United Boulevard Extension: what’s next? (Part 1)

Photo: Matthew Laird
Front Street. Photo: Pat Johnstone

We won; we stopped the flood gates of the United Boulevard Extension from opening and releasing the hordes of new commuter traffic on to already chocked New Westminster streets. Or did we?

New Westminster council has asked TransLink to continue consulting, designing, and to request an extension for the Federal money committed to the project. That sounds like a green light to me; despite a lot of public posturing by mayor and council that they wouldn’t support the project they haven’t actually said no to the UBE, they’re just tinkering with the details. A, B, C, or D are out, but something else might be acceptable.

But the lingering questions which have never been answered still remain. What about Front Street? What about the Queensborough Bridge which is already backed up during rush hour halfway down Stewardson Way? Where will all this new traffic the UBE enables actually go? How will TransLink ensure a route which is supposed to be for goods movement doesn’t get clogged and gridlocked with commuter traffic? The City and TransLink have danced around these issues but never actually directly addressed them. Sadly because of policy or in some cases geography they simply can’t, which should ring loud alarm bells for residents.

To their credit council has again asked that a UBE extension be tied in to Front Street mitigation, that the NFPR shouldn’t be done piecemeal with a decade or more gap between sections such as the UBE and Front Street. Fair enough. However the key in all this is what a full project with proper mitigation will look like. This is the detail the City has never defined, there’s only been vague hand waving about plinths, tunnels, “mitigation” and a few pretty drawings. In fact in the few details that have been released there’s been conflicting plans and flip flops with issues such as the future of Front Street as a retail corridor. A detailed plan on how such a project would be designed, how it would affect the existing Front Street, how it would fit in with newer City approved projects like The Interurban, have never been shown. The last estimate I’ve heard from a source inside City Hall about 5 years ago was over half a billion dollars to get everything on the City’s wish list, a number which is obviously far larger now.

Now that TransLink has been granted a 3 month extension on the Federal money, this raises the question, why didn’t TransLink produce a complete plan when they announced they were proceeding with the UBE project last fall? New Westminster council’s December 2010 motion on the UBE reaffirms their 2007 position that Front Street mitigation must be part of the UBE project. It was a key requirement when New Westminster agreed to engage in the UBE process more than 3 years ago. If they couldn’t produce such a plan after 3 years, why should we expect them to now produce a plan in just 3 months?

Which leaves two options. Staff (both in TransLink and City) will waste hundreds of hours developing a new UBE plan which will never be approved by the City because it simply isn’t possible to plan and fund a project costing well over half billion dollar by March. Or City Council will drop the demand for Front Street mitigation as part of the UBE, approve a new UBE design and the flood gates will be opened with nowhere for the traffic to go. Which is it going to be?

But let’s talk about the realities of the entire NFPR and its funding. What will it cost and how will it be funded? The project New Westminster is demanding, when all the pieces are put together (UBE, Front Street, Columbia/Front intersection, fixing the Queensborough again) will likely come in well over a billion dollars. If you include a new Pattullo Bridge, we’re talking potentially up to $2 billion. In any projects of such magnitude (and we’re told of strategic importance for goods movement in the eyes of higher levels government) both the Federal and Provincial government would most certainly be at the table.

In the scenario of a billion dollar project, which is what New Westminster council currently demanding, whether they realize it or not, as a condition of approving the UBE, a tiny $65 million contribution by the federal government is meaningless. If council is going to stick to its guns for an all-at-once project, why get worked up about $65m? We’re talking about a much bigger pot that needs to be filled to complete the whole project. Regardless, there is only one taxpayer, whether it’s from the Federal, Provincial or Translink, it’s still our money, and we still pay the bill. The quibble is over which set of politicians get to be the bad guys in having to find the money and which get to be the good guys in cutting the ribbon. They’re playing a game involving their egos and political careers using our money.

But lets say we could come up with funding in the ball park of $2 billion, what are the physical realities of building a 4 lane truck route through New Westminster? In the second part of this article we’ll examine the limitations of building a road through the heart of the oldest City in Western Canada.

TransLink responds to UBE criticism in the Buzzer blog

Just a quick update on the controversial United Boulevard Extension plans for you: The Buzzer’s Jhenifer Pabillano took many of the questions and criticisms raised in your comments here, on the New Westminster Environmental Partners website and on NWEP President Pat Johnstone’s blog, Green New West (great commentary btw, Pat) to TransLink’s Director of Roads Sany Zein. In a lengthy blog post on The Buzzer, Sany provides TransLink’s perspective on the following questions:

  • What is the United Boulevard Extension and why is it considered a priority for the region?
  • Why is TransLink interested in this road project – shouldn’t TransLink be investing only in transit projects?
  • Why is it such a high priority?
  • What are the potential benefits of this project?
  • There are four options currently presented for the United Boulevard Extension. Will we only consider the one option (the T option) that New Westminster council has endorsed? Why would we even consider the other three options we have presented?
  • Could you address the concerns raised about the public consultation session held in New Westminster on November 18?
  • When is the actual deadline for the federal money to go away? How does that work?
  • What happens next?
  • There may be property acquisition needed as part of this project. Can you talk about the process involved with that?
  • How does this project fit into the big picture of the North Fraser Perimeter Road?
  • How much is this going to cost?

Read Jhenifer’s interview with Sany on the Buzzer blog for the answers.

I remain skeptical that the UBE is good for New West, and wish that TransLink would focus its efforts on building the Evergreen Line rather than invest more on widening roads in and around Coquitlam. Still, I have to say I am impressed that TransLink has taken the time to respond directly to New Westminster’s concerns, both by adding another public consultation session (Tuesday, December 7, 2010, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Justice Institute of British Columbia) and through the Buzzer blog.

No matter how this turns out, I’m proud of the citizens of New West for pressing for answers to their questions. Too often apathy is our worst enemy. I’m proud of the folk of New West for showing up to those consultation sessions and speaking up online and through other channels so that City Council and TransLink could hear and consider their concerns.

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.

NWEP to host Urban Transportation Forum Nov. 9

NWEP AGM & Urban Transportation Forum poster
NWEP AGM & Urban Transportation Forum poster

The New Westminster Environmental Partners will be holding an Urban Transportation Forum and Annual General Meeting on Tuesday, November 9 at the Douglas College Student Union lounge.

The event, moderated by Tenth to the Fraser’s Will & Briana Tomkinson (yep, that’s me!), will feature local and regional transportation experts discussing what works in transportation planning, what doesn’t, and what’s coming to New Westminster.

The time is now to talk about our transportation future. New bridges and highways are planned, bringing more traffic to New Westminster. The City is working on an updated Master Transportation Plan. An ongoing “funding gap” at Translink is delaying important transit infrastructure projects.

Speakers will include:

  • Jerry Dobrovolny, Director of Transportation for the City of Vancouver and a former New Westminster City Councillor. He will discuss how the Olympics and Separated Bike Lanes are helping to Make Vancouver the “Greenest City in the World” by 2020. The presentation will include newly released data showing the shift in travel modes that occurred during games time, and discuss how cities can excel in a paradigm of peak oil and GHG reduction.
  • Joe Zaccaria, a sustainable transportation advocate from South Fraser OnTrax. Joe will present some quick facts from our neighbours in the south-of-Fraser region, including options to decrease motordom and make our communities walkable again. What is driving transportation needs in the south of Fraser? What is being planned and what is being hoped for? What does these mean for the whole region?
  • Jonathan Cote, New Westminster City Councillor. He will talk about how urban design and form affect sustainable transportation. He will also talk about road pricing and other issues in the local (New Westminster) and regional (Metro Vancouver) context.

A Q&A will follow the presentations, so bring your questions, concerns, and  ideas. You can also tweet questions @10thtothefraser or comment on this post to leave a question that you’d like Will & I to pose to the speakers during the forum. We’ll try to get to as many as we can during the time allowed.

If anyone is interested in live-tweeting the event, that would also great too!

Following these discussions, the NWEP will be reporting on this year’s activities, and will be electing new officers for 2011. Everyone is invited, admission is free and the general public is encouraged to attend and see what the NWEP is up to!

You don’t have to be a member to attend, but only NWEP members will be able vote at the meeting. Memberships ($5 annually) will be available at the meeting.

Where: Douglas College Student Union lounge, 88 Seventh Street, New Westminster

When: Tuesday, November 9th, 7pm

Who: New Westminster Environmental Partners are a group of residents, business owners, and other stakeholders who believe in thinking globally and acting locally. NWEP is strictly non-partisan, as we support sustainability being embraced by all political parties, organizations and individuals.

Membership in NWEP is open to all residents and community stakeholderswho support our mission and are willing to work with us in a cooperative, consensus based-decision making process to promote sustainability in the City.

NWEP’s mission is to work with residents, businesses and government agencies within the City to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability in New Westminster, through the identification of issues, education, public advocacy, the promotion of best practices, and the implementation of effective projects.

Flat-fare transit system, not ‘smart’ cards, is the way to go

In 2013, TransLink will launch a new electronic fare system that would allow it to charge riders only for the distance they actually travel, rather than by zone. But just because they can charge more for people traveling long distances doesn’t mean they should.

A ‘smart’ card system is anything but. It makes intuitive sense to drivers to say that someone traveling from King George to Waterfront ought to pay more than someone going from Columbia to Sapperton. But when it comes to public transportation, riders paying more for traveling a longer distances hamstrings efforts to get  more people out of their cars.

TransLink should be doing all it can to provide incentives for suburbanites traveling long distances into work to take transit instead of driving. I understand that it costs more for TransLink to carry them, but it is more challenging and  impactful to remove a car from the road that would travel from Surrey into Vancouver than a car traveling only a few blocks.

The current zoning system is terrible. There’s no good reason a person should pay more to travel from Patterson to the next station, Joyce, than from Patterson to Metrotown on the other side of the zone boundary. The zone system also makes it vastly less attractive for residents of Coquitlam and Surrey (and beyond) to choose the SkyTrain over driving. (Exclusive transit use is almost unheard of in those areas, as I know having grown up in Coquitlam/Port Moody. Service frequency is too low, and there are significant gaps in bus coverage, depending where you need to go.)

The fare changes proposed are better than the current system. But what we really ought to do is implement a flat-fare system. Yes, it means that we subsidize riders in the ‘burbs. Taking transit at least some of the time is easy in New Westminster, much of Vancouver and parts of Burnaby. Everywhere else in the Lower Mainland, it’s a significant sacrifice. Paying more for less service makes it even less attractive to choose public transit.

I Love Transit Night at the Heritage Grill (plus, a contest!)

Update: the winner is … Jessica! She wrote,

I have a few friends who despise transit, but I like it! Why NOT pay the discounted UPASS fare and get unlimited travel around our great city?! It’s so fun travelling via transit when special events are happening because you could meet to many people it’s crazy; Olympics, Canada Day, etc. I also like the texting feature where they will text you times for the next bus; it’s super helpful. The bus is where you don’t need an excuse to not do homework, stress, worry about life…it’s my down time to just reflect. Some bus drivers are awesome characters! GO TRANSIT.”

Thanks everyone for playing – and sharing what you love about public transportation! The winner was picked via a random number generator.

Photo: Waferboard (via Flickr)
Photo: Waferboard (via Flickr)

This week is I Love Transit Week over at the Buzzer Blog. TransLink blogger Jhenifer Pabillano describes it as “a low key but sincere celebration of what people like about transit (even though there’s much we don’t like!)” All this week, The Buzzer Blog will be publishing essays, photos and interviews about transit, and you’ll see some of these also in the printed edition of the August Buzzer on SkyTrain and buses.

Tenth to the Fraser will be participating too. Look for two pieces related to transit in New Westminster to be published this week, one from me and one from frequent contributor Rob Jones. Transit and transportation is a huge issue here at the nexus of the Lower Mainland, so if you feel inspired to, feel free to submit a guest post about your take on the issues. You might also like to re-read Rob’s piece about his daughter’s love for Columbia SkyTrain Station and perhaps visit the current library exhibit illustrating New Westminster’s transportation history.

Then, on Thursday, July 15, Jhenifer is hosting an evening transit meetup called I Love Transit Night at New Westminster’s Heritage Grill. “I Love Transit Night” will feature food, fun and games. Here’s a link showing last year’s live meetup.

Plus, The Buzzer has offered us a Summer Commuter Prize Pack to give away to our readers. To win, just leave a comment on this post sharing an anecdote or commentary that illustrates what you like about public transportation. We’ll pick a winner via random draw at the end of I Love Transit Week and announce it on the blog. (Please be sure to leave a valid email address in the comment form so that we are able to contact you if you win!)

The prize pack is a tote bag filled with stuff for a summer commute, including:

  • TravelSmart tote bag
  • TravelSmart water bottle
  • Personal hand-held fan
  • Travel pillow
  • Mini puzzle for passing the time
  • A granola bar snack
  • Vanity Fair magazine
  • 2010 Olympic transportation map
  • Transit stickers and buttons
  • 3-zone bus pass (available after July 16)

If you’re in the mood to read more about transit in New Westminster, here are a few more good reads from our archives: