Minor edits to clean up some language issues…
This last Thursday, I attended the “Pattullo Bridge Business Dialogue” at the Fraser River Discovery Centre. I am not a business owner in New West, nor am I member of the Chamber, so I went to listen and learn. Or as some would call it, “document the atrocities”.
The event was well attended by representatives from both sides of the River. The NDP Transportation Critic (and MLA for Surrey Newton) Harry Bains was there, as were four New West City Councilors (Harper, McIntosh, McEvoy, and Puchmayr) and two Surrey Councilors (Linda Hepner and Barinder Rasode). I also noticed Paul Forseth there, but not the other two apparent contenders for Dawn Black’s job. None of these attendees was asked to comment or provide part of the dialogue, it seemed much like me, They were there to listen and learn.
The Panellists were Sany Zein, Director of Roads for TransLink and no stranger to community meetings in New Westminster; Jim Lowrie, the Director of Engineering for the City of New Westminster; Bernie Magnan, long-time Vancouver Board of Trade apparatchik and Transportation Panel member from the Lower Mainland Chambers of Commerce; and Paul Lee, who is a Transportation Manager from the City of Surrey.
Sany Zein essentially repeated the message we have seen sine the beginning of the “consultations” on the bridge a few months ago. There was little new here, including a few zombie topics (points that have been questioned in New West in the past, but keep coming back) like the interesting math equation “(50% more cars + 100% more trucks) / 50% more lanes = less congestion” or the assertion that TransLink is spending “millions of dollars a year” on maintaining the Pattullo.
If we were to summarize the Translink message it is this: These decisions have been made, so there is no point discussing it; which makes me wonder why they even bother wasting staff resources on attending these “dialogues”.
Jim Lowrie then presented a bit of info about New Westminster’s concerns regarding a 6-lane bridge, and the lack of consultation on the important points around bridge size and location. Mostly, he was repeating the information from the Open House the City held last month, while also outlining some of the public discourse in the City about the bridge. I even heard him (in his summary) suggest that TransLink first has to recognize that the problem they are trying to solve is an aging bridge (not sure where he got that idea!) and that once they identify their problem, they should come to New West to see what our problems with the existing bridge are, then go to Surrey and find out what their problems with the existing bridge are, then have discussions to address all of the problems at once: and that this dialogue should have started years ago. A very rational approach.
Paul Lee read a short, concise prepared statement, seemingly directly from the desk of Dianne “build-it-they-will-come” Watts. A few of the key points I managed to jot down: A well-functioned multimodal Bridge is a vital part of the transportation infrastructure required to service Surrey. A new 6-lane bridge must be directly connected to the SFPR, to minimize trucks on City Streets, and to provide access to local businesses.
Of course, the concern that Surrey has for trucks on their City Streets should sound rather hollow to people in New Westminster… as that is our exact point here.
Bernie Mangan repeatedly referred to New Westminster as a “transportation corridor”. He boldly suggested that once the SFPR, Pattullo, and NFPR are completed, the transportation network will be “complete”, and the $1.3 Billion lost annually to traffic congestion will finally be realized. He suggested that most of the 3000+ trucks a day crossing the Pattullo are delivering lettuce to New Westminster stores, and that new industrial land has to be South of the Fraser, while people live north of the Fraser, and without a 6-lane bridge in the middle of New Westminster, all will be lost. He also hated tolls, a they hurt business, and suggested if the bridge was tolled than the people South of the Fraser would carry too much burden for the cost of a bridge that would benefit the entire region.
It was painful to watch, and I would love to go through every one of his points and take them apart, but in the interest of brevity (ha!) lets look just at that last one. It made me think about the Quebec Student protests. Let us compare these two statements, and see if anyone agrees with both:
A: The Students in Quebec should pay for most of their education, because although all of society benefits from an educated workforce, the students themselves see the greatest benefits from the Schools.
B: The drivers South of the Fraser should pay for most of the Fraser-crossing bridges, because although all of society benefits from an integrated transportation network, the drivers South of Fraser see the greatest benefit from the bridges.
My impression, overall, is that this was not really a “dialogue” at all. It was TransLink presenting their plan, a representative from old-school business and one from Surrey presenting their opinion that the Pattullo Bridge is simply the most important transportation link for the future of Business in Surrey, and Jim Lowrie valiantly trying to get someone to acknowledge that perhaps New Westminster has an interest in this and perhaps meaningful consultation would be useful for the entire region?
During the brief Q&A session, there were no questions asked that challenged the plan, or the assumptions built into the assertion that a newer bigger bridge is needed now. It was clear from the beginning (the moderator brought it up several times) that this was a meeting for “business” to exchange ideas, that only “business questions” from “business people” would be accepted, and that anyone in the audience who did not own a business should just shut the fuck up. There is nothing inherently wrong with this (hey, it was their meeting- they paid for the coffee and cookies), but what is the point of calling it a “Dialogue” when it is just everyone sitting in a circle talking about how much they agree?
At least twice, it was clear Surrey came to town to tell New West what’s what. Mr. Lee mentioned more than once that the only thing more vitally important than a new 6-lane bridge is that trucks not infiltrate local Surrey roads and negatively impact the liveability of Surrey neighbourhoods (and yes, he said this with no apparent irony).
Probably the most pointed question was “How does New Westminster expect Surrey to businesses to operate without this vital link?” – yet no-one from New West stood up and asked Surrey businesses the same question about how they will operate their businesses when their streets are choked by even more traffic? In fact, during the “Dialogue”, I did not hear a single comment from the New Westminster business community. I didn’t hear anyone from New West explain how this transportation link was vital to their business, or ask what the impacts to New Westminster businesses would be. Where were you, New Westminster Chamber?
When Mr. Zein suggests that increasing lanes 50% and increasing traffic 50% will result in less congestion, why did no-one ask him to square that circle?
When he suggested that “Millions of dollars a year” are being spent on Pattullo maintenance, why did no-one call on him to provide some evidence of that?
Was no-one in the room interested in anything but the old school orthodoxy that more cars = more customers = happier business?
All along, Chris Bryan’s column in the NewsLeader this week was fresh in my mind. This “dialogue” was a perfect example of the Old vs. New for New Westminster and the Business community. These guys sitting in their bubble with a myopic vision of the business world of the 1900s have no idea what is happening in the year 2012.
The problem is, at least they showed up and enjoyed their echo chamber. Where were the “New” New Westminster business community at this event: those who are moving to Downtown and filling up the River Market because of the increased liveability of our downtown and our transit access, those who attend NEXTNewWest events? But it was 10:00 on a Thursday morning, they were probably working.
With all due respect, old school, if the future of your business in New West relies on 400,000 people driving by your storefront every day, and 700 empty parking spots in the waterfront Parkade, then your future looks cloudy. And Chamber of Commerce: if your idea of Dialogue is to only talk to yourself and to ignore the voices of the rest of the community – of your own customers – then all of our futures are cloudy.
Unless the New Westminster business community grows some balls and gets involved here, we are going to end up being nothing more than Surrey’s “Transportation Corridor”.