Bold, long-term transportation vision required

This week’s Massey Tunnel report released by the Provincial Government, following on the heels of changes to Surrey’s light rail project, provides the latest reasons for why we need a more transparent and improved province-wide transportation decision-making and planning process. One that is bold in its approach and which secures our long-term future.

We have a track record in British Columbia of delaying important transportation decisions, often multiple times, like the Lions Gate, Bennett and Pattullo bridges, ride sharing, the Canada and Evergreen Lines and transit throughout B.C. This comes at great expense to taxpayers and our ability to effectively move people and goods into and throughout the province, ultimately eroding economic opportunity and affordability for people of B.C.

The reality is, the world is moving to cities. A recent World Economic Forum report updates previous research which suggested global urban populations would grow to 70 percent by 2050 from 55 percent today. In fact the real numbers, using data analytics and geoscience technology, show that 84 percent of the global population already lives in urban environments today.

B.C. is not unique. I have recently spent time in Seattle, Portland and the UK which face similar challenges stemming from rapid urbanization and the failure to plan, think big and execute on the transportation needs of the future. This has produced the reality of what some are calling day and night cities, where communities’ meagre daytime populations consist of service workers, public safety employees and retirees. At night the cities swell by 5-10 fold as young people return from work or school in other towns or regions.

This is the reality here in B.C., where people can’t afford to live in proximity to their work in Victoria, Vancouver, and increasingly, the Okanagan. Yes, it is housing costs…but the other key contributor to affordability challenges is low wages. In B.C., wages have been largely stagnant or lower than other urban centres for years due in part to our abysmal productivity record here, and throughout Canada, which exacerbates the problem.

This lack of action, and the resulting congestion, is impacting our future collective prosperity. While congestion negatively impacts businesses’ ability to efficiently deliver goods and services, it is increasingly impacting effective residential and commercial planning and where employers choose to place their business. It is also straining the current workforce and affecting employers’ ability to attract and retain our next generation of talent.

These leaders, workers and young families are leaving their preferred location and seeking opportunities, wages and a more affordable lifestyle offered by other communities in the province or outside B.C. As recent figures show, Alberta is attracting double the number of 25-35-year-olds than is British Columbia. We can’t afford another brain drain in an age where those with the talent advantage win.

Further delays on the Massey Tunnel decision compound affordability challenges faced by families and defers solutions for the region, particularly as Surrey is set to become the province’s largest municipality within the next 22 years. Further studies are not an option in a world where B.C. has the country's highest job vacancy rate, which shows no signs of abating. Families are stretched, and emergency services and goods cannot be guaranteed to move on our roads or within our transportation system.

The Massey Tunnel non-decision, after $70 million in taxpayer dollars have already been spent, also comes at a cost to private sector investment and our reputation. Companies were requested to submit formal bids and proposals to build the structure. Utilities and others invested in and planned necessary changes to infrastructure and services to adapt to the new bridge project.

The continued uncertainty increases the risk premium companies will apply to future proposals on projects requiring similar bidding and contractual processes – which cost time and millions of dollars – without certainty they will happen. Fundamentally, this increases the cost of future projects, or worse, limits future bidders. The reality is these firms and utilities have finite labour and capital, and can deploy this on projects outside B.C. with higher returns, less uncertainty and shorter timelines.

We have allowed this cycle to continue for too long.

Often the delays in advancing new projects or expansions are grounded in local self-interest, political risk aversion, and a failure to develop a grand vision. Inaction compounds gridlock and affordability challenges over time and we are unable to respond quickly when facing a crisis point, which we are fast approaching.

The current process encourages small thinking, erodes collaboration, supports incrementalism and unnecessary delays. It does not effectively consider emerging technologies, data applications or changes to how we will move people and goods or operate the economy in the future. This is compounded by budget and political timing at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, and authority and investment models. This all adds up to more costs, undermines our credibility as a jurisdiction in which to invest and most importantly threatens our living standards and future.

A British Columbia transportation plan requires clear vision, certainty of decision-making processes, enables innovation and adheres to key principles which prioritize the efficient and cost-effective movement of people and goods around and through our growing regions. This must be done without the ability to second guess, or as we have seen in the last decade third and fourth guess, decisions based on narrow or changing political interests.

Jurisdictions around the world are struggling with similar challenges. But, as a trade, talent and consumer dependent economy, British Columbia will struggle without long term, pan-provincial infrastructure investments and planning and the means to execute boldly.

In previous publications, including our BC 2035: A Vision for Economic Growth and Prosperity, the Business Council has put forward recommendations that will build out our regional economies, support greater investment in transportation solutions, and address governance challenges slowing down our ability to move quickly.

We need to think about larger mega regions and build out multiple large urban centres like Surrey, Kelowna, Nanaimo and the North with fast efficient broadband and transportation infrastructure. How do we reduce climate impact and integrate a low-to-zero carbon future within this thinking? How we grow stronger ties to Washington and Oregon through the Cascadia Innovation Corridor to enable the movement of technology, goods, talent and capital while preserving our natural beauty and way of life?

The apparent piecemeal approach to transportation and transit panning and the parochial interests that dominate the discussion limit our ability to seek long-term solutions. The province requires a fact-driven, well-capitalized and integrated transportation plan for the people and economy of British Columbia. It is time for collaborative leadership and a bold vision from government, business, and community leaders that provides long-term solutions, and not solutions that – by the time they are built are already are underserving the families and employers who are working hard to create prosperity across British Columbia.