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Four solutions have been pitched to fix the traffic crunch between the Westshore and Victoria. But how realistic are they?
The “Colwood crawl,” the “Westshore shuffle,” and the “Langford lollygag” are not-so-affectionate names for the morale-breakingly slow traffic that squeezes through a bottleneck on the Trans-Canada Highway and the Island Highway between Victoria and the Westshore twice a day.
Up to 85,000 vehicles drive back and forth on that section every day, according to the South Island Transportation Plan, and it’s only expected to increase as thousands of new residents move there each year.
That’s bad news for public health—with multiple studies finding long, congested commutes responsible for worse health and lower happiness among drivers—and for climate change.
Transportation accounts for nearly half of the CRD’s emissions, and the region is not immune to the effects of climate change: last year’s heat dome killed 55 people on the Island alone. The new provincial climate strategy prioritizes reducing distance travelled and encouraging people to switch modes of transportation above any other means of lowering transportation emissions.
Trains, gondolas, ferries, bicycles, buses, light rail, and even more roads have all been pitched as solutions for the gridlock.
The only thing that hasn’t been suggested is flying.
But which ones could actually work? We spoke to advocates, politicians, and transportation planners to find out.
This spring when Geoff Pearce suggested installing a gondola to help people get from the Westshore to Victoria, it seemed funny and a little absurd. Even he agreed it was a bit crazy. But crazy was kind of the point: “You need to do something radical to get people out of their cars,” he told Capital Daily.
Pearce, a retired transportation consultant, had seen years go by with no commitment to restore the E&N railway; the Colwood ferry didn’t seem to be going anywhere; and, meanwhile, the number of cars choking up the highway Victoria kept increasing. A 2007 Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure study predicted that even if the highway was widened to six lanes it still couldn’t accommodate the expected increase in traffic between the Millstream and McKenzie interchanges.
Now it’s 2022 and, sure enough, even with some parts of that highway widened to six lanes, congestion is worse than ever. Pearce thought an unconventional idea could get some traction and be novel enough for people to change their vehicle habits.
He knows a thing or two about gondolas, having been Chief Administrative Officer in Whistler and Squamish for 10 years when the Peak to Peak gondola was created. Gondolas sound like “pie in the sky” he admits, but says they’re actually practical and have worked for a lot of other cities like Medellín, Colombia, and La Paz, Bolivia, which have integrated gondolas as core parts of their mass transit systems. And, he predicts it will be significantly cheaper and easier than a passenger ferry service, or the railway.
His idea is to suspend a gondola in a straight line from the Colwood bus exchange to the Esquimalt naval base. Bus connections on either side would help commuters into Victoria, and, crucially, it could help CFB Esquimalt staff who live on the Westshore.
It isn’t a detailed study—that’s what Pearce is trying to get local governments to take on. Langford, where Pearce was CAO for 12 years, has agreed to chip in $20,000 for its share of a pre-feasibility study, as has View Royal. But Colwood and Esquimalt, the two municipalities that would host the proposed gondola, haven’t taken action.
The hangup seems to be CFB Esquimalt, where Base Commander Jeff Hutchinson has all but rejected the idea: “I think it'd be nearly impossible,” he told Capital Daily. “Let's put it in these terms: The dockyard, an operational zone, is fenced and only people with permission can be on the base. And the gondola proposal suggests we allow several thousand people overtop of a secure area every day.”
That’s why Colwood’s mayor, Rob Martin, didn’t sign on to support the feasibility study, though Martin has previously suggested a short gondola in Royal Bay to transfer passengers from a park-and-ride to the hoped-for ferry terminal. Esquimalt City Council received the proposal in April for information, but took no action.
Without support from those two municipalities and CFB Esquimalt, it is unlikely that a gondola will be considered in earnest—though if Pearce’s intent was, as he says, to spark conversations about transportation solutions, he can still chalk up a win.
Buses may be seen as the least exciting transit solution for urban areas, but as far as increasing access, they can also be the most effective. Much of Greater Victoria already has a bus stop within a few blocks. It isn’t a perfect system—just ask any rider who’s had to wait for delayed or cancelled buses this year—but buses already exist, it’s relatively easy to add more, and the system already has financial support from the province.
But like cars, buses get stuck in traffic, while, unlike cars, they don’t leave exactly when you’re ready.
BC Transit’s bus schedule is built on a complicated matrix of rider demand and how many bus drivers they have. The latter is no small challenge. BC Transit has scaled back the usual service levels planned for the fall, because they don’t have enough bus drivers and mechanics, while on the mainland, the longest transit strike in the province’s history just wrapped up last month after four and a half months. Here on the Island, regularly scheduled buses have frequently been cancelled because of staffing shortages. One May day alone saw 50 trips cancelled in Victoria.
Staffing is a perpetual issue shared by nearly every industry in Greater Victoria and BC Transit is recruiting for the 30 or so positions it needs to fill.
More manageable though, is the challenge of getting buses out of traffic.
One way BC Transit hopes to increase access is with its new RapidBus service, which, it promises, “outperforms the personal automobile in speed, comfort, and reliability.” There are three routes planned: the Peninsula line from the ferry to Victoria, the McKenzie line between Uptown and UVic, and the Westshore line which starts in Langford and ends in Victoria. BC Transit’s goal is to run the rapid lines at a minimum 10-minute frequency, even from Langford, meaning riders won’t need to check a schedule before stepping out the door.
But to make a bus faster than a car while still stopping to pick up passengers, buses need a jump on congestion. BC Transit is using a variety of traffic rules like left-turn restrictions, intersection queue jumpers (right turn lanes where buses can go straight), and peak hour HOV lanes to give rapid buses priority. They’re working with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to make bus priority lanes on the Old Island Highway, and, on the Trans-Canada Highway, the ministry might allow buses to use the shoulders to bypass congestion.
Right now, more than 11,000 passengers take transit from the Westshore each day, and BC Transit expects that could triple within the next 15 years.
The Victoria Regional Transportation Service is an arm of BC Transit, and is subsidized by all levels of government. In the 2018/19 fiscal year (before COVID) about a quarter of its total revenue came from fares. The rest came from the provincial government (34.6%), local governments (29.4%), and about 11% from other sources. Victoria bus service had a $147-million budget and earned only $31 million from fares.
The most expensive solution is also the one that gets the most attention: train service from the suburbs to Victoria on the E&N railway. There used to be regular rail service on the Island Rail Corridor, but it stopped in 2011 because of a combination of the track’s deteriorating condition and dwindling passenger numbers. The Island Corridor Foundation (ICF) never stopped lobbying for support and funding, but as the years went by, blackberry bushes and Scotch broom have taken over the tracks instead of a new train.
It will cost between $431 million and $552 million to restore the 234 km rail line. The smaller number is what ICF estimates; the larger is what a 2020 BC government study predicted. The non-profit foundation, which owns the land, recently released a business case for restoring the service, and said for $431 million it can restore the dilapidated rails, buy trains, build train stops, and have eight passenger trains—and four freight trains—running daily.
The concept has support from Langford Mayor Stew Young. Langford has included provisions for the rail line in development permits along the corridor, instructing builders they’ll need to notify future owners that if (or “when,” it’s implied) the train starts running again, it could cause noise, dust, light, traffic and vibration disturbance.
The Westhills neighbourhood developer is also required to build the rail station should it become necessary. Young believes higher density along the corridor will improve the business case for rail service, and has concentrated his political clout on building Langford’s core “up” with increasingly taller buildings.
View Royal Mayor David Screech recently issued a public statement in support of restoring rail service before the time is up, as did the Capital Regional District. The line doesn’t run through Colwood, but Mayor Rob Martin says the project has his support. The Esquimalt and Victoria mayors have both previously spoken in favour of restoring the rail line, but have not weighed in on the recent business proposal or endorsed letters sent by neighbouring mayors.
The Island Corridor Foundation’s conservative projection is close to break-even: $12.7 million in revenue and $12.8 million in operating costs and maintenance annually. Their business case assumes 4% of commuters will change their habits and hop on the train—that’s about 3,000 passengers a day. But once it establishes a reputation for being easy, comfortable, and reliable, they’re expecting to get twice that many commuters aboard.
Cost aside, the biggest obstacle for the railway is time. The BC Court of Appeal told ICF in a June 2020 ruling to—in so many words—“use it or lose it” by March 2023 after the Snaw-Naw-As argued for the land’s return since it was no longer being used for transportation. The foundation was given 18 months to get a firm commitment from government to fund the restoration, or the lawsuit can be reintroduced.
It’s not just Snaw-Naw-As who have a stake in the rail line: there are 14 First Nations whose territory is crossed by the rail line. Many of them lost land as the railway right-of-way was established, with no compensation or consultation. They’re all part of the ICF non-profit association, but not all seem to agree on what should be done with it.
That leaves ICF with eight months to secure commitments before their chance to build a new Island railway could be lost.
An idea floated by Colwood’s mayor Rob Martin is a passenger ferry between Colwood’s shoreline and Victoria Harbour. It could have a stopover in Esquimalt too, to serve commuters to the Esquimalt naval base.
According to a 2017 pre-feasibility study commissioned by the city, BC Ferries, and the developers building out Colwood’s Royal Bay, the ferry could also expect about 3,000 passengers a day. Capital Daily obtained the full study through a Freedom of Information request. The study, now five years old, predicted it would cost $97.6 million to build ferry terminals and buy five boats. Based on a range of service level scenarios, the study projected annual losses of between $277,000 and as much as $8 million.
Only one of the 10 service levels they evaluated showed a possibility of positive annual revenue. Using two boats instead of five, and having crews of two instead of four, they can run a ferry every 30 minutes between Royal Bay and Ship Point in Victoria and might make $174,000 a year, charging passengers $5.75 each. But that’s only if a dream boat—one that didn’t exist at the time of the study—is available in an LNG-compatible model. The cost savings from diesel to natural gas is substantial and is the only way that scenario is profitable. That reduced scenario has no contingency for boat maintenance, staffing shortages, or other unexpected incidents.
The ideal service level would have five boats in the fleet with crews of four people per boat—but that means multi-million-dollar annual losses.
Even the one scenario that shows potential profit doesn’t pay off the capital investment of building the docks and buying the boats. In 40 years the project as a whole would still be $30 million in the red. In the business case for rail, ICF has not included a timeline to pay off the capital investment, but with its expected minimal profits, the $431-million investment will likely not see financial return.
Martin is actively campaigning for support from provincial government and local stakeholders. He already has strong support from BC Ferries, according to CEO Mark Collins, and CFB Esquimalt is very interested. With major development underway at Colwood’s last waterfront property, Martin says the ferry would have a destination on both ends, and appeal to both commuters and tourists.
He’s aware of the risk of “transit cannibalism” where passengers on the ferry aren’t former drivers, but actually former bus riders. But Martin believes there’s a contingent of drivers who won’t take the bus that makes 10 or 20 stops, but would take a one-stop ferry.
“I sincerely believe that those individuals who are choosing to drive and pay for parking every day will be attracted to that model,” Martin said.
Base Commander Hutchinson said the navy is very interested, but the pre-feasibility report recommended not building service to Esquimalt, concluding it would be too costly without adequate demand.
A decade ago, there was a “blue boat” that brought base employees across Esquimalt Harbour to work. They’d park in Colwood and skip the highway, and by many accounts it was well used—until the Navy realized it was subsidizing workers’ commute, which isn’t allowed.
So base employees were asked to pay a fee to take the blue boat. They decided to drive instead, and the blue boat went under (metaphorically).
I asked Martin why he thinks CFB Esquimalt staff will choose to pay for a ferry now if they wouldn’t then. “Well, that was back then. … five dollars 10 years ago is not five dollars today,” he said. “I believe that it's a completely different model.”
A pre-feasibility study would presumably lead to a full feasibility study, but that full study is estimated to cost $1 million, and so far it hasn’t shown up in the provincial government’s budget. Martin is lobbying to get it in the 2023 budget, but there have been mixed answers from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI).
In an emailed statement to Capital Daily, the ministry said a Westshore ferry is not their top choice for two reasons: cost, and the assumption that most ferry passengers are current transit users. A ministry spokesperson wrote, “The ministry has reviewed the pre-feasibility study sponsored by BC Ferries, which indicates that a passenger-only ferry would require a significant public subsidy to operate. The study also indicates that the majority of the traffic would be travelers migrating from transit to the ferry rather than taking vehicles off the road.”
Martin was surprised to hear that. He claims transportation minister Rob Fleming has promised investment dollars into a local passenger ferry as part of an upgrade to the Victoria Harbour station where the Coho Ferry docks, a multi-million expenditure that’s been promised for years, but also doesn’t show up in the 2022 budget documents.
Fleming did not grant our request for an interview to clarify the government’s intentions. A new statement from ministry staff said the ministry is working on a long-term transportation strategy—and in the meantime, is focusing on rapid bus service.
While Colwood and BC Ferries initiated the first study, it’s out of their hands, according to Collins, who spoke at a recent Victoria Chamber of Commerce meeting. He told the gathered business community that the ministry told BC Ferries to leave the Colwood ferry idea in their hands.
“If we want it, we need to make noise and let government know there’s an appetite for it,” Collins said. Martin was there and stood to address the luncheon group to ask just that: let the government know this is what we want.
None of these solutions to traffic can work without convincing people to make a change. Whether—as Pearce says—the solution needs to be radical, or whether it needs to be simple and pragmatic like a bus lane, human decisions tend to come down to one thing: What’s easier?
Oregon-based transportation planner Jarrett Walker suggests the type of transportation doesn’t matter nearly as much as access does. The question every transportation planner should be asking is, does it increase your ability to get places?
The best solution has nothing to do with whether you're flying, sailing, or riding in a designated bus lane in the middle of the freeway. It comes down to this: Does it get you from where you are to where you want to be? Walker writes about access as a map of a person’s freedom. The more access to jobs, healthcare, community, education, and groceries, the more freedom.
In this sense, a car is the ultimate freedom. It’s like an all-access pass to freedom, one planner said. South Islanders like driving. Personal vehicles are by far the most common mode of transport—accounting for 56% of trips, according to the South Island Transportation Plan. Only 7.5% of trips are by bus, and even fewer by bike.
A lot of people can’t afford a car, and we know that cars greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and create congestion. So public transit planners are trying to make other modes more attractive to drivers. According to Walker, the best way to do that is to increase access.
Trains, ferries, and gondolas have one weakness in common: they don’t pick you up at your door, and drop you off at your destination. But if everyone takes a car, we all get where we’re going later, at a much higher price—for everyone.