Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New bridge, refurbished economy.

The recent award of a contract to build the new Johnson St. Bridge will have some critics looking for a new storyline.  Pretty clearly the fiction that the deal was on the verge of collapse was overblown.  Construction will start soon and some will continue looking for new theories to explain away the public process, democratic referendum and a solid professional design and development process that is moving the new crossing project along.

Council critics will be left behind as well, pointing fingers at the majority who have consistently voted to proceed despite the claims of sinister intent that are likewise overstated.  More perplexing, though, is a newfound interest in downtown vibrancy possessed of some of the same voices who are finding the wind at their backs has turned and their ship has now sailed, and seemingly rudderless.

Anyone who took the trouble to read the economic impact assessments that weighed a potential refurbishment project against the choice of a new bridge would have found the impacts to the downtown economy of a bridge rescue mission unsupportable.  Potential losses were pegged at as much as $13 million a year, dwarfing what impacts they have lately noticed from market shifts to the new Uptown mall in Saanich.  If the rush to the burbs is built on convenient access and plentiful parking, how come they didn’t notice the gross inconvenience of losing the old bridge for a couple of years?  (The only viable means of refurbishing structural elements and getting at the shaky foundations was deconstruction and off-site reworking that has, in any event, proven unfeasible).

Certainly business voices in the city were, after initial apprehensions over costs, quickly convinced of the sound choice embodied in the new bridge.  They, as well as anyone, understood the engineering analysis as well as the very real problems of losing a vital crossing would be for the centre of the region’s economy.  Like most who have had a more practical sense of the issues, the hair on fire claims that a cover up of a cheap and easy fix was being ditched by empire builders just didn’t hold water.  More so, the recognition that the functionality of the system design represented in the new road alignments and added levels of service for cyclists and pedestrians maintained a balance that would have been thrown off-kilter by lane reductions or other closure schemes sometimes promoted by dissenting voices.

The bridge is an essential connection to the city’s downtown for many in Victoria as well as for those who live in municipalities beyond our borders.  Shutting it down would send them off to other commercial and retail destinations to avoid the headaches of getting downtown via other routes that are even today oversubscribed and not really direct links for many of the trips to downtown businesses in particular.  Why is that point lost on the supporters of a “vibrant downtown economy” who have been taking aim at the bridge project?  Add economic illiteracy to their sandbox grasp of transportation system design.

As much as some would like more parking, more travel lanes for their cars, just as there are those who propose to shut it all down and imagine everyone will walk or bike to every destination for every trip, neither is going to happen.  We’ve achieved something of an equilibrium where extra capacity for cycling and walking trips will help people make more sustainable choices, but those who choose to drive, or who must, will keep the level of service they have now, at least as much as they have had since 1924 when the current bridge was completed. (Transit services and goods movement would run into their own problems if the “greener” solutions were implemented).  What’s useful to know, however, is that the new bridge also caps capacity at those same levels for cars and trucks, and this despite the clear signs of fresh new growth in residential and business development immediately west of the bridge that will generate many thousands of more trips a day to and from downtown.  Most of that growth will be on foot or by bike – the bridge already accommodates more than 1 million trips per annum by bike, some figure larger on foot.  Both will enjoy service improvements that will accelerate those numbers when the new bridge arrives.

Word to the wise on that one too.  Developments on both sides of the bridge owe at least something to the new project.  The uncertainty of a decision, the very questionable resilience of the existing crossing and even the lack of cycling and walking features were an impediment to their moving forward.  Those “concerned” about the city’s economic vibrancy have now another shaky platform to climb down from.  The new bridge is a positive, not a negative, for Victoria’s economy and it’s time to move on.

Next steps will see the start of construction as the city’s freshly secured contractor starts poking holes in the harbour bottom for new foundations.  It will also be the foundation of a new era in the city’s history and one we can look forward to.