Along with Falcon’s boss, former Vancouver mayor Gordon Campbell, Price was part of a broad consensus of politicians, citizens and planners who spearheaded the Livable Region Strategic Plan back in 1986. The LRSP advocated a Lower Mainland of dense town centres well served by transit, and it specifically rejected the idea of adding new cross-river capacity.
The LRSP acknowledged what countless studies have shown: that highway expansion never, ever, extinguishes congestion. What new lanes do, if they are not restricted to commercial traffic, is encourage low-density sprawl tens of kilometres away from jobs, groceries and rapid transit. Such sprawl is, as urbanist James Howard Kunstler wrote in The Geography of Nowhere, the most expensive and inefficient way to organize human settlement.
Falcon says the sustainability crowd shouldn’t blame him or his highways for suburban sprawl: “I think we do need better land zoning,” he says. “But zoning is a municipal government issue. It’s in their control, not mine.”
He’s right, technically, but here’s the big, squirming fly in the Gateway ointment: study after study has shown that there is an inherent relationship between transportation planning and land use. New highways fuel urban sprawl. Sprawl always generates traffic, which creates an even more urgent need for road lanes. And the wheels continue to spin.
Mark Holland, a sustainability consultant who has advised the provincial government on town planning in the past, says the province has apparently made “no formal effort” to engage the community of sustainable development experts on Gateway. “It is a fatal mistake in their investment strategy if they think that this is going to solve anything,” says Holland, who is not against the expansion per se, but is concerned that the government has not bothered to consider the bigger picture. “They are not addressing the most important part of the discussion: Where are people sitting when they are on those extra lanes? If we are going to move people around the region by road, we will certainly need more road capacity, but the problem is that the province is not investing in the required bus infrastructure first. If they don’t do that, then that new double bridge and expanded highway is going to be clogged in a decade, and we will be right back where we are now.”
And others have doubts. In fact, one of the project’s first proponents has expressed concerns about the Highway No. 1 expansion – or at least the way the ministry is going about it. In 2004, Michael Goldberg, then professor of urban land policy at UBC’s Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, wrote a report for the BC Progress Board urging the province to use transportation as an economic growth engine. Two years after endorsing the expansion, Goldberg qualified his support this spring: “I do think it is important that we explore ways to manage demand and our existing supply better before we embark on huge investments in transportation infrastructure such as the proposed Port Mann/Hwy No. 1 investments,” Goldberg, who now lives in Singapore, wrote in an email. “This is particularly true for road/bridge/tunnel investments since the evidence to date is that they help to create additional traffic by stimulating additional land use in their path, which in turn stimulates more traffic.”
This relationship between roads and land use points to a critical problem with Gateway’s cost/benefit estimates. The Gateway Program Definition Report asserts that by 2031, the program will deliver $900 billion in vehicle operating cost savings every year. Stuart Ramsey, a transportation engineer with 20 years of experience in the public and private sectors, charges that these (and other projections in the report) overestimate both the benefits of building and the costs of not building infrastructure.
“We assume that development will happen exactly the same way, no matter how we plan and build roads and transit projects,” says Ramsey. “In the real world, if that distant land isn’t accessible, then it simply won’t be marketable.” In other words, more people are likely to move east and away from the dense town centres if the highway is widened. And fewer will do so if it is not. The Gateway models simply don’t take this into account.
Still, anyone who joins Falcon on that morning crawl across the Port Mann amid the idling container trucks will agree with the minister that doing nothing is not an option, particularly when it comes to goods movement. The Chinese will not wait for our bottlenecks to ease. They will simply choose other gateways to the continent.
But is building more road capacity the only solution?
“We have only seen one solution offered here,” says Larry Frank, Bombardier Chair in Sustainable Urban Transportation at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. “My concern is: Does the government have a clear understanding of what the problem is?” He also wonders if the government has adequately considered any measurable alternatives.
The answer – no, according to Frank – indicates a gulf between decision makers and the world-class thinkers and planners we have attracted to universities in the region.
So, on a soggy day last December, 100-odd students and land-use wonks gathered in the bunker-like auditorium of UBC’s Woodward Building. Cement walls echoed with microphone hum and scratch. Aisles buzzed with the energy particular to the halls of academia: the optimism of people who believe that creative thinking and rigorously debated ideas can trump parochial politics. If you are into that sort of earnest chatter, then the air was positively intoxicating.
A few months before the gathering, Frank handed his master’s students this familiar conundrum:
Consider a prosperous metropolitan region. Throw in port facilities crucial to the national interest. Add an era of explosive growth in trade, a dollop of suburban sprawl and an inconveniently placed river. Imagine it wrapped in tangles of costly and polluting traffic congestion, with big knots at either end of the 40-year-old bridge in the middle of it all. Now think outside the box and get that region ready for even more traffic, even more people and a hell of a lot more trade.
The students’ real-world model was, of course, the Lower Mainland. Their prescriptions for the region’s transportation woes were remarkably pragmatic, but they couldn’t have been farther from Kevin Falcon’s plan. These proposals may not be sexy, but pay attention, class: they synthesize the ideas of dozens of experts, and they could save the region from paving itself into a corner.
Two students considered the problems facing the regular commuters, who make up 90 per cent of vehicle traffic on the Port Mann. They found that folk living south of the Fraser River simply never got the decent transit they were promised years ago. The region has just two-thirds the bus fleet that GVRD plans called for back in 1994, and not a single bus on the Port Mann. Solution: more buses, more SkyTrain cars and rapid-bus routes with transit priority, including a link from Central Surrey, over the Port Mann, to Coquitlam. That rapid-bus plan would require extensive queue-jumper lanes to enable buses to slip past the bridge-entrance bottlenecks, but it would be vastly cheaper than building a new bridge.
This leaves the Field of Dreams conundrum: if you build it, they will come. As long as there are free road lanes to fill, cars will pour into them and trucks will continue to be swamped. The students’ solution was – cue the horror film soundtrack – road tolling. Logic has it that if you charge drivers for using freeways, particularly at peak hours, they’ll think twice about hitting the on-ramp. Tolling revenues could then be pumped into transit improvements, giving residents a chance to choose how to get around.
This is one alternative the transportation minister has considered with enthusiasm, though he says the political cost of tolling existing roads without building new ones would be mortal. (Ironically, the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategic Plan already calls for the eventual tolling of every single bridge to the Burrard Peninsula. The first crossing to see tolls will be the new Golden Ears Bridge, east of the Port Mann.) Still, none of the above fully addresses Falcon’s most urgent Gateway concern: the emerging crisis in goods movement. Falcon isn’t exaggerating the expected explosion in Asian trade: China is constructing more than 100 new container loading berths in the next five years, compared to just a handful planned for the west coast of North America.
It was “big idea” time in the Woodward auditorium. Students Pete Giles and Eric Grant traded the mic back and forth nervously, and then launched into the goods- movement dilemma. They pointed out that while a new South Fraser Perimeter Road would improve access to Deltaport, it would take much more than asphalt to open the West Coast bottleneck. The problem is that most of the container traffic entering local ports isn’t even bound for the Lower Mainland, yet it gets forced onto urban highways before heading off for the rest of the continent.
Those containers shouldn’t be competing with minivans for road space in the first place, said Giles. They should go directly from ship to rail, and get sorted at a new multi-modal terminal at an inland transportation nexus. Kamloops, Prince George and Edmonton have all been suggested. The first challenge? Diverting some of that federal and provincial Gateway cash toward new rail bridges to ease the chronic rail congestion in the Fraser Valley.
Add to that a temporal shift – both at the Port of Vancouver, currently only open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and at local shippers and receivers – and we would see some relief for goods movement.
But Grant and Giles realized in their research that these initiatives still wouldn’t give the region the ability to handle the coming cargo tsunami. What Canada needs is more and bigger port capacity on the West Coast, and open rail lines to handle the containers. The answer lies not in the Lower Mainland, but at the deepest ice-free port on the continent. Prince Rupert is the shortest link between Shanghai and Chicago (a full day-and-a-half sail shorter than Vancouver). It’s also the terminus of an under-utilized rail network.
The province, the feds and private partners are already working on a new container terminal for Prince Rupert, which should handle 500,000 TEUs, a third of Vancouver’s throughput, by 2007. But this is a drop in the bucket, according to supply-chain guru George Stalk, senior VP with the Boston Consulting Group. Stalk has been hired by a coalition of shippers, retailers and liner companies deeply anxious about North America’s ports squeeze. He applauds the UBC students’ goods-movement proposals, but insists we should go even further: Prince Rupert could, and should, handle four times the container traffic.
Stalk argues that by focusing on local roads, the federal and provincial governments have shown they don’t understand the scope of the ports challenge. “These roads are going to add one- or two-per-cent capacity. It’s an insignificant contribution. It’s nothing,” he says in exasperation. “And the variable cost of moving freight by rail is one-tenth of the cost of moving it by truck.
“What we need are brand new ports and brand new railroads.”
The students who gathered at UBC that December day were no starry-eyed tree-huggers. Their passions seemed reserved for systems, for computer modeling, for the mathematics of policy. Though none of these have proven particularly potent in the last few decades of provincial megaproject politics, the students were optimistic that the minister of transportation could be compelled to take his eye off the road for a moment and consider his options, especially at a time when so many stakeholders are keen to talk.
“Now’s the time to consider these solutions,” said Giles a few weeks later. “It will be many years before we get all levels of government back to the table.” (Federal Minister of International Trade and the Pacific Gateway, David Emerson – who is still dodging criticism over his crossing the floor to the Conservative Party in February – refused to be interviewed for this story. But the recent federal budget included $591 million for the Pacific Gateway initiative.)
The problem is complex. The options are many. The price tag of getting the Pacific Gateway solution wrong will run into the tens of billions of dollars. That much is clear to the folks who spend their lives thinking about transportation and land-use planning.
But here’s the problem with academia: Its members always underestimate the gulf between the nuanced world of ideas and the heated landscape of politics. Crossing that divide appears to be much harder than crossing the Fraser River on the Port Mann Bridge.
The aggravation of a driver facing an extended rush hour and the sheer obviousness of the most immediate solution – more lanes! – are more potent than 1,000 transportation studies. As he cruises off the Port Mann and into a westbound HOV lane, the MLA from Surrey-Cloverdale finally loosens his grip on the wheel. This drive has been no fun at all, and Falcon swears there will be no putting the brakes on his plan.
Unlatching the Gate
The Gateway Program may have been given the green light by Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon but, like the commuters it purports to be helping, it still has plenty of obstacles and wait times to clear before it can move forward.
The $3-billion program is divided into three main projects: the $400-million North Fraser Perimeter Road, which includes the $180-million Pitt River Bridge/Mary Hill Interchange; the $800-million South Fraser Perimeter Road; and the $1.5-billion Port Mann/Highway No. 1 project that includes the controversial twinning of the bridge (there is a program contingency of $300 million).
The public pre-design consultation of the Pitt River Bridge/Mary Hill Interchange section has been completed; the environment assessment is wrapping up. Procurement has now begun, with a request for qualifications. Pam Ryan, the Gateway Program’s director of program development, says design and construction of this section is anticipated to last from the end of 2006 through to 2009. The rest of the North Fraser Perimeter Road project is still in the planning stages, with no timeline currently set.
The first stage of pre-design consultation for the South Fraser Perimeter Road, which spans the south side of the Fraser River, has been completed, with the environmental assessment review planned for completion by the end of this year. Design and construction is expected to take place between 2007 and 2012.
Pre-design consultations for the contentious Port Mann/Highway No. 1 section wrapped up in May; a report will be posted on the Gateway Program website (gatewayprogram.bc.ca) in the coming months, with the environmental assessment to last from late this year until early next. Design and construction is planned from 2008 to 2013.