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.

Electronic speed reminders coming to Stewardson

A new electronic speed-reader sign will be installed on Stewardson Way just south of 6th Avenue for traffic heading eastbound into New Westminster from the Queensborough Bridge and Marine Way.

The Gordian knot of exits, on-ramps and highways at Stewardson and 20th St. near the Queensborough Bridge is one of the gnarliest intersections in the Lower Mainland, let alone New Westminster. I live just blocks away and regularly end up in Burnaby when I mean to go to Queensborough, or vice versa.

So it’s no surprise to me that Stewardson Way is a high-crash location in New West. Drivers are distracted and frustrated, and just want to slice through as fast as possible. In an attempt to calm the Mr. Wheelers among us, the City of New Westminster and ICBC are placing an electronic speed-reader board on Stewardson Way,  just south of 6th Avenue for traffic heading eastbound into New Westminster from the Queensborough Bridge and Marine Way.

Said Mayor Wayne Wright in a city media release, “Our location in the centre of Metro Vancouver means that a lot of traffic funnels through New Westminster. The new speed-reader board on Stewardson Way will remind drivers to slow down as they travel through the Royal City and drive safely.”

The new electronic speed-reader board will display and record the speed of passing vehicles and the time of day. Information gathered can help pinpoint when excessive speeding is likely to occur and when to deploy speed enforcement.

New Westminster now has five speed-reader boards in operation throughout the city, with four placed adjacent to elementary schools in the Heights, Sapperton, Downtown and West End neighbourhoods.

The new speed-reader board at Stewardson Way will be rotated between two other high-risk locations in the future: McBride Boulevard at the approach to the Pattullo Bridge and along Brunette Avenue.

For those of you who didn’t get the ‘Mr. Wheeler’ allusion (and didn’t click through the link), here’s the classic Goofy toon, ‘Motor Mania.’ Watch it and I’m sure you’ll see why it came to mind as I wrote this post …

UPDATE: Pattullo Bridge closed for four to six weeks

Pattullo Bridge from Surrey on the south side ...
Image via Wikipedia

As we blogged earlier today, a fire has shut down the Pattullo Bridge. Now it seems it will not just be Monday’s commute that will be affected. It looks like the bridge could be shut down for up to six weeks. 

“Because of the severity of the damage, it will certainly be closed for a couple of days, but there is a strong likelihood that it will be closed for an extended period, perhaps as long as four to six weeks,” [TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie] said.

Source: Pattullo Bridge closed after trestle fire | CTV

Commuting across the Fraser is going to become a whole lot hairier. As mentioned in our earlier post, the 80,000 people who cross via the Pattullo every day are going to have to choose the Queensborough Bridge, the Alex Fraser Bridge, the Port Mann Bridge or SkyTrain instead. 

“The Pattullo handles about 20 per cent of vehicle traffic across the Fraser River. As such, as motorists and commercial operators divert primarily to the Port Mann and Alex Fraser Bridges and the George Massey Tunnel – all motorists should expect additional traffic congestion and longer travel times,” said Hardie as authorities began to take measures to ensure a smoother flow of traffic at other crossings including greater enforcement of HOV lane use.

Emergency services such as ambulance and fire are making preparations to use other routes.

As well, it is expected that SkyTrain will be more congested at peak times as people make their way to and from home and work.

Source: 60-foot section of Pattulo Bridge damaged in fire will be replaced | The Province

Here is a Google Maps mashup showing alternate routes for those who usually take the Pattullo.

Plan for delays and carpool or time-shift to avoid rush hour if possible. 

Here’s what TransLink suggests:

Take public transit. SkyTrain is a commuter’s best bet for travel between New West and Surrey. Translink officials are considering starting SkyTrain cars earlier and adding more cars Monday morning. *

Take the Port Mann or Alex Fraser bridges, or the George Massey tunnel, before or after rush hour. Police are expecting higher-than-average volumes on the alternate bridges especially during rush hour, according to Translink spokesman Ken Hardie. Drivers are encouraged to either leave early.

Work at home. Translink spokesman Ken Hardie said he expects extra volume on the alternative arteries of the Port Mann and Alex Fraser bridges, and gridlock during rush hour.

“Residents are advised to work at home if they’re able to,” Hardie said Sunday.

Source: Pattullo traffic: What you can do | Vancouver Sun

 TransLink knew the wooden trestles were an issue, but they were hoping to have more time to come up with a solution.

Creosote is used on the wood components to preserve it, but it also burns very well.  TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast says they knew there were issues with the span. “We’d identified this element of the bridge something we were going to address right away, to put the bridge in good condition for ten years before we replace it with a new bridge.”

Source: Pattullo Bridge closed for four weeks | News 1130

UPDATE: TransLink is suspending bicycle service on SkyTrain until further notice due to the extra volume that will be expected on SkyTrain. The N19 and C71 buses will be rerouted; please check the TransLink website for details.

Bicycle access to SkyTrain is suspended until further notice due to capacity limitations.

SkyTrain will begin service at 4:30 am from King George. SkyTrain will add from two to four additional trains between Scott Road and Waterfront Stations to provide extra capacity in the peak period.

Peak service will be maintained as long as necessary into the mid day and evening.

There will be ten additional trains left in service in the off-peak periods.

Source: TransLink website

Meanwhile, Rail for the Valley is pointing out that this is yet one more reason why TransLink should consider an Interurban rail line between the Fraser Valley and Vancouver.

If there was a compelling argument for the proposed interurban service to connect to downtown Vancouver, here it is. Those who want the interurban service to deadhead into Scott Road Station are extremely short sighted and certainly fail to understand the driving mechanisms in attracting ridership – the seamless or no transfer journey. For the next four weeks, the Pattullo Bridge will be closed to all traffic after a fire has badly damaged a wooden section of the bridge. This just leaves a SkyTrain connection to Vancouver. Already SkyTrain is crowded, leaving Surrey and not able to offer much in relief to the commuter. But on the other side of the Pattullo Bridge is the Fraser River Rail Bridge and would not TransLink look good offering quick journeys to Vancouver via the interurban from Langley and Surrey. 

Source: Pattullo Bridge will be closed for at least one month! Bring on the Interurban! | Rail For The Valley

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Nightmare commute ahead: Fire shuts down Pattullo Bridge

If you are one of the 80,000 commuters who cross the Pattullo Bridge to get to work, brace yourself: you may want to plan to work from home, time-shift or take a sick day on Monday. One of the trestles caught fire early this morning, and the bridge is closed to traffic until further notice.

“It’s heavily charred,” [TransLink spokesperson] Ken Hardie said. “When the blaze first broke out … reports were that there were flames shooting up from underneath the bridge on both sides.”

TransLink engineers are assessing the bridge’s structure, Hardie said, but the bridge will be closed to traffic in both directions until at least Monday.

“We have heard that the bridge will not be open on Monday morning. So that, immediately, is going to create a situation for some 80,000 vehicles that use the bridge on a daily basis,” Hardie said.

TransLink is working to provide public transit options, Hardie said, but commuters should expect delays Monday morning on the other three bridges that span the Fraser River: the Queensborough Bridge, the Alex Fraser Bridge and the Port Mann Bridge.

Source: Fire shuts down Pattullo Bridge | CBC News

As the article mentions, the other bridges that cross the Fraser are expected to be congested on Monday, and I would imagine SkyTrain and related buses will also be busy.

UPDATE: One of our readers responded via Twitter with an update on the situation on Sunday afternoon: 

powderedsnow @10thToTheFraser The nightmare commute has already started: port Mann backed up to 176th. It’s 3 pm on Sunday. I can’t imagine tomorrow am.

You have been warned.