– Our transportation mess is a major roadblock

Vancouver Sun

By Bob Ransford

All talk and no action: Our transportation mess is a major roadblock to affordable residency

Provincial and municipal government discord costs us all

One of the keys to making housing more affordable is transportation.

The cost of housing in communities with a robust range of transportation choices, especially with well-developed public transit systems, is generally lower.

You can concentrate more people in one area if they can move about efficiently without the need for roads and parking, which consume both land and the dollars to build them. Higher density means more efficient land use and a lower cost of housing on a per-home basis.

A second cost-saving comes from being able to avoid or decrease dependency on a car.

Owning and operating a car is an expensive undertaking.

Good transportation planning and good land-use planning go hand in hand. One can’t be achieved without the other.

We are seeing the results of a clear disconnect between land-use planning and transportation planning in Metro Vancouver in the form of our high costs of housing.

In my last column, I talked about the less-than-impressive track record of the provincial government in walking the walk when it comes to all of its talk about wanting to lower the cost of housing and bringing home ownership within reach of our children. The government’s failure to ensure that transportation planning and land-use planning are integrated in Metro Vancouver is another example of all talk and no action on the affordable housing front.

In fact, the Campbell Liberals widened the gap between land-use planning and transportation planning through deliberate neglect and reckless interference in both areas.

The current laws that govern municipalities and manage growth have proved inadequate in promoting smart growth.

Municipalities have no clear growth targets in areas where growth and density should be concentrated.

For example, the City of Vancouver is at least two years away from planning for the kind of redevelopment that might achieve density around the new Canada Line transit stations, which have now been open for a month. If and when higher density growth is planned around those stations, there is no mechanism to ensure that the political process doesn’t block development opportunities.

The current law governing growth management in metropolitan regions in B.C. has proved toothless. Enforcing the broad allocation of land use through community and regional plans on a consensus basis has failed. The Liberal government hasn’t shown any appetite to change those laws.

Urban transportation planning has fared even worse under the Campbell Liberals.

They have washed their hands of playing a coordinating role in major public transit improvement projects. TransLink is on its own to both plan and fund transportation infrastructure in Metro Vancouver.

The Liberals created the Council of Mayors; its members are scared sleepless of the political ramifications of using their severely limited taxing power to raise adequate taxpayer dollars to fund the continued development and operation of an integrated urban transportation network in Metro Vancouver. As the local mayors bob and weave, avoiding the hard decisions, an unaccountable board made up of provincial appointees scrambles to keep the existing public transit system alive.

The premier wasn’t afraid to grab headlines with an announcement a couple of years ago of an ambitious plan to expand public rapid transit when he was being roundly criticized for building expensive auto-dependent transportation infrastructure such as a new Port Mann Bridge, while at the same time portraying himself as the patron saint of sustainability.

That announcement, lacking most of the funding it required, now seems long forgotten while the premier and his colleagues continue to refuse to delegate a broader taxing authority to those on whom they have downloaded the responsibility for the expensive but necessary improvements to the public transit network.

Regional transportation commissioner Martin Crilley referred to this lack of provincial-regional coordination in his recent public report when he labelled the gulf that exists between provincial and regional transportation planning and financing “a hazard.”

Meanwhile, the same provincial government that is one minute washing its hands of the problem and the next meddling in the issue up to its neck, continues to dictate the kind of technology that is deployed in building the transit network, pushing up the cost per kilometre of building much-needed rapid transit expansion projects.

Compare the cost of SkyTrain versus at-grade trams systems. The estimated costs of extending the Millennium SkyTrain line with a subway along Broadway toward the University of B.C. is about $233 million per kilometre. The costs for new at-grade tram technology chosen by cities such as Portland and Washington, D.C., is around $16 million per kilometre.

The Campbell Liberals chose the more costly SkyTrain technology for the development of the on-again, off-again planned Evergreen rapid transit line to serve Metro Vancouver’s northeast sector. Going with this technology is a condition of securing the yet-to-be-committed provincial contribution to fund the project.

Commissioner Crilley pointed in his recent report to his concern about the lack of freedom on the part of TransLink to select “its own optimum rapid transit configuration.”

It makes you wonder whether the provincial government even thinks about connecting the dots between the cost of housing and the disconnect between land use and transportation planning.

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Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with CounterPoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues.

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