Wednesday, August 17, 2011

LRT still the best choice for Victoria and the Capital Region

The media, in all its forms, in and around Victoria, has been buzzing with discussion on the LRT project that BC Transit is planning for Douglas and the Highway.  It's something I've supported as a councillor and lately as a transit commissioner.  Likewise, councils around the region gave it the thumbs up when Transit asked for their endorsements and it has the support of many of those same elected officials when they sit around the table as CRD board members.  It has the backing of the provincial crown corporation that runs transit operations here in Victoria and across the province, (except for the lower mainland around Vancouver, where they run their own system and get substantially more provincial tax room to do it with).

The endorsement from some local politicians has experienced some erosion as the issue of costs come up and well meaning but unworkable cheap fixes gather traction with individuals and organizations around the region.  None should have been surprised that a new transit model would come with costs and certainly all of them know that our current transit system comes with its own price tag.  The facts are getting out there, but the debate will continue.  Here's some of my perspectives.

Today, Green Party Leader Jane Sterk spoke up, and in the order that I read them, proposed the cheap fix of repairing the E&N and using that to meet our transit needs, then in the same release suggested we do no work without a regional transportation plan.  But also, we should save some money to "fix" the Admirals/Mckenzie - Highway intersection, because we know that's a problem.

Both the E&N upgrades and something better at Mckenzie are needed, but it's putting the cart before the horse to exclude those from the transportation plan Jane says is needed before we spend anywhere.

There is, not incidentally, many elements of a regional transportation plan already in place.  It's embodied in our regional growth strategy - something that aims to achieve small g "green"objectives in shifting trips to more sustainable modes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and concentrating development to favour walking, cycling and transit.  LRT is still the best fit for all of these objectives and the alignments along the Highway and Douglas will always find their way to the top of the priority list for transit improvements in the region.

No argument with the Greens that the E&N is a valuable asset and one not to be dismissed, but it has limited utility for the LRT service Victoria needs.  It complements the rest of the transit system, but it's not a substitute.  Here are just some of the pros and cons.

The E&N can work for CFB Esquimalt and for their workforce particularly.  They have pretty much a set schedule that delivers a pulse of commuters in the morning and sends them home again the afternoon.  The base generates very little daytime traffic.  There are few other trip generators along the corridor, and the spacing between them is distant enough to allow for a heavy rail passenger service to be effective.  That's the foundation for an E&N commuter service, but for the rest of the day, investments in the line will better support more tourist oriented passenger travel and, more importantly for the economic survival of the railway, provide a very useful freight corridor that can help us get heavy loads and dangerous cargo off of the Malahat.

What it can't do is provide the all day, short headway, multi-destination service that will be delivered by LRT.  LRT will need a double track system for the length of the corridor, a real challenge along the E&N.  Rapid transit along the E&N would create other headaches that nobody is costing in their commentaries.  There are 25 level crossings between Langford and Victoria.  Few of them correspond to any existing or potential development opportunities that would make sense for a station location.  What you have instead is a series of now expensive, disruptive crossings that would radiate traffic congestion out from more locations along the corridor.  Some would be little more than a nuisance, others might be more problematic, but none would be exempt from creating other traffic problems.  Federal rail safety regulations demand a higher level of control at crossings than are provided at most of those along the E&N.  The trigger for those fixes are traffic volumes and numbers of trains.  The introduction of even a few additional trips a day along the railway will require already numbers of those expensive upgrades.

The LRT alignments already match high volume travel patterns in the Capital Region and both the highway and Douglas St. corridors are well suited to accommodate the conversion of right of way into a light rail line.  Stops and crossings correspond well with destinations and trip generators that make them sympathetic to traffic operations.  Current land use and opportunities for densification are also quite complementary to LRT, so much more so than the E&N.

Too much has been made of the apparent low cost of upgrading the E&N.  It seems like a bargain, but the current ask for $15 million is only a sliver of the costs.  Some of the capital and operational costs associated with that project aren't part of that figure.  Different stakeholders, including the same federal government we'll be asking for help on our LRT project from are already in for VIA service and some of the rolling stock. Different pots of money are being invested in other pieces of the system, so even the current accounting is incomplete.  The Island Corridor Foundation chose, wisely, to save the rail in pieces.  They'll work in distinct phases to upgrade a piece here and there, address bridge deficiencies, tackle more distant sections etc.  That, by the way, only gets us back, really, to the existing service plus a couple of extra commuter trains.  Adding more frequent and more rapid transportation service along the E&N was never contemplated in the business case analysis done by the province and pursued by the ICF.  That would cost considerably more than the hefty sum the province calculated was needed to rescue the line, and the full figure is orders of magnitude beyond the $15 million, and still doesn't complete what we need for our transit network.

There are other "green" elements missing from the buy now, plan later projects.  The E&N should reduce vehicle traffic by some measure, but still runs on diesel.  GHG emissions will come down, but won't make a big enough dent in our our carbon footprint.  It also can't meet the transit targets we set for ourselves in our own regional growth strategy, or mandated by the provincial transit plan.  LRT is still the only viable, long term solution to meet those objectives.  "Fixing" Mckenzie may be a useful, even necessary band-aid for those that suffer that intersection, but it's hardly green, and might not fare so well in a planning process that focused on sustainable transportation.

Housing for people, not cars
One of the other "solutions" driving around looking for a place to park is HOV lanes.  It may be a good way to start converting the road space we'll need to allocate soon to LRT.  Allowing some of our buses to queue jump heavy traffic and putting some of the significant number of cars already carrying extra passengers into those lanes could relieve some pressure while we assemble resources and do the design work needed to take LRT to the next step.  But it won't work for long and it's not something we can plan for beyond a few years.

Buses are good for some of our network, but 60% of our transit capacity is tied up on Douglas St. and our growth centres are headed to the west shore.  We can't redeploy until we've got a more efficient and effective people mover to serve that corridor. 

Just as an aside, because it's nearly always raised as a show stopper for Victoria, it's not about the population of our city and our region, it's about the concentration of travel demand on our target corridors and our lcoal attraction to transit.  By those measures, Victoria is already ahead of other bigger cities in our readiness for rail.  Our concentrated travel demand is well suited to LRT, much more so than larger cities with more diffuse settlement and land-use patterns.  And we have a high ridership per capita already, much better than most with bus only systems, and that's a good foundation for the better service and higher capacity only LRT can deliver.

Back to the buses.  They will move faster in dedicated lanes, but they still bunch up downtown and there's the capacity issue.  There's not a lot of growth to be expected in high-occupancy vehicles - most research runs counter to the overly optimistic projections of its supporters.  LRT by the way, can carry several times the number of people any HOV project can deliver.  What's more problematic is the long term future.  Any success of HOV lanes takes passengers out of buses and puts them into cars and brings those cars downtown (and are we ready to turn every second motorist into a transit driver and scheduling service?)  That's the intended consequence of the system in any event.  Current plans for LRT would convert about 150 on-street parking stalls into LRT lanes.  If HOV lanes generate additional vehicle travel demand in excess of that number, parking will get harder, not easier, for all those new multi-occupant vehicles.  That's expensive for developers, steals ever more road space from other users (delivery vehicles, taxis, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, etc.),  Worse, it forces every developer to add more parking, not less, into every commercial or multi-unit residential building.  Parking is expensive to provide and it makes housing less affordable and discourages higher value uses on commercial or other land.  Economically, HOV provides less value added opportunity for urban land and it means more space and more shelter for cars, fewer for people.

Other issues in the social media etc.

Blanshard St:  Doesn't subsitute for Douglas.  Destinations and trip generators need to be connected to LRT, not a block or so away.  Douglas St. confirmed over several studies and extensive public consultation.  Blanshard moves traffic, Douglas moves people.

Goose, the Lochside and Peninsula destinations:  Trails are not being compromised by LRT, despite the false alarms raised by some.  Peninsula destinations are more distant and can be served well enough by a little extra bus capacity (surplus vehicles from LRT project), and but for some local pressures getting a rough enough ride anyway, not where we have or are going to build density.  LRT to the peninsula would create development pressures contrary to our growth strategy, food security needs etc.  Even Tswwassen to Richmond is still a bus service, and it has more traffic than we do on this side of the pond.  Any additional LRT phases would likely head first towards UVic.

More than the left:  I've been talking to developers, not normally associated with the left, anxious to see LRT move forward.  They see it as good business - it gives them some certainty for building and developments that take advantage of LRT to reduce the cost of supplying expensive parking spots, while increasing residential and employment density.  It's good business sense and doesn't belong to one side of the political spectrum or another.  The BC Liberal Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure said we had a good plan and didn't want to see us back at the table asking for more money in five years.  He told us to plan and deliver transit services for the long term.  The federal minister said at FCM earlier this year that he wanted to work with local government to build transit infrastructure.  Neither the provinical or federal ministers are closet lefties as far as I know.

"Most will still use their cars" - given options, people do change their habits.  Less than half of commute trips in Victoria are by car (but more than 70% do in Langford).  Victoria is not so different from other cities.  Our transit share is already very good for a smaller city so the potential for growth is good, with good service.  Tracks on streets are nothing new and work well enough.  Most would be better on the highway and Douglas where crossings would be perpendicular.  Too many oblique crossings on the E&N are already a problem for design and safety issues.

Land values:  Business case on land value lifts produced for BC Transit were done by professional real estate consultants and used BC Assessment information.  The number crunching was based on other systems in North America.  All pretty good sources.  We're not the first city considering rapid transit; it has been done before.

"Transit isn't taking HOV lanes seriously":  Transit's initial analysis found HOV lanes wouldn't noticeably improve transit service (moving people) so a more extensive investigation wasn't pursued.  That's different than not doing the work, it's that HOV doesn't offer a solution and that's not what some critics wanted to hear.

An independent review is a good idea and will be needed to secure senior government funding.  Don't expect that review to find fatal flaws in the plan.  Transit is pretty successful at moving people and managing transit in the province.  It has competent staff working on development and analysis of the project, with help from the provincial ministry and outside consultants also with good credentials.  In Victoria we have some recent experience with peer reviewed projects and the work of the city and our consultants passed muster on that one.  Transit knows that LRT is a significant investment and have done their homework.  Writing fairy tales would be a career limiting move for those involved and harmful to Transit's business interests.  They compete with other crowns, public agencies and departments of government for budget and they know they are under taxpayer scrutiny.  The work is solid and a review will confirm its the right direction for us.

Happy to weigh in now and again.  Hope some of you will read beyond the headlines and the easy answers.