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Cover Story: Feeling Congested
The plan: leave the office near Capilano Mall at 5 p.m. to make a dinner reservation for 6 p.m. on Commercial Drive — a conservative estimate for the 13-kilometre trip considering it’s a weekday and the weather is favourable.
Exiting the parking lot last Thursday afternoon this Outlook reporter is faced with the daily driving dilemma shared by many working in the Marine Drive corridor: which route will most efficiently traverse the North Shore from west to east. Will it be Low Level Road, Third Street or Highway 1?
Most days, in motorists’ recent memory, it has been a gamble — with one accident or stalled vehicle being the unpredictable variable in the equation.
Either scenario has brought traffic to a grinding halt along the aforementioned arterial routes to the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Bridge and created a backlog that sometimes stretches as far as Capilano Road.
Tuning into the traffic reports has become second nature for North Shore commuters, like putting on a seatbelt. On this day there is a stall mid-span on the Second Narrows and the only option is to wait it out in traffic.
Low Level Road is the route of choice. Five minutes into the commute and it’s smooth sailing so far. But after rounding the corner from Forbes Avenue onto Esplanade Avenue something is amiss on the road ahead: traffic has come to a standstill in front of the landmark ICBC building.
One driver gets out of her car to obtain a better vantage point of the congestion. A few other frustrated motorists pull aggressive U-turns in the vain hope of bypassing the backlog.
The vehicles painstakingly inch along Esplanade, eventually reaching the intersection at Lonsdale Avenue after about half an hour.
At this rate, it’s apparent that making it to Commercial Drive on time is out of the question. The trip that should normally take 25 minutes when traffic is light took an epic hour and a half to complete.
In a display of urgency, at the first chance to pull over, two commuters are seen queuing for a portable toilet on the side of the road just past the Cassiar Tunnel.
So why exactly has North Shore traffic been so terrible as of late?
We know the District of North Vancouver’s population hasn’t increased drastically in the past decade. Statistics Canada census numbers show an increase of 2,102 district residents from 2001 to 2011.
There are also 10,000 fewer vehicles travelling over the Second Narrows Bridge on a daily basis, compared to seven years ago, according to B.C. Ministry of Transportation figures.
One traffic congestion theory: the construction taking place near the Cassiar Tunnel as part of the Port Mann/Highway 1 Improvement Project. A third lane is being added on both sides of the highway from Brunette Avenue to the Cassiar Tunnel.
But with that project wrapping up soon, is there a road-work reprieve in sight for motorists? All signs point to no.
Monday marked the start of a massive water main replacement project in downtown Vancouver on West Georgia Street — a feeder route to the Lions Gate Bridge and a congested area at the best of times. Only two lanes in each direction will be open to traffic during construction, which will carry on until the end of the November.
Meanwhile, construction is underway on a new overpass on the east side of Vancouver that will see Powell Street closed between Hawks Avenue and Clark Drive until next summer. Powell Street serves as an arterial route for tens of thousands of drivers and transit users travelling daily between downtown Vancouver and across the Second Narrows Bridge to the North Shore.
And, starting in late October, work crews will begin widening the sidewalks and adding a safety fence on the Second Narrows Crossing, as part of a $20-million Ministry of Transportation project. There will be overnight lane closures on the bridge during the construction, which is expected to last until the spring.
It’s easy enough to gripe about traffic, construction-related or otherwise, but what is the solution?
Steve Ono, DNV manager of engineering services, keeps an eye on changing traffic patterns.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” Ono told The Outlook last week.
Knowing the number of vehicles travelling on North Shore roads hasn’t increased, he points to construction along the Highway 1 corridor as the congestion culprit.
Anyone who has been stuck in a traffic bottleneck near either of the North Shore bridges has probably said to themselves, “If only there was one more lane, that would solve the problem.”
The reality is, given the North Shore’s geography, simply widening a road or creating a new route to traverse the region is physically impossible in a lot of places.
“There are lots of reasons why you can’t willy-nilly build roads everywhere,” says Ono. “There are lots of ravines and creeks to cross. You can’t keep paving everything and making bigger and bigger roads, because eventually you run out of space.”
Getting people out of their cars will remain a priority for the district as they move towards a 2030 target, part of their Official Community Plan, of having 35 per cent of residents using an alternative mode of transportation — whether it’s walking, cycling or public transit.
To help facilitate this goal, the district is densifying its town centres with pedestrian-friendly development centred around transit hubs and cycling paths.
But at least one district resident is calling the densification plan for Lynn Valley’s core a case of putting the cart before the horse, saying the OCP does not include a formal transportation plan for the area.
Alex Schwarz is concerned about the district opening the door to 5,000 new residents in Lynn Valley over the next two decades without a firm commitment from TransLink to increase bus service.
“The increase of 5,000 people in Lynn Valley will require a substantial increase in bus service in this area,” Schwarz told DNV council on Monday. “It takes 100 buses in the morning and 100 buses at night to move 5,000 people. No high density development can go ahead in Lynn Valley or anywhere in the world without a plan to provide public transit.”
In its North Shore Area Transit Plan — a long-term transit vision that stretches to 2040 — TransLink does identify future frequent transit corridors serving the Lynn Valley town centre area.
DNV Coun. Roger Bassam, a Lynn Valley resident himself, says the district has to create a transportation network and a population density plan to entice TransLink to invest in local transportation.
He points to the single-family-home-saturated Seymour area, saying those residents will most likely never see rapid bus service.
Bassam has deep concerns about the district’s transportation vision for the future given the growth expectations locally and across the Lower Mainland.
“I think we are going to be a car-centred community for a long time,” says Bassam.
The Lower Lynn-East Keith Road traffic crawl to the Second Narrows Bridge has been the bane of transportation on the North Shore since the highway was put in.
That is Bassam’s assessment of the notorious congestion hotspot that has plagued North Van motorists — many of whom aren’t going over the bridge, but rather just trying to drive home to the Seymour area. They make up part of the 293,000 daily commuter trips that don’t leave the North Shore.
Bassam is the district’s liaison to the Highway 1 Interchange Design Working Group. He has spent the past year brainstorming alongside Ministry of Transportation consultants, staff representatives from both North Van municipalities, technical experts such as architects and engineers and citizen representations from the affected neighbourhoods.
As they share ideas for a redesign of Highway 1 interchanges in the Lower Lynn and Seymour areas, the overarching question remains: how will we create an independent flow of traffic from east to west?
Bassam says the community working group started by taking a blank slate. Then they began looking at who uses those road networks and the existing traffic challenges.
John Leyland, longtime Seymour resident and vice-chair of the Highway 1 community working group, doesn’t really need to listen to the traffic reports.
The president of Leyland Construction Ltd. just looks outside his office window, which overlooks East Esplanade Avenue and the Low Level Road.
Where it really pays him grief is if he has to meet a client in the Main Street area around 3 p.m. Then he’s fighting the traffic twice.
“I just shudder that I have to go back to my office,” says Leyland.
He has found a secret route that cuts about five minutes off his commute.
When I see that Keith Road traffic is backed up, I take Moody [Avenue],” explains Leyland.
Leyland, who was born and raised in West Vancouver, says community involvement has been always been part of his family — which explains why he signed up for the Highway 1 community working group.
Transportation planning is in his blood. In the 1920s his grandfather Joseph Leyland was instrumental in bringing the Guinness family, who built the Lions Gate Bridge, to West Vancouver.
In his ideal world, the district would build a road for local traffic on the north side of Highway 1 where Keith Road meets up with Saint Denis Avenue — essentially connecting Mount Seymour Parkway to Upper Mountain Highway.
“It’s on the table,” says Leyland.
Calling it a safety issue, he says the double weave westbound at the Mount Seymour Parkway exit — vehicles coming off and onto the highway at the same place — needs to be eliminated. Another part of his vision includes a tunnel or a bridge between Fern Street and Main Street for pedestrians and cyclists.
More immediate plans for the area include the realignment of Keith Road to the Fern Street interchange and the widening of the Keith Road bridge to four lanes. The Keith Road extension will separate vehicles merging onto the highway from the ones travelling to the Seymour area.
The district has already begun the design work for the $7-million Keith Road bridge replacement project, which will be included in the 2015 capital budget.
“I can’t see any council not approving that,” says Bassam, noting a new council will be sitting then.
Another option being floated is the creation of a Highway 1 off-ramp on Keith Road that would connect with Brooksbank Avenue. That off-ramp would run right through where decommissioned Keith Lynn alternative secondary school sits today.
The surplus North Vancouver School District property had been eyed by Bosa Development Corporation who envisioned the land for the expansion of their North Shore Studios operation.
In July, the school district posted the following message on its website:
“Following several months of discussions with North Shore Studios Ltd. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Bosa Development Corporation), the North Vancouver Board of Education and the Studios have mutually agreed to end negotiations without proceeding to an agreement. The parties have been unable to come to terms and conditions that are satisfactory to both sides.”
The school board is currently examining its surplus properties as it looks to shore up a $14 million funding gap to build a new Argyle secondary, which no longer meets seismic standards.
At the same time, there will be a school district-hosted meeting on Oct. 7 with key players from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Transportation and DNV council and staff among other stakeholders.
“The meeting is a private one, scheduled by the School District to bring the parties to greater understanding regarding the need for a full replacement school for Argyle secondary and, in future, Handsworth,” says NVSD spokesperson Victoria Miles.
The Keith Lynn site is an integral piece of the traffic puzzle, figures Bassam.
“We do need the ability to put an exit ramp through that property,” he says. “I think what’s needed at this time is a little more time for the plans to be fleshed out.”
One option might be for the province to pay for the school district’s capital projects, adds Bassam.
North Vancouver-Seymour MLA Jane Thornthwaite, who travels between her constituency office in Lynn Valley and her home in the Seymour area, has been having Lower Lynn traffic congestion conversations with the Ministry of Transportation since 2009.
“I live and breathe and eat this issue every day,” says Thornthwaite.
She was instrumental in starting the Highway 1 interchange project senior advisory group, whose members include representatives from the Ministry of Transportation, Port Metro Vancouver, TransLink, Squamish Nation, as well as locals MLAs and mayors.
The project, which will carry a price tag of close to $150 million, is expected to be implemented in phases over the next 10 to 15 years.
“The good news is the [Highway 1 interchange] issue is on the Ministry of Transportation’s radar,” says Thornthwaite.
Preliminary plans are excepted to be unveiled at a series of open houses in the new year.
“We want to streamline all of the options that are out there and then have the public have their say,” says Thornthwaite.
Meanwhile, in West Vancouver, traffic at Taylor Way and Marine Drive has become part of the landscape.
For the past two years Barbara Brink has lived in the heart of the congestion, at the West Royal towers overlooking the intersection.
Traffic has become such a hot topic in her building that residents have formed an ad hoc committee to express their concerns about Park Royal’s expansion plans.
“Often we feel trapped because we can’t get out [of the parking lot],” says Brink, a longtime West Van resident who speaks on behalf of the West Royal group.
They have started a petition that states: “The residents of West Royal are opposed to further development at Park Royal until the issue of traffic management at Taylor Way and Marine Drive is resolved with a longterm realistic solution.”
Park Royal’s current proposal calls for two towers — 19 and 24 storeys — housing 289 residential units to be built where White Spot restaurant stands today. District of West Vancouver staff have deemed the project one of the largest proposals ever considered by council.
Brink questions a Park Royal-commissioned traffic study that stated any new development would bring one more car a minute into the area. She also wonders why the traffic statistics were collected in 2010, ahead of the Evelyn Drive condo development being occupied and a stable of new stores opening at Park Royal.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she says.
Park Royal vice-president Rick Amantea explained to The Outlook that the statistics were collected before construction began on the road area around the mall.
“You would never do traffic counts when a property isn’t operating under normal conditions,” says Amantea.
He added, the one-more-car-a-minute statistic is based on the current traffic being generated from White Spot — 85 vehicles per hour during the afternoon commute. The study found the proposed residential towers are expected to generate 130 vehicles per hour over the same time period.
Amantea says Park Royal is only one of many traffic generators at that corner, with other stakeholders including ferry-users, tourists and North Shore residents working in downtown Vancouver.
“[The congestion] is made worse by people who enter into the Marine Drive and Taylor Way intersection and get stuck with nowhere to go,” says Amantea.
Park Royal is currently working with the DWV to find solutions to ease the traffic backlog. TransLink is also included in those conversations.
“But the truth is, and everybody knows this, as long as there is a single lane going across the Lions Gate Bridge there is going to be traffic lineups trying to get through that intersection,” says Amantea.