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Campbell promotes an octopus to grapple with 'everywhere' travel

Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun
 
VICTORIA - The year was 1991 and the mayor of Vancouver fulminated over the big-budget regional transportation plan of the provincial government of the day.

"I know this is difficult to accept," Gordon Campbell declared in an opinion piece published in this newspaper.

"We cannot spend our way out of transportation problems. Roads, bridges, SkyTrains, more buses just won't do the trick, any more than they did in the past."

He called for smaller-scale projects -- "more convenient, flexible, faster" -- that would be more sensitive to community needs. Growth, in turn, should be planned, so people would live closer to where they worked and vice versa.

Better, Campbell wrote, than going back to the days when transportation planning was dominated by "freeway fanatics."

That was then. This is now.

On Tuesday morning the now-Premier Campbell announced his own provincial administration's current thinking on Lower Mainland transportation needs.

Speaking at a transportation summit in Vancouver, Campbell released a lengthy report on the Gateway Project -- an octopus of road, interchange and bridge improvements budgeted at $3 billion.

But don't call it freeway fanaticism. Rather, the province pitches the Gateway as a plausible response to regional growth that burgeoned well beyond the lines laid down by the planners.

The Liveable Region Strategic Plan, which Campbell helped shape during his days as a municipal leader, tried to ensure that growth would be focused on designated urban and regional town centres.

Transportation improvements were structured accordingly, on the premise that commuters would increasingly live and work near one town centre or the other.

Alas, "Greater Vancouver's growth evolved differently than anticipated" by the liveable region plan. So says the 90-page program definition report on the Gateway project.

The heavily-promoted town centres did not become the repositories of most of the region's office growth over the past decade.

Rather, offices gravitated to what the report calls "business parks" -- low-rise, low-density districts, located away from the town centres in Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster and Richmond.

There's no great mystery about why this happened. The business parks were cheaper. Office space in a town centre could run you 40 per cent higher on average.

For a new business, lower rents far outweighed the advantage of locating near a transit line. Business parks added six times as many new office jobs as town centres.

But the locations left many of those newly employed workers with no practical option but to commute by car.

The provincial report cites other trends that disrupted planning assumptions -- part-time and contract work, mobile work places, and a growing network of smaller businesses that commute to serve bigger ones.

It all means a breakup of the traditional into-the-city-in-the-morning, home-to-the-suburbs-in-the-evening pattern of commuting. "People are increasingly travelling from everywhere to everywhere," as the Gateway report puts it.

But it is harder to design a transit system on those dispersed lines; consequently, the everywhere-to-everywhere travel relies more heavily on cars and trucks.

The result has been phenomenal congestion on the roads, reaching the extreme on the Port Mann Bridge, the Fraser River crossing of last resort for 127,000 vehicles per day. The Gateway planners would twin the bridge, widen the freeways at both ends, and add perimeter roads north and south of the river to speed the movement of goods.

The report is careful not to offer this as a lasting solution. If the entire Gateway were in place, "it would reach current levels of congestion five to 10 years after project completion."

So, $3 billion for as little as five years' relief from the current gridlock.

But the report offers ways to put off the congestive day of reckoning -- measures to promote transit and discourage people from relying so much on their cars.

One of the main disincentives would be a $2.50 toll on the bridge. The toll could also raise more than $80 million a year, based on current traffic levels.

The province further believes it has commitments of $400 million from Ottawa for road development along the river, though no mention of any federal support for twinning the bridge.

But there's a lot more to come on this project, as the premier indicated Tuesday. The next step is a series of consultations with the public and other governments, starting later this month and continuing into next year.

Campbell, when he was mayor, used to decry the "conventional wisdom" of big transportation projects.

Now that he's touting the granddaddy of them all, he'll have to do a lot more selling to persuade people this is the way to go.

vpalmer@direct.ca

 The Vancouver Sun 2006




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