for me with the British Columbia Municipal Climate Leadership Council breakfast. This is an annual opportunity to sit down with the Council members and provincial leaders (those laser-eyed folks pictured above) to share good news about what local governments are doing, and to find opportunities for partnerships across communities and with senior governments to meet the Province’s climate goals.

For my part, I was able to talk briefly about how our new OCP integrates climate change mitigation and adaptation, about developing plans for our District Energy Utility, about the Urban Solar Garden Project and the small research project we are working on with BCIT to expand curb-side EV charging opportunities. I also heard about similar things in other communities, and from the province about their plans to renew the Climate Leadership Team and a commitment to a renewed Climate Action Charter that was the source of much criticism at this same meeting a year ago. Again, much to feel optimistic about, but still early days of policy development for the new Government.


This was followed by the Community Forums part of the Convention. These are semi-plenary sessions where we are divided up into small, medium, and large communities. At 70,000+ residents, New Westminster is part of the Large Urban Communities forum.

The session began with a panel on Transportation, Moving Commuters in Today’s Urban Environment. Councillor Kerry Jang from Vancouver chaired a panel consisting of Dr. Anthony Perl from SFU’s Urban Studies Program, and the CEOs of both TransLink and BC Transit. (yes, another all-male panel).

Dr. Perl started by showing a series of automobile ads with the same theme: “Buy Now, Pay later!”, and contrasted that with how we market transportation investment – we always ask for a new tax or other funding sources, on the promise that some new service will come later. No wonder we lose referendums. Aside from this, his main message seemed to be that we need to stop thinking more transportation spending means better transportation, when we need better transportation spending.

MORE ≠ BETTER.    BETTER = BETTER.

This was followed by TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond essentially saying that TransLink is doing better, at least in passenger counts. Ridership on the system was up 4.5% in 2016, and is up 6.1% so far in 2017, which is *way* faster than growth being observed in other urban areas around North America. This after a period starting in 2010 when service hours per capita and rides per capita was actually dropping. Some of this turn-around is due to the sometimes painful route optimization process that saw service hours cut but more emphasis on higher-ridership routes. However, more of it may be related to the Compass Card, and changing the way people pay for Transit use.

For anyone who took SkyTrain to and from the conference like I did every day, this measureable surge in ridership is not a surprise, nor is it making the system more comfortable, and Desmond was quick point out that managing overcrowding is now a priority, both in improving SkyTrain service and in the larger projects like Broadway SkyTrain. As is typical of any Desmond conversation about TransLink, he finished by reminding us that we need to start planning past the current Mayor’s Council 10-year plan, and have a serious discussion about mobility pricing as a stable capital funding source.

Manuel Achadinha , the CEO of BC Transit, is less familiar to those of us living in the TransLink service area, but BC Transit provides service to Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley, and the vast interior of the province, where most communities with more than 10,000 residents have some level of public transit service. His talk was mostly on the topic of using technology to collect transit data, and to make service better. Ultimately, what Transit users really want is Frequency and Reliability – technology cannot replace these, but can make them more achievable.

During the Q&A session, there were questions about integrating service and technology between BC Transit and TransLink, and from the answers, it sounded like this was not on anyone’s workplan. Local Government representatives from Fraser Valley communities and the Sea-to-Sky corridor are anxious to see some better integration happen. Connecting Squamish and Whistler to TransLink’s core service area, and inter-community connections between Greater Vancouver and growing Fraser Valley town centres like Abbotsford and Chilliwack seems to be on neither agencies’ radar, but will be a major topic for the Lower Mainland Local Government Association this year.

The Panel wrapped with a short presentation from Selena Robinson, the new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (and Minister responsible for Translink). Again, she had little new policy to announce, and it was clear she was the most-in-demand Minister at UBCM. However, she did reiterate her and her Government’s support for the Mayor’s Council 10-Year Plan, and to providing the promised 40% funding for every phase of the plan.


The second half of the Forum was a Panel called BC Kids – Changing Demographics and Needs of Urban Families with Dr. Bonnie Henry, Deputy Provincial Health Officer, Sharon Gregson of the Coalition of Child Care Advocates, Chris Bone from the City of Prince George, and the Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen. (Hey! An all-female Panel!)

Dr. Henry tweaked us to some demographics and trends in BC in relation to children. They are 20% of BCs population, up to 25% in some communities. But it was her deeper dive into how health indicators vary across the province that show some of the geographic gaps in health services for youth. A comprehensive ongoing survey of children’s health is compiled at ChildHealthIndicatorsBC.ca.

Gregson provided the background behind the 10aDay.ca campaign to bring affordable accessible childcare to British Columbia. This research provided the basis for the new Government’s Child Care Plan – a solution that is much more complex than the speaking points commonly heard during the Election. The current situation is dire – there are 364,000 mothers in the workforce in the Province, with 570,000 children between the ages of 0-12, but there are currently fewer than 106,000 licensed day care spaces. It costs too much to put a child in daycare or many working parents, yet most daycare workers are not paid enough to put their own children in daycare. The system, if that’s what you call the current situation, isn’t working.

Fixing this situation will require more spaces to be built, and it will mean training a new generation of daycare workers. It also means setting up a structure to administer both a fair payment system ($10 a day is a catchy slogan, but in reality the cost would be adapted according to a family’s income and the type of care needed) and a fair wage system to build the professionalism of child care.

The promise is there, the delivery will take time. This is starting to sound like a theme.


Finally, I attended an afternoon policy session on the Water Sustainability Act that unfortunately missed the mark somewhat. The presenters were from the two Ministries responsible for the WSA (Environment and FLNRO), and were clearly highly knowledgeable about the topic, but I felt they didn’t really understand who their audience was, or what information about the WSA as actually valuable to Local Government elected types.

The WSA came into force more than a year ago, but there has been a notable paucity of policy and regulation development to support the goals of the WSA, especially as it relates to the empowerment of (or downloading to?) Local Governments with the ability to develop Water Management Plans and better manage the protection of community water assets. This is not news. People working in environmental protection have been patiently waiting for the WSA to be put to practice, and aside from new regulation around well drilling, the wait goes on.

UBCM17 – Day 0

The annual UBCM Conference was in Vancouver last week, and I attended for only the second time in my term as a City Councillor. I reported here, here, and here on my impressions from last year, but I was among those going into this year with different expectations, what with a fresh new provincial government, and one that has emphasized the importance of working with Local Governments. Indeed, I expect many local government types had expectations going in they were unrealistically high, but let’s see where this went.

I will drag this out across a few blog posts, as it was a jammed week. I’ll try to keep it concise, though this may get pretty wonkish for some regular readers. There was a lot to learn this year, and since the citizens of New Westminster pay my registration, I think it is important to report out so you know what you got for that money.


Monday is a bit of a pre-conference day, as the conference in earnest begins on Tuesday, but I attended two education sessions on Monday, and am glad I did.

The morning session was on Cannabis Regulations from a Local Government Perspective. There were presentations from the new Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, and Sukhbir Manhas, a Lawyer specializing in Municipal Law who put the legal framework in perspective. This was followed by a Panel Discussion with four Mayors from around the Province and a bit of a Q & A session.

It is clear that marijuana for recreational consumption will be legal federally in July of 2018. We also know that the federal government will be responsible for the regulation of production of marijuana, and the provinces will be responsible for regulating wholesale and retail distribution of product, regulating consumption, and for enforcement. It is not clear what role Local Governments will play, except in that we are “Creatures of the Province”, and will be given our roles either through direct regulation or by a local desire to fill a regulatory gap left by provincial action.

It was an interesting session, with a lot of topics discussed, but short version is that the Minister made the commitment to open public consultation and to engaging Local Governments in a constructive way to address our concerns. There will clearly be economic impacts of any regulation. But the Minister was warned by other jurisdictions with which he has been consulting (including Washington State and Colorado) that revenue generation cannot be the driver of regulation, or the important public policy implications can fall by the wayside while short-term costs of setting up the regulatory regime are often underestimated. There will be revenue, but perhaps the message is that we shouldn’t be in a rush to spend it until we understand its character.

Dr. Kendall gave us some interesting perspectives about the public health implications of different policy directions – what age is the right age to permit cannabis use? What to do about public smoking rules, and what to do with multi-unit buildings? How to manage edibles? How do we provide the right price-quality-convenience balance that we effectively cut organized crime out of the supply chain? Legislation must balance these out if we wish to have the best public health outcomes. He presented this compelling graph:

link to source.

In short, if your interest is in managing public health impacts, a well-regulated market is better than a completely unregulated market (like cigarettes used to be) or blanket prohibition (like Cannabis is now) – but finding that middle is the delicate balance we need to strive for. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have provided some pretty good guidelines, and research in existing and potential policy tools, but we have yet to see what advice the federal government will be taking.

Mr. Minhas and the Mayors’ Panel both discussed some of the challenges and opportunities for local governments coming out of this, and the importance of us coordinating with the province prior to next July. We need to be ready for the inevitable change that is coming, if only so we are ready to address the inevitable community concerns in areas that Local Governments have jurisdiction – land use, business regulation, and nuisance management. Our tools are limited, but are most effective if we get ahead of the curve.

Unfortunately, there is lots of evidence, especially from the Q&A session, that this is an area where many local government attitudes lag far behind the progressive public policy work of other jurisdictions and even public perception. From the lame Cheech & Chong joke that opened the session to one long-serving Mayor of an certain agriculture-intensive Lower Mainland Municipality expressing fear that her City will become the “Pot Capital of BC” (causing me to question if she would feel that worried if it became the Craft Brewing Capital of BC, or the Winery Capital of BC?), it is clear that attitudes about cannabis will not change as quickly as the regulation of it will – which suggests some difficult conversations ahead.


My second session on Monday was on Green Innovation and new Environmental Policies. We had a presentations from Jonathan Wilkinson, the Parliamentary Secretary to the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and from George Heyman, the new provincial Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. They talked mostly of senior governments’ commitment to meeting the Paris Agreement goals to reduce emissions, and both acknowledged the role local governments will need to play to meet those goals.

A statistic oft repeated during UBCM was that local governments in Canada are responsible for about 66% of infrastructure, create about 50% of all emissions, but only receive about 6% of all tax revenue. This results in some pretty obvious math: if we want to reduce emissions, we need to update that infrastructure, which is going to cost money.

Which brought us to the topic of grants. There were some details on the Federal Build Canada Infrastructure Fund, and the process being developed through the Provincial Government to make these funds available to local governments. These funds may be applicable to help us fund a few projects in New Westminster where we are planning to reduce the emissions by updating our infrastructure (Canada Games Pool is our single largest emission source) or wish to shift the community to lower-carbon energy sources (The proposed District Energy Utility for Sapperton would replace gas-fired boilers for and expanded RCH and could provide ample carbon-free baseload heat for dozens of high-density residential and commercial developments).

This was followed by Panels on actions that some Local Governments are taking to reduce emissions or modernize their energy supply – from embedding energy sustainability in their OCP (done!) to helping strata complexes bring electric vehicle charging on-line, to implementing the Step Code to promote more energy efficient buildings.

Actually, there was a lot of talk about electricity and the transportation sector, from private cars to transit to heavy trucks. Some question whether the advances in vehicles are too fast compared to our ability to provide the infrastructure to support the shift. According to BC Hydro, if all of the 2.4 Million light-duty vehicles in British Columbia could be replaced with EVs today, and it would only result in a 19% increase in base load. As EV charging predominantly happens when other loads on the system are not high, (i.e. at night), this is less of a problem at the generation end than some may have you believe. On a per-year basis, the average Tesla uses about half the electricity as the average hot tub. Let that sink in for a bit.

The reality is we cannot build the plugs for all these vehicles fast enough for it to become a problem in the short term.

I also learned this:
EV or PEV or ZEV or CEV = PHEV + BEV.
In the electric car world, that’s a funny joke.

Finally, I want to note that today’s two sessions were informative, but I couldn’t help but notice I saw 23 presenters and panelists over the two sessions. Five of them were female, while two others were visible minorities.

Two down, two to go.

It’s been just a little more than two years since I became a City Councillor in New Westminster. In the spirit of consistency, I probably need to follow up on last year’s Year-in-the-Life post. So here are some thoughts about being a City Councillor at the half-way mark of my first term.

That New Councillor Smell has definitely worn off. Although this role involves constant learning, I feel I am up over the steep part of the curve and am more confident in my ideas about what does and does not work in the City. This is manifest in a (hopefully subtle) change from me asking myself “why are things this way?” to a more pointed asking others “Do things really need to be this way?”

I am also becoming more aware of the politics that affect my ability to do my job. Every decision you make in Council is a compromise between competing forces. Even the best possible decision is going to be perceived negatively by someone, for good reasons or bad, and no matter how open, pragmatic, or evidence-based your decision making is, criticism can come from any random, unanticipated direction.

I feel fortunate that our Council, despite our ability to disagree on many issues, is remarkably functional. I hear disaster stories from other Councils that refuse to work together or allow their grievances (petty or serious) to prevent them from doing their work. Some are played out in the media, some others I only hear about through the various grapevines. I have heard first-hand accounts of Councillors in other cities suffering from bullying and harassment within their Councils, and of serious enough threats from the public that police involvement was required. I feel fortunate that our City, as passionate and engaged as it is in civic matters, is largely free from these types of conflicts.

I still lose sleep on Sunday nights before Council meetings. I still struggle with some of the hard decisions and increasingly wear the less-than-ideal things that happen in the City. However, I still believe that government can be open, accountable, and effective, and that we can make (are making?) progress towards the City working better in ways people can see.

I am worried about the impact our aggressive capital replacement plan is having on our budget – but also worried about what happens if we let our capital program slide for too long. I fret a bit over our seemingly chronic inability to complete projects on time. I am trying to be vigilant in avoiding creating my own communication bubble where I am only hearing reinforcement of my own ideas (this is most prevalent in the OCP discussion – I think we are on a the right track, but need to keep an open mind for when the draft plan gets to Council in the New Year). I am trying to be mindful on the job and open to better ways to do it.

I was asked recently at a Christmassy social event: “What is your big goal for this Council thing?” I started talking about this blog, the outreach I have been working on, the City’s Community Engagement efforts, and my overall desire to open up the process of democratic decision making. My inquisitor kept trying to get over to tangibles: new buildings, bridges, parks, things you can attach a brass plaque to. It’s funny I couldn’t get there. We are making progress on several projects, the CGP replacement, library upgrades, a better functioning City Hall, the reformation of the waterfront, but I don’t see those as “my” successes or projects. These are things that large teams of people are working towards, and 70,000 taxpayers are paying for. Although I suppose my feeling of ownership will change if I see my name on a brass plaque…

Finally, I’m half way through the term and finally accepting that adjustments need to be made in my lifestyle. I have been burning a lot of candles, and have frankly lost track of which ends of which I have lit. I am going on vacation for a few weeks to recharge my batteries and pay some much-needed attention to my partner. For my return, I have some pretty drastic lifestyle adjustments planned in order to maintain my household, my relationships, and my sanity. I want to keep blogging (and even do more), I want to be more timely at returning communication I receive, and I have a few tangible projects around town and regionally I want to take a bit of ownership over. I have a long list of “we need to get together over coffee/beer and talk about that” dates I need to keep (you know who you are). This will take a change in programming. Stay tuned.

Until then, we’ll call this a Christmas break. I hope you enjoy your Holidays in whatever form that enjoyment takes, and your 2017 is filled with he things that make you happy. Blogging will resume in January, inshallah.

What do you do?

I’ve been at the City Councillor thing for a year and a half now, long enough that I have to stop referring to myself as “the new guy”. At some point, I have to stop blaming / giving credit to the previous Council for everything going wrong / right in the City. I suspect (hope?) the steep part of the learning curve is now behind me, and I start directing more of my learning towards the problems I want to see solved, the opportunities ahead. It is also long enough that I should be able to answer the simple question “What do you do?”

I have tried, over the last 18 months, to report out on this blog some of the mechanics of City Council, as it was my goal when running to open up the process a bit, and try to do a better job explaining the sometimes-incomprehensible decisions Council (and the City) make. Recognizing many in the City will disagree with any given decision made by Council, I wanted to at least provide enough information so that they know what they are disagreeing with, and not rely on the few very vocal boo-birds in town who assume a decision is bad only because this Council makes it.

However, this post isn’t about that, it is more about the actual day-to-day duties of a person you pay $40,000 a year (plus Vehicle Allowance!) to represent you, whether you voted for them or not. So here is my summary of the job.

*This is a good time for one of my disclaimers about how everything I write here is my opinion and my viewpoint, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of any other members of Council, who are, believe it or not, individual people with their own ideas and biases. Like the rest of this Blog, this is not the “official position” of the City or any entity other than myself.*

Council Meetings:
Council meeting days happen about every two weeks on average. In the spring and fall we meet more often, and we more time off in the summer and around Christmas. The schedule is flexible around work load and stat holiday schedules, but we have about 26-30 meetings a year.

Council meeting days are comprised of a Closed Meeting and an Open Meeting, only the latter of which you see on TV. About 10 times a year (the last meeting of most months), the Open Meeting is coupled with a Public Hearing. We also, at times, have Committee/Taskforce meetings (more on that below) and Council Workshops on these Mondays.

A long Council Monday can be 12 or more hours, with breaks for lunch and dinner. The portion you see on TV is only the Open Meeting and Public Hearing part. On any given meeting day I am at City hall at 9:00am, and typically wander home sometime between 9:00 and midnight.

Council Prep:
We cannot show up at Council Meetings unprepared to discuss the business of the day. Our schedule on Monday is typically pretty stuffed, and we cannot hope to learn enough about the issues on which we will be discussing during that time. On the Friday before the meeting we are delivered (electronically in my case) our “Council Package”. This contains the staff-prepared reports and background info we need to put discussions in context. The Package varies in length, but is typically about 1,000 pages when Closed and Open agenda items are combined.

My practice is to get take a glance at the Package for maybe an hour after I get home from work on Friday or first thing Saturday morning. This allows me to get an idea of what is on the agenda, to determine if it is a 700-page or a 2,000-page week, and to do a first pass over the topics being discussed. From that I can plan out my weekend to assure I have enough time put aside to review at the detail needed, and do any other research I might want to do in order to understand the issue. That is usually when I decide if I have time to do a bike ride on Sunday or attend a Saturday function.

Typically (and this varies quite a bit), I spend about 8 hours on Sunday reviewing the package and taking my notes. My notes form the backbone of the Blog I will eventually write about the week’s Council meeting, but more importantly they create a framework around which I organize my thoughts on the agenda items. This is an old trick from studying during my University years, but I find that if I write a summary of a topic I am trying to learn, it forces me to learn enough to summarize the important points, and to understand what questions I need to have answered yet. Often, you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to write it down.

I print those notes out, so you can see me at Council using my computer screen (where the agenda and reports that make up the Package are) and written notes, along with the extra papers that we receive on Council Day, typically supporting reports that weren’t available Friday, presentation materials, or other relevant documents. My desk is a mess.

Committees and Taskforces:
Like the rest of my colleagues, I serve on several Committees and Taskforces for Council. These each meet anywhere from once a month to once every second month. Most meetings are in the later afternoon, mid-week, after I get off my regular job, and meetings typically last about two hours. With my being on three taskforces and four committees, this adds up to an average of about one meeting a week during the busy months, but not many in the summer (except occasional exceptional meetings, like the Transportation Taskforce last week, and the ACTBiPed next week).

In these meetings, Council members, staff, and stakeholders work through issues, ideas, programs, or proposals, and (hopefully) provide guidance to Council to make better decisions. Prep for these meetings varies greatly, but rarely takes more than an hour. Follow-up on some of the issues that arise at these meetings, and some of the extraordinary meetings, tours or other activities involved with the work these committees are doing takes quite a bit more time.

Community Events: There are various types of community events, some you have to attend, like the Civic Dinner where we thank committee volunteers, some you attend to show support to organizations or people doing good work in the City, some you attend just because they are fun.

This is a challenge for any Councillor’s schedule. We get a lot of invitations, and cannot hope to attend everything. I try to be careful about stretching myself too thin, and end up missing a lot of events I really want to get to. I try to respond to every invitation and send a decline if I cannot make it, but scheduling is an ongoing challenge, as is managing my work and Council calendars while still finding some time to remind @MsNWimby that I exist. The job does not come with a social coordinator, and every calendar app I can find for my phone is worse than every other one. I’m still working on this part…

Constituent Services:
This is a big, but pretty loosely defined group of activities, and each Councillor can make their own decision about how they manage this, and how much time it takes. This is another part of the job that “expands to fill the space available to it”.

Sometimes, a person complains to you about potholes on their street, or the noise from their neighbor’s wind chimes. Sometimes they call you to ask for help with a business license issue, or to complain about a development in their neighbourhood. Sometimes people complain about unfair enforcement of a Bylaw, while others complain about lack of Bylaw enforcement. Some people just want to be heard and the problem acknowledged, some want you to fix things for them.

I try to take an approach to this based on a few principles. I am not there to help people get out of Bylaw requirements, to get their stuff pushed to the front of a line, or to help them get around a process that exists. I am really conscious that procedures and policy exist in government, and that we have professional staff working on directives from Council as translated through their management – they should not have to deal with an individual Councillor coming and telling them how to do their jobs. That said, if a resident or business owner feels that the process is unfair, or that they have received treatment form the City that is not in keeping with City policy or good customer service, I am happy to talk with management at the City and (this is important) get both sides of the story and figure out what went wrong.

It is a delicate balance. Sometimes my job is to help explain to a resident or business owner why things are so bureaucratic and irritating, and why the Bylaw is written or enforced the way it is. Sometimes staff do mess up, or processes are developed that don’t really work when put into practice, and someone needs to facilitate a better outcome for everyone. I don’t see my job as advocating for either party in a conflict like this, but as a mediator trying to figure out an outcome that works best for the City and the Residents. And occasionally the approach required is to work with the Mayor and Council at the executive level to fix a process or a system that is not working for the residents and businesses in the City. Deciding which of the three is the right course when hearing from a complainant is a tough job, and something I am still learning about and developing my skills at.

Communications:
I receive dozens of e-mails a day and a few phone calls a week from residents or businesses in town. I try to respond to all of them. I fail.

When I first got elected, I dreamed I would answer them all promptly and personally, but reality has set in. Some (like the every-couple-of-day missives from the hateful racists at Immigration Watch) go directly to delete. Some I am just cc’d to, and am not the best person to answer, so I usually wait to see if a more appropriate person responds before chiming in. Some raise interesting and complex questions that I need to put a bit of thinking too before I respond. Some scroll off the first page, and I get back to them a week or two later and feel bad about not having responded right away. Some, I just don’t seem to have the time to keep track of.

So if you wrote me an e-mail, and I was slow to respond, please don’t take it personally, and don’t feel bad sending me a reminder e-mail. I will get back to you eventually. Unless your comments are full of hateful racism or other abusive language, in which case I’m likely to just ignore you and hope you go away. In that case, I guess, you can take it personally.

This other stuff:
Writing this Blog is, to me, a really important part of how I do this job. It takes a lot of time, and is almost always done after 10:00 on weekday nights. Summarizing a Council Report can take a couple of hours, depending on how many items on the week’s agenda require extended explanation. I find free time to write pieces like this wherever I can (in this case, I am sitting at one of the little desks on the Queen of Alberni crossing the Strait of Georgia while @MsNWimby enjoys the blue sky on the sun deck).

Tracking the local and regional media (including the social media) is also an important part of the job whose hours simply cannot be counted. Keeping track of the goings in the City, of the trends in the region, of Provincial and Federal politics as it relates to our City, is vital if we hope to make good decisions for the City. This includes a fair amount of general interest research, following great local sources like Price Tags, or global sources like StrongTowns along with reading great urban and economics leaders from Janette Sadik-Khan to Umair Haque.

Nothing in New West is new, we don’t have completely unique challenges, but the same challenges as other Cities and regions have had. Learning what from their successes and failures is the best way to train myself to make better decisions.

I have been at this for 18 months, and parts of it are getting easier. I am now better able to judge the amount of my Saturday and Sunday I need to spend reading my Package, more of the “background” in my Package is familiar to me, requiring less review. I have a better idea who in City Hall to call and get a question answered. The trade-off is the expanded time I spend doing that last part – the constant learning to empower myself to make better decisions and dream bigger about the future of the City.

Now if I can only get ahead of my e-mails and get my scheduling figured out…

Too Busy!

This is another in my semi-regular series of excuses for not updating this blog in a timely enough manner. I have been busy.

To clarify what that means, I think people know I have a job. Regular take-a-lunch-box-to-the-office 5-days-a-week three-weeks-vacation fill-out-timesheet type stuff. Fortunately, my employer has adopted a fortnight flex day schedule for all employees (meaning I work 7.75 hours for 9 days every fortnight, and get every second Monday off) and my employer has agreed to a small concession of unpaid leave for alternate Mondays when I have New West Council duties (which turns out to only be about 12 days a year). This still means I spend (on average) 35 hours a week completing Comfort Letter requests, administering dewatering agreements, reviewing Site Profiles, managing contaminated sites investigation and remediation projects and coordinating the technical aspects of PS3260 Accounting Standards compliance. It is fun and I work with a great team of people, so no complaints on my part. But it does eat into my time.

This week (as an aside, but to demonstrate the general chaos of my life right now), I took a couple of hours of my vacation time (with prior approval from my boss) to have a morning meeting with representatives from The Shops at New Westminster Station, Fraser Health, TransLink Police, NW Police Department, and New West Bylaw Enforcement to do a walkaround at New Westminster Station and the surrounding bus loops, retail areas and sidewalks to discuss a collaborative approach to making the area a more inviting pedestrian and public space, with an emphasis on how the various Provincial and City anti-smoking bylaws could be applied to address one of the primary complaints about the area (see pic above). Wow, that was a long sentence. I hope to be able to report an update on that meeting soon.

After work most nights, my schedule is rather chaotic. This week, I had a frustrating committee meeting with the Royal Lancers on Tuesday, and pinch-hit for Councillor Harper to chair a much more positive and productive Residents’ Association Forum on Wednesday. Thursday is free (hence me writing this), but I have, since Monday’s Council Day, received about 50 e-mails to my Council address, which will take some time to triage and decide what requires a response. Some may even require multiple e-mail exchanges with staff or others to gather the data required for a useful response. If you e-mailed me and I have not responded yet, my apologies. I have read it, and will try to get back to you as soon as practicable. And on Friday, I receive the Council Package I need to review in detail before Monday. I also have to organize my Jane’s Walk for Saturday, so that will have to be done tonight or Friday night, as I work Friday. I will probably get something figured out by Saturday Morning.

This is not meant to be a whine. I chose my path (and as has been joked, I went door-to-door begging for it!). So this is more an explanation why my blogging and other correspondence is, occasionally, less timely than I would like it to be. There are a few “Ask Pat” posts in the queue, and I am late assembling the April 27 Council Report. It also explains the lack of copy editing on this blog – any attempts at scanning for typos likely occurred after midnight.

On the plus side, I did get a great bike ride in on Sunday morning, and the New West Lit Fest last weekend was a great event, so it isn’t all toil. Actually, I am loving it.

What’s with abandoned Gas Stations? Part 1

One of the things I do in my professional life is deal with contaminated sites.

In the same way that whenever I tell anyone I am geologist they ask me about when the next earthquake is going to happen (short answer: I have no idea), when people find out I work with contamination, they always ask about old gas stations. Why are there all these old gas station lots with nothing on them but weeds and white pipes? Or more commonly: what is going on with the old gas station at the corner of XXX and YYY?

All of the images in this post are straight screen captures from GoogleMaps.
I spent 5 minutes scrolling around local communities looking for examples of
White Pipe Farms. I presume they are all former gas stations, but I do not actually
 know the history of most of the sites I found just by surfing. Nothing I say below
should be specifically related to the sites I took images of – every site has it’s
own history, and every owner has their own motivations.

It is a long story, and regular readers know how much I love long stories.

In British Columbia, there are two pieces of related legislation – the Environmental Management Act and the Contaminated Sites Regulation – that control how contaminated land in the Province is managed. Municipalities have very limited powers over contaminated lands, unless of course they own the lands. It is the form of the EMA and CSR that cause these valuable urban commercial lots to sit empty for years.

A contaminated site becomes a capital-letter Contaminated Site when the owner of the property applies to the City for one of 5 specific permits named in Section 40 of the EMA: Subdivison, Rezoning, Development, Demolition or Soil Removal. The City is required by the EMA to collect certain information from the owner and send that off to the Ministry of Environment prior to issuing a permit. This makes sense, when you think about it. Those 5 permit types will change the character of the site – evidence of past property uses disappear when one of those 5 permits are issued. The Province wants to take that opportunity to document whether there is any contamination before evidence of that contamination disappears. If the site is contaminated, then the Ministry will most often prevent those permits from being issued until someone deals with the contamination.

So if you have a gas station, and you want to tear it down and put in condos or a In-and-Out Burger, you need to demonstrate to the Ministry that the land is not contaminated before you change the use. If it is contaminated, you need to either clean that contamination up or demonstrate through a rigorous science-based “Risk Assessment” that the contamination is contained, isn’t impacting your neighbours, and will not cause harm to human health or the environment at any time in the future. If the contamination is not stable, or if it could possibly cause harm, then you are not getting your permit, and your condo-building or burger-schlepping dreams will have to wait.

Cleaning it up can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, you just go in there with an excavator and dig out all of the contaminated soil and throw some ORC in the hole to cause hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to bloom in the groundwater. Bob’s yer uncle.

However, if the contamination is a long way down, it can be really expensive to dig it out, especially on an urban lot. Sometimes the contamination has migrated to include the neighbouring property, and the neighbour doesn’t want their building to be excavated. Disposing of this contaminated soil can be expensive. The cost of a complicated excavation can easily exceed the value of the land.

Alternately, in most cases the contamination will not last forever. Gasoline spilled in the ground will migrate downwards until it hits groundwater, then sit on top of the groundwater like Cointreau on top of a B-52. Some of it evaporates and moves back up through the soil, some is dissolved in the groundwater and flows away- diluting with distance. Some simply breaks down chemically in to less harmful compounds, while some gets eaten up by natural hydrocarbon-metabolizing bacteria. All of these degradation processes can be helped along from the surface.

You can stick wells in the ground and blow air down into the hydrocarbons and groundwater (“air sparging”). This breaks up the hydrocarbons so they dissipate, increases the evaporation, and provides fresh oxygen that encourages bacterial decomposition of the gas. You can also stick tubes higher in the ground and suck out the vapours, accelerating the dissipation. You can stick chemicals down the wells that will accelerate the degradation (but this is tightly controlled by the Water Act – you cannot stick the kind of dispersants they used in the Deepwater Horizon spill into a well in BC- things like Milk of Magnesia are typically used to boost oxygen levels).

Regardless, this type of in-situ remediation can take years or even decades, and in the meantime we can end up with a vacant lot, surrounded by a rental fence, with white pipes sticking out of the ground everywhere. Those white pipes are monitoring wells, which are used to keep track of the groundwater conditions, or the air sparging or vapour extraction wells for in-situremediation systems.

Or, of course, the owner can do absolutely nothing. (In reporting, this is what they call “burying the lead”). You see, nothing in the Environmental Management Act or the Contaminated Sites Regulation actually forces the owner of a contaminated site to clean it up.

That’s right. The owner is limited by what (s)he can do with the contaminated land (because they can’t get those municipal permits), but unless they have a compelling business reason to do something about the contamination, there is no law or other requirement saying they need to take any action towards cleaning it up. So the weed-covered empty lot can sit there literally forever.

It is at least theoretically possible for the Director of Waste Management (the senior bureaucrat in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry) to order an owner to clean up contamination, but that power is very, very rarely exercised. In practice, the Ministry only does this if there is an imminent risk to persons or property caused by the contamination. Not unprecedented, but very unusual. There is no sign the Ministry is interested in increasing this power. And there is nothing a City or neighbouring properties can do to compel the Ministry to take this action.

So why is it (apparently) always abandoned gas stations? Near as I can tell, there are three reasons for this:

First, pretty much every gas station built before 1980 is a contamination nightmare. The old technology of buried single-walled steel tanks almost invariably leaked after a few years in the ground. Since gas was so damn cheap before the 1970’s oil crises, it was of little concern to most station owners if they lost a few gallons a day to leaks, presuming they even noticed. It was cheaper to let it happen than to dig the tanks up and replace them. A few gallons a day can, however, add up to a hell of a lot of hydrocarbon in the ground over several years. Then there was the waste oil and solvent disposal methods from the 60s. At a time when PCBs were used to clean carburettors, let’s just say housekeeping to protect the environment was not standard practice at Cooter’s Garage. This is no longer the case, I hasten to note. Modern gas stations use double-walled vacuum-sealed plastic underground tanks with automatic leak detection systems, and are very careful to recycle their valuable waste oils and solvents, mostly due to tougher laws. The legacy of old practices still haunts us.

A second factor is that there are far fewer gas stations today than there were 40 years ago. The smaller two-pump Mom’n’Pop operations have been replaced with larger multi-bay major company franchises. This means many of the former stations from the Century of the Car have been closed in the last couple of decades, and they all probably have contamination issues.

The third factor is that the closed stations usually belong to large multi-national oil companies. These companies have a lot of assets, and are in no big rush to divest themselves of fiddly little assets like a block of City land. The minuscule cost of paying property tax on an empty lot in New Westminster disappears when these companies are making multi-billion-dollar revenues. Commonly, the cost and hassle of cleaning up the land isn’t offset by the selling price they could get for it. They can sit on it for years, maybe the contamination will get better with gradual degradation and dissipation. Or not.

One thing they do not want to do is sell it without cleaning it up first, and that is, again, because the CSR does not allow for the “persons responsible” for the contamination to sell that liability. Nothing (except for your bank’s loan officer) prevents you from buying a contaminated site, but you cannot legally “buy the contamination”.

This actually makes sense. The last thing we want is for every owner of a contaminated site to sell that liability to some numbered company registered in Belize. That company could buy up 10 contaminated sites then go insolvent and disappear, abandoning the land for the Province to clean up. No-body wants that.

So the person who caused the contamination will always own it, as long as they exist. The big oil companies plan to exist for a long time. If they sell you their contaminated land, they no longer control what you do on that land. You could go back and clean the contamination up, and send the bill to the Oil Company, but if they wanted to spend that money themselves without you being the unaccountable middle-man. You could even conceivably do something that harms yourself or others with that contamination that belongs to the oil company, and the oil company will be responsible for some of that harm. Oil companies hate risk, so they would rather just own the land, put a fence around it, say “no trespassing” and do whatever due diligence is required to keep anyone from messing with their contamination. Just to be on the safe side.

So too often, the most rational business case is to just let that white pipe farm sit there, contributing nothing to the community for perpetuity. And there is nothing the City can do about it.

Some time in the next week or two, I will write Part 2 – about what the Province, Cities and neighbourhoods can do about these sites.

Just an update

It’s been a while since I wrote anything in this space here, but I’ve been busy. Work is busy these days, but so is everything else!

Since writing my last post, I have attended a Master Transportation Plan Advisory Committee meeting, an Emergency Advisory Committee meeting, and played a couple of curling games (one loss, one win, thanks for asking).

I also spent some time visiting family and friends, eating turkeys, and practicing chainsaw technique, all on Saturna Island. I’ll report more on that at some later date, but can I can admit to having turned a couple of dozen little scrappy pine trees into future fence posts, and to have not cut any important parts of my body off with the saw. Not bad for a first time behind the business end of a Stihl.

In fact, I will write a whole bunch more about Saturna Island in the future; it is a magical place. For now, I will only mention that it has the greatest departure lounge in the entire BC Ferries System.

The entrance to the Saturna Lighthouse Pub is about 20 feet from the ferry ramp, and the deck features unquestionably-full pints,

a killer nacho plate and spectacular pizzas, and one of the greatest views on earth.

Aside from such recreations, I also attended a TransLink consultation meeting here in New West (a write-up from which I am about 90% through writing – watch this space).

On the same night as TransLink, I attended another great NEXT New West meet-up, this one at the Northbank project presentation centre. Peter Newall from Ballenas Project Management talked about the project, with insights into his previous projects in New West (The BC Electric Building / InterUrban and the refurbishing of the New Westminster Police Station and attached condos), and his apparent ability to foretell worldwide financial disasters. We were also given a short presentation and Q&A session with Councillor Jonathan Cote, where he talked about the MUCF/Office Tower issue. I have gone on about this issue in the past, but it was good to hear from someone with actual knowledge about the project talk about the decision train that took the City down the road to building a commercial office tower. There were a lot of business leaders in the room asking him about the options available to the City and the business case around the development, and I think Cote did a good job getting the message across that the decision made was the obvious one when all the factors were considered.

Finally, I am still going through photographs and working on writing up our recent 4-day vacation to San Francisco. I am ¾ of the way through blogging about it. We saw some things while we were there, but I cannot guarantee they are all safe for work. If you are interested in how Ms.NWimby and I spend our vacation time (Hi Mom!), you might want to go here, but you’ve been warned.

I also filled out a couple of local surveys: this one on the next phase of the Pier Park and this one on the City’s Financial Plan. Both close really soon, so you might want to go there and fill them out if you have any opinions. It’s a much more effective way of spending your time than commenting here.

Law of the Instrument

This is similar in tone to an earlier post I wrote regarding the misapplication of technology. In that post, I questioned how “on-line voting” was going to fix the low turn-out rates in elections. The problem of low voter turn-out was not caused by the lack of options or access to polling booths, so increasing that access through the wonder of the Internet was not really a sensible solution. It was the wrong tool addressing the problem from the wrong direction.

This time, I hope to convince you that increasing the volume of traffic is not the solution to the problem of an aging bridge.

In earlier stages of my career, I had plenty of opportunities to work with drillers. Guys (and yes, they were all guys) who operate drilling equipment are a special breed. It is hard work, intensely physical, dirty, noisy, and you are doing it in the rain, the sleet, the snow, and any other unpleasant environment you are asked. Days are usually 12 hours, and you spend much of your off time living in flea-bag hotels on the outskirts of towns you wouldn’t otherwise visit.

I have drilled (actually, stood there watching other guys drill while I sketched on a clipboard and put samples into jars) in pounding down rain in February in Port Alice, in frozen sleet in September in Wells; In heavy snow in Anahim Lake, and on bright sunny warm days while standing on bulk sulphur storage piles. I have even stood on a small barge in Burrard Inlet in the middle of winter with drillers running a Pionjar off the side. With all of these conditions, they are operating a piece of equipment that can kill or maim them instantly if they lose attention. As a result, drillers are tough, skilled, determined, crude and practical: Every edge they have is rough. They all smoke every cigarette like it is their last; I have never seen a group of people so enthusiastic about smoking, and I grew up in a Pulp Mill town.

L to R: me, a notable bridge, a Sonic drill rig.

All that aside, one of the charming things about drillers is their tool kit. It contains two types of tools: hammers, and unused. There is nothing a driller cannot fix with a hammer. If there is, it needed replacing anyway. Every process in the instruction book “Drilling for Dummies” starts with these two steps: 1) Get a hammer; 2) No, a bigger hammer.

As a result, drillers generally have a lot of broken and bent equipment around. When something goes wrong on the drill rig there are two ways it can go: lots of banging and then back to work; or lots of banging then back to the shop. The only shocking past is how often it is the former.

There is a truism called the Law of the Instrument, which is colloquially “when all you have is hammers, every problem looks like a nail”.

When applied to how our province has been operating its roads, and overseeing Translink’s management of the Major Road Network (including the Pattullo Bridge), it could be said that there is no problem that cannot be fixed by building more roads. Never mind what the problem is, or whether this solution has worked in the past, building more roads seems to be the one thing upon which this government has no problem spending taxpayers money.

If the connection isn’t obvious, let me put it this way: At a time when they are cutting back on bus routes and are putting all transit expansion on hold, TransLink is fast-tracking the “consultation” on the Pattullo, saying they need a new 6-lane bridge PDQ. This seems to be the solution to some problem, but there problem isn’t “traffic” or “truck movement” or “growing communities” (the talking points used to justify a 6-lane bridge). Their problem is an aging bridge.

Look at the “Replacement Factors” listed on their website for the project, what do we find? An alliterative list: Safety, Structure, Seismic, and Scour.

“Safety” issues are related to traffic operations on the bridge: lanes too narrow, inadequate railings, too many accidents. If TransLink or the Government was really concerned about driver safety on the bridge, they would put four photo radar cameras on the bridge and enforce the 50km/h speed limit. A revenue-generating end of the problem.

“Structure” arguments are all about corrosion of steel components on the bridge and degradation of the bridge deck, so exactly the same factors that led to the extensive refurbishment of the Lions Gate Bridge. There, things were repaired at a much lower cost than replacing the bridge.

“Seismic” seems pretty straight forward: a 1938 bridge does not meet 2012 earthquake standards. The Sandwell Report done for TransLink in 2007 was pretty clear: “…the bridge is vulnerable to collapse even under moderate earthquakes and is in urgent need of retrofitting.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s get on with that retrofitting and make a safe bridge, at a fraction of the cost of building a new bridge.

“Scour” is the argument that after 75 years, the River is now starting to scour away the sand and silt around the foundations of the bridge. Give me a couple of barges of 1-tonne rip-rap, and we can take care of the scour issue. No need for two lanes of extra traffic to fix this one.

Notably, not one of these “Replacement Factors” justify increasing the number of lanes on the bridge, and most can actually be facilitated at much lower cost by reducing the lanes to three (with counter-flow) like the Lions Gate. As compelling an argument TransLink makes for extensive refurbishment of the Pattullo Bridge, nothing that says we need to accept the negative impacts on the City and the region of increasing road capacity, or the loss of the iconic steel arch span that is part of our City’s heritage and skyline for 75 years. Nor do they justify ramping up a $200 Million refurbishment project into a $1Billion bridge expansion project.

However, bridge replacement and expansion is the hammer that TransLink has. Collecting tolls on the bridge is the force behind that hammer. So no surprise when the problem is an aging bridge, the solution is not fixing it. The solution is to imagine other problems that may be solved by expanding it and slapping on tolls.

Simply put: the Province will not pay $200 Million to upkeep the infrastructure it has, but will throw a bunch of money building other infrastructure with no plan for long-term maintenance costs.

Hardly a model of fiscal prudence in my book.