News,discussions about Victoria and the Capital Region and the issues that affect us. My area of experise is in active transportation, particularly cycling and walking. My recent term on Victoria City Council also keeps me interested in local issues that come up at City Hall and around the region.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
New installments April 2013
The crisis of bridge financing is in the eye of the
beholder.Accounting idiosyncrasies and
scope changes supported by a majority of council have evolved through reasonable
project timelines.Choices have been
transparent – presented in public to those at the table, mindful of the
expectation that distinct elements of the project and its management require due
diligence at every decision point.
Critics need to choose between journalism and advocacy,
though it seems the two are cross-pollinating, with those investigating the
story clearly advocates for an alternate agenda and storyline, and predictably
less interested in the facts that don’t echo their view of history.
Costs of the referendum and an alternate design project are
now in the budget, as are scope changes like the project to move Telus lines,
and new features aimed at protecting structures from new traffic that may be
generated by a post-referendum ship building program, among other line
items.Endorsed as a package, council
dissenters could have asked for separate motions to consider each distinct
accounting change or substantive cost element.They had a voice, and a vote, not a veto.
Council chose, as it should have, to remain “focused” on
value for money and voted to support clear, if sometimes mundane budget
additions to protect taxpayers and the city’s capital investment, though
nothing that could be characterized as inflationary, irresponsible or aimed at
The contractor will be in the water soon enough, even as
those who lost the referendum and continue to lose votes at council, sometimes
by proxy, continue to launch torpedoes aimed at scuttling the project.
Last week environmental organizations put out a proposal for a "Better Future Fund" aimed at the next BC election coming in May. It proposed to take the provincial carbon tax and apply revenues to various initiatives to green up our energy expenditures. The biggest chunk they earmarked for transit while proposing other investments in energy efficiencies for buildings and local community initiatives aimed at reducing our carbon footprint.
The community piece was pretty light on details, and the fund proposal missed the mark on active transportation - nothing in there about cycling and walking which, in many BC communities, are rapidly growing as viable transportation choices for more and more of our citizens and, unlike some of the other proposals, have a much more immediate and direct benefit in individual and community health.
I put out a news release to point out the missing link here, unfortunately all too typical of those who can't see the trees for the forest. They get the big picture but don't always grasp some of the details of how to get there. The Better Future Fund is still well intended and a good start to an important discussion, but we need to make sure that the practical solutions that we need to help people make more sustainable choices are spelled out in some detail and appropriately funded so that the sticks of the carbon tax are better paired with the carrots of real options for more sustainable lifestyle choices in how and where we live, and in the transportation choices we will be making several times a day, every day.
Future Fund Incomplete Says Cycling advocate
Better Future Fund proposed by leading environmental organizations is a good
recipe for BC’s carbon tax, but it is missing some essential ingredients, says Capital
Bike and Walk Executive Director John Luton.
for dollar, investments in cycling infrastructure is one of the most efficient
and effective means of shifting travel choices to sustainable modes”, he
taxes need to be paired with investments in cycling infrastructure to help
people choose cycling for more of their daily travel needs”, says Luton, “and
the Better Future plan is a missed opportunity to make that point. When it
comes to transportation, there is more than one shade of green”.
already has the highest mode share for cycling of any city in Canada, and can
do more, but cities need helping funding the capital projects that are needed
to attract a broader demographic than we’ve been able to grow so far. Cycling is
not only a viable choice on its own, but, in larger cities, it also partners
well with the transit that Better Future supporters want to fund, and has a
coincident benefit in individual and community health.
Bike and Walk has been working with local advocates and others in the province
through the BC Cycling Coalition to develop a vision of what the province could
achieve with new investments in cycling infrastructure.He says the plan would not only help shift
travel choices to more sustainable modes but would also help BC better compete
with other jurisdictions putting money into cycling tourism initiatives that
are growing jobs and new, sustainable economic modelsy.
is growing thousands of jobs around their “Route Verte” project; Vermont’s
cycling tourism industry is bigger than maple syrup and locally, businesses and
many BC communities are already building their own strategies to attract green
BC forwards to a more sustainable model needs to pair more of the carrots with
the stick of the carbon tax.We can’t
just punish people with new costs – we’ve got to give them a range of options
that will help them make the transition now and in the future.We need the transit plan, but it has a much
longer gestation period and higher up front capital costs than does cycling
infrastructure programs”, said Luton.
investments in cycling have been working, but programs have too often been cut
to meet fiscal pressures.We need to tie
carbon taxes to program spending that makes good policy sense, and putting
money into cycling is essential to a better future for BC.”
Luton, Executive Director Capital
Bike and Walk Society firstname.lastname@example.org 250-592-4753 250-886-4166
Cycling Coalition provincial recommendations at:
The recent award of a contract to build the new Johnson St.
Bridge will have some critics looking for a new storyline.Pretty clearly the fiction that the deal was
on the verge of collapse was overblown.Construction will start soon and some will continue looking for new
theories to explain away the public process, democratic referendum and a solid professional
design and development process that is moving the new crossing project along.
Council critics will be left behind as well, pointing fingers
at the majority who have consistently voted to proceed despite the claims of
sinister intent that are likewise overstated.More perplexing, though, is a newfound interest in downtown vibrancy possessed
of some of the same voices who are finding the wind at their backs has turned
and their ship has now sailed, and seemingly rudderless.
Anyone who took the trouble to read the economic impact
assessments that weighed a potential refurbishment project against the choice
of a new bridge would have found the impacts to the downtown economy of a
bridge rescue mission unsupportable.Potential losses were pegged at as much as $13 million a year, dwarfing
what impacts they have lately noticed from market shifts to the new Uptown mall
in Saanich.If the rush to the burbs is
built on convenient access and plentiful parking, how come they didn’t notice
the gross inconvenience of losing the old bridge for a couple of years?(The only viable means of refurbishing
structural elements and getting at the shaky foundations was deconstruction and
off-site reworking that has, in any event, proven unfeasible).
Certainly business voices in the city were, after initial
apprehensions over costs, quickly convinced of the sound choice embodied in the
new bridge.They, as well as anyone,
understood the engineering analysis as well as the very real problems of losing
a vital crossing would be for the centre of the region’s economy.Like most who have had a more practical sense
of the issues, the hair on fire claims that a cover up of a cheap and easy fix
was being ditched by empire builders just didn’t hold water.More so, the recognition that the
functionality of the system design represented in the new road alignments and added
levels of service for cyclists and pedestrians maintained a balance that would
have been thrown off-kilter by lane reductions or other closure schemes
sometimes promoted by dissenting voices.
The bridge is an essential connection to the city’s downtown
for many in Victoria as well as for those who live in municipalities beyond our
borders.Shutting it down would send them
off to other commercial and retail destinations to avoid the headaches of
getting downtown via other routes that are even today oversubscribed and not
really direct links for many of the trips to downtown businesses in
particular.Why is that point lost on
the supporters of a “vibrant downtown economy” who have been taking aim at the
bridge project?Add economic illiteracy
to their sandbox grasp of transportation system design.
As much as some would like more parking, more travel lanes
for their cars, just as there are those who propose to shut it all down and
imagine everyone will walk or bike to every destination for every trip, neither
is going to happen.We’ve achieved
something of an equilibrium where extra capacity for cycling and walking trips
will help people make more sustainable choices, but those who choose to drive,
or who must, will keep the level of service they have now, at least as much as
they have had since 1924 when the current bridge was completed. (Transit
services and goods movement would run into their own problems if the “greener”
solutions were implemented).What’s
useful to know, however, is that the new bridge also caps capacity at those same
levels for cars and trucks, and this despite the clear signs of fresh new
growth in residential and business development immediately west of the bridge
that will generate many thousands of more trips a day to and from downtown.Most of that growth will be on foot or by
bike – the bridge already accommodates more than 1 million trips per annum by
bike, some figure larger on foot.Both
will enjoy service improvements that will accelerate those numbers when the new
Word to the wise on that one too.Developments on both sides of the bridge owe
at least something to the new project.The uncertainty of a decision, the very questionable resilience of the existing
crossing and even the lack of cycling and walking features were an impediment
to their moving forward.Those “concerned”
about the city’s economic vibrancy have now another shaky platform to climb
down from.The new bridge is a positive,
not a negative, for Victoria’s economy and it’s time to move on.
Next steps will see the start of construction as the city’s
freshly secured contractor starts poking holes in the harbour bottom for new
foundations.It will also be the
foundation of a new era in the city’s history and one we can look forward to.
Happy to add something more to the discussions about how to
inject some new vibrancy into Victoria’s downtown economy.It’s something that I’ve at least had
something consistent to offer over the last few years.It’s a bit of a contrast to new converts who
have more recently discovered the issue and are looking for new voices and new
ideas to bring to the table.Notwithstanding
that any strategy will need to be a team effort, requiring everyone on council
to be pulling in the same direction, more or less, it would be as useful to
have some confidence that there is a coherent connection between the “nice
things to say” and the “better things to do”.Talk is cheap enough, but concrete action is going to cost more, both in
real dollar terms and in the expenditure of political capital to support
investments or make decisions that may be at odds with the sometimes confusing
directions offered by the changing winds of more populist positioning.
Case in point is the Pandora Green project that our last
council was pilloried for, from both left and right, for being either too
expensive or aimed at disenfranchising those for whom a tent city was, at least
then, a convenient soapbox on which to stand in defense of our street
population.Most of our council, at
least, was focused on a coherent and consistent strategy to aggressively pursue
funding and property opportunities to increase access to diverse housing and
shelter options for our most disadvantaged citizens.It’s still a better, and actually a cheaper,
solution for everyone than the tent city debacle that plagued what is now
Pandora Green only a couple of years ago.
Homelessness is still a problem enough, but the opening of a
new shelter and another project to rescue bankrupt hotels is now paying off, in
some measure, in the provision of supportive housing for some of those most in
need.For the afflicted neighbourhood
along Pandora, the disappearance of the boulevard squat has been a welcome
relief from the downward spiral of disorder, and the new plaza and boulevard
improvements are creating a more livable environment for both the more
transient users of Our Place to the more permanent residents living in
apartments and condos dotted around Harris Green.Over the longer term, the revival is also
likely to attract more local business investment that is as likely to pay for
the costs of the project through increased assessments, contrary to the hand
wringing of those who have, as always, decried the expenditure of public funds
unfairly extracted from their pockets.
The other fiscal dividend may still have a long gestation as
we try and realize the savings that will emerge from a strategy that shifts
management of what was an increasingly intractable policing problem to a more
appropriate social services model.Police calls to the area dropped by more than 25% soon after the
completion of the project and, along with the housing and other supports we so
desperately need in our community, the longer term prospects for at least
containing the growth in policing costs should emerge from investments that
work in concert with one another.Making
downtown and nearby neighbourhoods more attractive and reducing the impacts of
difficult social issues is going to be key to sustaining, if not reviving, some
of our economic vibrancy in Victoria.
That’s a lesson that should be understood by the councillor
now promising to make the downtown economy a priority.Scoring political points by looking for ways
to cut the city’s investment in affordable housing made for a good few news
stories, but it was never a good strategy for building a healthy downtown
economy dependent at least as much on presentation.Likewise, her campaign video trashing the
city’s investment in Pandora Green probably made friends and influenced votes,
but I hope the councillor will be so good as to at least rethink, if not climb
down from that particular plank, or prank.Making mileage with the grass-roots community was good politics then,
but there’s a new year coming and a new parade to chase, even if the more
comprehensive and coherent collection of plans and policies built to emphasize
downtown density, new economy industrial zones and other more substantive
approaches to economic diversification are in play.Teamwork, it seems, is less appealing when
it’s all about being a new voice, a different voice, an independent voice.
I’ll be watching to see what’s under the Christmas tree next
year.It’s bound to be something fresh,
or at least half-baked, again.
Nouveau bean counters have kept quiet about a recent parks
project that emerged in James Bay, a neighbourhood near to downtown in
Victoria, BC, though numbers of other park projects have borne the brunt of ire
over the expenditure of tax drawn funds aimed at greening the community.
Fisherman’s Wharf Park underwent a transformation over a few
years, turning a patch of grass, and not much more, into a first rate,
interactive playground and, towards another end of the field, a more extensive
and expensive project of rain gardens and other features designed to replace
conventional storm water management utilities with a more naturalized and
effective system to gather up the overload of winter storms and filter the
water before it finds its way back into the nearby harbour.
The very visible and stunning project was welcomed by
neighbourhood activists, but found some dissenting voices among those whose more
basic objective is to prevent the spending of tax dollars on anything they can
see, let alone a seemingly superfluous window dressing project aimed at
presentation, more than effective management of the city’s always too generous
budget resources or physical assets.
Moving the project ahead over the term of the last council
was no easy feat, with some eyebrows raised over costs associated with the
improvements, while at the same time willfully blind to the benefits delivered
by new approaches to managing some of the more fundamental services of urban
infrastructure that cities remain responsible for.Many are, at best, unfamiliar with the maze
of pipes and other utilities hidden underground – the ones that carry the water
to our taps, take away the waste after it’s been flushed away, or the hundreds
of kilometers of storm sewers that are there to channel the floods of wetter
seasons, draining the roads and carrying water away from our buildings and
houses so we can continue to function as a city more than a swamp.
In Victoria, as in many other cities, those pipes are aging
in place, and not very well, with some of our own system 100 years old or
more.Where breakdowns occur, the cost
of digging in and replacing pipes is an expensive and repeating emergency that
has to be dealt with, and the slow but steady replacement of the unseen
infrastructure a dauntingly costly exercise, the magnitude of which is grasped
by few enough of our neighbours.It’s
the unseen deficit of infrastructure, once built by previous generations and
that we are now seemingly resistant to repairing or replacing as the bills come
I was reminded last year, of how little appreciated the
assets held by the city contribute to our quality of life, or how cities deal
with the routine and mundane impacts of our weather patterns, even as the
climate evolves towards something more ominous.Why waste money on planting more trees, I was asked by one critic?I offered that a tree was a very good
investment, actually, not the least for its ability to suck up huge quantities
of rainwater that might otherwise find its way, unhappily, into your basement
if the rest of the system was overtaxed.We do happen to live in a city where it rains, at least on occasion and
sometimes heavily.Storm water systems
can only manage so much and sometimes must rely on the natural environment to
pick up the slack.
The new park design is more complex, but likewise substitutes
manufactured underground utilities with a more sympathetic and natural design.It’s one that can handle the storms and provides
the added benefit of filtering toxins out before the water returns to the
ocean.It’s open and it’s simple.If a system were to clog up or break down, it
would be accessible and serviceable, though the need is so much less likely to
arise since it better mimics natural ecosystems than a drain grate and pipe
buried under ground, asphalt or concrete.There are no valves and mechanical features to malfunction, since those are
likewise taken care of by natural design – the landscape is its own safety
valve, absorbing or storing water and slowly letting it percolate back into the
water cycle.It looks expensive, but
apart from the initial capital works, the system maintains itself much more
cheaply and the initial costs are not so different, really, than those we pay for
the infrastructure you cannot see.
The new Fisherman’s Wharf park opened in the fall of 2012,
with, ironically, some on the new council in attendance, including those who
are lately looking hard to find new targets for cost and service cuts, claiming
to be focused on the essentials.Some of
the discussions at council seem to have been aimed at parks, greenways, bike lanes
and other facilities viewed as “nice to do”, over what cities “must do”.That shows at best, a lack of creative thinking
and a short-sighted approach to how cities manage assets and
responsibilities.Longer term costs are
an issue as much as immediate capital challenges, and, truth be told, some of
the costs can be covered through the increasing assessments associated with
rising land and housing values in a neighbourhood much improved by the addition
of a beautiful and natural park that provides the same essential services anyway.
We need to start looking forward to the future, not back
into it keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the past, and one which, in so many
ways, may not have worked so well in any event.
Above: Geotechnical work for the new Johnson St. Bridge was underway in October of 2012 as city staff worked through competing bids for the construction project that will start soon. Rumours of the imminent demise of the project are unfounded.
Op-eds in the Victoria Times Colonist have played out some of the tit-for-tat around Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge project. Suffice to say the latest piece, similar to other agenda driven commentary, makes scant use of the facts. The Request for Proposals process is now complete and technical evaluations are taking place that will inform a recommendation to Victoria City Council which, myths notwithstanding, will make the final decision on the award of a construction contract.
Here, for your reading pleasure (or otherwise), are some rejoinders to the last op-ed on process and product.
has always had flexibility for numbers of tasks and business negotiations, but
always understood has been the completion dates for partnership funding and the
construction schedule afforded by fisheries windows. Extensions
have been sought by proponents, all three of whom remain interested in winning
the project, hardly indicative of a desperate for a deal scenario. Budget
limits are understood, whatever the contract language, and that is shaped by
specialized legal counsel rather than any direction aimed at fleecing
taxpayers. Project elements, particularly specific scope changes that add
new responsibilities and associated costs have been presented to council, in
open forum, and endorsed by majority votes.
At the outset
of the bridge decision process, Ross Crockford was concerned that the process
was moving forward too quickly. What’s changed?
design and construction optimization have always been in the hands of the
successful bidders, just as indicative design is, and remains, under the
direction of the city’s consulting engineers at the MMM group. They’re
responsibility is to ensure delivery of the bridge as proposed to council and
Victorian’s in the successful funding referendum. Evaluations of
optimization strategies or details of design will be conducted, as they should
be, by expert engineering staff and consultants who are responsible to council
and the public to ensure that the bridge delivers on the fundamentals of design
and function outlined during the referendum.
will be forwarded to council, where decisions will be made. Councillors
will no doubt have access to information, in confidence, to protect proprietary
business interests, as they would with any project in Victoria, or any other
jurisdiction receiving multiple, competitive bids for any contract or
project. The awarding of the contract will ultimately be at the
discretion of council, and reported on at public committee and council
that this approach to decision making on proposals submitted to the city is
unique to Victoria or to this project is not credible.
fundamentals of the bridge are sound and the storyline that continues to be
promoted of an untested design unfounded. The technology is well
understood and refinements will be proposed to ensure functionality for a
unique bridge, as it would be for any bridge project. There are few
bridges anywhere that are not sensitive to their setting, context and
unique construction challenges. The single leaf bascule at this location is
an appropriate solution. Securing the deck mid-span is a less optimum
design than a resting span on one side for good engineering reasons, whatever
the traffic above.
The save the
bridge campaign pressed by Mr. Crockford has sought to preserve a single span
structure, making his claims on this issue less credible, if not hypocritical.
have been made with a Miami project, another strategy that failed on so many
indicators in the promotion of the “No” vote during the referendum
campaign. Like the many bridges that were offered up during the counter
petition and referendum campaigns, this new example similarly fails to provide
a credible comparison.
Critics will find what they like and leave out the facts that don't support the storyline.
Miami is at
the very low end of earthquake risks and codes will be significantly
different. The seismic resilience of our own bridge is at the highest end
and the cost differential for our project is only the incremental difference
between our lifeline bridge designed to withstand an earthquake at an 8.5
magnitude (to offer to most commonly understood reference), over a less robust
6.5 event, quite different from a concept of bringing a bridge with no seismic
resilience to even a modest, if not full code compliant structure. The
city settled on the maximum code available to meet a variety of
objectives. The cost comparisons on that element of the project are not
comparisons are, in any event, out of date. The Canadian dollar was 5
cents below the U.S. dollar at the time of completion of the Miami project and
inflation would also have to be accounted for. Florida is also a
“right-to-work” state where wages are suppressed by legislative construct,
reducing some input costs, but also exposing users of this particular
procurement model to risk factors associated with higher injury and fatality
rates, as well as questionable quality and timeliness of project delivery.
project also excludes numbers of other features and incorporated numbers of
other projects that were added, and endorsed, for the new Johnson St. Bridge
project. They include road-works on approaches, particularly on the west
side where road design has been found to generate an accident profile; elements
of a harbour pathway project that will link to the bridge and other networks
for cycling and walking; a separate bridge and trail piece to connect the new
E&N rail with trail with the Galloping Goose and a terminus for both
trails; as well as public art, bumpers to protect against vessel traffic,
movement of a secure data line and other unique elements to our project..
None of these are provided in the “accounting” comparisons made between
Victoria’s project and Crockford’s latest example.
Crockford characterizes the city as “desperate” for a deal, it seems Victoria
is more likely in the driver’s seat. With three competitive bidders all
eager to win this project, the city is not facing the prospect of relying on a
single bidder who can dictate price. The suggestions that city council
will act as a “rubber stamp” can’t be taken seriously. Final decisions on
contracts always rest with council, and with this project in particular, there
have often been divergent opinions on the choices before both the current and
previous council. Ross Crockford likes to characterize any decision with
which he and his media sponsors disagree as a “rubber stamp” decision.
Far from pushing on with a project on the wrong track, the bridge is moving
forward as intended, as endorsed by the council that made the choice in the
first place, confirmed by a majority of new councillors and proceeding to meet
the timeframes set in place to meet the important constraints for fisheries
windows and funding partnerships.
No amount of
hand-wringing or story-telling in support of a failed agenda will change the
facts. It was a sound decision, made by those charged with making that
choice, to choose a new bridge over the too good to be true fairy tales of a
rescue and refurbishment project. Bids have closed and a contract
will be awarded soon. Watch for more visible signs of the project to
start appearing in the harbour and on the landscape around the bridge
project. Crockford, no doubt, will continue to tilt at windmills.
Last week Victoria City Council voted to cut funds for affordable housing. The vote will be considered for adoption this week and deserves a second look. It's indicative of a problem with so many governments who see themselves as an investment bank rather than a service provider. Governments don't collect taxes to earn good financial returns, rather they collect them to fund the services and build the assets necessary to sustaining healthy communities. Good on those who saw that difference in the first place. Here's my letter asking for reconsideration.
Please reverse your GPC vote to cut Victoria's housing programs.
Clearly we have made a lot of progress in generating new partnerships to expand our supply of affordable housing and new private sector projects are moving forward that will add more market rentals. Still, the job is not finished and the private sector alone cannot meet the specialized needs of disadvantaged populations and the many who remain homeless in our city.
Victoria needs to hang on to the leverage the city can exercise through funding contributions and partnership programs. We cannot do that through the CRD alone. Ensuring that projects are sensitive to local concerns will still be best addressed when the city has a strong voice at the table, and that voice is strongest when we have the leverage of being a major funding partner.
Victoria does face financial challenges, just like every other municipality in Canada. It is simply not good enough, however, to wait until other governments return to the housing field to deal with the problems we face today. There are still homeless on our streets and projects that will be needed to house them take time and planning. The respite of a weak economy is not a long term solution.
Likewise, the obsession with funding challenges is also short term. Many projects initiated by yours and previous councils are moving to planning or are nearing completion. They will add to your assessment roles and help support the services Victoria citizens expect their city to deliver and the assets you are charged with managing.
Looking for budget efficiency is important to our citizens, but it is not your only task. Housing now and in the future is key to the healthy of our economy, our community and our citizens. It is critical that Victoria remain committed to that agenda by ensuring the resources and the influence the city exercises through our own programs are supported.
Please make sure that the good work we have started as a community does not stall and rethink the funding cuts supported at committee.