Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obsessed with recyling

One of my obsessions is recycling.  Can't throw stuff into the garbage if it can be composted, re-used, pitched into the blue box, taken to my local plastics recycling day, hauled over (by bike trailer of course) to the metal recycler.

The CRD's "Recyclopedia" is a good resource to help you identify what you can recycle with them or help you find other services to responsibly dispose of your waste.

Active transportation and public health

Should be no suprise that cycling and walking for transportation has a positive benefit on individual and community health.  People who walk or bicycle have reduced rates of obesity and a host of other health issues that are increasingly prevalent in our overly sedentary populations.

Victoria, with the highest rates of cycling and walking in Canada, is, not coincidentally, a top tier city for public health - lowest rates of obesity, low prevalaence of heart disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes etc.

While investments are often the responsibility of local governments, the benefits accrue to the province and federal governments who fund most of our health care services.  With obesity and other impacts of sedentary lifestyles equalling tobacco use as a threat to individual and community health, and a cost burden on our health care system, the value of investments in promoting active transportation are gold.  Those investments earn a high rate of return.

The CBC story linked to this piece focuses on the obesity epidemic, but there are a variety of other health issues related to transportation choices people make every day and the return on investment in infrastructure that supports active transportation is well documented elsewhere.

Prevention is always good medicine, so grab a pair of running shoes or get on your bike.  It's a life sustaining choice.  Listen to your doctor:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/luton/466280003/

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Council Chooses New Bridge, Again

Victoria city council cleared another hurdle last Thursday when we voted, again, to replace the Johnson St. Bridge.

I think that those of us who voted in support of the new bridge are mindful of our commitment to heritage in the city, but for me I don't want to be held hostage to it.  As much as we appreciate our history and the unique character of "Big Blue", this is first and foremost, a bridge, not a museum piece to be preserved in perpetuity.

A bridge has to carry traffic, and ours will serve better if it anticipates what traffic will look like in the future.  It won't look like it does today and the old bridge can't adapt.

A consistent theme from our citizens in  Victoria and from users of the bridge, has been the need to make the crossing more sustainable.  It will carry a growing volume of bicycle and pedestrian traffic that the old bridge is ill-equipped to handle.  For many, this is a deal breaker that, given similar costs (at least on the surface), makes the new bridge the only choice.

Critics tried to acknowledge this with a variety of schemes floated in an effort  to respond to deficiencies identified by cyclists and pedestrians.  None of the strategies turned out to be feasible.  In the end, the bridge preservation campaign simply fell back on where they have always been -  it's too expensive to make improvements for cyclists and pedestrians and they should just suck it up and suffer the old bridge for another 20 or 30 years.

To be sure, the starting point for council's decision did not revolve around the traffic design that will now be fixed by a new bridge.  It has always been the deterioration of a bridge that will be almost 90 years old by the time it is decommissioned and, as one engineer commented, "it is more a machine than a bridge", and it has reached the end of its service life.

Electrical and mechanical systems are obsolete and have to be replaced and, despite protestations to the contrary, there are simply no easy solutions to deal with these problems.  The superstructure must be disassembled to get at these systems and the suggestion that half-measures or an easy fix are all that is needed is a convenient myth for those who have no agenda other than to save the old bridge.  That became clear in surveys and polling where some respondents ignored all other issues to emphasize that heritage was the only issue that mattered (costs were irrlevant), and that giving up $21 million in our federal contribution was acceptable if it meant saving the old bridge.

"Barring a major earthquake, this bridge can be saved" is how one of the engineers brought in by the preservation camp to support their campaign put it.  He recognized that the seismic deficiencies of the old bridge were terminal, but spoke to one of the other strategies promoted to hang on to the bridge for another few years.  The Johnson St. Bridge was built to no seismic standard whatsoever, and, as recently as today's Times Colonist,(August 14, 2010) an engineer much more intimately familiar with the structure noted how poorly constructed and badly deteriorated the foundation piers are.  In Canada's most seismically vulnerable city, ditching an earthquake retrofit is not just irresponsible, but potentially an enormous liability for taxpayers that could dwarf the cost of any project.

The preservation camapign shifts from time to time from the "do nothing" strategy to a "cheaper" seismic upgrade that would imperil either a new bridge or a refurbished structure.  Building to a a lower 6.5 magnitude standard would produce some capital savings, but expose the city to tremendous risk.  The 2001 earthquake centered in Washington state was a 6.8 magnitude that could bring ours down, even with some signficant upgrades.  The 6.5 standard would leave the bridge standing (at that magnitude), but make it unusable pending repairs.  With potential economic impacts to downtown amounting to $13 million a year for closures, the insurance premium of the extra protection of an 8.5 standard at $10 million earns a very quick return on investment.

Since day one the bridge preservation folks have ignored function  and jumped from one argument to another, most often in isolation, to try and identify flaws in process (as if that changes the condition of the bridge), or some magical, cheap, silver bullet repair that can save the bridge for pennies.  It just doesn't add up.

We still have our work cut out for us.  A referendum on the borrowing to build the new bridge will go to the voters in November.  A no vote potentially costs a 14% tax increase to pay for the project.  There is no third option.  It's a myth.  None of the various deficiencies or challenges of the old bridge can be viewed in isolation, and no responsible council is going to invest millions in minor repairs and leave the major works alone.  Nevertheless, expect to hear more of the same story over the next couple of months as critics attempt to derail the project.

When the "tough questions" are asked, the critics' case crumbles pretty quickly.  Don't buy the snake oil.  When referendum day comes, get out and vote.  We are going to need our new bridge and this is our best chance now to do it right.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bridge Decisions Loom

Days from now Council will select the replacement or refrubishment option for the Johnson St. Bridge and proceed from that point to a borrowing bylaw and referendum.

A few of my thoughts on what I've been hearing and some responses to some of the comments I'm seeing out there.

Critics of replacement have always emphasized how unique our bridge is.  True enough, but every time I open the newspaper or check the web commentary, our "unique" bridge is just like all the others when it comes to repair or refrbishment.  That's not credible.

Lately, comparisons to the LaSalle Causeway Bridge in Kingston have been making the rounds, and some voices insist that if they could refurbish theirs for $3 million and change, we must be able to do the same.  It's a nice fairy tale but it doesn't add up.  The same Minister of Transportation, along with his staff, reviewed the details of our project and found them convincing enough to offer $21 million for our replacement bridge.  Maybe, just maybe, the analysis turned on the individual projects and not on the cookie cutter fixes critics are raising again as "proof" that our project is over-priced.

 One of the engineers I spoke to in San Francisco, who managed their bridge rehab projects cautioned me specifically against using their bridges as models for any project.  He said that every bridge is unique and needs to be assessed on its specific condition and the scope of work it needs.  He also said he told the same to the bridge preservation campaign, something they conveniently ignored during the counter petition campaign when they repeatedly used the 3rd St. Bridge as an example of how to do a cheap and effective refurbishment.

A couple of the differences with the bridge in Kingston should be instructive for those interested in the staging of repair works, or indeed, just what might be the relative condition of elements of either their bridge or ours, and how that might be relevant to costs.. 

The LaSalle (just one bridge, not two like ours) doesn't have to lift very often.  In fact, it is closed to marine traffic for the winter of course, when the lakeshore and channel are freezing up and no boats are going anywhere.  This enabled them to "bubble wrap" the bridge to keep stripped paint from dropping into the water without impact on marine traffic.  That's a non-starter in Victoria where the Blue Bridge must open several times a day for ships to pass through, so bubble wrapping in place would be logistical nightmare.  You'd have to raise and disassemble scaffolding several times a day for work to proceed.  It would be very difficult logistically to maintain safety and security of scaffolding on the bridge while it was going up and down.

In all likelihood, the relatively lower demand on the bridge from marine users may have extended the life of mechanical and electrical elements.  Suffice to say that the various engineers that have examined our bridge specifically confirm that mechanical and electrical systems are obsolete, face potential failure and should be signficantly upgraded or replaced.  That expense, by the way, is totally absent from the bridge project costing in Kingston.

Kingston, of course, is also not in what you would call a particularly vulnerable eathquake zone, so seismic upgrading planned for the Johnson St. Bridge was not part of the plan for the LaSalle bridge.  The handful of voices suggesting we dispense with seismic work to save money and preserve their beloved Blue Bridge are, at best, infected by wishful thinking.  In truth, that would be irresponsible at one level, and negligent at another.

Even in a low earthquake hazard zone, a bridge did collapse recently in a 5 plus earthqauke centered on the Ontario/Quebec border.  The town of Vla de Bois will take two years to recover from the impacts.  The condition assessment and subsequent analysis of various scenarios, comparisons with other events in our fault zone and our evaluation of legal precedent recommends a seismic upgrade that will protect life and limb, but also ensure we have emergency services access and the wherewithall to rebuild and restore an economy that would be battered by any earthquake event.  Taking shortcuts could expose the city to civil liabilities that would dwarf the cost of any bridge project.

One of the most predictable fallouts of the various challenges posed by a complex and costly refurbishment estimate is the calls to dispense with the improvements for cyclist and pedestrians integrated into the planning for both options.  This is particularly ironic coming from organizations that want the city to "listen" to the people.  Improved levels of service for cycling and walking topped the list of needs citizens have a for a replacment or refurbishment project in polling and surveys the city conducted in the aftermath of the counter-petition.  Now that it is clear that those improvements are not as cheap as a "can of paint a bucket of cement" those voices have been discarded as irrelevant.

The prospect of 20 or 30 more years of a woeful level of service for cycling and walking is a non-starter for me.  I will not support any project that does not address these needs adequately.  Our decision must be focused first on function, less so on form.  Suggestions that we sacrifice the option of reorienting the bridge function to better support sustainable transporation options, not to mention shortchanging the project on safety, trying to patch up electrical and mechanical systems to squeeze another few years of use from the old bridge, or looking for other shortcuts is a little self serving.  It says that there are no other values other than preserving the bridge as a museum piece.

When decison time comes, I will take also into consideration the comments I have heard from many dozens of Victoria residents I have met at our open houses, neighbourhood meetings or out in the community at events and other venues who, some critics will be suprised to hear, have little attachment to the old bridge and can't wait for us to get started on the new one.  Their voices will also be heard.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New bus plan for China proposes radical solution

Check out the "straddling bus" technology that China plans for routes in Beijing.  1200 passenger capacity buses are designed to straddle the road and traffic, running on electricity and floating over congestion.

You've never seen anything like it.  Thanks to John McBride for the tip.