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Council makes big plans for urban streetscapes but cuts the budget for street tress and bike paths

Halifax’s celebrated planning initiative,called HRM by Design, will likely be approved by regional council in coming weeks. The plans call for a return to pedestrian-friendly streetscapes with sidewalk cafes and street trees and an emphasis on car-free transportation, including walking, bicycling and transit.

But last week, future planning idealism met present-day budget politics and council adopted a 2008-09 fiscal budget that completely cut HRM’s bikeways and street-tree-planting programs.

Last year each program received $500,000. This year, the budget for each is $0.

The tree program is in particular distress, says councillor Sheila Fougere.

“Trees have always been a big part of the municipality, but we lost 4,000 street trees when Juan hit. On top of that, there’s a natural morbidity rate of about 300 trees a year---300 street trees die every year, and they need replacing.

“Somehow,” Fougere continues, “between the political level and the staff level, this has gotten overlooked. We have far too few people taking care of our street trees and far too short a budget.”

“We’re playing catch up,” agrees urban forester John Simmons.

As Simmons sees it, trees are a “bio utility” that more than pay for themselves.

“I can show you dozens of studies that have shown for every dollar spent on trees there’s anywhere from $1.60 to $6 in benefits,” he says. “There’s carbon sequestration, asphalt retention, health and safety, increases in housing values, all sorts of things. It makes sense to have streettrees, financially.”

New trees, which have to be large enough to deter vandalism, cost the municipality from $220 to $270 per tree, dependingon the species.

What will zeroing out the tree-planting budget mean?

“I won’t plant any trees,” says Simmons.

Fougere asked the council to consider adding $135,000 to the tree budget, but doubts her request will go anywhere. Failing that, she is asking each councillor to pay what they can for tree planting with money from the district funds they control.

“We can at least replace the trees that die,” she says, hopefully.

Acknowledging frustration with the budgeting process, Simmons nonetheless recognizes political reality. “It’s very easy to not plant a tree,” he says. “But it’s not very easy to not fix a pothole.”

As for the bikeways program, 26 different projects were outlined in this year’s HRM’s capital plan, but because the budget was eliminated, only nine will be constructed---with money from outside sources, mainly federal bike programs. Those funded projects are typically road rebuilding projects in suburban and rural areas, where a new bike lane will be added to the shoulder of the road. It’s unlikely, says Fougere, that any new bike paths will be constructed on the peninsula this year.

Roddy MacIntyre, the city staffer who oversees the bikeways program, did return a call for comment.

Fougere says that the decision to cut the tree planting and bikeways funding was made “at senior management level. Staff took a look at each budgetary item and went through a points system. Less than 38 points---and that includes a lot of good stuff---it got cut out. It sounds reasonable, but there’s a lot of subjectivity that goes into it.”

The budget recommendations were presented by Mike Labrecque, HRM’s director of transportation & public works.

“When we set about preparing the capital budget this year,” explains Labrecque, “all requests were triaged using a set of criteria that focused on safety, liability and compliance, maintenance of service levels, availability of external cost sharing and strategic initiatives such as the Regional Plan objectives.

“While the exclusion of the these items, on the surface, may seem to be counter-intuitive,” he continues, “our focus was to direct necessary funds into critical failing infrastructure such as buildings and roads. The outcome of that process was the under-funding or zero funding of certain items. This is why received no funds.”

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