Transportation strategy falls short, say West Shore mayors

In the face of growing congestion, local mayors want the province to get serious about alternatives for South Island transportation.

As the population on the West Shore and in the capital region continues to grow, transportation and the way people get around has become a growing issue, and local mayors are asking for the province to prioritize it. 

The province’s new South Island Transportation Strategy fails to offer a cohesive plan to deal with growing concerns over traffic, commute times and alternatives to private vehicles, three local mayors told The Discourse in recent interviews. The plan is short on new ideas and has no clear goals or timelines for solutions that some municipalities would like to see, including passenger rail and commuter ferry service, they say. 

“We need to start planning for the future and how we’re going to deal with it,” says View Royal Mayor David Screech.

The transportation strategy

B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) released the South Island Transportation Strategy in September. The report highlights short-term, medium-term and long-term priorities to get people from “as far north as Duncan, as far west as Sooke, and the entire Saanich Peninsula” moving through the region in an efficient, environmentally friendly way.

A September news release from the ministry, says that more than one million trips are taken daily by people in the capital region and almost 70 per cent of those are in private vehicles. About five per cent of daily travel in the region is by bicycle. The new transportation strategy supports the province’s CleanBC goals, according to the news release, by finding ways to reduce vehicle dependency and expand transportation options for people.

The ministry worked with Indigenous, local and regional governments; transportation authorities and stakeholders to put together this strategy. However, shortly before the B.C. provincial election, 11 mayors in the Capital Regional District sent a letter to provincial party leaders and regional candidates calling on them to address three issues, including transportation. The letter asked provincial parties how they would invest in transportation on Southern Vancouver Island and how they’d ensure a regional governance body for transportation matters would be established.

Rail tracks along the E&N Railway near the Malahat Summit. Photo by Jesse Winter/The Discourse

What about rail?

Screech, the mayor of View Royal, says he was disappointed in the transportation strategy. He says in terms of View Royal, residents are tired of gridlocked streets during rush hour periods and that people are frustrated that the Island Rail Corridor is sitting unused.

“My personal frustration is that we see massive promises for the Lower Mainland in terms of transportation-related infrastructure but we see nothing for the lower Island,” Screech says. 

The Island Rail Corridor (formerly known as the E&N Rail Corridor) is 225 kilometres of train tracks from Victoria to Courtenay and between Parksville and Port Alberni. It’s been nearly 10 years since passengers have been able to ride on it. The latest study estimates the cost of reviving the corridor at anywhere between $330 and $730 million. The study also suggests  a possible commuter rail service between Langford and Victoria.

Read more about whether or not there is a future for rail on Vancouver Island.

In the South Island Transportation Strategy, exploring a commuter rail option between Langford and Victoria is listed as a long-term priority. However, Screech says that to him, it seems as if reinstating rail service is something the province isn’t seriously considering.

“There’s no criteria or indicators around what a long-term strategy means,” Screech says. “It’s just kind of like they stuck it in there, … but what do they mean?”

Screech says he wants to see a regional transportation plan that is put together in a “holistic manner” where priorities are identified and worked through with engineers and professional advice. He also noted that many of the priorities listed in the strategy are things that are already being worked on, rather than new ideas.

Now that the election is over, Screech says the mayors who signed the letter to party leaders and candidates will collectively ask to meet with the new transportation minister to echo their concerns over transportation.

Prospects of a commuter ferry

City of Colwood Mayor Rob Martin also says he was disappointed with the report. Like Screech, he says the short-term plans mentioned in the transportation strategy are things that are already being worked on, such as bus priority lanes on Sooke Road or the Highway 1 widening and median barrier construction.

Martin also says he was disappointed to see the exploration of commuter ferry options from Colwood to Victoria listed as a long-term priority. 

In March, 2019, SNC-Lavalin put together a pre-feasibility study on a West Shore Express passenger ferry for BC Ferries. The report provided an assessment on the ferry service and required infrastructure. 

According to the report, the commuter ferry would travel from Royal Bay to Ship Point in Victoria and have the capacity to hold 294 passengers. It would be a high-speed passenger catamaran and would require a 130-metre breakwater at Royal Bay. Martin says it has the potential to take 1,000 vehicles off the road. The ferry would also have bicycle storage.

Now that Royal Bay and Royal Beach development plans are moving forward, Martin says the City of Colwood and the province need to start thinking about the ferry and its required infrastructure.

“It’s very much a different transportation infrastructure if we are building towards a dynamic waterfront where there’s ferries coming in and out, versus a static waterfront where what we’re doing is building trails and multimodal pedestrian pathways,” Martin says.

Looking at the possibility of a ferry years down the road won’t work, Martin says, because the City of Colwood would have to move forward and build a waterfront strategy before then.

Martin says he wants the provincial government to commit to funding a full feasibility study, which would cost about $1 million. That would show the province’s commitment to moving the commuter ferry idea forward, he says.

A commuter ferry is critical to the success of the transportation strategy, Martin says. With retail opportunities, offices and other employment hubs such as Seaspan Victoria Shipyards and the Royal BC Museum archives building opening up in Colwood, Martin says the ferry won’t just send traffic one way. He says people will be coming to Colwood for work as well, creating a “healthy back and forth.”

The hope is that the ferry would help the province see that municipalities want to find creative solutions to the region’s transportation problems, Martin says.

“Our ultimate goal isn’t the ferry,” Martin says. “Our goal is that we have people using mass transportation and not relying on single-person vehicles to travel all over the region.”

A median barrier installed on the Malahat. Taken on July 18, 2012. Photo by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure/Flickr

Getting over the Malahat

City of Langford Mayor Stew Young says he wasn’t surprised about anything in the report.

“It’s sort of all things that have been talked about for the last 10 to 20 years,” Young says. 

And while he notes improvements are already being seen with things like the McKenzie Interchange project, he anticipates there being an increased need for highway improvements going up Island, including on the Malahat. 

“What I get complaints about is when people are backed up all the way to the Millstream interchange when trying to go up Island,” Young says. “Once COVID-19 is gone and everybody will be travelling again, I think you’ll start to see more of a need there.”

The South Island Transportation Strategy says that in 2019, a typical vehicle trip from Mill Bay to Victoria would take about 43 minutes in the morning and as long as 66 minutes some days. With expected population growth factored into that, the strategy says that by 2038, the same trip could take between 87 to 144 minutes to complete.

The strategy identifies Langford as a sub-regional transportation centre – or transportation hub – alongside Colwood, Duncan, Mill Bay, Saanich and Sidney. Victoria is identified as an urban core. MoTI seeks to support policies and incentives for sustainable travel options serving these centres. The strategy also says one of the goals is to improve the comfort and safety of active transportation, including walking and cycling, when it comes to crossing highways around these key centres.

In Langford, Young says city staff are doing a lot to improve the connectivity of bike lanes and walkways into the downtown core. He says ensuring there are decent park-and-ride options as well as multiple modes of transportation is important as well.

And with Langford’s creation of an eco-tourism destination off the Malahat coming in the future, Young says it’s important for the city to work with other municipalities to improve transportation between each other, since more people will be drawn to the area.

What else is in the South Island Transportation Strategy?

The strategy highlights four different goals with various short-, medium- and long-term priorities under each goal. It says that since 2017, the province has “invested or committed to investing over $500 million in the South Island” and is committed to further investments to achieve transportation strategy goals.

The goals are to improve sustainability, strengthen connections between communities, improve reliability, enhance safety and encourage active transportation options. 

A summary of the strategies and priorities is on page 29 of the strategy document. 

In the South Island Transportation Strategy, the province says it provides them with “a clear path forward” to address transportation challenges and issues in the South Island. It says fulfilling the strategy’s goals will take “meaningful collaboration and partnerships with Idigenous, local, regional and federal governments to effectively implement the priorities and commitments outlined in the strategy.” [end]

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