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Monday, November 2, 2009

Transit plan: not perfect, but necessary

Forget the sound bites you've heard about the five-year transit plan currently under debated by Halifax council. The plan is a good one and moves Halifax in the right direction.

Posted By on Mon, Nov 2, 2009 at 5:21 PM

Forget about the fast ferry to Bedford. Forget about an airport bus. Make the Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road shopping districts car-free so more buses can use those streets, but cut the already paltry bus service to Dartmouth Crossing. Increase transit use by 18 percent in five years, by spending $93 million on new buses, fare boxes and terminals, and increase operating costs by $7 million a year. Pay for all this by increasing bus fares and property taxes and adding a quarter to bridge tolls.

Those are the headline take-aways from the five-year transit plan currently being debated by Halifax council. But, those snippets are immensely unfair: for the most part, the plan is a good one, and moves Halifax in the right direction, transit-wise.

Background

In 2006, council adopted the Regional Plan, which governs how and where the city will grow over the next 25 years. That plan laid out an ambitious goal for transit---increase the percentage of all travel taken by transit from the present-day 12 percent to 26 percent by the year 2031.

Last year, city staff put together a Five Year Capital Plan for Metro Transit. I jokingly suggest that plan was written by three guys hanging out in a tavern, four drinks in and scribbling on bar napkins---they basically just threw whatever any politician was talking about into the plan, so it includes a fast ferry to Bedford, a downtown shuttle bus and lots of suburban and rural buses. And lo and behold! the politicians loved it, and so approved it.

Less cynically, last year’s Five Year Capital Plan got two very important things right: it recognized that we weren’t going to get much in the way of new buses until a new transit garage was built to service those new buses, and it said a professional analysis of Metro Transit would have to be conducted, to give some meat to the bones of the Capital Plan.

And so here we are. The garage construction was funded last year and should be completed by the spring, and the international municipal consulting firm IBI Group was contracted to do a high-level analysis, and to write the Five Year Strategic Operations Plan now being considered by council.

Increased costs

The plan lays out the goal of increasing transit use by 18 percent over the next five years. To do that, Metro Transit will have to add 102 new buses over next five years---37 to expand fleet, 65 as replacements for buses that have exceeded their 20-year life expectancy---at a cost of $53.7 million. Forty-five of those replacement buses will be the longer, articulated buses that hold more passengers than the typical bus, and last month council placed an order for the first 15 of them.

Additionally, the plan says that $9.75 million should be spent on new terminals, $6.12 million on new, high-tech fare boxes (last year’s plan pegged that cost at just $1.9 million), $10 million for two new Woodside ferries and $10 million for installing “transit priority measures”---bus-only lanes, transit signals and the like. Lesser amounts are suggested for building new shelters and improving bus stops. Total capital costs over the life of the five years is $93 million.

Operational costs for all those new buses will increase from last year’s $26 million to $32.6 million in 2014.

Fast ferry

The plan seems to go to great pains to avoid talking about the proposed fast ferry to Bedford, beyond the cryptic line that the ferry is “felt to be beyond the five-year timeline.”

Given the level of detail given every other aspect of local transit, this side-stepping the fast ferry should be understood as IBI’s wish to avoid a political firestorm. Several councillors and mayor Peter Kelly have urged the creation of a fast ferry route, and in a closed-door council session just before the last mayoral election, Kelly prodded councillors to commit to making the ferry a “priority.”

That the ferry *isn’t* a priority to IBI, and is essentially ignored by the five-year plan, underscores the fact that the ferry proposal is poorly formulated, has no business plan and is impractical. In short, the ferry is dead in the water.

Improving service

The plan does look in detail at each of Metro Transit’s existing bus and ferry routes, and makes suggestions for improving service---usually by simply running buses more often, but sometimes by making changes to the routes. Most of these suggestions make a lot of sense.

Just one route---the #3, which serves retirement homes in the north end, would be eliminated entirely, while others---the #5 and #17, for example---would be combined with other routes that will run more often.

Barrington/Spring Garden transit corridor

The most problematic suggestion in the plan involves turning the Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street into transit-only corridors. This suggestion is made because the plan adds so many more buses to the existing routes that they’ll clog up the downtown corridor.

Indeed, the plan calls for increasing the “headway”---how often it comes---of the #1 bus to 7.5 minutes (from its current 10 to 20 minutes, depending on time of day). This makes sense, because the #1, which starts at the Mumford Terminal, winds through downtown and then crosses the Macdonald Bridge to the Bridge Terminal, is by far the busiest route in the system, carrying more than twice as many riders as the next busiest. All the other buses that use the same corridor---#3, #10, #14, #20, #21, #23, #31, #32, #33, #34, #53, #55, #59, #66, #80, #81, #84, #85, #86 and #87---will also increase in frequency. It’s hard not to see how the increased service would result in a perpetually traffic jam.

But, page 72 of the plan reads as follows:

Route 1 Spring Garden BRT – while the structure of this main core route would not be changed, it would be converted to a Bus Rapid Transit route operating at high speeds between the Mumford Terminal, downtown Halifax and the Bridge Terminal in Dartmouth… Headways will be decreased to 7.5 minutes peak, 10 minutes midday and 15 minute evening to 1:00 a.m. This will enable a number of routes which now enter the peninsula to be truncated at the terminus of Route 1 at either the Mumford Terminal in Halifax or the Bridge Terminal in Dartmouth.

Problem is, I’ve re-read the plan several times now and can find just one route that is in fact so truncated. “In Dartmouth, the [#87, which originates in Bedford] route would be shortened to terminate at the Bridge Terminal where transfers can be made to the BRT Route 1 for service into downtown Halifax,” explains the plan on page 76. Every other route that now travels on Spring Garden and Barrington would continue to do so, but more often.

This is the problem I’ve been pointing out for years---transit planners still don’t get it, because they’re not bus riders themselves. The number one concern for riders in a climate like Halifax’s is to get the hell out of the elements. You do that by running lots of buses, that can quickly get you out of the ice storm and scoot you along to a nice, warm and covered terminal, where the passenger can wait for your next connection.

That’s not what this plan does. Sure, a 7.5 minute headway is better than what we have now, but by running every bus along the corridor (except the #87), the plan misses the opportunity to get this right. And, while the Mumford Terminal provides an indoor space for passengers to wait, plans for the upcoming Bridge Terminal rebuild still call for passengers to wait, outside, in the god-awfulest, windiest point in Dartmouth; there’s no indoor waiting area in the plans.

The real solution to the #1 corridor is to run a single bus, or better yet, a trolley (trollies hold more passengers), every two or three minutes, and to have all the other buses connect to that line, but not follow along the same path. Additionally---as called for in last year’s Capital Plan and by Paul MacKinnon of the Downtown Halifax Business Association, Bernard Smith of the Spring Garden and Area Business Association and councillor Dawn Sloan---a downtown shuttle bus can quickly connect other areas on the lower peninsula to that line.

Specifically, the growing harbourfront corridor, home to the new NSCAD campus, and soon to be home to the new farmers market and the Nova Scotia Power headquarters, presently has no bus connection whatsoever, and no new service in that area is called for in the plan. A shuttle bus, then, would solve lots of problems, all at once.

The plan seems to realize that this solution is in the cards. “Although beyond the scope of this plan,” reads the plan,” the consulting team envisions that, in the longer term, within 10 to 15 years, Metro Transit’s network of bus routes and ferries will need to be augmented by a network of higher order transit services, specifically, Light Rail Transit, in order to provide the needed capacity to handle higher ridership levels.”

Light rail means different things to different people, but it could certainly include a trolley line through downtown, freeing up the buses to be used elsewhere. A trolley line would also bring some nostalgia and charm to the transit system (see this filmclip from 1957 showing the old rubber-tired trolleys on Barrington Street), while at the same time achieving the objective of getting people out of the elements.

The plan’s call for a transit-only corridor isn’t a deal breaker. Council could simply accept the plan and add more buses until such time that a better solution can be worked out. But, this part of the plan is the most problematic, at least for me.

Dartmouth Crossing

Contrast the downtown suggestions with the plan’s complete neglect of Dartmouth Crossing.

The city, of course, is to blame for approving the development of Dartmouth Crossing without making sure it was configured in a transit-friendly manner. Here we have the newest and largest retail development east of Montreal, and it was designed completely around cars, including the bullshit “pedestrian-friendly” area closest to the highway. Nobody but nobody walks to Dartmouth Crossing to go shopping.

When Dartmouth Crossing opened, it had no bus service at all. Only when Walmart closed its Penhorn Mall store and relocate it to Dartmouth Crossing did Metro Transit start a “Walmart to Walmart” bus, the #56, which also swings by MicMac Mall, so those underpaid Walmart employees with no cars could get shuttled from their old store over to their new store.

At some point, the #72 also was looped through Dartmouth Crossing---but in one direction only.

The new plan calls for discontinuing the #72 loop through Dartmouth Crossing, and leaving the pathetic #56 as it is, dropping by every half hour.

So, we’re left with one of the busiest shopping areas in the city, nearly unreachable by bus.

For example, if you live on the peninsula and want to go to Dartmouth Crossing, you have to take a bus over to the Bridge Terminal, transfer to a bus taking you to the Penhorn Terminal, then transfer again to the Walmart to Walmart bus, just to get there. Then reverse the process to get home, lugging your purchases.

I sometimes see a few sad souls waiting, invariably in the rain, for the bus in Dartmouth Crossing, and can only wonder what extremes of poverty and need would lower someone to such depths.

Airport bus

Remember the airport bus we’ve been promised?

It’s not in the plan, not even hinted at. Cynical as I am, I still assumed we’d get some ridiculously slow and convoluted route that would take a couple of hours to get to the airport, meant of course to keep airport wages as low as possible, not to help travellers. But, no, we don’t even get that.

By and by, Dartmouth Crossing would be a reasonable stop on a downtown-to-airport route.

Other issues

The plan is quite good when it comes to examining Metro Transit’s internal operations. I’ll save you a detailed explanation, except to note that it makes some pretty damning observations of current maintenance procedures. In short, present practice is to let provincial safety inspectors discover problems with the buses, and fix the problems only when discovered; there is no preventative maintenance program.

The plan notes dryly that implementing such a program would save money.

How to pay for it all

The plan makes many suggestions for raising money for all the new transit service.

First, it calls for regular, scheduled, increases in fares, such that fare box receipts pay for 55 percent of the operating costs of the system. This is down from 70 percent a few years ago, but still entirely too high. In California, fare box receipts provided 20 percent of transit costs, and most systems around the world are considerably beneath 50 precent.

That’s because transit saves money, even for people who aren’t using it. When there’s a decent transit system, the city doesn’t have to build as many new roads, doesn’t have to widen existing roads, doesn’t have to spend as much to maintain roads. More, there are enormous social costs related to car travel---car-related smog kills 7,000 people annually in Toronto, for example. The health and police costs of accident victims are paid for by the taxpayer.

To get an idea of the kind of savings that a good transit system can bring, the five-year plan notes that if HRM’s transit targets aren’t met, then we’ll have to build a third harbour crossing---at a cost of $1.4 billion. That’s already up from the $1.1 billion announced two years ago, so there’s no telling how expensive the actual structure will cost. There’s no doubt, though, that financing such a bridge would require an increase in bridge tolls, of at least $1 or $2. To help prevent that, the plan suggests that an additional quarter be charged, to bring $8 million into the transit system annually.

Drivers who commute over the bridges need to understand that the quarter they would pay so someone else can take the bus will save them a couple of bucks in increased tolls to pay for a new bridge.

Halifax council doesn’t have the power to raise bridge tolls, but it can start the discussion to make that happen. In the meanwhile, the plan lays out some other possibilities, chiefly increasing property taxes.

Reject the plan?

While the plan currently before council can certainly be tweaked here and there, to reject it in its entirety---or more likely, to refuse to fund it---would simply be to fail. It would be to fail the terms of the regional plan council itself passed three years ago. It would fail the citizens who will deal with increasing gas prices by increasingly relying on transit. It would fail to take seriously the city’s obligations and stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In conclusion, council should have a good and broad discussion of the plan, amend it how necessary, but generally move the process along.

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