January 26, 2015

Pete McMartin on the Port Mann Bridge, and what we really need

Pete McMartin critiques the PMB in The Sun:


Port Mann Bridge: It’s better at racking up debt than carrying commuters


Oops. Another shiny new tolled multibillion-dollar bridge, another fiduciary horror story. The twinned Port Mann is better at racking up debt than traffic. …

Not only are traffic numbers headed in the wrong direction, so is the Port Mann’s indebtedness. The Transportation Investment Corp., the Crown corporation responsible for the bridge’s construction, is projecting a debt of $3.61 billion. That single, singular sum is equivalent to 48 per cent of Trans Link’s entire panoply of transit initiatives that Metro Vancouverites will consider in the upcoming plebiscite.

(Plus a quote from the post I did here.)

There are some instructive lessons here to be learned. Some of them can be applied to the plebiscite, which, as I have stated repeatedly, I support. These are:

1. Stuff costs money. Making life easier for cars especially costs money. That’s why the bridge was tolled. But drivers still expect a free ride, as if driving a car was somehow different than any other public utility. Those days are over, or soon will be.

2. We need a comprehensive plan, not stopgap measures like the Port Mann. Tolling, of the pick-and-choose variety we have here in Metro Vancouver, does not work. A more comprehensive strategy, like universal road-pricing, will come eventually, but not in the immediate future.

3. Comprehensive road-pricing is, at the very least, a decade out, and probably more because of the reluctance of our provincial government to embrace it, and because of the costs of megaprojects like the Port Mann, which have to be recovered. That takes time.

4. In the meantime, the Trans Link plan is the best alternative to get us from here to there — that, or we can face growing gridlock as our population explodes in the Metro area. To vote no out of anger with the Trans Link executive or on the misinformed notion that there’s nothing in it for your part of the city or because British Columbians are taxed to death (we aren’t) will only end up costing taxpayers more, not less.

5. The entire predicament we are in, transit-wise, has been engineered by the provincial government, although it likes to pretend it’s had nothing to do with it. It wrested local control of Trans Link away from the municipalities and installed the present governance model; it insisted upon a plebiscite before O King the Trans Link plan; it set the terms of the plebiscite and set the ridiculously short time limit for Metro mayors to come up with a comprehensive 10-year plan; it restricted the forms of revenue production Trans Link could use to fund its plan, refusing to consider road-pricing or other forms of revenue that trespassed on its bottom line; it has refused to campaign for the plan so as to distance itself from a popular tax revolt, à la the HST.

Meanwhile, our premier wants her bridge built to replace the Massey tunnel, without going to plebiscite because, well, she can. Cost? A rumoured $3 billion. Reasoning? Purportedly, to relieve traffic congestion, though, incidentally of course, a bridge will do away with that pesky tunnel, which, once gone, will allow deep-draught oceangoing freighters and tankers up the river for the first time, which will lead to the industrialization of the lower Fraser, which is quite the coincidence, don’t you think? Where will all that uncontested traffic go once it hits the Oak Street Bridge? Good question.

Will it be tolled? Without doubt, since one study showed — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — an untolled bridge would attract too many commuters looking for a free ride.

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  1. Port Mann is too big for today’s traffic but not that of 2030 or beyond. Once Patullo bridge is built and tolled traffic will increase on Port Mann. South Fraser Perimeter Road will be too small in 10 years once Massey Bridge is in and Patullo. Then they will call Port Mann Bridge visionary and SFPR poor planning with all the industrial and housing growth south of the Fraser.

    A rail link on Port Mann would have been really visionary, too.

    1. You’re stuck in the past, Thomas.

      Haven’t you noticed that all the projections showing ever-increasing traffic have been wrong?

      1. Actually I am a realist who knows that jobs need investments . Yes we need more transit but as a major exporter of goods and the only harbour of size on the pacific coast MetroVan needs rail, road and truck corridors . E-bikes are nice but won’t move goods.

        Income in MetroVan are below Canada’s average because road and transit investments were too low for 20+ years just now catching up.

        Yes PM bridge is overengineered for today but will be ok in 10-20 years ( unclear indeed why no rail link on it, so yes, poor planning )

        Also: not everyone wants to live in dense cities. Some prefer less dense living in Delta, Richmond, Surrey , Langley etc

        Take a drive to the SilverCity movie theatre in S Richmond, for example. A very busy place. 99% car use to get there. Why is it there: because land is cheap. Why do people like me, and tens of thousands of others go there ? It is cheap, it is spacious … Far more spacious than the similar movie theatre downtown on Burrard. Very tight seats . Congested. Not everyone likes congestion or to sit on buses. People prefer cars for a reason. As such city planners have to accommodate that, too.

        Buses are not the answer to transit. Subways are.

        NDP voters use buses. That is probably the #1 reason for the Liberal imposed referendum. Liberal voters prefer cars and subways.

        As stated , once Patullo is on and tolled, and once Massey Bridge is in and SFPR is congested they will call bridge visionary and SFPR undersized and will look for expensive expansion options for all the truck traffic. Mark my words.

        1. Your spacious utopia sounds great, but it ignores several factors.
          Land, time, health, external costs/impacts, etc… Your silvercity movie plex is a good example of the wastefulness you seem to promote. Vast parking lots in the middle of nowhere, on the flood plain, sits empty all day, filled on weekends, maybe the odd week night.

          Sure, it’s cheap in the immediate selfish here and now, but at what cost?

          1. I am not promoting it. I am just stating what is. We need infrastructure for people & goods movement in a variety of forms: sidewalks, bike path, truck lanes, bridges, tunnels, roads .. ALL OF THE ABOVE ! As such the referendum was a mistake as we need transit investment. But we also need more roads/bridges/tunnels in a growing regions with harbours !

            And yes, car use is far too cheap as mentioned here several times. I’d gladly pay $5 or even $10 to drive to that movie theatre, and with that, they could widen roads/tunnels/bridges AND build more subways/rail links.

        2. Thomas Beyer wrote: “Yes we need more transit but as a major exporter of goods and the only harbour of size on the pacific coast MetroVan needs rail, road and truck corridors .”

          “Goods movement” is the mantra of road boosters, but we already have far more than enough road capacity to move goods. The issue isn’t a lack of roads, it’s all those single-occupancy vehicles that are clogging them up. We can more effectively expedite the movement of goods by providing and motivating those SOV users to choose different forms of transportation.

          1. Then toll them. If one wants less of sth one needs to charge more. Road capacity in MetroVan is NOT adequate in many areas, for example New West, portions of Surrey, in N Van, across to north shore, etc.

            Hwy 1 widening should have happened in the 1980’s .. when I lived here in the 1980’s there were still traffic lights in n Van and W Van on Hwy 1 ! Hwy 1 east of Langley is still too narrow .. and Hwy 1 to Alberta still not twinned all the way. Massey six or eight lane bridge: good move, but a decade or two too late, but at least coming. SFPR: already too narrow.

            Canada Line: already undersized, 4 years in.

            Where are the three subway plans to UBC: along 4th, along Broadway and continuing looping back via 41st ? How about a train to White Rock or Tsawwassen ? If the car cost $20 toll one way then people would use it. Park and Ride is the way to go.

            Transit across MetroVan is indeed poorly funded and still poorly planned. More buses will not get folks out of their cars. Only far far higher car use costs and faster alternatives that don’t wobble and are congested and stop at traffic lights like buses.

    2. By 2030 we will have autonomous motor vehicles which will be able to run close together. Road capacity will be so big that the Port Mann Bridge (and most roads for that matter) will look empty all the time. People will be amazed at how foolish we were to waste so many $billions on useless bridges and freeways.

      1. Unlikely. The legal complexities are too vast. Look at Uber. It exists and has been around a few years. By the time cities adopt their by-laws it will be 2025 for widespread use.

        Look at the internet, basically an invention from the 1960’s. Email was just starting in the 1990’s and web browsing 2000’s, and smart phone after 2010 or so .. 50 years later !

        More like 2050 .. or even later as you have to allow for existing cars to function, i.e. cars built today.

        Never forget the human factor, the union factor and the municipal aspect. This will take a long LONG time to fully implement.

        btw: London had its first subway 1863. And we are still debating if one makes sense on Broadway .. 150 years later !

  2. This is a bit off topic, but in the comments on that article I did a calculation for how much non-drivers are already paying for free parking when they shop.

    About 1% of the price of consumer goods bought at bricks & mortar stores is to pay for parking lots outside the shops. People are against a .5% bump to the PST for transit (and roads), but they area *already* paying twice that much for parking alone in what is effectively a sales tax.

    My 1% figure is based on 8.5% of retailer costs going to rent (source: BDC), and 10% of total development costs going to parking (source: Victoria Transport Policy Institute). That gives .85%, but high land prices increase the number. With the high land prices in Greater Vancouver, 1% is probably conservative.


    1. Great example for your point is the Safeway on 10th and Sasamat. The tax bill (for the land, the building is essentially worthless) is $1m per year. The physical store occupies 17% of the land, another 20% is taken up by green space in the back and the remaining 63$ is taking up by parking. Of course the $630,000 a year Safeway is paying in taxes for the parking lot portion (sadly TransLink does not tax the parking subsidy the store gives to drivers) is of course dwarfed by the opportunity cost for the 7500m^2 of asphalt assessed at over $5000 per square metre. Financing the opportunity cost is roughly $1,000,000 per year, the average Safeway store generates about $30,000,000 in revenue per year. That store hopefully generates more than average, but parking will eat up a significant portion of that. And all that ‘free’ parking is payed for by all shoppers, no matter how they get there.

      1. Good example. Tax on the parking area would work out to 2% of revenue. Adding maintenance would make the rate even higher.

        I recall that TransLink did float the concept of taxing all parking lots in the region, but only managed to get a 21% tax on pay parking – most of which is in downtown Vancouver.

      2. Safeway is one of the most expensive grocery stores to begin with.

        Shop at No Frills – much, much cheaper prices – and they still have free parking too.

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