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 UBE
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”.

Conclusion
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.