Last week, Halifax council met with city staffers to talk budgets, big picture style, in advance of nitty-gritty budget deliberations in the coming months. It’s worth recapping some of the highlights from the discussions for the city’s two big transportation departments — Transportation and Public Works (TPW) and Halifax Transit. (You can check out the video of the meeting here.)
It’s a special year for both TPW and Halifax Transit, what with the passing of the new Integrated Mobility Plan (IMP) in December raising expectations for these two massive city departments. TWP and Halifax Transit have net budgets of $93 million and $81 million, respectively. (TPW’s total budget is about $100 million with $7 million in revenue. Halifax Transit’s total budget is about $115 million with about $34 million in revenue.)
In their presentation to council, TPW staff went to the trouble to break down the Integrated Mobility Plan portion of their capital spending plan. They estimate that about one quarter of their $62.7 million capital budget will go towards IMP-friendly projects. An impressive $10 million is slated for active transportation projects like sidewalks and bike lanes (though it’s slightly less impressive when you realize about half of that is carried over from previous years, when it went unspent.)
Still, IMP implementation was top of mind for many councillors, some of whom made a connection between the city’s outdated street design standards and the long, long list of traffic calming requests currently sitting with TPW.
Councillor Tony Mancini mentioned an example from his district, Strath Lane in Dartmouth, which was recently repaved after years in the queue. It turns out, now that the potholes are gone, Strath Lane is suffering from speeders.
Apparently, in addition to damaging vehicles and being generally hazardous, some potholes work at least as well as speed bumps to calm traffic. But Mancini wasn’t so much singing the unsung benefits of potholes as he was pointing out that if only TPW had done an IMP-recommended “complete streets” analysis on Strath before repaving, the city could be saving itself money, or at least demand for resources in the form of yet another request for traffic calming.
A related issue came up for Councillor Shawn Cleary. In addition to evaluating streets through a “complete streets” lens, the city is also about to begin the process of modernizing its municipal street guidelines, aka, the Red Book. (The project is outlined, the team is assembled, and someone is about to be hired to head up the project.) Halifax is also now a member of NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) known for people-centric street design guidelines, and even the Transportation Association of Canada has recently updated its widely-used guidelines. So change is afoot in how we build streets… it’s just not fully implemented.
Cleary expressed concern that the city would be spending such a large amount on streets ($40 million is slated for “state of good repair” work on roads and bridges) before our new way of designing and building is formally in place. Remember, only about one-quarter of the planned capital budget is IMP-friendly. So Cleary put forward the idea of moving $4 million out of the street recapitalization budget with the idea of putting those resources toward the full integration of the IMP and modernizing our design guidelines.
“I consider it to be prudent to pull back, and maybe take those resources and move them over to the areas where we can focus on getting the new NACTO guidelines into the Red Book, or focus on getting the IMP really into those designs,” said Cleary. “So we’re not spending money on roads that we are probably going to have to go back to and fix up with bike lanes or AT or something else.“
The majority of council voted against Cleary’s motion either out of concern that the streets in their districts might get cut from the coming year’s to-do list, or out of fear that deferring maintenance could end up driving up eventual costs. But there were a few, Mayor Mike Savage and Councillor Tim Outhit included, who were willing to at least see a staff report on the idea.
“What costs more is when you pave a street and then you need to go back and change it,” said Outhit. “That’s where the savings is. Let’s put this [$4 million] in reserve and come back and say let’s do this right.”
While the motion did not pass, the savings debate remains unresolved: does the city save money by repaving 10 per cent fewer streets this year in order to put some financial resources into faster implementation of IMP and an updated Red Book? Likely yes. Does the city also save money by doing repairs before streets end up in need of complete rebuilding? Again, likely yes. It would take some serious number crunching from staff in TPW to figure out which tactic would save more in any given year.
The question of how and when the IMP will be implemented also seemed to be left somewhat up in the air. When asked, TPW’s manager of design and construction services, Dave Hubley, said, “we’ve been unofficially looking at our paving projects from a ‘complete streets’ perspective and we’ve been doing it for years.” While there is some evidence of this, such as the local street bikeways projects underway for Allan and Vernon and the Prince Albert Road lane reductions, this is ultimately a small sample of road renewal projects, and run-of-the-mill projects like Strath Lane do not seem to be undergoing “complete streets” scrutiny. Cleary cited the city’s approach to traffic calming and its criteria for marking crosswalks as examples of where, “we are not looking through a lens of complete streets yet.”
“What can we do at ‘low cost, no cost’?”
In another NACTO-inspired question, Councillor Waye Mason brought forward the idea of focussing more on interim designs, the temporary on-street fixes that can be put into place quickly without much money.
“We don’t want to wait until we’re completely repaving Robie Street or some other road,” said Mason. “We want to start seeing travel lanes narrowed, intersections changed, slip lanes eliminated with more barricades. Is there a plan to move toward a more interim process so we can start doing more with paint and temporary measures?”
TPW director Bruce Zvaniga cited a couple of examples where the city took temporary action, at Coburg and Robie, where movable concrete barriers are used to re-align a dangerous slip lane, and on Hollis Street, where barriers were put in to create temporary lanes for pedestrians and people on bikes during a construction-related encroachment.
Zvaniga says his staff have been discussing where pilots or temporary fixes might work, but that “we don’t have a formal practice for how we do that yet. I think we need to get a few more under our belt as to how we build that in.”
“Although we acted quickly on Hollis, and found a solution that cyclists and pedestrians loved, we did that in summer, in a couple of days, and didn’t think about winter. So the snow plowing didn’t happen properly as it should have. We fixed that, but that is one of the challenges of moving fast. Sometimes you miss a few things.”
— ERIC R/\PAPORT (@rapaport1010) January 19, 2018
Plow on site now pic.twitter.com/zoOc5ErD80
— Bruce Zvaniga (@BruceZvaniga) January 20, 2018
I’m not sure that “the snow plowing didn’t happen properly as it should have” is so much of an anomaly around Halifax that you could blame it on the hastiness of the Hollis fix, so I hope Zvaniga is not counting that project as a failure. One of the benefits of putting in temporary infrastructure is that even if you miss a few things, you can fix it about as easily as you built it.
Though Zvaniga didn’t offer up a timeline or process for incorporating a “temporary fix” policy, he did bring up the concept himself later, in response to a question about the 100 locations waiting for traffic calming measures, and what HRM had planned (with a $200,000 budget) to do about them. Zvaniga said he’d like staff to ask themselves, “what can we do at ‘low cost, no cost’ to provide an immediate or very quick impact, and then keep it on the queue for more significant work later.”
“It’s not enough to piddle around the edges”
It’s an especially big year for Halifax Transit as it continues into the third year of the five-year implementation plan for the Moving Forward Together bus route re-design plan. The coming year’s route changes will bring three new “corridor” routes, and will affect “everything that touches Lacewood terminal except for one route,” explained Halifax Transit director Dave Reage.
It’s difficult to say how the changes will fare, and even riders won’t know how their trips will change until detailed schedules are published. Happily, automatic passenger counters and on-time reporting are in place, so we’ll be able to see from a broader perspective (not just rider-by-rider) how the changes are affecting things.
But there’s more afoot than just route changes at Halifax Transit. Plans for Gottingen Street and Bayer’s Road transit priority measures will be finding their way to council’s transportation committee in February [update: they were presented today], and there’s an open house to present ideas for transit priority along Young and Robie Streets on Thursday evening. Transit queue jump lanes are complete on Windmill Road, and although there’s no metrics yet, “anecdotally the time savings are quite significant,” said Reage.
When Councillor Tony Mancini asked Reage what he thought Halifax Transit was not yet doing that’s in the IMP, Reage drew a blank. Further implementation of the IMP means, “doing a lot more of what we are doing,” said Reage.
Mayor Savage, who took a break from his role as chair for the budget meetings, asked about the second round of federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund, which Savage says is expected to bring about $289 million over 10 years to Nova Scotia, with most of that likely going to Halifax.
Savage seemed frustrated at the lack of growth in transit ridership in recent years, and wanted to know how the city could use the PTIF to help change that. “What are we going to do that will be transformative for transit in HRM?”
“I like Halifax Transit,” said Savage. “I think it’s a well-run organization. But we need to make a difference. It’s not enough to piddle around the edges. This is not just to continue to do a decent job on buses, this is to change the game a bit.”
The Mayor also voiced concerns over the lack of movement or clarity on the future of Access-a-Bus. “One of the things I’m embarrassed about as mayor is that we haven’t moved the ball on this Access-a-Bus discussion, in terms of ultimate ways of doing Access-a-Bus. We haven’t really got an answer on that.”
Reage responded that the work looking at Access-a-Bus is ongoing, and is in collaboration with HRM’s planning and development department, “with regard to accessible taxis.” You can read my take on Access-a-Bus and accessible taxi issues here.
The Mayor’s mention of federal infrastructure money brings to mind one thing: hopes for higher order transit in the near future. On that front, Halifax Transit has a public consultation expected soon looking at potential Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes. Authentic BRT can work as well as a subway, as buses are given traffic-free corridors, and stops are generally raised platforms where pre-paid riders can walk/roll on efficiently. (Councillor Waye Mason put in a plug for using “all door boarding” in the conventional bus system, something local transit advocates have long pined for, but Reage seemed to rule that out, saying “that is a logical thing that goes with a BRT route.”)
Also in the higher order transit department, Halifax Transit is setting aside $500,000 to start a project office for commuter rail. CN is expected to bring back numbers to the city in May, said Reage. Outhit asked that the upcoming report on the replacement for the Mumford Terminal not rule out the potential to connect to rail. Reage’s response was positive, but he also referred to rail, “whether it is in five or 20 years.” The ever-upbeat Outhit shot back with a plug for a two-year timeline.
Of course Halifax already had higher order transit: ferries. Councillor Sam Austin put in a motion to keep the extended Big Lift hours for the ferry, saying that during the routine bridge closures, many people has shifted their habits to incorporate the ferry. “If we reverse service then we risk shifting them back,” said Austin. The kicker is that ferry service is not so easily scalable as bus service. Keeping the additional ferry service means having another entire crew, which means about $550,000 in costs.
Council passed (barely) Austin’s motion, which simply puts the ferry service on the list for further discussion once staff come back with more detailed budgets in the coming months.