Transportation and infrastructure throughout Saanich North and the Islands continues to be a priority for local residents.
As we see investments in the BC Ferries to address the significant issues the corporation has faced in recent years, the development of the RapidBus network to the Saanich Peninsula, the much needed improvement and upgrades on all the roads throughout all the Southern Gulf Islands, this Ministry continues to be the focus of a substantial part of my advocacy to the provincial government.
I am appreciative of the attentiveness of Minister Rob Fleming, and his regional team that my community advocates communicate with regularly, for their ongoing work to improve the infrastructure.
In this session of Budget Estimates I ask Minister Fleming about the RapidBus systems (known as Blink), needed transit improvements at the Victoria International Airport, road maintenance and upgrades on all the Gulf Islands. Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete session in Budget Estimates without a few questions about the BC Ferries.
Finally, as people will soon see on the Pat Bay Highway, construction on the Keating X Road flyover will begin very soon, another infrastructure safety improvement that has been decades in the making on the Saanich Peninsula.
rapid bus, transit improvement at the airport, road maintenance on GI’s and BC Ferries
Thank you for this opportunity to engage on Transportation estimates.
I just want to start with the rapid bus plans for the capital regional district — or the capital region here, I’ll just say. I guess the route 95, the Blink RapidBus, opened — good news — ahead of schedule. I believe it was ahead of schedule. It was phase 1 of a three-phase plan. As I understood it, the three phases of rapid bus were not necessarily…. They could happen concurrently, I guess. They could be worked on all at the same time.
So with the province and B.C. Transit recently announcing the completion and the opening of the West Shore to downtown line 14 months ahead of the three-year plan, along with three other important pieces to the Mackenzie and the peninsula lines now completed, what’s the province’s plan to implement the Mackenzie and the peninsula rapid bus lines?
Hon. R. Fleming:
I appreciate the member’s interest in this. We’ve endeavoured to, hopefully, keep him up to date on all the improvements happening in his constituency. We were delighted that some of the components of rapid bus service out to the peninsula have been completed or are about to begin construction. Mt. Newton, which connects a number of communities and gives queue-jumper access and is improving transit reliability and overall transit time at a congested intersection, was done ahead of schedule and for less than we anticipated in terms of the budget. That’s good news.
We just announced today — hopefully, it came over his news feed — that the Keating Cross Road flyover will begin construction. A contract award has been made. It will begin construction shortly. That will allow new capacity on the highway to…. I mean, it’s important in and of itself as a safety improvement because the member knows probably better than anyone in this room that that’s a site of ICBC crash statistics that needed to be addressed.
The safety improvements getting onto Keating Cross Road without crossing over oncoming lanes is a good project, but it will also give us capacity and width on the highway to do bus-on-shoulder. That will become part of the rapid bus network. Sayward queue-jumpers are contemplated as well.
We’re putting all the parts together and, I think, the operational service planning. There will be an update about that later this year, perhaps after the summer. That’s what we’re anticipating from B.C. Transit.
The same with McKenzie rapid bus. So there have been improvements to the transit exchange at UVic.
We are planning significant improvements in a new transit exchange at Uptown. B.C. Transit acquired land there some years ago. We seek to develop it. We’ll also have more to say about its status as a transit-oriented development project that we think is ideal, to combine it with affordable housing investments.
But let me go back to Blink, which was brought in more than a year ahead of time to the West Shore. Just like Highway 17, we added pieces: from Fisgard in Chinatown to Douglas at Bay, and then from Bay to Uptown and then Uptown through McKenzie.
We still have some things to do that would give bus priority access to the entire length out there. It’s now envisioned as more infrastructure improvements going to Six Mile. Within the area of improvement, already there is one pinch point, which is the Burnside Bridges, and we’re doing engineering and design work right now to see if they can be widened, because you go from three lanes down to two, and then back to a bus priority lane. That will help everyone, including people using private vehicles that are stuck in congestion.
And then beyond McKenzie towards the West Shore, looking at more bus-on-shoulder to, again, improve the speed at which transit gets from the fast-growing area of the West Shore to downtown. We’ve already saved, I think, about 20 minutes per trip on the improvements we made, which is quite significant, and we hope to save even more time.
Thank you for the progress report. With everything seeming to be ahead of schedule and the investments rolling out in fairly close succession, these do appear to be priorities of this provincial government., I think, for that, the people of the region are grateful.
Is the entire project ahead by a year, or is it just certain pieces of it? Is the entire thing ahead by a year, or is it just that you were able to get the piece done to the West Shore, and the other pieces are continuing along as they have been planned?
Hon. R. Fleming:
The service from the West Shore to downtown under this new branded Blink service, with all the technology that’s coming in — time to stop, the frequency there, the service expansion, if you will — is more than a year ahead.
So I think about 15 months. We had expected it to be introduced some time in 2024, and we launched it last week. Like I said, though, we are continuing to do some of the highway alignment improvements, including the Burnside bridges and the bus-on-shoulders. So the service is launched, and we contemplate more infrastructure improvements that support the service that is now operating.
I would also just note that one of the things that’s allowing us to support a number of capital projects in the B.C. Transit system in communities around B.C. is the current budget before us, which is really ramping up from where we were in terms of investment just a few years ago. This service plan will include $1.2 billion, over the next three years, in B.C. Transit — not TransLink — capital improvements. It’s about a four- or 4½-fold increase from where we were just five or six years ago.
More projects, larger projects and new types of service, like bus rapid transit, are some of the things that are supported by this enhanced investment.
I appreciate the minister offering me a good segue to major projects, because one of the major pieces that remains that is going to be needed for an effective rapid bus system, and one that I think we’ve known for a long time on the Saanich Peninsula, is Beacon Avenue and Highway 17 in Sidney.
Certainly, I’ve had lots of conversations with Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith, from Sidney. There were some decisions that were made around the placement of their public safety building that I think impacted the bigger discussion about what to do with Beacon and the Highway 17 interchange.
I’m not assuming that any, or many, conversations have been had with the town of Sidney, but what’s the plan for the Beacon Avenue interchange, or the Beacon Avenue traffic light, as it is right now, with respect to the rapid bus and just overall planning and traffic movements on the Saanich Peninsula, in that community?
Hon. R. Fleming:
Beacon Avenue intersection. There is some planning work going on, in conjunction with Victoria International Airport. That may inform some things that we contemplate doing later, but it’s early stages of planning right now.
Major project, short answer. I’m just going to leave it at that, I think, and just let it evolve. I recognize that there’s a lot that the town of Sidney…. I’m assuming that they’re not going to be left out of this, but I just thought that I’d leave that.
As I see the projects happening along the Saanich Peninsula, it was getting closer and closer to Beacon, and I realize that that’s potentially a big piece of infrastructure and traffic flows.
Another segue, to the airport. The minister mentioned the airport. Going back to transit and access, we’re still seeing passengers, people that are hoping to get to or from the airport, dragging their luggage along because the bus connectivity at Victoria International Airport…. It’s our capital city, a major city in British Columbia, and the connectivity of B.C. Transit is not what the users of the airport need. I’m just wondering if the minister can provide some comment on whether or not we can see that service increased in the coming years.
Hon. R. Fleming:
Thank you to the member for the question. There’s a lot of interest in intermodal transportation service, from one form of transportation to another. The member is undoubtedly aware of some of the B.C. Transit express service that services B.C. Ferries, by way of an example. I think there is a lot of interest and potential to do the same at YYJ. Right now the airport site is not supportive of public transit, but I think that there’s an interest to look at those sorts of things.
B.C. Transit has a budget that supports a good level of service, and they’re making improvements to how we get around this region. I don’t have an answer for him today about what access to the airport might look like with public transit, but I share his view that we could certainly get a lot closer and perhaps service the airport for departures and arrivals but also the large industrial parks and other job centre areas that are around what’s a pretty fast-growing area in his constituency.
Would it be correct to call it a hub-and-spoke that, basically, a rapid bus would provide? You’ve got the main spine, where you’d get regular bus service, and then maybe have neighbourhood bus services collecting people and bringing them to that rapid bus.
I imagine that all of those neighbourhoods surrounding Highway 17 could be well served by that, and the airport would be one of them. I can’t imagine there being another airport with this amount of traffic that comes through it and that is so underserved by transit.
This might be a difficult question to ask, and I respect that. Is the sticking point the airport authority, or is the sticking point B.C. Transit? Why is it that for so many years, this site has been so difficult to serve with B.C. Transit?
Hon. R. Fleming:
To the member, I appreciate his question, because this has been a service gap for a long, long time. I think one of the reasons…. The McTavish exchange — which has really good station infrastructure that’s covered and dry — will be integrated into rapid bus down the peninsula, but it also provides an opportunity to have a pretty short and frequent service to the airport.
I do know that the airport, like a lot of different travel modes, really got hammered in the pandemic. The number of daily flights in and out of YYJ was severely impacted. They’re not back to what they were, but they have recovered considerably.
I would expect some of the mayors around the table at the transit commission, working with the executive team at B.C. Transit, to renew some of the periodic discussions they’ve had about how they can fix that service gap.
Excellent. I’m just going to shift gears here, Minister, and ask a few questions about the road infrastructure on the southern Gulf Islands.
I’m not sure if the minister needs….
Hon. R. Fleming:
We’re getting another part of the answer from the last question, I think.
Okay. While the minister does that, I think that it’s important just to acknowledge the people that my office works with on a regular basis: Michael Pearson, Shawn Haley, and the whole team that serves the southern Vancouver Island region, which includes the southern Gulf Islands.
Transportation tends to be one of the higher-volume sources of email correspondence into my office, for a variety of reasons that we’ve talked about over the years here, in budget estimates with yourself and with the former Minister of Transportation.
I want to just frame this. We have an incredible service provided by the Ministry of Transportation: to be able to pass these along and to get answers back. That has a great deal to do with the people that are working in the region. I just wanted to acknowledge that.
That said, we have road quality that’s deteriorating on the southern Gulf Islands. I’ve been raising it now every year since I was elected in 2017. The maintenance budgets and the budgets to rebuild those roads are just not there. In some cases, the road rights-of-way aren’t there. There are incredible challenges.
I’m wondering if, maybe, the minister can highlight what the plan might be to maintain or to fix those deteriorating roads, many of which have very low volumes but which we hear about on a regular basis.
Hon. R. Fleming:
To the member, I know we have talked about a road that’s very important to him and his constituents from Fulford to Ganges. The work that’s happening there right now is moving utilities and acquiring property to be able to do a proper job on that road and address some of the concerns that people have had there. One thing that has come to our attention in the ministry is that there are drainage issues that are maybe more significant than we anticipated. It has delayed things on getting towards a project that has construction activity on it.
What we’re endeavouring to do is to tender late this year once the project definition is completed and begin paving next year. That’s obviously one of the more important road networks on that largest of the Gulf Islands.
Also, on Saltspring this year, we have, I think, completed engineering work now and are getting ready to proceed later this year on the atmospheric river repairs to Blackburn Lake.
There are seemingly an endless number of questions that I could ask about this, because there are a lot of specific issues. There’s the road surface quality. There’s the centre line and fog line that perpetually doesn’t seem to have enough budget in order to maintain it. There was some piloting that happened that the quality didn’t last as long as perhaps it was…. So now the plan or the schedule is kind of shot. Then, as well, there’s culverts — the culverting aspects of it, undersized culverts, that I think the atmospheric river exposed.
I’ll just say, because I want to ask, at least…. I think we’re just about getting to the end of the time here. I just want to ask a question about ferries so that I don’t leave that. I’ll just ask this final question about this.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations with respect to the expectations of what the citizens and constituents expect the roads to be. There seems to be an expectation of urban roads in these rural communities. I think that I’m interested in continuing the conversation with the ministry about, perhaps, some of the other road treatments that might be available on roads for the southern Gulf Islands, recognizing that they are rural roads, that the cost of asphalt and repaving these roads is going to be very, very expensive and that the amount of vehicle traffic that’s on many of these roads is quite low, Fulford-Ganges being the exception. I think that that’s a very well travelled road.
I just wanted to leave that with the minister, because I think that there is an opportunity for us to have a kind of open dialogue with the residents on the southern Gulf Islands, to say: how can we get good quality roads but that they not necessarily meet the urban construction standards that you’re used to, having just moved from a community or whatever? I’ve started that conversation a variety of times. I’d be very interested to continue it, because I think that it would help manage a lot of the expectations that people have, and not in a bad way but just in an open way.
This is what we can do. This is what we can maintain. Here’s the reality, and how do we match that. That’s a statement. You can answer the question, or I can move on to B.C. Ferries.
Okay. Thank you.
One of the things that happened in the latest ferries commissioner’s report was cutting back of the capital budgets for B.C. Ferries. This is concerning both from keeping our ferries up to date and the program and the progress that’s been made to reduce the number of classes of ferries, which was the program that was there, but as well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Fulford ferry terminal and the safety issue there in Fulford with respect to….
At least a few ferries every day, the traffic spills out into the neighbourhood and really blocks the ability for people to get in and out and first responders to get in and out, if that’s necessary.
Just I think trying to get from the minister’s perspective what impact the Ferry Commissioner’s recommendations and the cutting back of the capital budgets are going to have on and what role does the ministry play in ensuring that situations like the Fulford terminal get resolved while also managing the fiscal reality of the B.C. Ferries network.
Hon. R. Fleming:
Let me just go back briefly to Saltspring Island because I meant to when I was talking about Blackburn Lake and then the member quite rightly talked about what’s the appropriate infrastructure in many locations that are now prone to flooding with the changing weather and all those sorts of things.
That is actually one of the delays that is still being figured out on the design. Do we go with an enlarged culvert, or is a bridge structure going to be required? We’ll keep the member informed about that. But it is new thinking around how you manage water and significant precipitation all at once — atmospheric rivers, those sorts of things — so that what happened last time is protected, going forward.
The line painting is not a Saanich–Gulf Islands issue, I can assure the member. What I would say is that new national regulations that took oil out of paint for the environmental benefits, however many years ago that was, created our ministry’s interest in providing new lower-impact paint.
They don’t wear as well. That’s quite clear. But the ministry, working with road maintenance contractors, is trying to get continually better on the quality of the paint. So there’s technology and paint-mixing observations and chemistry at work that will make a more resilient paint. How we’ve responded is to do line painting more frequently, because in some cases, especially where there are lots of abrasives and salts and things like that being used on the roads, we’re lucky if they last an entire year.
Going to capital and the commissioner’s report, I would say two things to the member. One is that the preliminary report for the next performance term that was released on March 31 is still open for public comment by members of the Legislature and their constituents until June, I believe. Let me get the precise date. I will put it into the record when I have the precise date.
This is going to be a very large capital plan for B.C. Ferries, in part because of the age of the vessels, and there’s just kind of a lump in the capital, in the fleet, in B.C. Ferries that is coming due, despite some really impressive simplifications and streamlining and new vessels that have entered into service. There’s also the deferral that happened during the pandemic. In response to financial uncertainties, the company made very deliberate decisions to not expose itself to new debt and borrowing with an unknown ability to repay it coming out of the pandemic.
So this will partially address that. As the commissioner herself noted, the $5.2 billion 12-year capital plan proposed by B.C. Ferries is the most ambitious in the company’s history. Her preliminary examination of that was to determine — and this, of course, can be revised by her — that about $330 million of that could be further deferred or avoided altogether.
In percentage terms on $5.2 billion, it’s a very modest adjustment. I don’t have the details about which projects would be changed, reduced in scope or avoided. But I can, again, commit to the member to see if any of that affects Fulford or any other areas that might be of concern to him.
I think it’s fair to say, even at this preliminary stage of the commissioner’s work, that we’re going to have a very robust, large, ambitious capital plan likely to be approved. September 30 will be the final ruling around the price cap for performance term 6, which includes the embedded capital plan with that. The province doesn’t fund capital directly in this new independent model. But obviously, we support their operations, which are critical to their revenues and their retained earnings and other things that do support their capital investments.
The corporate structure. Over the past five or six years, there have been a number of changes with respect to B.C. Ferries, legislative changes to ensure that the corporation was considering the public interest. We saw recent changes at the head of the organization in terms of management and then, as well, with respect to the funds that were given to the corporation at the end of the last fiscal year to help with keeping the cost down for ferry users.
It’s pretty clear that this provincial government is taking a different approach than the previous provincial government. However, the governance structure of the ferries remains the same. Does the relationship between the Ferries and the provincial government remain essentially the same, or is it changing as well? Recognizing that there are still the structures in place…. The act remains essentially the same. But what does the relationship look like between the province and this pseudo-corporate, or whatever it’s called…?
Hon. R. Fleming:
Thank you to the member. I think he has the last question of the day.
What I would say in general is that while the model and its governance broadly stay the same, there are supports that we’ve put in place for the shareholder, which is the Ferry Authority, which has a relationship with the Ferry Services board, which works with the executive team on the operations of the company.
We have advanced, since 2017, since the government changed, a different vision for Ferries. The member correctly notes public interest being put into the Coastal Ferry Act, a definition that that is, in fact, the purpose, as opposed to revenues and other types of activity, running a transportation company. The public interest is the purpose of having what is one of the world’s most impressive — if not the most — the largest, most sophisticated ferry network that you can find.
We have established, I think, a much better, good working relationship with B.C. Ferries over the last number of years. Our government said very clearly that we want to reduce fares on smaller routes, which had become unaffordable. We negotiated and worked on a 15 percent route-cost reduction for those ferry-dependent communities. We wanted to bring back the seniors’ discount for free travel Monday to Thursday. We worked with the company to reimpose that.
We worked very closely with the company through the pandemic, when they faced some of the challenges we talked about that relate to TransLink and B.C. Transit and other transportation companies, where their revenues fell down and they had new requirements around the state of emergency. The relationship is good.
The governance model is not significantly changed, but I think the 2019 public interest amendment to the Coastal Ferry Act was really important. Don’t forget, this act has been amended about eight or ten times since 2003. The original act said it must make money on every single route, which meant probably a 300 percent fare increase to some of the member’s smaller communities and abandoning the old model, which said the major routes should cross-subsidize some of the smaller routes. We’ve gone back to that and sought to promote affordability for all ferry users, whether it’s tourism, commercial drivers, people going back from the Mainland and Vancouver Island or whether it’s on the smaller routes.
With that, I move that the committee rise and report progress and ask leave to sit again.