Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Another Inconvenient Truth: the Parkway is Irrelevant to our Transportation Future

It’s no secret that real estate developers have had a powerful influence on municipal governments in Ontario. That influence is largely responsible for the suburban sprawl that has swallowed up plenty of prime farmland and now challenges city councils and Queen’s Park in their efforts to keep up with its maintenance.

Developers make their profits buying undervalued property, building on it, and re-selling it to homeowners or commercial interests as quickly as possible. The cheapest and easiest land to build on has typically been around the rural fringes of cities, and there’s been no shortage of would-be homeowners lured by the idea of a brand-new house on a freshly-paved street with a lighter mortgage bite than properties in established neighbourhoods. And no shortage of corporations ready to plunk their cookie-cutter Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, and Royal Banks in seemingly endless rows along the main arteries.

Queen’s Park attempted to curb the sprawl with the Places to Grow Act in 2005. The legislation aimed to put strict limits on urban boundaries and encourage cities to increase the population of their central areas. It also aimed to take pressure off Toronto by considering Peterborough and other distant municipalities as part of the growth-region around it.

The unfortunate result of this well-intentioned plan has been a kind of “gold rush” on undeveloped land around Peterborough’s fringes. Suddenly, there were plans before council for a big new subdivision in the south-east near Bensfort Rd. and the 115 by-pass called Coldsprings. The area around Parkhill West up to Brealey Rd. has new projects breaking ground and will eventually be entirely filled in. Most of the land on Lily Lake Road, north of Jackson Park, has been bought up, some of it by Melody Homes. The city has already built the sewer system to service these, running a line under the TransCanada Trail through Jackson Park. The areas along Towerhill near Fairbairn at the city’s northern limit are all now slated for standard residential subdivisions. 

You’d think Peterborough was a boom-town. But where’s the gold? What’s the rush?

Peterborough made headlines earlier this year with an unemployment rate of nearly 10%, the highest of any of Canada’s urban areas. On top of this, many residents are forced to commute to Toronto or Oshawa to find work. Student enrolment at Trent is static. Peterborough’s median age of 43 means that most of the population is past child-bearing age. Retirees relocating here constitute a big chunk of our annual population growth.

Peterborough’s actual growth rate continues to hover just under 1% per year, well below the provincial average. This is right in line with historical growth patterns. In fact, Peterborough has had the steadiest growth rate of any city in Ontario. We’ve never succumbed to the boom-and-bust cycle that has toyed with places like Sault Ste. Marie, nor been swamped by waves of immigrants looking for cheap housing like Barrie and Burlington. Our slow-but-steady growth has been a blessing, keeping our city manageable and helping retain that friendly, small-town feeling. 

The recent study commissioned by city council on new arena facilities for Peterborough acknowledged this reality when making its projections. The study that recommended the Parkway and a bridge across Jackson Park for our transportation future did not. Nor did previous studies, which projected that Peterborough would have a population of 100,000 by now. In fact, we’re still under 80,000. Those old studies also called for two new bridges across the Otonabee to handle all the traffic we’d surely have by now. You’d think that hard-hat, number-crunching engineers would be immune to such wishful thinking. In fact, their image of the future tends to be no more realistic than that of your average teenager. 

There’s no economic basis for Peterborough’s growth rate to change any time soon. The gold rush on residential subdivisions is just a case of developers staking their long-term claims on a limited supply. It will be more than 20 years before those subdivisions are filled up. By the year 2040, many of us will be dead and gone, cars will be running on roads covered by solar cells, humanity will be technologized in ways we can barely imagine, and we’ll be in full-scale damage-control mode regarding our climate and ecology.

Peterborough’s own Inconvenient Truth is that the Parkway and the Jackson Park bridge are irrelevant to our transportation future. In spite of its attempts to tailor the facts to justify the Parkway, the study by AECON admits in its cost-benefit analysis that there is no economic case to build it. That’s right – AECON showed that benefits of the Parkway will not exceed the costs, even if you ignore the value of the lost habitat and recreational space and pretend there won’t be any cost overruns or long-term maintenance costs or lost opportunity costs in other areas.

The half-baked Environmental Assessment done by AECON has been appealed to Queen’s Park by a large number of citizens and groups, and is currently under review. The Lily Lake subdivision plan has also been appealed on the basis of its lack of common sense planning, a case that may go forth to the Ontario Municipal Board.

In the meantime, our outgoing council’s obsession with the Parkway has blinded them to the advanced and affordable technology of intelligent traffic control systems, the poor state of our current roads, and the obvious benefits of a Complete Streets policy, as recently presented to them by public health expert Larry Stinson.

They pretend that the Parkway is the answer to anticipated traffic congestion. The sad reality is that it’s holding up improvements that should be made today, while pandering to real estate interests who need it to make their north-end investments viable in a slow-growth, competitive economy -- on the public’s tab


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