ASK PAT: Begbie redux

Sleepless asks—

Hi Pat,

I asked a question about train whistle cessation last year, which you answered on November 25, 2015. See: .

It is now six months after I asked, and four months into the new year, and the trains are still whistling away merrily downtown. In fact, the amount of whistling appears to have increased since the Front Street reconstruction project started.

I just noticed an update on the CNW web site (, stating that: “formal application
for whistle cessation may need to be delayed until the Front Street upgrade is complete in August”. That is an additional eight month delay on a project that has already been delayed for almost two years!

In your previous reply, you stated that you are starting to question how the City sets timelines, and I couldn’t agree more. Why does every project undertaken by the city get delayed by months or years? Isn’t it time to have a long, hard look at the city’s planning processes and investigate why they keep failing to deliver projects on time?

Actually, since that conversation I have had some discussions with people in our engineering department regarding transportation projects and timelines, and I am slightly more sympathetic towards their challenges. Especially in regards to some areas where I have a specific interest: active transportation, transit, and accessibility issues. I don’t want to get into details here, but there are some resource issues internally, and some of the priority shifts that the new Council and the new MTP are demanding mean we need to spend a bit more time steering ship and little less time motoring ahead… the ship of government steers slowly, I’m afraid.

That said, many projects are moving ahead in a very timely manner. The Parkade east-refurbishment / west-removal project is pretty much on schedule despite a few early hiccups, and the Mews work is similarly looking like it will be completed reasonably close to on time, and on budget. Moody Park playgrounds, numerous smaller transportation projects, and policy work around Heritage Protection and the Tree Bylaw, things that are less visible but very staff intensive, were completed in a very timely manner. I wish I could say the same about the Begbie Crossing.

However, the Begbie Crossing work, along with the other whistle cessation projects, is not completely under the control of the City. The rail companies are replacing the rails, the level crossing treatment and the controls. They operate on their own schedule based on their own needs. Council commonly gets updates from Staff, and I am confident that we are doing everything in our power to get this project completed. I still hope the Begbie work will be completed by August.

However, you do raise the bigger question – why does it seem that projects always take longer than expected, not less time?

First off – and I don’t think this is unique to New West, but has become the default in our crazy busy hyper-competitive construction market – is a general industry trend towards overpromising and underperforming . Remember, most of this work is not being done by City crews anymore, the majority of it is contracted out. With many things on the go, it is hard to oversee every aspect of an operation – careful management of the Critical Path takes resources, which brings us to a problem more about New West.

We are a City of 66,000 people, relatively small in the great scheme of things. However, our expectations are the same as those for the residents of the larger cities that surround us. We have lots of things on the go right now, and a relatively small staff managing them.

I think some of this falls on Council, as we often create new initiatives before we see the existing initiatives completed. In my short time on council, there has been not just a “yes we can” ethos, but a “Yes we should!” ethos. Setting priorities is sometimes difficult, but never as difficult as slotting something new into an existing set of priorities is. If you look at our recently-completed Annual Report, you can see that we have set a clear set of priorities, which should help both staff and Council better coordinate our desires, which (in theory) should help us hit more deadlines. So I have taken to asking staff, when new initiatives come along, how they fit into our existing strategies, to assure we are not putting last week’s priority aside to address this week’s.

Which circles me back to the first point – I’m not sure we are doing that bad a job. Whistle cessation is definitely lagging behind, for many reasons outside of our control. The 4th Street Elevator is a notable timeline fiasco, and there is a great story to be told about contractor vs. designer vs. inspectors on that one. However, there are many other capital works, from road repairs to sewer and other utility work, that is coming in on time. We had a recent report to Council from SRY about the Whistle Cessation progress, on Queesnborough and Quayside, and it looks good.

I’m sorry the project that is having the biggest effect on your day-to-day (or more night-to-night) life is so stuck in purgatory. All I can do is continue to ask staff where we are with the timeline, and reinforce that this is a priority for the City and for Council. I hope you can get a good night sleep soon!

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