Friday, March 2, 2012

Victoria and Saanich talk transit

Councils in Victoria and Saanich are now willing to bite the bullet and start giving priority passage to buses.  It has been a long time coming.  The spectre of LRT and a focus on a distant election horizon is spurring some much needed action.  Getting to LRT is still the best long term solution and needs to stay on track.  Interim measures will have costs too, a story Transit has been sharing for years, but some fixes can’t wait.

Interim measures will work only in the short term.

Still, the improvements  will provide some welcome short term relief and secure a beach-head on routes we need to reclaim for light rail or more transit priority features along other major demand corridors.  Ironically, providing better service will exacerbate a problem already plaguing the system – there are not enough buses to go around and pass-ups are growing.  More money will have to be spent to expand the fleet, develop real estate for maintenance facilities, and resource the other needs of an expanding “business as usual” system.  Transit too, will be facing accelerating fuel costs that at the same time will be drawing new riders.

Expectations that short term fixes are a functional “Plan B” for the next 20 years are pure fantasy.  Passenger volumes and available road capacity are already overtaxing.   “Midtown” won’t work without LRT and the premise that it is too costly now will keep the developers away, rendering the idea stillborn.  Tax me now and give me service later is not a good selling feature for building new partnerships.    Those businesses also operate in the same constrained economy.  You could expect some of those planning on the arrival of LRT to scale down their expectations and undermine the long term return on value and new density that the concept needs to work.  Affordable housing doesn’t work where transit can’t outcompete the car, and buses alone won’t do that.

Here are a few other tidbits the joint meeting presentation drew out of transit and the councils talking.

Nobody, thankfully, seems to be questioning alignments anymore.  33% of the region’s economy is attached to Transit’s chosen alignment and 40% of everyone traveling the corridor are on buses now.  They certainly don’t occupy a capacity that correlates with the level of service they provide.   

CFB Esquimalt, and by extension the E&N, are still on the radar screen.  Transit wants to provide better service and others are working on a potential commuter rail piece.  Rail owners are pressing the federal government for a contribution to funding needed to get the Dayliner back on track.  Testing commuter options needs the improvements too.  Their ask is revealing enough though, spelling out that the $15 million fix will only extend the asset for 10 years.  It puts paid to the oft heard notion that the E&N is a cheap fix for the Colwood Crawl.  It’s actually just a down payment.

The E&N is still value added to our system but it’s going to need more, serves different travel markets, and, truth be told, can work without crossing the bridge into downtown.  Anchoring the Roundhouse in Vic West and connecting by a pedestrian circulator might be a more creative means of invigorating Victoria’s downtown economy, at least as important as the very different community building model expressed as the “Midtown” concept.

Players and partners should still be working for LRT sooner, rather than later.  There are a lot of pieces of that puzzle that need to be put into place and interim measures are not a reason to down tools.  The costs of a bus only system are too great.  Transit is now facing demands for bus service from Bear Mountain residents who are choked at the price of filling the tanks of their SUVs.  Like any good bus system, services can follow developers wherever they decide to go.  It’s a good reminder of a recurrent theme around the table – land use and transportation system planning need to work hand in glove.

Redesigning roads and corridors to accommodate LRT has some complexity that will take some time and extensive work to implement.

Ultimately the most sustainable and cost effective solution will be LRT.  It will ensure that the community leads development rather than always chasing someone purely private choices.  Nice to see some of those talking ready now to take the baby steps forward that starts us down the path to a long term solution.