On Kyoto (the Block, not the Accord)

I have a real love-hate thing going on with the Planning Department in New Westminster. Well, “hate” is too strong a word; let’s call it love-like somewhat less.

During the recent election, I noted the incredible progress the City has made over the last decade. The Downtown, 12 Street, Sapperton, the waterfront trails in Queensborough: there is a lot of great stuff going on. During the election, I mostly gave the kudos to the politicians running the place, but equal (or greater?) credit has to go to the planners in the City who help bring the visions of multiple parties (developers, council, neighbourhoods, third party stakeholders, rabble-rousers) together into what will hopefully be the best possible compromise to move the City forward.

The revitalization of the Downtown is ongoing and already showing significant dividends. As I mentioned last year, the building of the MUCF at 8th and Columbia will be an important piece in this puzzle, as will the opening of the retail spaces at the New Westminster Station, the date of which was just announced. However, I remain highly critical of how the pedestrian experience of this keystone entrance to our new Downtown is being managed. Today, the City will officially decide to shut down the 8th Street crosswalk that is so heavily used (and would continue to be used as the preferable pedestrian route to the MUCF), its timing not exactly coincident with the building of alternative routes, but with the need to accommodate a staging area for the Santa Claus Parade. Alas.

What concerns me more, though, is that the City is finally making public announcements about what has been rumoured for the last year or two: they want someone to build a hotel on the Kyoto block, the recently-demolished set of buildings on the north-west corner of 8th and Columbia, immediately adjacent the entrance escalator to the New Westminster Station.

Potentially sticking another big pedestrian roadblock at the entrance to our downtown, and turning over what could be a precious piece of public open space – one that belongs to the City – into another high-rise development.

Back when I was winging about how the MUCF essentially turned it’s back on 8th Street and the Skytrain Station, my main complaint was one of potential lost opportunity. With Plaza 88 bringing people into New Westminster to go to the new theatres, there is a great opportunity to draw those people onto Columbia for the new eating, drinking and shopping opportunities that are being developed there. Tying these to the River Market via an upgraded pedestrian overpass behind Hyack square would be a bonus.

Now that 8th Street will be inevitably lost as pedestrian space, the question remains how we will draw people to Columbia Street. The answer seems to be down a shadowy narrow escalator, past a couple of loading bays in the shadow of big buildings. We can do better.

Imagine Kyoto Plaza (actually imagine a better name, but stay with me here…), an 6000-square foot open space across Columbia Street from similar-sized Hyack Square. To the west is the concrete wall of the Plaza 88 Theatres, adorned with green and/or water features, and cut by a curving, pedestrian ramp carrying people down from the New West Station concourse, giving them a grand view of the streetscape below and to the east. In the centre of the plaza sloping up to the ramp are planters, seating areas, maybe even a fountain, to compliment the architecture of Hyack Square across the street. The intersection of 8th and Columbia will be wide, and slightly elevated, perhaps in the “pedestrian scramble” design, to link together open spaces north and south, and to provide a visual entrance to Columbia Street for cars approaching from the east.

Let’s give people a reason to step out of Plaza 88, and at first look towards Columbia Street, then go down there and spend some money. Let’s give the office workers and visitors of the new MUCF an open space to sit, soak up sun, eat lunch. Let’s give people walking from other neighbourhoods, people arriving by car or by Skytrain a place to meet up before going for a drink, for dinner, or for a movie.

Let people’s first impression of the Royal City when they get off the SkyTrain be of an open, happening, safe and comfortable place with lots to offer, instead of a dark tunnel-like walking route past parking garage entrances and high-rises.

Come to think of it, we can even support the Downtown BIA’s never-satiated hunger for more parking by providing 3 floors of underground parking, similar to the MUCF, and add 150 spots to the downtown inventory (or maybe 200 if we link to the MUCF using the area under 8th Street), while still keeping the ground level as human, pedestrian space.

I have nothing against hotels, and recognize it is an asset the City could use more of. I doubt whether this is the best space for it. There are lots of 6500-square foot footprints in downtown where an interested business can stick a boutique hotel, there are very few open spaces that are in the possession of the City and serve as the entrance to our Downtown for visitors arriving by car and by transit, and as a link between our main shopping street, our eponymous Transit Centre, and our Waterfront Market. We have an opportunity to alleviate the unfortunate loss of pedestrian space around the MUCF with some visionary planning right now, and benefit the entire downtown retail area with some creative land use decisions here. Let’s not lose this second chance.

C’mon Planning Department, Make me love you again…

Place holder post while I get some things done

It seems I am slacking on the posting, so we’ll do a quick catch-up.

I am actually trying to put a post out regularly at my other Blog, seeing as how we had a short but reportable vacation the weekend before last, and it was travel blogging that got me into this entire blog thing in the first place.

The big news around these bits is, of course, the Election. On the 19th, I hung out at City Hall with the 10th to the Fraser brain trust, and it was fun to watch the results come in while a couple fo them tweeted, and we all shared general hilarity at the absurdity of our own presumed predictive skills (although the room was remarkably bereft of beer). When the advance poll came in, only 1,400 or so votes, and the Mayor had a lead of 66% to James Crosty’s 29%, I did a bit of mental math and said: “It’s over”. I’ve taken just enough statistics to be dangerous, and recognized that, assuming there wasn’t something wildly skewing the data, a 30-point lead from 10% of the votes is statistically significant. Even the early results from Council were pretty close to the end result. It was only the School board numbers that shifted towards the end, with Mortensen and Goring trading spaces “on the bubble” for most of the night.

Overall, I am satisfied with the results. I am happy Mayor Wright will get one more term, and hope he will bow out gracefully and pass the torch in three years. I am ecstatic that Jonathan Cote and Jaimie McEvoy got so many votes, and have solidified themselves as the real leaders of this Council Chamber. Of the “Old Guard”: Betty, Lorrie and Bill are all hard workers with their hearts in the right place, even if I disagree with where their heads are sometimes! I think Chuck will add some vigor to the board, will always be good for a quote, and will be able to develop the City’s relationships with senior governments (especially after the upcoming Provincial election).

On the School Board, I am equally happy to have two new and very bright lights (Dave and Jonina) leading the polls. After having a few conversations with her, I am sure Mary Ann Mortensen will more than make up for the sparks created by Lori Watt; they may not be sharing the same space on the political spectrum, but they seem to share similar approaches to a political discussion.

So enough with the politics, back to the peaceful and orderly operation of the City. Master Transportation Plan anyone?

Oh, and back to the subject of beer at City Council meetings. Let me solemnly declare I am for it. A keg in the lobby, sell $4 drafts, much better than watching on TV at home. That is the kind of revenue-generating activity I can get behind.

It’s all over but the voting

I was tossed up about doing “endorsements” this election. There are three kinds of people who read this blog: one third people who agree with me (and therefore are probably going to vote for the same people as me anyway), one third who hate me (and who will probably not be voting for anyone I support anyway), and my Mom (who can’t vote in New West). So I don’t think anyone’s political fate is in my hands. That said, in my work with several not-for-profits, I need to work with whomever is elected, so I don’t want to step on too many toes here. There are a couple of candidates I support strongly and publicly, so I may as well explain why.

The funny part with Municipal elections is that you can vote for many people, but you probably shouldn’t. If you fill the top of your ballot with people you like, then just fill the bottom with random names to fill space, you may actually push one of those random people over the top, potentially pushing one of your favourites out of a seat. So the best strategy is to pick the candidates you like, only vote for them, and keep the rest of your ballot blank. I suspect I will only be voting for 4 or 5 councillors, and maybe 5 school trustees. Most of my picks will remain between me and the ballot box, with these exceptions:

Jonathan Cote is, to me, the model of an excellent City Councillor. I have served on a committee that he chairs, and he has a remarkable ability to make a committee work. He keeps the conversation flowing while staying on track, lets everyone be heard, and then very effrctively condenses the mood of the committee into simple and actionable ideas and items. There is an art and a skill to running a meeting, and he is a skilled artist at it. He has also been one of the easiest Councillors to approach and have an in-depth discussion with over any of a range of topics.

I also had the opportunity to go door-knocking with Jonathan this election, and was astonished to hear his breadth of knowledge of topics that people raised. He also demonstrated that he actually listened to people. At times an issue would come up at one door, and he would say “yes, I agree, the City should look at that”, and it sounds to the cynic like political platitude to get a vote. However, 10 minutes and 4 doors later, we would be walking on the sidewalk and Jonathan would raise that topic, and say “that point they raised back there, is actually a complicated subject, it isn’t black and white…” or “I wonder how Calgary is so successful at managing that issue…”, showing that he had been thinking about the issue in the back of his mind since we left the door- and was already considering how to move forward with it. He didn’t just listen he heard, and he stored the memory.

Jonathan is smart, dedicated, and hardworking, He has demonstrated a genuine desire to learn the craft of running a City (taking time from his already-crazy life to take Graduate courses at SFU in Urban Planning). He has a positive vision for the future of the City, and he cares about getting there so he can raise his young family in the best City possible. I’m also pretty invested in New West, and I want someone who is thinking long-term running the place. I wish I could vote for Jonathan twice.

When I first met Jaimie McEvoy through the NWEP, I wasn’t sure what to think. I remember voting for him last election because of his environmental cred, but didn’t know much more about him. Since he was elected, though, I have interacted with him a lot, and have been pleasantly surprised by his knowledge of the City, his ideas about public policy, and his passion about all three pillars of sustainability. He provided a ton of useful advice during the UBE consultations, and that was where he first demonstrated to me his political savvy. During this election, he is one of the few candidates I have seen take task with another candidate (one he was not even running against!) when he felt the other was not being truthful. He didn’t call him out during the debate, but he approached him after with very few of us in earshot and tore a strip off the candidate in a quiet voice. He was respectful, but spoke with a real passion about honesty. It is inspirational to hear him speak about social justice issues in the City, especially the Living Wage policy. I even read his book, and the guy can actually write!

Jaimie is progressive, passionate, and actually cares about building community, and I am proud to support him.

Here are the reasons I am supporting Wayne Wright for Mayor.

The best answer is I look at the City now compared to how it was in the year 2000, and I can’t help but admit it is a much friendlier, cleaner, safer, and more prosperous community. The growth has been reasonable and generally positive; there are more businesses opening up; and there are areas of Sapperton, Downtown, and 12th Street that are vastly different places now than 9 years ago… all changes in the positive direction. Of course there are both external and internal reasons for these changes, but ultimately, Wayne has been the guy steering the ship, and I like the route the ship is on.

This does not mean I agree with every move he has made, or every position he holds. I think WTE is the wrong direction to go for our City and for our region, and I think he will need to be a strong voice in the City against moving in that direction. When the UBE issue first arose, I thought his initial reaction of surprise at how concerned his citizens were about the project was disappointing, as were his complaints that no-one had done anything about Front Street Traffic for 10 years (not noting that he was the one who probably should have been doing something). That said, now that the NFPR is all but dead, the moves the City is making to return the waterfront to space useable by the citizens of New Westminster (as opposed to the victim of short-term patchwork solutions to other City’s bad planning) is a positive step, and indeed visionary.

In my experience, Wayne has been accessible, honest, and respectful with his dealings with the residents, with developers, and with our regional partners. He is a consensus-builder who is respected by his council partners, by the City staff, and by his regional partners, and that is important if we want to get things done. Also, when push comes to shove, he has demonstrated that he is not unwilling to challenge the “regional consensus”, and will take our regional partners to task if the people of New Westminster tell him that is what we want. In the end, these are the characteristics of a good Mayor.

If I had any criticism of his campaign, it is that the whole affair seemed too passive. He spoke very well at the All Candidates events I have seen, but I would have liked to have seen him take a more aggressive approach towards some of the criticism sent towards him and his council partners. I think most of the criticism of him has been disingenuous or just plain inaccurate, and I kind of which he had taken that on a little stronger. Perhaps he felt it more important to stay above the muck and keep on the positive, so he ran on a record to be proud of and his ability to work with others. I am just afraid his low-key campaign coupled with the very aggressive, populist campaign he is up against will result in an election very similar to Langley Township on 2008. And we all know how well that turned out.

Which brings us to the subject of James Crosty.

I consider James a friend, and think that his heart is in the right place. He has worked hard for many years to build community in New Westminster, and his contributions to this City deserve respect. When his Astroturf organization was collecting signatures at the Quayside Festival, I signed the petition, but I put a note beside my signature: “I want you to run, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for you!” I told him personally that he was going to have to earn my vote.

Unfortunately, he has not done that. He has had a few gaffes in the campaign, and I don’t want to go there, because those happen to those brave enough to take risks. My problem is more in the lack of concrete ideas about ways to improve the City, and the few ideas I did hear were, IMHO, bonkers (McBride tunnel?!). Even more than that, the tone of the discussion from his side was a negative one. From the beginning, he has been combative and vocally critical of the present Mayor and administration, suggesting everything from gross mismanagement to fiscal dishonesty, with very little evidence or demonstration of alternatives. His promotion company has been Tweeting a constant stream of criticism of the Mayor that got pretty tired pretty early. Then, when anyone suggests the James might be negative, his ideas might be off the mark, or presents countering evidence to one of his claims, instead of addressing the criticism honestly and openly, he has tended to deal with these things with an attitude I have heard described as “passive-aggressive”. Having challenged him a few times myself, I know where that description comes from.

His listening exercises (Citizen Chats) were a good idea, but I saw little evidence that he learned anything at those meetings. His latest ads list a series of issues for each neighbourhood, but no solutions, no context to them, and they were mostly things that he raised early in the campaign. James and I talked transportation several times, but I don’t think he understood what I was saying, or just couldn’t address it in the scope of his campaign. In the end, I did not see, during the campaign, an example of someone with the ability to develop workable solutions, make council work effectively, get the best out of City Staff, or to protect the City’s interests amongst regional partners while finding consensus with them.

So I hope Wayne is re-elected this time, because I like the path we are on, and I’m not convinced a change at this time is needed. I hope James keeps playing his important role in the community. I also hope he spends the next three years reviewing what went right and wrong in his campaign, and continues to engage in real two-way dialogue with some of the innovative thinkers in this City (we have a lot of them!). From that will come a set of compelling ideas for moving the City forward, the foundation for building consensus, and a platform of positive changes.

Then in 2014, James can give Chuck Puchmayr a real challenge for the Mayor’s chair. Boy, will that be a fun race to watch!

Back on the Campaign Trail…

I was away for a few days, and in the days of modern social media and election madness, you skip out for a few days to catch a movie or go on a vacation, you miss a lot!

I think this article is interesting. As a purveyor of local social media (although my twitterability is hampered by my inability to say anything in under 600 words, never mind 140 characters), I am curious to see how the Candidates in this years’ elections have taken to social media, and I really wonder if it matters.

I see the three “stars” of using social media this year are Jonina Campbell, Dave Phelan, and (of course) James Crosty. All three of them are challengers, so they face the tougher task of making their names familiar – and I think they have all succeeded.

James Crosty, especially, has personally (and through his business, STC Creatives) –correction, apparently STC creatives is not a business owned by Mr. Crosty, been tweeting, Facebooking, and constantly updating his web presence through the campaign (and for months in advance, setting a solid foundation for what was coming). Even people I know who dislike his message, and are critical of the slightly…uh…irregular website layout and editing options that seem to have been made are admitting that he has been successful at putting his message out on all media available to him.

The second question is more compelling to me – what does it really mean for a Municipal Election in New West? For those of us connected to the on-line world of New Westminster, it seems obvious that a good write-up on 10th to the Fraser is Gold. But then when I talk to people at the Curling club, or people in the service industries I interact with, or random neighbours, I’m amazed that many don’t know who 10th to the Fraser are! (hopefully, If I keep linking to 10th to the Fraser, some magic Google algorithm will be triggered and more people will find out, as it really is the City’s best net presence by far).

I suspect the solid base of New Westminster old-schoolers who keep Bob Osterman and Lorrie Williams and Betty McIntosh re-elected just are not looking on-line for their election information (That said, Betty is turning out to be a prolific and excellent Tweeter!). I suspect as the high rises go up and fill out, as the population swells from 60,000 to 80,000 people, and as more of those people are on-line collecting more of their information form new media and social networks than ads in the Leader and Record, the on-line presence will matter. I’m not sure we are there yet.

So all this on-line debate might be a bunch of ado about very little. When I think of effective campaigning in a small town like New Westminster, I think of Jonathan Cote blowing out his knee and wearing through a pair of shoes to knock on 3000+ doors in the City and actually meet people one-on one and asking them for their vote personally. That way he can listen to people, not just talk at them. This is also why I think James Crosty will win and lose votes based on his “Citizen Chats” more than on his website presence, misspellings and malapropisms and all…

That said, what is with all of these recent, completely anonymous web sites cropping up to support one position or another? Some random group claiming to be local Liberals have a place for extended press releases, but don’t seem to have much to say, with two long posts in September, then stunning silence. There is some group called “Royal City Air” who seem to hate incinerators and curb bulges equally. There is a one-page web presence called “Quayside Chat” which offers and exchange of ideas, but other than a single veiled anti-Crosty tirade, and has no links or comments or anything that would constitute “exchange” of ideas. As Ms. Myers points out in he follow-up blog post, too much of the social media is just plain anti-social.

Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout Review – Part 3

Sorry to be so slow, but life is really busy right now. We are in the middle of an election campaign, there were some family emergencies, and work has been crazy busy. On top of my evening blogging schedule, I haven’t had a lot of free time to read. Oh, to be bored for a change!

Once we got past some of the painful introductory materials, the book gains some steam as Dr. Moore outlines his storied career as a Greenpeace organizer and campaigner. The short versions is that these guys were “Type-A” with a seemingly complete lack of common sense. They thought nothing of buying an old fish boat, spending a few weeks (or months) patching the holes and getting the motor running, and sailing out in the Pacific Ocean! They dodged weather and ran directly towards trouble with the US Coast Guard, the Soviet Union, the French Navy, and Japanese whaling ships. The rented helicopters and, with a paucity of planning, flew out onto ice floes in the Atlantic to film seal hunters.

At the time, they created in Greenpeace a heroic mythos though very careful collection and distribution of pictures and film. Dr. Moore outlines how co-founder Bob Hunter developed the idea of the “Mindbomb” – that perfect combination of images and words that the media (and the media consumer) could not resist putting on the front page – a phenomenon the New Media calls “going viral”.

In essence, Greenpeace did not sail to Amchitka to stop a nuclear test, they went there to create a Mindbomb that would shift the public conversation so that more people took the idea of banning nuclear testing seriously. They didn’t race around the Russian Whaling Fleet in zodiacs to save any actual whales (in fact their efforts were clearly fruitless), they did it to create the images of a bunch of heroes racing around in big seas challenging the Great Soviet Fleet to get the pictures in the newspaper and bring light to the plight of the world’s cetaceans. Dr. Moore didn’t sit on a baby seal in Labrador to stop it from getting clubbed, he did it to get photographed being arrested for assaulting a seal, when he was the only thing between that cute little bastard getting clubbed and skinned.

I found one interesting link behind all of the campaigns Dr. Moore took part in during those early days of Greenpeace. None of them are really about environmental sustainability as we think about it today. Besides his first trip to Amchitka to call attention to nuclear testing, all of his campaigns were centred around animal rights.

Although the entire anti-whaling campaign was around protecting several species of whales that had been hunted to the brink of extinction, Dr. Moore does not talk at all about this as a sustainability issue (as we talk about shark finning or the Bluefin Tuna fishery today), he talks about the majesty of the beasts, the intelligence of the animals, and the cruelty of hunting them.

“There is no way to kill a whale in a humane manner. Among the tens of whales we witnessed being harpooned over the years, most died slowly, spouting blood and gasping desperately” [pg. 70]

” With two Zodiacs and a rough sea we tried desperately to shield the whales during the next two hours as they were gunned down one after the other. The crew watched from the deck of the James Bay as blood filled the sea around us, whales screaming and writhing in agony until all was quiet… It was a gruesome scene and ironically it worked very much in our favour.” [pg. 94]

The anti-sealing campaign was more of the same, much about saving these cute fuzzy animals, with no discussion at all about whether the hunt was sustainable, economically important, socially significant. Greenpeace flew in movie stars to create “mind bombs” in the defence of defenceless (and cute) animals. Greenpeace of 1975 is not like SPEC of 2010, it is like PETA of 2011.

Notably, this was all before the Bruntland Report, and therefore before the modern concepts of environmental sustainability had really been developed, so the ideas were not well known outside of rather obscure schools of development and economics. Suggestions of future resource depletion were usually brushed aside by claims of people being too “Malthusian” or not having enough respect for engineering (see discussion of Ehrlich vs. Borlaug in this very book, pp.56-57).

This brings us to 1984 -1986 – the Second Act in Dr. Moore’s story – when he began stepping away from Greenpeace. This was a tumultuous time, with him raising a family, getting a real job, and the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. But it was also the time that Greenpeace began to campaign for sustainable development in industries that were close to Dr. Moore’s roots and his family. After all, he was the son of a rain forest logger who was setting up one of the first salmon farms on the west coast.

He claims it was the Greenpeace initiative to “Ban Chlorine” that was the final straw, as he thought it wasn’t science based thinking. Problem is, no-one in Greenpeace seems to recall them saying they want to ban all chlorine from the planet. Greenpeace did take a strong stand then (and still do now) on the spilling of organochlorines related to paper bleaching, and the use of toxic chlorine-based substances when non-chlorine-based substitutes are available. That has extended to the modern practice of using PVC in places where environmentally-less damaging alternatives are practical. Considering how much of my time I spend at my work dealing with contaminated sites featuring hard-to manage carcinogenic, mutagenic and acutely toxic chlorinated solvents organochlorines, I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask questions about whether the money we save over using the less toxic alternatives is really money saved at all.

Or maybe Greenpeace was just using the idea of “banning chlorine” as a “Mindbomb” to get a few headlines and point the media to the real issues of chlorine in our environment. “Ban Chlorine” and “Devil Element” are much more compelling than “Organochlorides in our environment increase cancers and impact marine wildlife”. It is telling that Dr. Moore’s biggest conflict when he left Greenpeace is the guy who invented the “Mindbomb”. Dr. Moore himself admits there was no way he could save the seal pup he sat on, but he wanted to be filmed losing that fight – Mindbombs were rarely science-based.

It seems the nuance of this argument is lost to Dr. Moore, as he again dismissively waves away any concerns about the chlorine industry or the hazards of organochlorines by creating this long-winded false dichotomy argument and telling us that chlorine is the 11th most abundant element on Earth and table salt is 2/3rds chlorine, so how can that be bad?

On page 142 he goes off on a diatribe about the wonders of chlorine that includes a huge strawman argument (“[long list of potentially toxic metals]…all have important uses in health, technology, energy production and lighting”); a non-sequitor (“we have been bombarded into thinking lead is deadly, yet many of us drive around with 30 pounds of it in the battery of our cars.”); rank hyperbole (“chlorine is the most important element for public health”); the naturalistic fallacy (“Even herbal medicine is partly based on using plants that contain chemicals that are toxic”); and a long false dichotomy I won’t bore you with here. He even decries that although he was the lone scientist in the discussion, none of the other Greenpeace crew respected his scientific prowess. He follows this by describing Renate Kroesa (who, being a chemist, would qualify as a scientist to most of us) as “fanatical”. Page 142 is one of those pages of this book that I have marginal-marked the hell out of in red ink. It is just a bad argument, poorly supported, and it leads us into the wonders of his approach to fish farming, but I will blog about that in a later post.

Dr. Moore says he is proud of his work at Greenpeace, proud enough to engage in a bit of hyperbole:

“We got many things right in the early years of the movement: We stopped the Bomb, saved the whales, and ended toxic discharge into water and air.” [Pg.141]

Um, last time I checked we still have nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation is an increasing risk in the world; whales still face serious threats from habitat loss and pollution, and are still being actively hunted by several nations; and toxic discharges in to the air and water seem to continue world wide.

However, I am not going to take away from Dr. Moore the achievements of Greenpeace during his time there. He took a rag-tag groups of hippies on a fishboat and spun it into a multi-million dollar international organization that spoke truth to power on many fronts, often powered by little more than a string and a prayer. From reading his accounts of those early years, there were more than enough internal and external forces that could have torn it apart, and too many strong personalities and personal agendas (Paul Watson, anyone?). It should not have lasted, but pretty much everything we know in 2011 about the environmental movement, the good parts and the bad, can be traced back to the early efforts of Dr. Moore and Greenpeace.

Without him, I imagine this blog would have a different name!

The transportation Election?

I don’t think anyone other than TransLink wasted more bits of information or wrote more column-inches of text on the UBE process than I did. For those with short memories, the issue to me was very clear: why waste >$150 million on an overpass to take traffic pressure off of Coquitlam at the expense of putting more traffic pressure on New Westminster and serious disruption of the lives of hundreds of Sapperton residents. Simply put: it just wasn’t on. The people spoke, the City and TransLink listened.

Now, for some bizarre reason, one of the candidates for Mayor wants to re-open the issue. I can’t believe I have to write this post.

During this election, there are many candidates complaining about traffic, even the current Chair of the Traffic Committee outlined a long list of traffic woes in the City, suggesting somebody has to do something (without acknowledging that for the last 3 years, that somebody was him). Lots of complaints, not too many ideas. The only thing worse than no ideas are really bad ideas.

So desperate for new ideas are we that the biggest cheer at the Queens Park Residents Association All-Candidates gaggle ‘ n’ weep went to outsider Mayoral Candidate Francois Nantel, for suggesting his first priority as Mayor would be to remove the offending sidewalk bulge at 6th and Royal so he can beat the queue when trying to turn up the hill. This was, unfortunately, an example of how common sense is usually wrong.

The prospective mayor apparently didn’t realize that bulge serves at least three purposes:

1) It makes the crossing of Royal Ave easier for pedestrians. It is a high-traffic street and it is very wide (4 travel lanes, 2 parking lanes, plus a significant island/boulevard). Pedestrians crossing that street, especially those with mobility issues, need a lot of time to cross that much space. By shortening their distance, we make it safer and more comfortable for pedestrians, and it allows us to shorten the amount of time the red light is lit for the crossing traffic, allowing more traffic to flow through the intersection.

2) It narrows the road with a safe obstacle, which serves to slow traffic so it runs closer to the speed limit. Wide, open roads equal fast speeds. By introducing highly visible narrowing of the road, the perception of speed increases, ,and traffic slows down. This is why you fell comfortable going 50kmh over the speed limit coming down the hill from Gaglardi Way (a road with a 60km/h speed limit built for 100km/h), yet rarely find yourself speeding through the Deas tunnel. Royal is wide and open and looks like it can accommodate 80km/h traffic, but has a speed limit of 50km/h. The bump helps keep the traffic down to 70km/h.

3) The bump stops rat runners. Those people who get off of arterial routes like Royal and bomb through Queens Park and the Brow of the hill and the west End, using our neighbourhood streets to commute through. When traffic is backed up on Royal, they are looking for any escape route. If they can pass a line of 8 cars and turn right up 6th, they will take the next opportunity to turn left: Queens, Third, Fourth, any street to get them back to Stewardson. If they have to wait until the line of cars in front of them has cleared the intersection, they are way more likely to just go straight through and remain on the arterial route.

So sorry you have to wait an extra 30 seconds to turn up 6th in rush hour, Francois, but rest assured, there are good reasons for it. Thanks for pointing out one of the difficulties of designing traffic systems: everyone hates when their access to open road space is fettered, and everyone hates when everyone else’s access to road space close to where they live is unfettered.

Even fraught with all of those details, this idea is pretty minor compared to the Grand Plan 4 McBride outlined by Mayoral Challenger James Crosty. According to an expansive profile in the Record today,

“he’s already working with some Burnaby councillors who want discussions about the Stormont connector reopened and wants to talk to Coquitlam about the United Boulevard extension.”

I remember James as an early proponent of the “T-option” for the UBE, one that the people of Sapperton would simply not accept, was more expensive that the other options, and was of questionable value for “getting traffic moving” as it included a set of lights and 90-degree turn on a major truck route. Mostly, TransLink could not convince the people of New Westminster that adding more lanes to our border without addressing the traffic needs of New Westminster was not something New Westminster was going to accept. Despite all of the boo-birds saying it was a done deal and that the current Council had signed secret deals, etc.; in the end, Council listened to the people, took a principled stand, and stood up against the pressure form the senior and neighbouring governments. The death of the UBE was a major success for this Council.

I cannot fathom why Crosty wants to bring the UBE back now. He was at some of the consultation meetings; according to his own selective memory, he led the charge against the UBE (a dubious claim; His role was once described to me by a Sapperton friend as “waiting around to see which way the crowd was going, then rushing to the front just when we arrived, to provide the illusion he was leading all the way”). However, suggesting we open that can of worms, and topping it with opening a bigger can of Stormont Connector worms, suggests to me he did not learn from the UBE consultation process at all.


reference: this is a copy and paste from Citizen Chat, Volume 1, Issue 1. Which may contian an unreferenced image from TransLink.

? ?? Mr. Crosty’s campaign newspaper has, as the centre piece of his Transportation Policy, this statement:

“People will always seek the fastest way from Point A to Point B. I would resolve to focus on the replacement of the Patullo [sic] Bridge. This would connect with a proposed covered thoroughfare which is currently McBride Avenue [sic]. The newly enclosed highway will emerge at the new Stormont Connector, taking vehicles straight into Burnaby and access to Hhy. #1.”

OK, first off, I agree with the first statement; In fact that is what I have been saying all along. The problem is, people want to solve the infrastructure capacity and livability problem of 400,000 vehicles per day passing through New Westminster right now by making New West the fastest point between points A and B. How does that not just make more people use New West as a drive-thru?

The natural corollary is that people will avoid the slowest route between Points A and B. With the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Highway 1 Expansion: doesn’t that mean we can avoid increasing to our traffic woes just by being the only route without a freeway?

I’ve heard Mr. Crosty suggest the Cut’n’Cover McBride Avenue Boulevard idea before, and he has never been able to answer several questions for me. Primarily, who is currently lining up to spend the > $1 Billion it would cost to build a 2-km long, 4- or 6-lane covered roadway through a fully built-up community? Cut ‘n’ Cover often sounds cheap ‘n’ easy, but it is very far from that. Engineering a 5-m-deep trench over 2km is a major feat, involving the moving a freaky amount of fill, managing significant groundwater flow, and moving 100 years worth of sewer, water, gas, and communication utility infrastructure. Remember, this will need to be at least three times as wide as the Canada Line project on Cambie, with much more significant safety and escape structures, allowing that there will be cars in it and not sealed trains. Just expropriating enough land to build a couple of interchanges at 6th and/or 10th would be horrendously expensive. The idea boggles the mind. And just like Cassiar and Deas Tunnels, no placarded trucks would be allowed, so it would be of dubious value as a Truck Route.

McBride is part of the Major Road Network so I guess it would be up to TransLink to build and operate it, except of course, TransLink couldn’t scrape together enough money to build the order-of-magnitude less expensive UBE. I think TransLink has bigger regional priorities than relieving traffic on McBride Blvd right now.

Then there is the question of what the problem is this tunnel is meant to solve. The Billion Dollar Tunnel will connect the non-existent Stormont Connector to an unknown, potentially tolled, Pattullo bridge. I’m glad Mr. Crosty is talking to Burnaby Council Candidates, because I just don’t see Mayor Corrigan ploughing down a hundred homes and a kilometre of forest, disrupting the lives of thousands of East Burnaby residents, just to relieve New Westminster of a little traffic. Corrigan went nuts over the Hwy 1 Expansion and voted against funding the Evergreen… I don’t imagine his is willing to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required to make it easier for Surreyites to get to Highway 1. But hey, maybe I’m being negative.

If we accept that transportation (with it’s ugly little brother traffic) is the biggest issue in the Election. I think Jonathan Cote (who actually understands the municipal role in sustainable transportation planning) and Chuck Puchmayr (who provided the most logical answer to transportation questions at the recent all-candidates event) have made the strongest cases for election.

Time to stop tolling the poor

Just to prove I am an equal-opportunity critic, I want to relate a conversation I had with Bill Harper, Incumbent and Candidate for Council. Bill is from the other end of the political spectrum than James Crosty and John Ashdown, in that old-fashioned Labour/Left v. Business/Right way of looking at politics.

At the Queens Park Residents Association all-candidates slap ‘n’ giggle, Harper came out strongly against tolling any future the Pattullo bridge replacement. Although he only had 30 seconds to talk on the topic, the argument (if you afford me the right to paraphrase) is that tolls take us towards a regime where only the rich can use a bridge, and the poor are excluded from using it.

In the glad-handing session after the debate, I commented to Bill that we are going to have to agree to disagree on the tolls issue, and to his credit, he looked me right in the eye and said “Why?” In the ensuing discussion, Bill linked tolls on the bridge to the Smart Meter program and the introduction of water meters. His opposition stems from the ideological point that pay-as-you-go benefits the rich and is punitive to the poor: “That is BC Liberal Policy, and I don’t agree”.

I strongly disagree with Bill on this point.

One of the first principles of responsible resource management is that the user pays for the amount of that resource they use. A fisherman who removes 10 tonnes of salmon from the Fraser River cannot pay the same licensing fee for that resource extraction as a person catching a single salmon. A company logging 500 Hectares of forest cannot pay the same stumpage fee as a company logging a single hectare.

This goes the same for resources that we are delivered through our utility systems. Persons should be (and are) charged for electricity use per Kw/h. It is not only fundamentally fair, it encourages responsible use of the resource, provides economic incentive to taking measures to reduce use, it is the first step in managing the resource responsibly. The same goes for our water and garbage utilities: it angers me to no end that I pay the same to toss away my once-every-month-half-full garbage bin as the guy next door who overloads his bin every week: the City pays per tonne to pick up and get rid of the stuff, they should be charging us per tonne to remove it. I am subsidizing the guy who is being wasteful with a limited resource.

Municipal water may be the worst example of this. As a region, we spend more than $200 Million every year to collect, treat, and pump almost 400 Million cubic metres of water to customers who, in the summer months, use almost half of that water to keep their lawns green. There is no built-in incentive to reduce this usage unless the use is metered, and with our population expanding, the capital cost of expanding our system is going to push those costs up. The fundamental question of fairness is why are the poor living on small lots or in apartments subsidizing the expansive green lawns of the rich?

Now, in the old-school socialist mindset, everything I wrote above is bullocks, because the poor have the same right to water and electricity as the rich, and if we treat it like a commodity, they will have to go without. The problem is, the cost of providing that utility will mean they have to go without unless we get a handle on the cost of providing it!

If we are going to build a socially, economic, and environmentally sustainable community, the first step is to get a handle on our resource use. Fundamentally, that will need to rely on pay-as-you-go for utilities like water, electricity, and solid waste. I would throw transportation infrastructure into that pile.

If we are concerned about the cost of access being too high for the poorest in society, then we need to develop programs to see that they are provided reasonable access at affordable rates. Frankly, the street homeless don’t care how a utility charges landowners for their water. If there are working poor and pensioners who are finding themselves in a difficult position paying their water bill, we need programs to help with that (such as the City’s existing program to provide utility rate discounts to seniors living alone). What will not help these people is basing their annual water bill on their neighbour’s decision to keep their 1-acre of grass out front mossy green during the hottest summer drought.

The Tragedy of the Commons is not a solution to affordability.

Back to Bridges

One point of tolling the bridge is to bring the cost of using one piece of infrastructure into line with the cost using the alternatives. I pay a toll every time I get on a Skytrain. I pay an extra toll every time I take a bus over a bridge (as that represents a Zone Change, with the attached surcharge). If TransLink is going to be given the task of managing the region’s transportation system, bridges, major road networks, and transit, then the toll to use that service should be equal. I need to pay $3.75 to ride one station from Columbia Street to King George, I don’t see why drivers should pay less to go that distance because they can afford a car.

However, the more pressing reason to have this discussion in New Westminster is Transportation Demand Management. We learned from the Golden Ears Bridge that people will drive a long way to avoid a toll, even irrationally far, because we undervalue their time and the cost of the gas in our tanks (even as we complain about the price – the cognitive dissonance of the common driver is amazing – and I put myself in that same category when I am driving!). When the New Gordon Campbell Port Mann Bridge costs $4 to cross, and the Pattullo is free: a higher proportion of people are going to take the cheap route around, and New Westminster’s traffic will worsen, creating more incentive to erode our land base with more lanes choked with traffic, and keeping the unsustainable cycle going.

I’ll blog more about the #1 issue in New Westminster (according to most Council candidates) in a few days

Pledging to stop Property Taxes – apparently easier than stopping them.

This story made me laugh. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is asking Mayoral and Council Candidates to commit to not increasing property taxes at a rate higher than inflation without either a referendum (yeah, there’s a fiscal plan), or Council pay cuts.

Not surprisingly, few incumbents are signing it, because they know the reality of municipal budgeting, and how tax increases are being forced upon them by agents well beyond their control, like aging infrastructure and senior government downloading. They understand that “no new taxes” is a silly pledge to make, as costs are rising, and the demands for services and amenities only goes up.

I especially laughed because of the guy behind the campaign: new CTF campaign manager BC Director, Jordan Bateman.

If that name is familiar, he not only worked on several BC Liberal campaigns for Provincial Lord of the Sith, Darth Colemen. He was also, until very recently, a Municipal Councillor for the Township of Langley!

So is this a simple case of another BC Liberal insider telling people to “do as I say, not as I do”? How depressingly predicatble.

Reading the “pledge” that the CTF wants candidates to sign, there is little doubt of where they stand:

“I will not vote to raise property taxes beyond the provincial rate of inflation (unless I get approval from taxpayers in a referendum)—and will diligently try to get increases lower than that”

“I will support the introduction of a Taxpayer Protection Bylaw… that financially punishes any mayor and council for raising taxes above the rate of inflation with a one?year, 15% pay cut.”

A few years before asking future Councillors to make this pledge, here is what Councillor Bateman said during his 2008 campaign for re-election when asked if he would support tax increases :

“I am committed to keeping taxes as low as possible. But we also owe it to Langley’s children to build the infrastructure that will keep them safe and healthy and to improve public safety….we must balance both the present and future needs of the Township.”

To me, that sounds like a much more nuanced and realistic approach to municipal taxation, and one that is similar to Wayne Wright’s comments at the Queens Park Residents Association meeting: (I paraphrase):“It’s easy to cut taxes, just tell me what services you want cut!”

However, Councillor Bateman’s comments were in the heat of the campaign. Let’s judge him instead on his actual record as one of Langley’s most popular City Councillors:

2008: he voted for a 5.0% Property Tax increase (more than twice the annual inflation rate for BC of 2.1%).

2009: he voted for (and vociferously supported over some vocal opposition from the new Mayor) a 5% increase (significantly more than the BC inflation rate of 0.0% in that recession year).

2010: he supported a 4.95% increase, (more than twice the annual inflation rate of 1.3%).

2011: just before jumping ship to join the paid staff of the CTF, Bateman voted for another 3.95% tax increase.

(Data on inflation rates is available here)

No problem, he couldn’t keep within the CTF guidelines because of extenuating circumstances – 4 years of extenuating circumstances, apparently – so did he face the punishment of the taxpayers for not managing the City’s finances more responsibly, and volunteer a 15% pay cut as suggested by the CTF? You know the question is rhetorical. The sad reality is that he voted for a 55% increase in Council members’ pay in 2009.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that taxes are too high or too low, or that councillors get too much pay or not enough. I am just pointing out the hypocrisy of the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation’s entire “pledge or hedge” program.

Elections and Taxes and Salaries – Correction?

So, enjoying the election so far?

It has become slightly less comfortable for me since writing this post last week. I am fairly non-partisan, in that I vote for candidates, not parties. No sooner do you post a blog looking deeper at the facts being provided by some candidates, and the suggestion of bias comes out.

As an aside, this blog has a market saturation of about 0.01% of eligible voters in New West (my Mom lives in the Kootenays, otherwise it might be 0.011%), so I can’t imagine my criticism is something a candidate should be all that worried about. Secondly, I call myself non-partisan, I never said I wasn’t biased. I work for a city, when someone drags out the “Lazy Muni Employee” trope, I respond. I even declared my bias at the beginning of that post. Notably, I have provided financial and/or logistical help to three council candidates and one mayoral candidate so far this election, and as things stand, it looks like I will vote for about half of those 4. I even have biases within my own biases! Democracy is great.

Back to the topic in question: both of the Candidates I mentioned have taken me to task for the article I linked to above, as I took them to task for (to Quote Mr. Crosty’s campaign literature):

“…over 78% of out taxes are used to pay wages, benefits, and consulting fees”

(and, by implication, our City Staff is lazy, overpaid, and bankrupting the taxpayers of the City).

Demonstrating that, as I previously claimed, I am not a genius at financial statements, one of the Candidates provided me a link to this report prepared by the City which provides the info much more clearly (and, I assume, more accurately,) than my post on the subject. It was pointed out to me that I should look at I should look at Page 8 of the report, where one can find the line:

”…the City’s major cost is salaries and benefits, representing approximately 78% of the total general operating budget.”

I have to admit, this number is way better than the numbers I tried to parse out of the Annual Financial Statements, and it is stated so eloquently, so I guess I owe the Candidates an apology.

Sort of.

Problem is, 78% of the General Operating Budget is not the same thing as 78% of Taxes. Not even close.

The 78% for 2010 number comes from $60M in salaries paid out of the General Operating Fund of $77M. But the General Operating Fund is the money used for day-to-day operations of the City (See Appendix 1 of the Report). The fund from which they pay for office supplies, insurance, incidentals, and yes, salaries. It is not the fund used for Capital Works for the City (like building the Pier Park, or replacing a boiler or City Hall, or sidewalk repairs). Nor does it include any of the Utility operations or capital: the water pipes, sewers, and trash collection that is so much of what the City does.

Things also not included in the General Operating Fund budget: buying and maintaining the vehicle fleet, painting yellow lines on roads, Fire and Police equipment, the Master Transportation Plan, Christmas Lighting, Rail Crossing upgrades, paving projects, the Mercer Stadium Track replacement, street light or street sign upgrades, and the list goes on…

The budget for all of these “Capital costs” was about $65 Million in 2010. And much of that is paid with your taxes.

Then there are utility operations: Electrical, Sewer, Water, and Solid Waste. These are operated on a strict fee-for-service basis: so those who get the service are those who pay for it, and all the money paid for them goes right back into operating the utility. If memory serves me right, this is a strict requirement in the Local Government Act. Utilities cannot be used as cash cows to fund other programs. The only relationship this has to your taxes is that some money is transferred from the Utilities to the General Operating Fund in order to pay the salaries of the people who operate and maintain those utilities but are otherwise paid out of the General Operating Fund.

Interesting to consider that if we reduced salaries, we would need to reduce the General Operation Fund by the same amount of money. If we reduced salaries from $60M to $45M (a 25% cut, sure to cause chaos in any organization), then we would have to also reduce the General Operating Fund by $15M, so the statistic provided by the Candidates would then say “72% goes to taxes!”: not much of an improvement for decimating your City services.

Sorry guys, I stand by my original post as being a much more accurate picture of the relationship of taxes and salaries than “78% of our taxes go to salaries”.