Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transportation Plan endorsed by Council just before election

The Transportation Plan was endorsed unanimously by Council tonight, although Coun. Bell and Coun. Masse had some concerns and were - in vain - looking for support to delay the endorsement. Thank you, Coun. Bell and Coun. Masse. Here's the link to the Council meeting. The discussion on the Transportation Plan starts at about 3:49.

In my opinion public consultation has been absolutely minimal, with just two open houses for the general public, one pretty much unannounced at the Farmers Market, the other at municipal hall. The District also did an on-line survey.

The consultant (Urban Systems) presented to the Bicycle Advisory Committee a year and a half ago, and  HUB committee members had a meeting with Engineering. With the help of 20 volunteers HUB also helped do an assessment of the entire cycling network in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows with recommendations for improvements. Our committee provided detailed input in May 2013 as well. This all happened long before the actual document was quietly put on-line several months ago.

A few days ago I sent the following e-mail to Council:

HUB Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows comments re final Strategic Transportation Plan

1. Public consultation inadequate

The 2014 Strategic Transportation Plan is not just an update, but a rewrite of the 2004 Plan. The draft Plan was posted on-line several months ago, but this was not publicly advertised in any way by the District (now City) as should be normal practice for any policy document during the public consultation stage as part of a transparent and open process. The two open houses, the survey and the consultation with the Bicycle Advisory Committee all took place before the actual document was put on-line without any fanfare.

This policy document is a very important one, at such a very critical time in our history - because of 

  • rapid population growth, 
  • global economic instability, 
  • significant climate change concerns, 
  • increasing congestion and decreasing livability due to our continued focus on cars as preferred mode of transportation, 
  • continuing development patterns (sprawl) outside the Town Core that favour the use of cars, 
  • the certainty of rising financial, environmental- and geopolitical costs of our oil addiction and our continued wasteful use of it for transportation purposes,
  • the harmful effect of our continued reliance on cars on our health, which puts a huge burden on our health care system.

Furthermore, there's a significant on-going shift among the younger generations, who increasingly prefer alternative modes of getting around, including transit and cycling, for various reasons. Walkable/bikeable neighbourhoods are also "in" also among older generations. In order to attract millennials as well as the jobs that are needed to employ them locally, and to offer the quality of life that these types of neighbourhoods can offer to all residents, more effort needs to be made to cater to their needs and wishes.

Therefore this document deserves scrutiny by residents of Maple Ridge. 

2. HUB input 

As you may remember, HUB provided extensive input in May 2013.  

Some of the key issues/recommendations mentioned in our input but not addressed in the Transportation Plan include:

  • "The District should set cycling goals. HUB's suggestions include: 4% cycling mode share in 2020; increased number of women and children cycling, etc."  
  • "Cycling routes should be on streets with destinations, and frequent stop signs preventing cycling ease should be avoided." It is HUB's position that the Town Core multi-modal Transportation Plan, established in 2004, should be open for review as part of the rewrite of the Transportation Plan. We need to determine whether the plan has led to any increase in cycling by all ages and abilities (see previous point), and if a change in direction might be needed to achieve our goals. Baseline counts should be done, from which progress can be measured. 
  • Setting maximum speed limits throughout the Town Core of 30 km/h, which will not only make the roadways safer for cycling, but will improve overall livability significantly;
  • Making Lougheed part of the cycling network in the Town Core. 
  • Improved infrastructure around schools should go hand in hand with cycling education through all elementary schools.
  • Putting in place a Complete Streets by-law (requires consideration of the needs of all road users when new streets are built, which is especially important for a rapidly growing community like Maple Ridge). There is no reason why we cannot use such a policy to ensure that proper cycling infrastructure is provided in all new development, where appropriate, so that we don't need to spend more later. Cycling facilities can also be included when existing roads are upgraded.
  • "Depending on the cost involved and other competing priorities, we support in principle the proposal by the Alouette Valley Association and the Silver Valley Neighbourhood Association for a recreational roadway on 132nd Ave.". Now that the first section of path has been completed, HUB strongly urges Council and staff to consult with cyclists - HUB could be of assistance - to determine whether with the present road configuration and path surface all types of cyclists are adequately accommodated, or certain improvements/changes are required before spending a further $3 million out of the cycling budget to complete the path.   
  • "All arterials within the urban boundary should have separated bike paths where feasible. If not, they should have at least bike lanes on both sides. This includes the arterials on the east side of Maple Ridge, which presently show shoulders as planned "cycling infrastructure". In situations where parking is allowed on the shoulder, this can create dangerous situations for cyclists and pedestrians when having to swerve onto the traffic lane in order to pass a parked car. Cyclists also risk being “doored”, which can result in serious injury or death." The risk of bike lanes between parked cars and moving cars without a proper buffer can not be over-estimated. Accidents caused by inattentive drivers are often very difficult to avoid for cyclists in these circumstances and these types of facilities generally don't appeal to any types of cyclists and actually may provide a false sense of safety to inexperienced cyclists.
  • Separated bike facilities along Lougheed east of town core to Albion. For many people in Albion this is the only direct connection when cycling to or from the Town Core and beyond. The actual speeds east of the Town Core are often significantly over the posted speed limit (at times double the speed limit or even more). Enforcement is rather infrequent and does not seem to make a difference due to the road design which encourages speeding.   
  • "Bike lanes along 240th south of Dewdney should be completed all the way to Lougheed, preferably separated south of 104th to accommodate cycling to Albion Elementary School. A proper buffer needs to be provided where parking is allowed."
  • In view of the higher density of lower Albion, the increasing traffic on 102nd Ave. east of 240th and the presence of some neighbourhood commercial development, bike lanes should be provided. Shoulders often allow parking, and this poses dangers for cyclists, having to swerve into the path of moving cars and the possibility of being “doored”. Once more commercial development takes place in Albion, this will provide a nearby destination for shopping trips by bike and 102nd Street will need to be safe for cycling.

3. Further comments regarding contents of actual Plan

Key points: 

  1. The bulk of (long-term) spending for cycling as proposed in the Transportation Plan seems to be shoulders along rural roads. Much of this type of infrastructure will be used by road cyclists as well as local residents on foot and on horseback, and sometimes parking, so these are multi-use (not just cycling) facilities. According to the consultant, investments in walking should be made where we can get the biggest bang for the buck. The same should be said for cycling: the primary focus should be on areas where the biggest gains can be made, which is where people of all ages and abilities can use their bikes for short trips (to school, shopping, errands, etc.). The focus should be on all ages all abilities ( AAA) infrastructure. A complete AAA network has the most potential to lead to more cycling.
  2. Under "Strategic Transportation Goals" (page 2): Affordable Transportation System:  "Provide transportation infrastructure and services in a cost-effective and efficient manner that makes best use of existing facilities and projected resources. This will include maximizing opportunities to make beneficial investments, improving existing infrastructure, and prioritizing transit."  Walking and cycling should also be prioritized, since transit is not a door-to-door transportation mode and many people who use transit will need to/can walk or bike to complete either end of their journey.
  3. Under Goal #2: Transportation Choice: 2.1 Integrate Travel  Modes: "Plan for the integration and balance for all modes on most urban streets within the city." The word 'balanced' is sometimes used to argue that further investment in cycling is not justified, since most people drive. It is HUB's position that there is a significant imbalance because of 1. the existing gaps in our cycling network, 2.  the types of infrastructure provided that are not always considered safe for all ages and abilities, and cars generally get direct, convenient, fast, comfortable and safer routes, whereas cyclists often get indirect, inconvenient, slow, less comfortable and in certain ways not necessarily safer routes.

Further to the previous comment, HUB is of the opinion that a "level of service" (LOS) measurement should apply not only to cars, but to pedestrians and cyclists as well, since the goal is to "Provide for safe, convenient and accessible movement of people, goods and services throughout the District.", so not just for cars. 

HUB would like to see Council to show its commitment to fully integrate walking and cycling in our transportation system by instructing staff to start work on a detailed Active Transportation Plan, in recognition of the fact that walking and cycling can bring many benefits to our community, as listed in the comments HUB provided to Council in May 2013 (also attached to e-mail for your convenience). 

HUB would like to see the input received from residents added as appendix to the plan. Residents need to know whether or not their input has been considered. Through HUB, 20 volunteers have assisted the District (/City) with a thorough assessment of the cycling network in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows in 2011. Neither this, nor the extensive written input by HUB, was mentioned in the Plan, and it is unclear whether or not any of the input has been used for the Transportation Plan. 

The continued focus on cars as the prioritized mode of transportation means ever increasing need for parking. There's a significant cost of providing this additional parking to businesses, the municipality and thus tax payers and consumers. Therefore a parking strategy should be an integrated part of the Transportation Plan. 

The joint Bicycle Advisory Committee had its last meeting in June 2013, after which it was no longer operational due to Pitt Meadows starting its own Active Transportation Advisory Committee. The remaining Maple Ridge contingent was consequently no longer able to continue its work of providing input and recommendations to Council and staff. BAC members have therefore only been able to view the materials displayed at the open houses, but have not been able to scrutinize the actual Plan and provide further input. HUB urges Council to wait with adoption of the STP until the future Transportation Advisory Committee has had an opportunity to review and comment on it. We haven't had an adopted Transportation Plan for 10 years, so we can wait a few more months.

Thank you for considering our comments.

Coun. Bell brought up the fact that our HUB committee does not feel listened to. Mr. Pollock basically replied that a meeting with HUB members took place. Coun. Masse expressed his deep concerns about the District not meeting its commitment regarding Greenhouse Gas reductions (while some other Councillors were, rather disrespectfully and disturbingly, rolling their eyes), and felt that Council should look at perhaps setting a more realistic goal. None of our concerns were addressed.

It was said that things could still be changed during the implementation stage. That made me think about the open houses that were held before each stage of the renovations of Lougheed in the Town Core. When I asked if bike lanes could be included in the design, the answer was "no, because Lougheed is not part of the cycling network". That's why it would have been so important to get the plan right in the first place.

I must say, it seems rather futile to spend so much time trying to provide meaningful input.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The cost of sprawl: election issue?

Election time is upon us; much is at stake. Which will be the main issues on the table? We'll probably once again see the same old discussions about shopping, garbage, council and staff salaries, and our ever rising property taxes, none of which ever seem to get resolved to our satisfaction.

Metro Vancouver is facing significant challenges, as a region and as individual municipalities.

The experts are telling us we will see continued population growth for the next 30 years in Metro Vancouver, with the expected addition of a million more people and 600,000 more jobs. We'll have more than our fair share happening in Maple Ridge and to a lesser extent in Pitt Meadows. After that, population  growth is expected to level off.

That means that how we grow and develop our cities over the next 30 years will determine for a large part how we will live for the next few hundred years.

If Maple Ridge decides, with our present land use pattern and with our soon to be adopted Transportation Plan, that we will continue to allow a significant amount of hopscotch, sprawling, inefficient greenfield and largely residential development instead of opting for contiguous, more compact and mixed-use smart growth, then an ever increasing number of residents will be car-dependent for a very long time to come indeed. That's a scary thought!

The threat of the real possibility of a failing transit referendum next Spring means that we may not be able to look forward to any significant expansion of transit and increased spending on cycling to improve the balance of options we have in our area.

In Maple Ridge we're not doing much to reduce our community Greenhouse Gas Emissions, even though the majority of present Council members a few years ago committed our City to the goal of 33% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020.

There are so many other reasons why we need to get serious about getting people out of their cars and onto transit, and walking and biking for shorter trips. Growing smarter, more efficient, is one of the most important things we can do to help convince more people to look for options in the way they get around for at least some of their trips.

There's another urgent reason why we can't keep growing the way we do: the "Infrastructure Deficit".

It's a significant and complex problem, not unique to Maple Ridge, that past and present Council members have so far not wanted to address.

Mr. Gill, our diligent penny counter at the City of Maple Ridge, has tried to warn us earlier this year. The article 'For every 'burb built, Maple Ridge pays' by Phil Melnychuk in The News seemed to generate a lot of interest. I added my two cents about it in "We need to stop Suburban Sprawl"As explained, other communities that have done the math have realized they can save many millions of dollars and significantly reduce their infrastructure deficit by growing smarter.

Why is Council still not talking about this? Is it because their constituents are still not concerned?

I think they should be, so I would like to raise the issue again, hoping that the average voter will understand we have a variety of more important things to worry about than not having some big box shopping in our community, which seemed to be the main determinant of the outcome of our last municipal election.

What's the problem? Well, when a new development gets built, the developer builds the infrastructure within the development - roads, sewer, water - and also pays Development Cost Charges to the City to pay for some of the necessary upgrades of surrounding infrastructure that are impacted by the development. Sounds good, right?

Development cost charges are provincially legislated and can only be used for things like roads, water, sewer, drainage and parks, but not for things like a new fire hall or added police services and community halls.

If you've ever taken a look at where our tax money is spent, you'll know that RCMP and fire services together make up a whopping 40% of all municipal expenses. When we approve more development and another fire hall is needed, all tax payers, including existing ones, are paying for that. Every time we build a new fire hall, if we need additional police services or we need to expand our library, all tax payers are on the hook. The more spread out and disconnected the development patterns, the more these services cost per household.

The infrastructure that's paid for by the developer is handed over to the city as soon as it's built. So now it's ours. Nice, eh?

Maybe not quite so nice once you realize that about 80% of the cost of infrastructure is in the operational budget. In other words, all tax payers pay for about 80% of the cost of the infrastructure over its lifetime. So on the one hand, it's nice that we get this gift from the developer, but on the other hand, it's a gift that keeps on taking, from all of us tax payers.

So it's essential that the long-term cost of any development application is carefully considered, in the interest of existing tax payers, but also and especially future tax payers: our kids.

Right now, the infrastructure items that appear on the municipal books as "assets" are valued at over $1.5 billion. The maintenance cost as estimated in 2006, when we had about $1.3 billion worth of infrastructure, was about $30 million per year. Of course the cost of maintenance goes up over time as more infrastructure gets built and also the cost of material and labour goes up. Looks like these "assets" are more like "liabilities"!

So are we actually paying the required $30+ million per year to maintain these assets? No, not by a long shot. We have been spending roughly one tenth of that. The good news is that, since 2008, a 1% annual cumulative tax increase is being set aside to start dealing with this Infrastructure Deficit. If we keep raising our property taxes in this manner, by 2031 we should have cut our infrastructure deficit in half. That means, in the best case scenario, it's highly unlikely that most of us would see the problem resolved within our lifetime, but if we're principled enough, we can make a significant dent in it.

However, because of our low tolerance for ever increasing property taxes, Council already caved in and reduced this increase by half last year and it'll probably be at least a few more years before we should be back to being charged the full 1% increase. To make up for some of the difference until then, we're using some of the gaming revenues.

The question is, are tax payers going to tolerate these cumulative annual increases for the next 20+ years or so, and are the increases even keeping up with the infrastructure added during that time?

What happens if we don't put enough money aside to pay for maintenance and eventual replacement? Well, roads start to crumble, and bridges will start to collapse. We've seen that for example in Montreal, and many cities in the U.S. offer frightening examples.

Like Mr. Gill says: "pay me now, or pay me much more later". If we don't look after the infrastructure now, it's going to be much more costly to fix things when they start to crumble.

My take-aways from this:

  • We need to start tackling the problem at the source: we need to stop inefficient, hopscotch sprawling development that makes more of us more car dependent and that we simply can't afford; 
  • Our new Council will need to work with other BC municipalities, through the Union of BC Municipalities, to appeal to the Province for changes in the legislative framework of Development Cost Charges and property taxes, to ensure that new development pays for the full cost, and that smart development does not unfairly end up subsidizing new dumb development, of course recognizing that the unfairness in the way existing development is taxed cannot be simply undone from one day to the next.
  • BC Municipalities can't tackle the problem on their own. Both the federal and provincial governments will need to share more of their tax revenues with municipalities as more responsibilities get downloaded by higher levels of government to municipalities. Municipalities need to band together through the UBCM to get reliable long-term funding from the province and the federal government to help pay for maintenance of the infrastructure that's the backbone of our cities and economy.

So this should give you some ideas as to questions you can ask your mayoral and council candidates!