OPINION: CRD must push province to fund rapid bus instead of expanding highways
New climate action policy sets important precedent for other regions
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New climate action policy sets important precedent for other regions
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On Wednesday, July 14, the Capital Regional District (CRD) board unanimously approved a groundbreaking new policy on transportation prioritization in the region. It means Greater Victoria’s regional district is prepared to advocate for transportation investments that contribute to meeting regional sustainable transportation, affordability, and greenhouse gas reduction targets. If the CRD follows through, the region could see hundreds of millions of provincial and federal dollars invested in electric rapid bus lines, cycling routes, and sidewalks. We could also get climate pollution from transportation trending down rather than up, and make the region healthier and more affordable.
The Transportation Priorities Implementation Strategies report rates rapid bus, general transit improvements and active transportation (walking, rolling and cycling) very highly. It also rates “Multi-Modal and Safe Highways” highly, which could be interpreted as a justification for the CRD to go along with continued provincial highway expansion, given the vague wording. However, Mayor Lisa Helps of Victoria and Salt Spring Island CRD director Gary Holman asked CRD staff some pointed questions and got important reassurances.
Helps got confirmation that CRD staff understand that their “marching orders” are to prioritize projects based on “mode shift, climate action, congestion, safety and affordability.” (Mode shift means to reduce private automobile use and increase public transit ridership, walking and cycling.) Holman got staff to clarify that their approach to dealing with congestion will favor improving public transit and active transportation rather than increasing highway capacity for cars with wider highways or new interchanges.
The CRD has effectively intervened in past transportation infrastructure decisions, notably the 2019 votes to oppose alternate Malahat highway routes through the CRD watershed or adjacent regional park. However, this new strategy is proactive rather than reactive and integrated with the CRD’s advocacy strategy. This transportation strategy could be a model for other regional districts across the province and region, and result in shifting billions of dollars from highway expansion to electric public transit, walking, and all ages and abilities bike and roll routes.
The timing for this new strategy is excellent, in that the provincial government’s reaction to the CRD’s rejection of Malahat highway routes through watershed or regional park land came in its 2020 South Island Transportation Strategy. Former Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena’s introductory letter says the Strategy aims for “fewer gas-powered and single-occupant vehicles on the road; more people walking and biking; an increased emphasis on public transportation. . . a bold and lasting change in mobility.” The introduction to that strategy states that the “Province recognizes a growing need to fundamentally shift how people move around South Vancouver Island. New approaches are essential.”
So far the province doesn’t appear to have changed its transportation spending to be in line with its new strategy, but it might not require too big a push to see the province make the shift they promised before the 2020 provincial election. With Victoria - Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming sitting as transportation minister, the CRD is in a good position to pressure the provincial government to follow through on the bold words in the South Island Transportation Strategy and stop undermining the region’s transportation and climate plans.
Much of the urban highway expansion in the CRD is jointly funded by the federal government. For example, the federal government paid for more than half of the cost of the McTavish Interchange (including funds from the federal airport authority) and about a third of the cost of the $100 million McKenzie Interchange boondoggle.
Regional districts can successfully influence where federal money flows. In 2006, the Metro Vancouver Regional District opposed r the Port Mann – Highway 1 expansion and the federal government then declined to fund it. The Liberal provincial government of the day went ahead with the project, spending about $3.3 billion after cost overruns. (Congestion on Highway 1 in Metro Vancouver has returned to similar levels as before the highway widening, and is even worse in some areas). Federal funds that may have instead been spent on the bridge and road were later available for SkyTrain and other transit projects.
The old cliché ‘you can’t build your way out of congestion’ has been proven true in US cities with massive urban freeways. Spending public money on freeways has only resulted in US residents spending more and more time sitting in very wide traffic jams. Widening roads empties the public purse and has been proven to make traffic worse.
In Greater Victoria the provincial government does not have billions on the table to seriously expand highway capacity. The 1970s scheme for a freeway across the inner harbour isn’t on anyone’s political agenda. After spending about $100 million, the provincial government claims that the McKenzie Interchange “did not add more capacity for private vehicles,” which was the main rationale for the project. This very expensive interchange just moved the bottlenecks to nearby intersections.
BC Transit’s Rapid Bus proposal is in many ways the perfect alternative to proposals to add lanes and interchanges to the highway network. It addresses the same transportation routes, such as the Douglas / Highway 1 route to the West Shore and the Pat Bay Highway on the Saanich Peninsula. One well-designed bus lane can carry as many people as five to 10 lanes of cars. BC Transit recently released their Rapid Bus Implementation Strategy but the plan includes no clear way to pay for it. Full funding should be a top local and provincial priority.
Other big dollar sustainable transportation priorities include a new Saanich transit operations and maintenance centre to accommodate a larger bus fleet and all the power equipment needed for electric buses. The investment needed to create a great all ages and abilities bike and roll network is also significant—but you can build a lot of protected bike and roll lanes and sidewalks for the $100 million cost of one highway interchange.
The BC Coroner’s Office has confirmed 569 people died due to theheatwave that shattered records across the province in late June, and much of the province is again blanketed in thick smoke from wildfires. As Seth Klein put it in the Tyee, this is our “summer of reckoning with the climate emergency.”
The CRD’s transportation prioritization strategy is the result of a lot of advocacy work by local groups and individuals. And without support and pressure, the CRD board and staff could file this important new strategy on a shelf to gather dust. Many local groups have come together to support this work over the past two years, from grassroots groups in Colwood and Oak Bay to the ongoing campaign by Greater Victoria Acting Together (GVAT: an alliance of 32 diverse organizations representing over 100,000 people).
Are you ready to help make Greater Victoria a healthier, greener, and more affordable region while reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that threatens our whole society? There is no more time for waiting. We must act now to support decision makers willing to stand with us and face the climate emergency.
Eric Doherty and Jane Welton are co-leads of Greater Victoria Acting Together’s Climate Justice Action Research Team.