Transportation woes due to conflicting interests: transit or roads?

There are two peculiarities that we have here in the Lower Mainland that make transportation planning hereabouts a tad more “interesting” than most places. It also increases the danger that a transportation project is not as successful as it could be.

TransLink’s Double-Agenda
In addition to running our local public transport system, TransLink was given another task. The provincial government transferred the responsibility for the regional road network and some major bridges to TransLink. This has created an agency that is tasked to accomplish two goals. It has to plan, build and run the public transportation infrastructure, and it has to plan, build and maintain roadways.

To me, that seems like a very unusual set of roles to be combined under one umbrella. It creates a huge conflict of interest within the organization. On the one hand, they have to promote sustainable means of transportation and try to get people out of their cars, but on the other hand, they need to improve and extend the road infrastructure. These two things don’t go hand-in-hand.

In order to advocate transit, TransLink has to provide incentives for people to not get into their vehicles. This means spending money on improving public transport, advocating a change in attitude, and designing roadways in a fashion that matches these goals (bus lanes, bike lanes, priority signalling, light rail in the centre median, etc.). Improving transit does not usually involve building more and wider roads. However, in order to facilitate goods movement by trucks, they do have to do just that. These roads may be meant primarily for trucks, but will be inviting for anybody to use.

So, to me, the conflict of interest within TransLink is very much a reality. Which goal takes precedence? Transit or roads? An agency shouldn’t have to advocate for public transportation and be mandated to build more roads.

Divided Road Responsibilities
While, on the one hand, public transportation and (some) road responsibility were lumped into one and the same organization, responsibilities for BC’s road network as a whole is divided up between three entities.

  • Municipalities look after local roads.
  • TransLink looks after regional roads in the Lower Mainland.
  • The province looks after the inter-regional road network (although this one doesn’t seem as clear cut; not all provincial roads leave the region).

It leads to increased planning complexities when a particular road project involves more than one agency. Communicating between several levels of government requires constant, conscious effort. If the parties involved don’t keep up that effort, issues will fall through the cracks.

Even worse, each agency might just be looking after its own agenda. They are perpetually strapped for cash. They have limited resources. The funds they do have may have a time-limit attached to them. (For instance, says the federal government, “If you don’t use the money by date XYZ, we’ll re-allocate it elsewhere.”) Faced with the danger that nothing at all gets accomplished, the agency may assume a “let’s get done what we can” approach, obviously focusing on solving their own problem(s) first. How it impacts other agencies or what happens when traffic leaves the original agency’s jurisdiction takes the back seat.

Examples from New Westminster
It doesn’t take much effort to come up with road improvement projects that affect New Westminster. Here are three. One was a planned project that was put on hold, one is being planned right now, and one was actually built. They all seem to show quite clearly what happens when agencies seem to focus mainly on their own turf. These examples are probably well known to anybody living in or travelling through New Westminster.

The United Boulevard Extension was one example where TransLink was pushing its agenda (to move goods) as far as their responsibility stretched: to New West’s city limits. What was going to happen to traffic once it hit New West was none of their concern. There was some dubious talk about a North Fraser Perimeter Road at some point in the future, but it was neither clear how the NFPR would run through New West and what its impact would be, nor when it was going to be built. No funding had been secured. So, it was just the UBE that Translink wanted to build. Their main incentive to build it at that time? The federal government was waving $60 million for improved goods transportation infrastructure in front of their noses.

It was only due to massive opposition from New Westminster residents and city council that the project was put on hold. For now.

The Pattullo Bridge
TransLink have a clear and relatively urgent responsibility. They own the Pattullo Bridge. It is not up to current safety standards. Therefore, they must take care of it one way or another. Not to do that would mean they are not doing their job, and it would make them liable should something happen. So far, so good. What’s not good is the way TransLink is looking at the problem. They seem to have been asking themselves:

  • What do we do about the bridge?
  • What’s the best and most economical way for us to do it?
  • Which solution will get us the closest to our “goods movement” goal?

So, they picked the variant that makes the most sense to them. A six lane bridge. They made this choice before much public input was gathered. The impact that bridge will create on either side is not their main concern. The new bridge solves their problem: the aging structure is gone, the liability problem averted. The two additional lanes are an added bonus at not too much extra cost. Their part of the road infrastructure will now allow for better goods movement. — Two goals met with one project! What more can you want as an organization?

Again, it is strong community support that will hopefully bring about some change. At least, for the first time during the Pattullo replacement process, TransLink finally seems to be listening to citizens’ concerns. It’s far from over, but we seem to be on the right track to see the bigger picture.

The Queensborough Bridge
This project completed about four years ago. The Queensborough Bridge (along with highways 91A and 91) are provincial roads. So, this example doesn’t involve Translink, but it shows the province used an approach reminiscent of TransLink’s. — And it shows what happens when a project using this approach is actually implemented.

The province wanted to improve vehicle movement across the Fraser River via the Alex Fraser and the Queensborough Bridges. So, they decided to remove two bottlenecks. They upgraded the Howes Street intersection in Queensborough and re-configured the north end of Queensborough Bridge and surrounding intersections to make traffic there flow more smoothly (or so they thought).

What they did not think too much about was what would happen once traffic left the road that’s under their ownership or how traffic would get from local roads to their improved roadway. These problems were not theirs to solve. They had their agenda (get traffic across the Fraser) and that was it. If traffic didn’t actually flow better in the real world, it wasn’t their roads holding things up. They’d done their share. — Sound familiar?

The result of this thinking we can all see on a daily basis:

  • 20th Street southbound is a big, nasty mess on most day, sometimes even on weekends now; it routinely backs up to 8th Avenue, often further.
  • Stewardson westbound is a disaster every weekday morning with trucks and cars lined up past 3rd Avenue on many days.
  • Even on the Queensborough side traffic routinely clogs Ewen Avenue, Howes Street and roads nearby, as well as the bridge onramp and the highway itself.

Was the goal of improved traffic flow really accomplished?

So, do we actually know the province didn’t really care too much about how traffic would get to or from Queensborough Bridge or is the above scenario just conjecture based on observation? Yes, we kind of do know. One day, a couple of years ago, I spoke to the New Westminster police department about the bridge and the traffic mess surrounding it. They said to me, “We know. The province designed it. They didn’t really consult with the city. Now, we have to deal with it.” Point in case.

Personally, I don’t know how the current situation compares to the time before the “improvement project” (I didn’t live in New West then), but I am having a hard time picturing the current situation as “being better”.

In order to not keep falling into the same trap with every new road project, it may be time to add another topic to the public discussion, a topic more general, beyond any single transportation project.

It would seem beneficial to re-visit how roadways and transit, over all, are being managed in the Lower Mainland and in the province.

Having responsibilities for roads spread across three different levels of government that are clearly having difficulties working together effectively, on one hand, and, on the other, combining public transit and road infrastructure responsibility in a single agency does not seem like a wise choice. It certainly doesn’t seem to be working all that well.

9 Replies to “Transportation woes due to conflicting interests: transit or roads?”

  1. The issue isn't that TransLink has to balance roads and transit. In fact, the only reason New Westminster hasn't been paved over is because of TransLink. Do you honestly think the province would have let this little town push them around. Haha, no.

    The bridge is getting put in. Make no mistake about it. And because TransLink lacks the cojones to get things done, like the United Boulevard extension, the province is going to step in and get it done.

    Rest assured. Some long overdue projects are going to get done once the province steps in. Things that New Westminster should have been accommodating from the beginning. Like it or not, you're getting that bridge. And like it or not, New Westminster is going to get accompanying infrastructure to support it.

    And none of this should come as a surprise.

    And at the end of the day, New Westminster will be all the better for it. People won't be rat-running through your precious city and New Westminster residents will look around, in awe, at the lack of traffic through their city. And where will the traffic be? Away from schools, parks, and downtown. On dedicated streets along the edge of the city. On McBride to the Stormont connector.

    The situation New Westminster has right now is not sustainable and self-inflicted. It didn't have to be this way. And it won't have to for much longer. This project is pushing ahead no matter what.

    1. Hmm. Last time I looked, McBride was closer to the middle of New West than to the edge.

    2. this is a rather optimistic post. It might have been understandable before 30 years ago when Hwy91 was built up to the New West border and then abruptly forgot about when the MoT ran out of money.

      I would take a different perspective: Make no mistake about it that TransLink cannot afford a $billion dollar bridge, the province is in austerity mode after spending $6 billion on the MegaMann bridge and Hwy 1and drivers will not be happy about paying a toll on yet another bridge. So rest assured that there will be no more money to spend in New Westminster once again after another freeway is dumped on our doorstep.

      Keep in mind that the only thing more expensive than building a freeway in a densely populated urban region is to build a freeway over a bridge… Cities all over the world are paying to tear these freeways down, why would we pay to build one up? I don't think we have that kind of money to throw on projects which simply don't work…

      1. I'd like to see some examples of cities tearing down freeways where no alternatives exist.

        McBride and Columbia past McBride is hardly densely populated. There is tonnes of room along both these corridors for a proper highway system to exist without greatly impacting the surrounding area. But residents need to wake up and look around to see these possibilities. For example, how about inserting McBride into a trench like was down with Whitemud Drive in Edmonton? How about replacing the eyesore that is Columbia/Brunette between Front and Coquitlam with a nice wide roadway to Highway 1 and putting the railway underneath the eastern edge of the roadway? Get rid of all those power lines and unsightly eyesores that call themselves businesses on the corner of Brunette and Columbia.

        In any case, thumping your chests and adopting a NIMBY attitude to development and the region only serves to stall New Westminster's development and cost everybody millions of dollars. It's selfish and unsustainable. But once the province steps in, like many insiders on the project are anticipating, then we can finally move forward.

  2. I'm not sure that the Queensborough bridge is a great example. I used it a lot before the changes were made, and it was terrible then.
    20th St used to regularly backed up all the way into Burnaby. 6th Avenue used to get backed up beyond 14th St. I suspect that the queues along the highway itself were pretty similar, and I know Stewardson used to be bad, although I don't know whether it's better or worse now.

    Overall, my feeling is that it's a bit better now than it used to be. It tends to confirm my feeling that there's a natural congestion limit and that whatever you do to the roads, traffic will tend to increase to that limit and not much further – bigger, better roads give a short-term improvement before traffic flows adapt so that they're just as congested as they used to be. When you hit that limit, people look for alternative routes so it doesn't tend to get much worse.

    It would certainly be interesting to have some before-and-after measurements rather than recollections and anecdotes !

  3. Thanks for writing this, Markus. good points. I’m not sure it is a “conflict of interest” (very loaded term in New West!), but a case of conflicting self-interests. TransLink’s long-term plan, Transport 2040, sets a great vision for the future of the region, but their Roads and Bridges group are struggling with how their identify fits into that larger scope. The UBE is dead, as is the NFPR, but the Pattullo is a difficult problem – they simply don’t have the $200 Million to fix it.

    Chris, your overall feeling pretty much matches the body of scientific evidence on traffic congestion. In this case, the plural of “anecdote” is “evidence”. No urban area has ever solved congestion issues by building roads. Not New York, not LA, not Seattle, not Seoul, Lagos, Copenhagen or Vancouver. Some seem to think it will magically work in New Westminster. Clearly a sign of madness.

    Speaking of madness, how does No-one Else rectify a bridge that puts more traffic on McBride and Royal with moving traffic away from schools and parks? Bust out a map and look up where these City landmarks are located.

  4. This is a very helpful article and helps explain how we got to this place in time.  I went to the Translink Sapperton open house and felt the Translink display was 'pushing' us to believe their decision was collaborative and was the right decision for New Westminster and Surrey and that most people were in favor.  This article helps explain why the transit portion of Translink was missing in this equation.  

    Some unanswered questions: why the transit lanes are not opening on the new Port Mann bridge? why traffic is minimal on the Golden Ears Bridge?  why Surrey is not getting an expanded transit system?   where is the discussion around the understanding that people want to use transit as gasoline moves to $1.50?  and the fact the overall transit plan was built not built on oil being $100 a barrel it was apparently built on the premise of a barrel of oil at $50.  

    How long before a barrel of oil is $150?  What will the price at the pump be then?  Wonder how many roads and bridges will be needed?

    Transit usage is up and vehicle traffic is down in Vancouver, so much so they are considering putting a 'park' down the centre of Granville Street bridge.

    We still have time, let's continue the discussion with an eye on the future needs of all members of the community.

    We moved to New Westminster a year ago, in part because of this  publication, thanks! We are glad we made the move

  5. Good analysis Markus.

    I would argue that TransLink's responsibility for transit and roads is really the best balance as long as the investments line up with their long term planning vision.

    You could rephrase your statement: "It has to plan, build and run the public transportation infrastructure, and it has to plan, build and maintain roadways."


    "It has to plan, build and run the public transportation infrastructure, and it has to maintain roadways and has to plan, and build roadways if necessary."

    In this context TransLink is best suited to deal with transportation problems by looking at all modes available and optimizing the use of public funds so that they meet the long term goals. It would also reflect the fact that road building has outpaced other transportation investments for more than 60 years and its time we started making better use of the roads we already have and recognize that we can't keep building them forever.

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