Friday, February 26, 2016

If I Were a Greater Sudbury Council Member, Here's What I'd Ask About Maley Drive

The Scene: Council Chambers, immediately before Staff are to give their presentation on the Maley Drive Extension - Phase 1 Business Case Report. The Mayor, acting as Chair of the Special Meeting of Council in the form of a public input meeting, looks around, and asks, "Are there any questions before we begin?"

"Yes, your worship. I have a few...."


At this meeting, Council has been, in the language of the Procedure by-law, “Summoned by the Mayor” through Article 7.09 of the by-law.  I understand that this is an unusual meeting – a special meeting of Council in the form of a public input meeting, as per Article 32 of the by-law.  Typically, when Council is “Summoned by the Mayor”, it’s to deal with an important, time-sensitive issue.  And typically, public input meetings are called by Council or Committees of Council – they’re not “time sensitive” matters.  Given that Council or one of our Committees aren’t being asked to make a decision on Maley Drive, and it remains unclear whether this Council or a Committee of Council will be asked to make any decision on Maley, why did the Mayor feel that having a public input meeting was an urgent enough matter to by-pass a motion to Council or one of our Committees?  I’m just trying to understand why we’re rushing through this process – and creating a lot of confusion along the way.

Staff Presentation - Procedural

Article 32 of the Procedure by-law sets out the components of public input meetings, and how those meetings will be held.  It establishes the rules for public input meetings, like this one.  One of those rules indicates that members of the public will only be given a maximum of 5 minutes to speak – and I see that a Resolution has been prepared to change that this evening, if we deem it appropriate.   However, Article 32 doesn’t appear to contemplate Staff presentations at a public input meeting.  We’ve got a number of processes for Staff to their items on the Agenda, including items that Council have asked them to prepare. But the Procedure by-law appears to make it clear that this is a time for Council or one of our Committees to hear from the public.  I’m not suggesting that Staff’s presentation isn’t relevant to our discussion tonight – but I do want to know how Staff ended up on the Agenda when we’ve got a Procedure by-law that doesn’t contemplate staff presentations on the Agenda.  Shouldn’t we be changing the rules to allow this to happen first? 

Staff Presentation – Appropriateness

I’ve had a chance to review the Staff Report that we’re going to be hearing about tonight.  It’s the most comprehensive summary of the Maley Drive Extension and Widening project that I’ve ever seen – even though it’s only a summary of Phase 1.  I can’t imagine how this is only going to take up 10 minutes of our time tonight, but here we are.  We requested this kind of report back in October of last year.  In October of 2015, we asked to see the Business Case for Maley Drive.  At the next meeting of Council in November, we got a little bit of this summary, along with a Cost Benefit report.  We weren’t sure if that was the Business Case we had asked for, even though the Background section of the document indicated that it was prepared to respond to our October request.  Well, now we know that what we got in November wasn’t a Business Case.  What we’re going to be seeing tonight is that Business Case, apparently.  I understand that we're all here tonight to listen to the public – but again, this is a public input meeting.  This Business Case should have been presented to Council at an appropriate meeting of Council, as we had asked for.  We should have seen this in advance of any input meeting for the public.  It should have been in the public realm for a good amount of time so that the public would have the benefit of reviewing the case and forming its opinion on the Business Case.  But instead, we had this report posted to the internet just a week in advance of this meeting, and on the same day that we closed down public comments on our website.  Those who provided written submissions would not have had any chance to review this Business Case before they provided their submissions.  I can only imagine how they might feel now, after reading the Business Case – maybe it renders some of their submission to Council meaningless, as probably some of those questions they were asking will have been answered here.  Maybe there are new issues raised by the Business Case which they couldn’t have possibly have commented on – like the known presence of species at risk in the midst of the Maley corridor.  Whatever their reactions, it just doesn’t seem to me to be fair that Staff have provided this Business Case now, 4 months after we asked for it, and just days in advance of a public meeting.  Since it’s not even clear to me that Staff should be on this Agenda anyway, and since Council isn’t being asked to make a decision on anything, I have to ask somebody, what’s the rush?  Why aren’t we giving ourselves and the public enough time to take a critical look at this new Business Case? 

The Scene: Despite the timely questions, Staff have nevertheless now given their presentation. The Mayor, in his role as meeting Chair, asks, "Are there any questions on what we've just heard?"

"Through you, your worship...."

The Case of the Missing Business Case

I see that the Business Case Report in support of the Maley Drive Extension Phase 1 project is dated February, 2016.  Does this mean that there has never been a business case brought forward to Council at any time in the past, say 25 years, that we’ve been talking about the Maley Drive Extension, spending money on reports and assessments to support building the Maley Drive Extension, and making applications to senior levels of government for funding the Maley Drive Extension?  Is this present Council to understand correctly that we are the first to have presented to us a Business Case, which is supposed to be a fiscal justification for the project, that we’re the first to see this?  I understand that concerns related to alleviating congestion on our roads have been driving this project for 25 years, but do I understand correctly that it’s only been in the past year that the City has bothered to build a case that from an economic standpoint, the road makes sense?

Business Case – Is this for a New Project?

I’ve had a chance to review the Maley Drive Extension Phase 1 project Business Case Report.  Part of the Report seems to be missing – or maybe I’m missing something.  Back in November, staff gave Council a bunch of documents, including historic cost estimates for something called the “Maley Drive Extension and Widening Project” – a project which appears to have received the approval of past Councils.  That project, however, differs significantly from the Project being presented tonight.  Sure, both have Maley Drive in their names, but what we’re seeing tonight is a project that isn’t on the same scale as the one presented to past Councils.  It also doesn’t have the same estimated cost.  It’s not clear that it will have the same estimated benefits to the community, given the differences.  The Maley Drive Extension and Widening Project, back in 2012, which was the last time that Council was asked to approve the project, the project contemplated a 4-laned Maley Drive running eastward from Lasalle Boulevard at College Boreal all the way to Falconbridge Road.  It was estimated to cost about $130 million.  That’s the project that Council approved in August of 2012.  This project, though, will see a new 4 lane road from Lasalle at College Boreal just to Barrydowne.  At Barrydowne, it’ll dump traffic onto a refurbished Maley Drive that’ll be just 2 lanes wide, and onto Barrydowne Road just north of Cambrian College, where it’ll need to travel through a residential area in order to access destination points.  4-laning the existing part of Maley isn’t a part of this project.  Yes, the potholes will be filled in, but we’re going to have to wait for who knows how long now to 4-lane.  Clearly, this isn’t the same project that Council approved in 2012, or 2011, or 2009.  It’s not the same project that the 2008 or 1995 Environmental Assessments contemplated.  How can we go to the public now and tell them that the Maley Drive Extension Phase 1 project is “shovel ready” when it’s not the same project?  When it’s never been approved by Council, or had its socio-economic and environmental assumptions tested against the technical reports that were prepared to support a more grandiose project?  It looks to me like we’re far from shovel ready.  Rather than being at the end of the process for this project, it looks to me like we’re just getting started.  At least we’re just getting started on the right foot though, with an opportunity for the public to share their input on Maley.

Species at Risk

So, the City paid for two Environmental Assessments.  The first was completed in 1995.  It looked for but didn’t find any evidence of species at risk habitat being impacted by this proposal.  We used that EA in part to justify the eventual route of the Maley Drive extension.  The second Assessment was completed in 2008. We did that one because the first EA was only good for 5 years, so an update to it was needed. The 2008 update also looked for but didn’t find any evidence of species at risk which might be impacted by Maley.  Those were both public processes which have clear rules to follow under provincial legislation. Sometime after 2008, we apparently took another look for species at risk through some process outside of the Environmental Assessment process, and guess what?  We found species at risk. Blanding’s Turtle and Whippoorwills.  Not just living in close proximity to where we wanted to run a new road – but right in the middle of the corridor that we’ve staked out.  We did those assessments in 2013 and 2014.

And now that we’ve invited the public to come out to a public meeting to share their thoughts on the project, we’re finally telling them that the original Environmental Assessments that were put together to support Maley were wrong – maybe the birds and the turtles moved in since 2008, who knows?  For whatever reason, the birds and turtles were missed in 1995 and again in 2008.  But we found them in 2013 and when we went back in 2014, they were still there. 

When Council was asked to make decisions on the Maley project in 2009, 2011 and 2012, we didn’t know about the turtles or the birds.  Past Councils made decisions to move forward at the time based on the best available information.  But now we know that there are threatened species who are living in the same area that we want to bulldoze and build a road over.  I know that the Province might still allow us to do this.  They’ve got a process – an Overall Benefit Permit – that we can follow, and at the end, we’ll get a permit, and that’ll be it for the turtles and birds living along the corridor.  But the province’s process, as near as I can gather, requires us first to look at alternatives – to look at perhaps moving the project away from the habitat of the threatened species.  It’s a road after all – it’s not a mine.  It doesn’t have to be located where we’ve identified it to go – we have some discretion here. 
But we’ve never looked at rerouting the road away from the turtles and the birds.  If we were setting out to do an Environmental Assessment on a new project today, I can promise you that the starting point would be to find a route that avoids the habitat of species at risk.  If we can’t find that route, then by all means, let’s try to demonstrate to the Province that there’s a way that we can demonstrate an overall benefit to the species by destroying their habitat along the only corridor that we can drive a new road through.   But whatever the outcome of that process would be, we would at least be looking at alternatives with the interests of the species at risk in mind.

But now it seems to me that we’re being asked to plow ahead with a new road which will destroy the homes of turtles and birds without first asking ourselves if we can do better protecting these at-risk animals by doing a better job designing this new road.  We haven’t looked at alternatives.  We’ve decided to stick to our guns with the route, based on the recommendations of earlier Environmental Assessments which, for whatever reasons, missed identifying species at risk along the corridor.
And we are being asked to take a leap of faith here even with that.  The Business Case Report estimates that we will get an Overall Benefit Permit from the Province sometime after we’ve started construction on the road.  Again, I’m not an expert in the province’s permitting process, but it seems to me that this is a real unresolved issue – what if the Province says No?  And we’ve already agreed to invest $80 million and we’ve spent a good chunk of that money to build a road which we can’t then link up to the existing road?  You may say that’s unlikely to happen. You might be right about that, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that the Province might have a thing or two to say to us, especially if we haven’t looked at alternatives.  Especially if our own Environmental Assessments which were used to support the existing route for whatever reason didn’t identify the presence of species at risk habitat in the first place. 

Further, keep in mind that we are being presented tonight with a new project – the Maley Drive Extension Phase 1 project.  It’s not the same project as what previous Councils were presented with.  We’ve no plan to fund and build a Phase 2 right now.  If we’re now at the starting point of building a shorter road, shouldn’t we be doing the sorts of things necessary in order to build that road?  Shouldn’t we be looking for a new public Environmental Assessment, one prepared on the basis of a shorter road, using the most up-to-date data that we have?

Given all of this, I ask whether it is prudent that we proceed at this time, knowing what we now know about the need for the Province to provide us with permits to destroy habitat that our own assessments missed up until very recently.

Species at Risk – the Secret 2013 and 2014 Assessments

Section 10.2 of the Business Case Report indicates that at least two “assessments” were undertaken in 2013 and 2014, which determined the presence of two species at risk in a location just 400 metres west of the current intersection of Maley Drive and Barrydowne Road.  My questions related to those assessments are:

Where are they? In October, 2015, Council asked for a Business Case in support of the Maley project.  We got a summary from staff, and yet there was no indication that species at risk assessments had been conducted in 2013 and 2014, and no suggestion at all that those assessments had confirmed the presence of species at risk.  There was no indication that the findings of the two earlier Environmental Assessments were contradicted by these more recent assessments.  And there are no copies of these assessments in the package of information which has been presented to Council this evening.  The 1995 Environmental Assessment and the 2008 Addendum are both available to the public online.  These 2012 and 2014 assessments aren’t.  I’d like to see them.  I’d like them to be shared with the public, whom we’ve asked to comment on this project.  Let’s make sure we’ve all got the complete amount of information here – that we’re all working with the same data.  In the interests of openness and transparency, could someone please post these assessments to the City’s website?

Why am I asking about this now?  These assessments were conducted in 2013 and 2014.  Why am I and the public just hearing about them now? Why wasn’t this information shared with us at least back in November of 2015, or even earlier?

What process did these assessments follow?  Who prepared them?  Was it City staff?  If so, which staff, from which department? Did we hire consultants to prepare these reports?  What did we do with these assessments once they were completed?  Did we give them to the province, or are they being used just as background to support an Overall Benefit Permit application?

Overall Benefit Permit

Have we applied for an Overall Benefit Permit at this time?  If we haven’t, we can we expect to apply for one?  What’s the timeline?  Will the public be consulted?  Do Overall Benefit Permit applications need to be posted to the Environmental Bill of Rights by the Province?

Missing Costs from Cost Benefit Report

Back in the fall of 2015, this Council asked for a Business Case on Maley.  We ended up getting a Cost Benefit report, prepared by AECOM. Today, we found out a little more about the methodology that was used. I've been hearing a lot of criticism about this report. First off, it doesn't actually identify any financial benefit to the City - just to motorists, who'll save some time commuting, and the atmosphere, that'll receive a little less pollution because cars are moving more quickly around our streets and not idling as much in traffic.  About those benefits to the atmosphere, by the way. We've got to build this road, no? Usually, building a road involves the use of construction equipment.  I see that AECOM factored in the costs of building the road on the costs side of the report's ledger.  But what about all of the emissions we're going to put into the atmosphere to build the road?  That probably wouldn't have been difficult to figure out - for goodness sakes why wasn't that calculation included on the costs side of the ledger? Such a serious and inexplicable omission really does create a tremendous amount of doubt as to whether we can buy the what the rest of the report is selling, including the concept that a motorists travel time is worth $16 an hour if you add 30 seconds here to 15 seconds there. I've looked at other Cost Benefit analyses before, and they appeared to be a little more comprehensive than this one. I understand that this was based on something Metrolinx did for transit infrastructure, but surely there are better examples of how to write this kind of report from outside of Ontario. Metrolinx at least didn't call their analyses "cost benefit reports" but rather "Benefit Case Analyses". Long story short - it looks to me like a complete range of costs are missing from the report, so I'm wondering why Council should have any confidence in it?

Missing Benefits from Cost Benefit Report

Not only do costs seem to be missing, but a whole host of benefits that we've been hearing about also appear to be missing.  The Business Case report identified some of these benefits, such as creating several hundred construction jobs and all of the money that goes with those jobs.  While I'm not sure where the City is getting its numbers from in terms of construction jobs, because our numbers appear to be more conservative than the Chamber of Commerce's estimates, but I can't help but wonder that whatever the source of our numbers, why weren't these recorded as "benefits" in the Cost Benefit report? The absence of those numbers really shakes my confidence in the report.

And what about all of these lands that are going to be opened up for development as a result of building Maley?  Since we'er taxing those lands at a vacant rate right now, we can expect more tax revenue when they're developed.  I know that we can't expect all of the land to be developed, but why hasn't the Cost Benefit Report identified how much money the City might receive as a result of new development attributable to Maley Drive?  It makes one wonder whether or not we can actually expect to derive any economic benefit from new development at all.  It makes one want to question the correlation between building this new road and all of the new development that will be coming our way that people in the community, and frankly, that many of my colleagues around the table have been talking about as one of the selling features of building this new road.  Why hasn't any of this new development potential been identified, monetized and noted as a benefit?

Safety, too. We hear that building this road will make other roads safer, because we'll be getting the big trucks off of Lasalle and the Kingsway.  Traffic collisions cost money as well as lives.  Surely if building Maley is going to make our streets safer, I would have expected to see the safety benefits of Maley monetized and presented to Council.  Their absence makes one question the whole premise of building new roads makes our streets safer.  I can't help but wonder whether Maley will actually make our roads safer, because I've also heard that the easier we make it for people to drive quickly down our streets, the more that will do so.  That doesn't sound all that safe to me. In fact, with more drivers on our roads, driving faster, that sounds like it might actually be unsafe.  So maybe the safety aspect of Maley is actually a cost, and not a benefit, and that's why I'm not seeing it on the benefits side of the ledger.

And how about transit? The Business Case report says building Maley will be better for transit riders because buses will be able to travel more quickly.  If there's a benefit to transit riders, why hasn't that been identified in the Cost Benefit report?  That should be easy to monetize. If more buses run on time because our roads are empty, well, how much will that save transit riders in missed connections, etc?  Of course, some have suggested that since the roads won't actually be emptier than they are now, because more people will choose to drive, and that'll actually add more cars to the road - and likely degrade our transit system as well.  Since we know that building roads actually leads to more traffic, because it makes living further away from one's work more attractive, and makes choosing areas of town which can't support transit more popular for commuters, I'm not sure that the benefits identified in the Business Case for transit riders are real or just figments of a traffic engineer's imagination.  Certainly the economists who wrote the Cost Benefit report didn't identify benefits for transit riders.  Who are we to believe here?

"Thank you your Worship - that's all I've got for now. But could you come back to me before we open this up this public input meeting up to the public?  I may have a few more matters I'd like clarified from staff...."

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)

1 comment:

DVDGuy said...

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You do great work. Just wanted to give a friendly suggestion.