Reminder: last UBE consultation session this Thursday

This is a guest post by Reena Meijer Drees. Reena blogs about car(e)-free living in New Westminster at http://carefreenewwest.blogspot.com/.

I’ve been dutifully attending TransLink’s consultation sessions for the UBE. We’ve seen 3 so far, and the last one will be held this Thursday evening at 7 pm at the Sapperton Pensioner’s Hall at 318 Keary St, just up from Columbia. Translink will be “reporting out”, summarizing what they’ve heard from the community over the weeks of discussion. I’d encourage all citizens to come out to see what TransLink is planning to bring to New Westminster. As for me, I must admit that my attendance at these sessions has left me feeling like I’ve been pushed into owning something I really don’t want.

There has been a good turnout for these events so far, with six fully populated “breakout” groups around tables, each with a facilitator (third-party, not TransLink) and at least one TransLink staffer to help out with technical details. I’d guess the total community attendance to be 70 or more every time, pretty good considering some sessions have conflicted with hockey games.

At these sessions I have met only a single person from outside of New West (I think from Coquitlam somewhere). He told me he drives through New West; he was there to voice his opinion that New West was the “sphincter of the Lower Mainland” and was hoping for some relief. I asked TransLink if they had held any open houses on the UBE in Coquitlam – apparently only one, and attendance was so poor (the 25 people who attended were all from New West) that they didn’t have any more. Coquitlam council supports the UBE and they have plans for further (car-oriented) development along United Blvd. It is hard to have a meaningful discussion with other stakeholders when they don’t show up.

The mood in the room has not been very happy. Almost uniformly, residents do not like the idea of the UBE. Many are concerned about noise, about increased congestion, about the idea of an overpass blocking views. Others don’t like the emphasis on road building, which seems so diametrically opposed to Translink’s stated goals of prioritizing pedestrians, bikes, and transit…especially given that we are now experiencing bus service cuts here in New West. And some residents see this as the thin edge of the wedge for the North Fraser Perimeter Road, a series of as-yet-unfunded projects which will see Front St turn into a 4-lane truck route, and a 6-lane Patullo bringing more regional traffic through our City. The fear is that the UBE will be done, and then nothing will follow for years as TransLink’s budgets continue to suffer, leaving us with more congestion that we started with. Time and again people stood up and voiced that they wanted to see the entire NFPR discussed and a big picture plan put on the table before discussing the UBE. This was not really done – the discussions were pretty quickly guided into specifics about where roads should go and what mitigation features we wanted.

TransLink asked for community ideas for the connection, and created long lists of what residents saw as the problems around the current intersection. From this they created a short list of possible configurations to explore. There were two suggestions from the community, called “option E” and “option C”. Option C consists of simply closing the level crossing at Braid and Brunette and eliminating the possibility of access to the Industrial land this way. Since the lights spend about 30% of their time letting the small amount of traffic coming out of the lands, remoiving access would improve traffic flow along Brunette. It would eliminate the backups that happen when turning traffic has to wait for a train. It would stop at least one train whistle. This option was rejected by TransLink with very few reasons given. Option E, the other suggestion from the residents, was to make the road from United connect with Brunette at a new intersection to be located near the overpass over HWY1. This would move the connection and its associated congestion out of New Westminster. Translink’s objection to this idea is that it creates too many intersections in a short distance. I would be surprised if this idea were still on the list.

The only idea that passes muster with TransLink is that of a large, 4-lane overpass over the “dip” in the Skytrain between Sapperton and Braid stations. The road would flow into Brunette without an intersection – no expropriation of property this time. There are lots of details availble and lots of mitigation discussed. But I can guarantee that the consensus in the Pensioner’s Hall is that this – “option B” – is unacceptable.

TransLink has stated throughout the sessions that “doing nothing” remains an option. We will see if they recommend this course of action, which I’d hazard is the top choice of most residents. Please attend if you can, so that if TransLink attempts to make us “own” the overpass idea – the only one left standing, by their own design – we can stand up and tell them that in fact, what the community really wants is to kill the UBE and give the money to the Evergreen Line. If you can’t attend, pass your thoughts on to New West City Coucil (email: postmaster@newwestcity.ca) They need to stand up and refuse to let this monstrosity be built.

United Boulevard Extension Open Houses

If you’ve ever wondered why Skytrain has a dip in the guideway along Brunette, it isn’t to create a roller-coaster experience, but was designed to accommodate an overpass connected to United Boulevard in Coquitlam with Brunette Avenue.

Translink has been offered matching Federal stimulus money to complete this project as part of the Pacific Gateway Project, and told they must commit to this project by the end of the year or the money will be reallocated elsewhere. As part of the design process Translink is asking the two affected communities, New Westminster and Coquitlam, to approve moving in to the design phase (and committing to build the project) before year’s end. Hence the rushed public consultation occurring now. However like in so many projects, the devil is in the details.

Before heading to NWEP’s Urban Transportation Forum last Thursday night (I was on the organizing committee), I spent an hour at Translink’s by-invitation-only stakeholder meeting about the United Boulevard Extension (which it’s important to note the media was explicitly told they weren’t invited). There are two public open houses for this project coming up, the first being this Thursday November 18th from 5:30-8:30pm at the Justice Institute.

At the stakeholders meeting four designs were presented, each costing between $152-175 million dollars. It should be noted the federal money being offered is only $65 million. This leaves Translink to come up with $87-110 million to complete the project. At a time when Translink is strapped for cash and can’t even bridge the Evergreen Line funding gap, the decision to fund up to $110 million for the UBE is difficult to justify.

Moreover, in Translink’s own materials regarding their 2011 supplemental plan the numbers don’t add up. Take a look at the Municipal Update, page 5. In the funding options being proposed right now to the Mayor’s Council Translink claims the total financial impact of the UBE project to their budget is $53.2 million. That’s no where near the minimum of $87 million Translink would need to build the most basic option for the UBE. Another “funding” gap to fill?

In their own Transport 2040 evaluation, their strategic plan to encourage mode shift and lower pollution, the UBE scores 6.5 out of 10. Far below almost every other project.

So in summary, even with increased revenue from property taxes or a vehicle levy, we can’t afford the project and it doesn’t achieve Translink’s goals. So why do they want to build it? Federal money.

Unfortunately, based on the language used at the stakeholders meeting, the main push to build this project is the federal dollars on the table. Multiple times over the evening there were comments suggesting that if Translink didn’t commit by the end of the year the federal government would take their money and invest it in another project was used.  As you hopefully learned as a 3-year-old, just because someone is offering you something free you don’t have to take it.  What also rang in my head when I heard this justification was, “Evergreen Line?” Sure we’ll take the money, but let us use it where our own regional analysis show it will be most useful. Who knows more about regional transportation issues, TransLink or Ottawa?

And it’s not even the first time a higher level of government has tried to use matching funds as an incentive to build this project, in 2003 the provincial government offered a similar deal and the region turned them down because they recognized it wasn’t in the region’s best interests.

So how does this all relate to residents of New Westminster?

First, the cheapest of the 4 designs shown to us that evening involved expropriating good size chunks of commercial and residential land in Sapperton all the way up to Rousseau Street. One design involved building a new regional truck/commuter route parallel to Rousseau, connecting at Braid and then routing traffic back down to Brunette. The approximate expropriation area for this option can be seen in the diagram below. In three of the four designs (which were also the 3 cheapest, so you can guess which we’re likely to get) there would be some kind of new interchange on the west side of Brunette abutting the residential neighbourhood.

However this isn’t simply a NIMBY issue. While all cities have a role to play in accommodating movement in the region, the UBE does not serve this purpose. Instead, it shifts congestion from regional highways into densely populated residential areas with no significant gain in mobility for drivers stuck in traffic. It also encourages a shift of mode back into cars from the more sustainable alternatives. This project may merit consideration if real solutions for existing traffic problems within New Westminster were put in place first, however we are still waiting to see if solutions for increased traffic in the New Westminster region are affordable or practical. This was illustrated 25 years ago when Hwy 91 was brought to the Queensborough Bridge and no capacity was created to handle traffic within New Westminster.

“So where will the traffic go?” someone at the meeting asked. This is where things got a little vague. TransLink would commit to fix the Columbia/Front Street intersection at some fixed date, but not as part of this project. Which brings up visions of the fixed date set for completion of the Evergreen Line, which was originally supposed to be 2011.

As for the rest of Front Street, TransLink said that would be dealt with as part of the Pattullo Bridge project, however again no commitment on what would be done or when. The city has stated very clear stipulations on what it wants from an upgraded Front Street in this brinkmanship game it continues to play with TransLink and the province. But once the UBE is built and the flood gates are opened, all our bargaining power will evaporate. We’re playing a very dangerous game hoping we can negotiate an unaffordable solution after a piece of the project which makes our traffic congestion magnitudes worse is completed.

The United Boulevard Extension is a potential disaster for traffic congestion in New Westminster. The proposed connector doubles the capacity for traffic to enter New Westminster from the expanded Hwy 1 and Lougheed corridors, while there remains nowhere for it to go except to overflow onto residential streets. The portions of the NFPR through New Westminster remain unfunded, and most proposals aired so far are grossly inadequate to deal with existing traffic volumes. While the NFPR is being advertised as a “goods movement” investment, it is reasonable to expect that a significant portion of the users of will be single-occupancy vehicles, as they are on Front Street today.

Many of these travellers may choose to use the new Evergreen line and greatly improved transit service if such a service were to be provided to the Tri-Cities areas. In this sense, TransLink’s investment in the NFPR directly competes with their investment in the Evergreen Line and other transit services, and delays the inevitable and necessary shift from automobile-dependent transportation to more efficient mode choices for people, a stated goal of TransLink. With a continued “Funding Gap”, and the Evergreen Line still unfunded 10 years later, why would TransLink have a desire to spend $87-110 million on the United Boulevard Extension.

Just because someone offers you free candy doesn’t mean you take it. But this isn’t free candy. This is bitter medicine they know isn’t effective – and we are paying more than half the cost.

This issue affects more than just those whose houses are slated to be knocked down to make way for the UBE. In addition to the environmental and social costs, for the City of New Westminster, the expropriation of more commercial and industrial land to build the UBE means a further dwindling tax base, more congestion on city streets, and more burden on residential taxpayers. For the City, the project is an absolute financial and environmental disaster.

So now the issue is over to you, the citizens and taxpayers of New Westminster. Council is being asked before the end of the year to approve TransLink moving forward with this project. Go to the open house, ask lots of questions, make up your own minds on this project and let our mayor and council know your thoughts, because that is where the fate of this project will be decided. (And remember, next year is an election year.) This project will have enormous implications on New Westminster for decades to come, and we have less than 6 weeks to have a meaningful discussion on the topic.