Council has given the go-ahead for city staff to start the detailed design for transit priority lanes along Robie and Young Streets, though the funding to build the lanes is not in the current council-approved capital plan.

In Phase 1 of the project, Robie Street northbound will see a curb-side transit lane installed from Cogswell to Young Street. The southbound side will also get a lane, but it will disappear between Cunard and Almon Streets. Young Street will have a westbound lane installed.

Plans to complete full lanes in both directions are being relegated to Phase 2 of the project, which may or may not happen. According to the staff report, “Phase 1 upgrades provide transit priority benefits that are worthwhile even if Phase 2 is not eventually pursued.”

The split into “phases” has some logic to it. The transit lanes in Phase 1 can be achieved without the city having to widen roads or buy property.  According to the staff report, “along most of the corridor, construction will be limited to modification to pavement markings and signage. Proposed upgrades at the Robie Street – Cunard Street intersection represent the most significant construction works included in Phase 1.”

So how do you build transit lanes without widening a street? You convert lanes, instead of building new ones. The entire length of the corridor will see at least one vehicle lane converted to transit use (and right turning vehicles), with the wider parts converting two lanes to transit. Considering Robie Street is six lanes wide with a median as it runs past the Common, this might not be as controversial as it sounds.  Though to be fair, the pinch will mostly be felt between Cunard and Almon Streets, where there are only three lanes to work with.

Transit priority lanes not only speed up bus trips, but they also up the reliability of taking the bus, both key factors in attracting riders. Halifax Transit staff estimate that during the PM peak travel hour, buses along Robie Street between Young and South Streets can take up to 18 minutes longer than when buses are travelling  the corridor at non-peak times. Eliminating that delay, combined with small increases to private vehicle congestion resulting from converted lanes, means a multi-pronged incentive for people to change more of their trips from private cars to transit.

Here’s what the Gottingen Street bus lane looks like at rush hour from a bus seat. I’ve also experienced it in a car, and let me say, I will not be doing that again if I can help it.

YouTube video

This first phase of a Robie–Young corridor is only a small piece of what council has endorsed in the Integrated Mobility Plan. The functional design for Robie–Young was contracted out to WSP in 2018 and included transit lanes and priority measures all the way to Inglis Street. More transit lanes on Bayers Road are also in the works, and have been since 2016. (Bayers Road was one of two streets, alongside Gottingen Street, on Halifax Transit’s tiny list of transit priority requests in their Moving Forward Together plan. Thankfully the IMP came along to recommend a bit more.)

Transit priority corridor network from Halifax’s 2017 Integrated Mobility Plan

The functional plan for Robie–Young transit corridor produced by WSP for Halifax Transit includes bus lanes extending all the way to Inglis Street. But the current plan put forward by Halifax Transit, both the Phase 1 (just approved for design) and the Phase 2 (no approvals yet) portions, show the corridor ending at the Willow Tree.

The report states that staff “do not presently have a recommendation” for the corridor south of Quinpool.

While it is staff’s opinion that the introduction of transit priority on this section of the roadway still has merit, it would likely have significant impacts to the existing streetscape, on-street parking, and/or traffic operations. Further analysis would be required to better understand the trade-offs in this location where transit volumes are still relatively high but congestion is lower than other parts of the corridor, and the likely benefits to transit would be lower at this time.

The Robie–Young corridor is also designed to match up with the delayed Bayers Road transit lane project which started back in 2016 along with the now complete Gottingen Street transit lane. Bayers has been in detailed design for awhile now, but nearly went unfunded in this year’s capital budget, until councillors insisted on putting $3.5 million towards the project. That $3.5 million will not cover the entire project (estimated at about $16 million) and includes some widening and a completely new intersection at the entrance to Halifax Shopping Centre. And despite council’s effort to include it in this year’s roster, the project is actually slated for the 2020 construction season, say Halifax Transit planners, via the city’s communications department.

Detailed design is nearing completion, and property impacts are currently being assessed and further engagement on the final design anticipated for Fall 2019. We anticipate breaking ground on Bayers Road in the 2020 construction season, which will be in alignment with Phase 1 construction of Young/Robie.

Actual construction next year of Young/Robie (and for that matter Bayers Road) could just be wishful thinking, as there is no proposed budget for construction of what is currently being designed until 2022 in the city’s Capital Plan.

Council only approves a year at a time, but budget documents do show multi-year allotments, for long term planning purposes.

Right now, Halifax Transit’s capital budget shows no further funding for transit lanes until after 2022:

“Transit Priority Measures Corridors” budget sheet from Halifax Transit’s 2019/20 approved capital plan, which includes initiating construction on Bayers Road, and nothing further until 2022.
“Transit Priority Measures” budget sheet from Halifax Transit’s 2019/20 approved capital plan, which includes construction of a planned TPM on Main Street, and the detailed design for Robie and Young, but then nothing further until 2022.

The first phase of the shortened Young–Robie corridor is expected to cost about $1.9 million, according to the staff report, but is “not budgeted at this time. Upon completion of the detailed design process, the budget will be identified for Regional Council’s consideration as part of the 2020/21 Capital Budget process.”

It will be interesting to see if this or any transit priority project makes it to next year’s proposed capital budget, as drawn up by CAO Jacques Dubé and senior staff. Transit priority lanes were conspicuously absent from the list staff presented last Friday, for the one-time bump in federal gas tax funding which Halifax will receive this year, about $26.5 million. This, even though the list featured projects from various departments totalling $49.5 million, about twice as much as the funding available.

Halifax Transit had only two projects on the list, totalling $9.6 million:  $6.1 million to replace conventional diesel buses, and $3.5 million to build a park and ride transit station in West Bedford.  No bus lanes or transit priority measures made the list.

The Parks and Recreation department had a total of 12 projects totalling $32 million in funding asks, about 65% of the list total. (There was one $15 million request to replace the Commons pool, and 11 others totalling just about $17 million.) Transportation and Public Works had four projects totalling $6.2 million, including road safety improvements, a Dutch Village Road complete streets makeover, accessible sidewalk connections to bus stops, and new paving of gravel roads. Halifax Fire & Emergency had a relatively small ask, just one item: $1.5 million for 10 emergency generators to be used in comfort centres.

Council opted to defer its decision on where the funding should go. Councillor Shawn Cleary said via Twitter that he’s looking for “a more comprehensive list that includes more IMP [Integrated Mobility Plan] projects.”

While the detailed design of a partial Robie–Young transit corridor is certainly progress, it will take a lot more buy in from both senior city staff and councillors before transit riders on Robie get to sail past traffic congestion on a weekday afternoon.

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  1. Cleary wants ‘more IMP projects’ – he really means ‘more bike lanes’.
    I’m OK with that as long as they put the e-scooters and similar powered devices in the bike lanes and leave sidewalks for pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.
    It is time for a PP policy – Pedestrian priority. Dartmouth Common has PP, legislated by Premier Dexter almost 2 decades ago.

  2. Transit priority corridors for diesel buses do not belong on residential streets. Robie north of Cogswell is residential. Transit resources would be better spent building a better bus grid that operates almost 24 hours a day/7 days a week so that everyone can use mass transit…not just commuters who work 9 to 5 or 8 to 4 Monday through Friday. Those of us who live on the peninsula should be able to take a bus easily to do our grocery shopping and daily living chores since many of us do not own cars. Park and rides on the periphery and expanding regional transit from the periphery of the Centre make sense. Those park and ride locations and terminals on the periphery should have Transit Priority Corridors going outbound to bedroom communities and coming in from bedroom communities with transfers to the regular bus grid serving the Centre.