Mayor’s Council, Jan 2023

Another busy week, this one featured a TransLink Mayor’s Council meeting, our third meeting of the term, but the first in-person meeting since inauguration. There was some good discussion, I thought I would share a bit. The first part of the meeting was a discussion of ridership returns, and how TransLink has adjusted the system through the slow recovery from COVID. There is good and news just OK news, but lots of reasons to be optimistic.

The just OK news is the headline that ridership is back up to 194 Million Annual journeys, which is about 82% of the pre-COVID peak, with bus journeys leading the comeback and West Coast Express lagging behind.

Source of all of these graphs is the Translink Mayor’s Council report here.

The good news is buried in the details. This recovery rate is by far the leader in North America, though we lag a bit behind most European systems. TransLink ridership in raw numbers is 5th highest of any metro region in North America, though we are the 24th largest service area by population. We have 60% more ridings than Seattle and Portland (our nearest cohorts in weather, demography, and size) combined. Metro Vancouver has more daily transit riders than the City of Chicago, which has three times our population.

Here in new west, our ridership recovery lags a bit behind the average at 77%, but we are still, at 28,000 journeys a day, one of the most transit-oriented neighbourhoods in the region.

A more interesting way to look at ridership is to put it in the context of the rapid ridership growth of the last decade. We are, essentially, back at 2014 ridership levels. In a sense, the current ridership levels harken back to the brief period post-olympics before we entered into that period of unsustainable crowding in the system. We are just starting to get to the point where crowding is starting to appear on some routes, tempered a bit by the noticeable change in travel patterns. Though we still have morning and afternoon “rush”, there is a lot more travel on weekends and offpeak times – reflecting reduced return-to-office ridership, and more service and recreational ridership.

One interesting aspect of this is the impact on monthly passes. Totally anecdotally (and indulging in my own bit of elite projection here) I hung up my compass wristband (which I used as a monthly pass) when COVID happened, and shifted to loading my compass card up and paying per ride. Clearly I was not alone here. This feeds into the discussion of revenue drivers for Translink, as farebox recovery has not been as fast as ridership recovery.

Which brings us to the financial situation. But I digress.

We then talked about the Ten Year Priorities for regional transportation. There has been much written about it, but this meeting Staff are seeking the Council’s endorsement of the plan which leans heavily on Rapid Bus (think 99 B-Lines in more locations) and BRT (which is something else entirely – but we will get deeper into that). They received it and endorsed it, unanimously, which is no mean feat around the Mayor’s Council table. We call come from different political backgrounds, 21 communities with different needs and priorities, but on this we speak as a united voice.

Two points of discussion raised in this plan, first related to the funding, second to the very idea of BRT.

This plan is not funded. It is natural that we need a unified and clear plan before we can seek the funding to achieve it, but endorsing the plan is not the end of the journey, only a rest point. We have work at the Federal and Provincial level, and in our own backyards, to secure a clear and predictable funding model to make this plan come to life. I am confident we will do it, as this plan is fundamental not just to the transportation plans of the region, but to the transportation, livability, affordability, and climate plans of the Province and the Country. As PoCo Mayor and Mayors Council Chair Brad West put forward at the meeting, this plan is not a “nice to have”, it is as necessary to the functioning of our region as our water, sewer, and electrical utilities. And we need to remember that as we work through the details of a funding plan.

The other conversation we need to have is about Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”). This is a form of rapid and reliable transit that is common in many jurisdictions, but pretty new in North America. It offers a functionality somewhere above a streetcar or B-line, not quite to the level of full grade-separated light rail, but in a sweet spot that fits our region very well, provides a lot of flexibility, and saves us a tonne of money over elevated rail.

The trade-off is that BRT can take space away from other traffic. Though way less intrusive than an elevated rail line, it still means either re-allocation of existing road space, or creation of new dedicated road space. It has the potential to be one of those new infrastructure directions that everyone wants near them, but not too near. It will be more apparent to drivers than a tunnel or overhead light rail line. There also needs to be careful interface planning between BRT routes and other road users, such as pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, and even areas where we want to see traffic calmed, like pedestrian-oriented commercial areas.

So we have some work to do, to educate the public about BRT, and to educate senior government about our need for consistent and reliable funding. The good news is that the plan is solid, and solidly supported by the leadership of the region.

Behind the scenes

Trying hard to get back to my post-election semi-promise to try to post here once a week; Alas it was an aspirational goal I will strive towards, but not there yet. Though it is a good time for a bit of an update not just on what I’ve been up to, but what New West Council has been up to. You may have noticed our meeting agendas have been a little light (excepting random Motions from Council, which are another issue altogether), and there is a good reason for this.

We have 4 new City Councillors, and I am new in my role. There has also been a lot of change in the City over the last couple of years as we pivoted quickly to a COVID response, and more recently and slowly pivoting away from that initial response – recognizing that everything has changed due to COVID while there are still community expectations that the work that was delayed by COVID must go on. Into this, we had seven people elected with wish lists of things they want to do, even with promises of what they were going to do. We are going to need to figure out what to prioritize, or nothing will get done. That prioritization and strategic planning can only occur (in my mind), if all 7 members have a clear, and as equal as possible, understanding of the landscape between where we are and where we want to go. So all that so say: we have been doing a *lot* of  Onboard Training. This emphasis is meant to assure the new Council members are up to speed enough to make informed decisions before we make any major changes.

We have had a number of Onboarding Meetings, basically every Monday and Wednesday since early November, a few hours at a time. Different departments present to Council on what they do – their current work plans, the things they are looking at for longer-term planning, their pressures and challenges and the opportunities they see in the short term and in the years ahead. Council was able to have some frank discussions with them about our ideas and concerns. If you want to watch one of these meetings, they are streamed live, and you can watch them here. For example, click on January 23rd on the calendar, and you can watch our discussion of the Anvil Centre, Building and Planning Permits and Fees, and Pay Parking policies. Yep, there is minutiae.

We have also had a few tours of City facilities and sites of interest in the City. Talking about whistle cessation or works yard space issues or the new təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre in the abstract is not as useful as going to the sites to look over the site so Council and Staff can actually point at the things we are discussing. Down at the bottom, Ill add some photos from our tours, and note these are going to continue for another couple of weeks as we build towards Strategic Planning in early February.

I have also been taking the opportunity as Mayor to meet with Staff where they work. Not the senior staff we see often in City Hall so much as the 1,000-odd folks who keep the City running day to day. It has been great to chat with them about what they do every day, and what their pressures and concerns are, in an informal way. These meetings are ongoing as well, as I have a few more sites to get to.

I’ve really appreciated the time regional leaders (new and experienced) have taken to meet and talk about our shared challenges and opportunities.

Meanwhile, I have had a chance to meet with many of my regional colleagues, some in person, some through phone calls or zoom. And I’ve had meetings with our local MLAs, and phone meetings with the new Premier, and several members of his new Caucus.

Then there is the onboarding I have been doing at Metro Vancouver and TransLink. The Chair of Metro Vancouver appoints regional leaders to various Committees, and I am on several, including Parks (we had our Inaugural meeting January 11), Climate Action (I chaired our inaugural meeting on January 13th), Liquid Waste (Inaugural meeting January 18th), and the Board (next Meeting January 27th), along with the Indigenous Relations Committee (Which doesn’t meet until February). The TransLink Mayor’s Council has had several onboarding meetings, and has another meeting January 26th, and I have been named to the Finance Committee, so that will be another monthly meeting. It’s a lot of meetings, and a *lot* of onboarding. So as I empathize with my new Council colleagues drinking from the firehose of info, I am feeling it myself at the regional level.

Metro Vancouver Board meetings are a bit complex, with 40 Board Members, a challenging meeting space, and a plethora of screens. Here was a part of my view during the Inaugural meeting.

The good news is that staff in both organizations have been great in getting us elected types the material we need so we can read ahead and be prepared for training, and Council has been working hard and asking lots of questions. This is time and energy well spent, as it will make us a stronger group of leaders for the community.

Now for the photo tour of some of our tour stops (so far):

We toured the Anvil Centre to see the behind the scenes parts of the Archives and museum collection, the performance and conference space.
The topic of train whistle cessation is one where the new Councillors especially benefitted from seeing the on-site challenges and the work staff has done to make it work downtown…
…while also recognizing the special challenges at Sapperton that mean it is still a work in progress.
We’ve now visited all three Firehalls – the good, the almost-as-good, and the ugly. Each has its own character and use, but one really needs to be replaced.
The new substation in Queensborough represents the single biggest investment we have ever made in the sustainability of our electrical grid. It is almost ready to get turned on, and is looking to come in a little under budget – no mean feat in this time of inflation and supply chain disruption.
Visiting the Queensborough Community Centre was highlighted by seeing how the satellite library branch meets the needs of that community through careful collection management and programs.
We had a long discussion with engineering staff about Queensborough drainage infrastructure, the importance of the pump system and open watercourses, how the system is maintained, and some of the engineering challenges that come with ongoing upgrades to the system.
We toured the refreshed and renewing Massey Theatre to see how the MTS is making this into a new hub for teaching, experiencing, and engaging in the Arts.
And finally, today we got to tour the təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre, and I think most of Council was left agape at the scale of the project, as most of the framing is complete (except over the 50m lap pool). This is going to be a real game-changer for community space in New West come 2024.

This Happened (23.1)

Regular readers (Hi Mom!) might remember some of my earlier practice of talking up community events I go to and cool things happening in the City. I am going to try to get back into this practice, because there is a lot going on, and because I don’t have time to celebrate it all at the great length it probably deserves. I’m so grateful for all the people doing good things to bring the community together and celebrate New West. Here’s some good moments that happened so far in 2023:

Had a meeting with the one and only Cassius Khan to talk about his experiences as an artist and an arts supporter in New West. He also signed CDs (you can’t really sign a digital file!) for me and Councillor Campbell. As always, he was generous with his thoughts and ideas, and the most gracious person you could ever meet.
New West Firefighters had their annual Tree Chipping, event at City Hall to give folks an chance to recycle their dried out tree, and raise money (More than $5,000 this year!) for their Charitable Society. Every day, NWFF deliver heavy lifting with a smile!
I was able to do a tour of Douglas College, see some of the exciting changes at the New West campus, and talk about their proposed new academic and residence building. I also learned about their “Coat of Arms”, that was recently designed by Carrielynn Victor, an artist from S’olh Temexw who was able to blend traditional knowledge and language from this region into what is typically a very Colonial media.
I was at the Royal City Curling Club to give greetings from New Westminster to the Scottish contingent visiting Canada as part of the century-old tradition of the Strathcona Cup series of  friendlies between Scottish and Canadian club teams.
There is a new photography exhibit at the Anvil Centre Community Art Space on the third floor. These are photos and short essays on “What Housing Means to Me”, prepared by residents of the supportive housing lodge in Queensborough. This is a simple, but really thoughtful, exhibition you should check out!
There was also a near full house for the first evening of the Outside/In program at Anvil Centre, as the BC World Music Collective brought a diverse program of music from around the Americas (with a bit of Africa thrown in) that left everyone thinking on the way home: Who knew you could do that with a tambourine?
And of course, January 22nd was Lunar New Year, and there were a few events around the region, including a traditional big event at the Nikkei Centre featuring the Whos Who of Burnaby and New West, where I was honoured to be invited to Dot the Dragon’s Eye and enjoy the loud and boisterous dance. I also go to hang with these cool kids…
…and we were also invited to take part in a perhaps louder and more boisterous Dragon parade at the Starlight Casino, which really pulled out all of the stops to ring in the Year of the Rabbit. gōng xi fā cái!

Council – Jan 9, 2023

Happy New Year! We were back at Council on January 9th, with a fairly light agenda. We did however continue to have lengthy discussions at Council, this time peppered with selected quotes from this very blog. It is great to see that folks (even my new Council colleagues!) are still leaning into the legacy of my 10+ years of writing about local government and New Westminster, even if quotes are being pulled more for rhetorical purposes than to improve people’s understanding of how local government works. I guess you take the bad with the good!

We first moved the following items On Consent:

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: 660 Quayside Drive (Bosa Development) – Construction Activity
The Bosa project needs to close a piece of road to deliver large crane components to the site, which they want to do when it will cause the least traffic disruption, but it will mean trucks operating outside or regulated construction hours, so they need this exemption. Council said OK.

Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption Request: New Westminster Interceptor – Columbia Sewer Rehabilitation
The never ending sewer rehab work downtown needs to do a bit of night work to meet their timelines, and to allow then to do a bit of work that has to happen when sewer flows are low (at night). Council agreed to give then this exemption.

Funding Submission to the Provincial Community Emergency Preparedness Fund for Emergency Support Services
The City wants to upgrade some computer equipment related to tracking people who are displaced or evacuated as a result of an emergency, and to allow us to better coordinate with Emergency Management BC. Good news is there is a Provincial funding through the CEPF to pay for this, so we are asking for the $20k.

Heritage Designation (109 Third Avenue) Bylaw No. 8381, 2023 for First and Second Readings
The owner of this Queens Park home is requesting Heritage Designations to protect the home in perpetuity. That requires a Bylaw be approved and (by Provincial regulation) a Public Hearing. Council agreed to give the designation bylaw two readings to allow the scheduling of a Public Hearing.

The following item was Removed from Consent for discussion.

Council Appointments to Residents Associations
A few years ago, we decided to “Appoint” City Councillors to be designated contacts for Residents Associations so they have a single point of contact. Lucky we have 12 RAs and 6 Councillors, so two each. We don’t pick them, but staff make a recommendation based on Councillors not being the rep in the Neighbourhood where they live and that no Councillor be appointed to the same RA for more than one term. Read the list in the report, if you want to know your key contact.

Our Bylaw Readings included no Bylaws for Adoption this time around, so nothing to report there.

We then moved on to the Motions from Council:

Reducing the cost and time related to the development of new housing in New Westminster
BE IT RESOLVED that staff report back to Council by April 30, 2023 with a plan for the City of New Westminster to develop up to 15 standardized and pre-approved housing designs for implementation by December 31, 2023

This was, in my opinion, a populist idea that doesn’t solve an actual problem. That opinion was reinforced when I talked to people more knowledgeable than I am about building approval and design. This is not something builders, architects or developers are asking from us, as they recognize that every lot is unique – even in places like the West End where lots sizes are almost standard, the changes in grades, utility connection sites, grade and spoil conditions would mean a “universal” design simply would not remain universal. The building code would require a comprehensive review of any universal design the minute it was fit into a non-standard location, so there is no indication this would speed up processes.

We also just went through Council onboarding discussions where Policy Planning staff made it clear what their Council-directed priorities are in the upcoming year, and the number of thing they already don’t have capacity to move at the speed Council would like. Developing this plan on the timeline suggested would take a lot of policy planning work, which would mean taking staff away from those already-strained work plans to achieve higher-priority work (like our current infill density review, review of our inclusionary zoning policy, the Downtown Livability Strategy). We have a *lot* of ongoing housing policy based on our priorities set out in our Housing Needs Report, to divert resources to this without knowing if it even aligns with our priorities for housing is a bad idea.

That said, we have an Affordable Housing Task Force that can evaluate those priorities and work with staff to do some preliminary work to determine if this approach will even achieve any of the City’s expressed goals, so Council decided to refer this idea to that Task Force for further evaluation before we commit limited staff resources to developing it.

Supporting the need for a ‘Snow Summit’ in Metro Vancouver to review the impacts of recent climatic event
BE IT RESOLVED that Council request Mayor Johnstone, as our representative on Metro Vancouver, introduce a motion requesting a ‘Snow Summit’ be held as soon as possible to review and analyze the circumstances which led to a record level of traffic gridlock in our region on Tuesday, November 29th; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Anvil Center be offered as a possible venue for this summit which should include, at a minimum, representatives from the Ministry of Transportation, Metro Vancouver, BC Ambulance, TransLink, ICBC, Mainland
Contracting and senior officials from the various municipalities in our region that can speak on behalf of our first responders including fire and police.

The Snow Event of November was clearly unique, one not repeated with the major snow and ice event in December. I suspect the extra communication work we saw leading up to the December event by both the Minister of Transportation and the new Minister for Emergency Preparedness and learnings from the November event were part of why we did not have a similar event. As I mentioned in Council, Snow and Ice plans are constantly adapting here in the City and regionally. I don’t think we need an expensive get-together of politicians to make that process work better. Maybe a session at UBCM would help elected folks understand the processes and ask questions

However, it is important to note that Metro Vancouver’s mandate does not include transportation or snow removal. It would be weird to ask Metro to wade into an area so far out of their mandate when they have their own priorities. Metro is also not a body that typically advocates for transportation policy changes for local government, it is a Regional District, not and advocacy organization. That is the role of UBCM and its area associations. I also note that all of the agencies listed in this motion were well made aware of the call for a Snow Summit, and none seem to have expressed interest, and the Chair of Metro Vancouver (in his role as Mayor of Delta) has already opined extensively on the topic, so I see little value in raising his attention to the matter. Council voted to oppose it.

Delaying the demolition of the Centennial Community Center and beginning to address our city-wide infrastructure deficit
BE IT RESOLVED that the demolition of the Centennial Community Center be temporarily delayed and the building continue to operate in its current form until an equivalent capacity for new recreational facilities and meeting space can be identified and/or constructed in our city; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that staff report back to Council on the financial implications on the city’s operating budget related to delaying the Centennial Community Center demolition

During Council on-boarding, we took a tour around the Centennial Community Centre. It was clear from that tour that the building is at end of life. If it was to continue to operate, it would require significant structural and operational upgrades to address hazardous building material and seismic code. It is a very inefficient building that challenges our Energy and Emissions plan, it is nowhere near meeting modern accessibility standards, and even its layout and function no longer suits what is needed in New Westminster for recreation programming.

This is why the decision was made to remove the building and not just replace its capacity – but provide double its capacity for recreation programming and community meeting space in the new təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre, which will be universally accessible and the first Zero-Carbon Aquatic and Recreation center of its kind in Canada – allowing the City to meet its corporate climate goals for 2030. It also meant we needed to fit the new TACC on a very constrained site, which requires the removal of the CCC for road access, for mechanical back-end service access to TACC, and to expand open and green space on around the building.

The idea of keeping this building meets none of the City’s goals, and again solves no actual problem, while generating unknown costs. To suggest keeping a building that is past its useful life, will need significant upgrades and repairs to keep functional, and does not fill a required need will somehow reduce our infrastructure deficit is to fundamentally not understand what the term “Infrastructure Deficit” means in the Asset Management and Municipal Finance dictionary of terms. Council did not support this motion.

Quantifying the downloading of costs from senior orders of government as it pertains to the City of New Westminster 2023 operating budget
BE IT RESOLVED that staff report back to Council, as part of the 2023 Budget development process, with an itemized list of expenditures [and Senior Government revenues] the City of New Westminster has incorporated into the draft operating and capital budgets which are typically considered outside of municipal jurisdiction and are not part of our ‘core services’

The key term here is in ‘scare quotes’. That’s not a good idea when writing a resolution you want Council to endorse; hanging direction on unclear definitions will bring unexpected results. This was also a motion that brought a Delegate with an advanced degree in Philosophy to discuss the ethics of even asking this question, which was one of the most intriguing public delegations I have heard in my 8 years on Council. But all that aside…

This motion hopes to duplicate work done in Vancouver a few years ago that was celebrated by austerity hawks in local media and largely ignored by everyone else. The problem is that no-one can agree on what is “typical”, what is considered “core service”, or even who gets to make that determination. The Constitution is silent on the role of Municipalities, and our empowering legislation (the Local Government Act and the Community Charter) really avoid the topic. Nowhere is it written that operating a skating rink (for example) is a “core local government service”, but many do it. So if we are going to undergo this type of exercise, it is going to involve first a conversation (which will no doubt have a political aspect) on what *we* deem ‘core service’. Or more pointedly, what we don’t. Notably, the mover was asked a few times to provide an example of a non-core service the City provides, and chose not to do so.

Anyhow, the motion was amended to remove the 2023 budget timeline (as this conversation about what constitutes core service will take some time, and the 2023 budget timeline and work plan is already established by staff), and to add an evaluation about what senior government funding we receive to support our programs (as the numerator here needs a denominator). I’m not convinced the end result number will be a useful as the mover hopes, but am interested in Council having this conversation. Council approved the amended motion.

And that was an evening’s work at Council. We have another two weeks of Council Onboarding, then a Strategic Planning session, then deep into 2023 Budget work. The next couple of months are going to be busy for our new Councillors. Try not to spook them.