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North Commuter Bridge

The StarPhoenix: When it comes to transit, Saskatoon talks a better game than it delivers

From today’s The StarPhoenix editorial.

Given the fiasco involving route cancellations that greeted riders on the first day of a new school year, it’s difficult to take seriously the City of Saskatoon’s commitment to developing a bus rapid transit system, improve services to meet the demands of growth and lessen the urban carbon footprint.

City Hall seems to be pinning the blame in part on a shortage of qualified heavy duty mechanics in the market, as well as an inability to reach a contract with its transit employees, which is forcing it to advertise for mechanics at wage rates based on the expired 2012 contract.

A month after transit director Bob Howe apologized to commuters after cancelling seven routes because too many buses needed repairs for short-staffed mechanics to fix them all, and described the situation as an “anomaly,” frustrated university students and high schoolers on Tuesday saw the cancellation of direct routes to campus, downtown and many high schools.

In addition, no buses will be added to the busiest routes at peak travel times, and transit officials advise commuters to avoid peak morning and evening trips if possible. It’s those who are trying to get to work or school on time, and return home afterward, who are creating the “peaks,” and it’s transit’s job to accommodate their needs, not the other way around.

The cancellations and delays in the implementation of new routes were announced on Friday, before the Labour Day long weekend. Transit users, who have had to cope in recent years with frequent changes to routes and services, can’t be blamed for questioning why the city cannot seem to get its act together on managing the service properly.

“We have been in an environment of labour uncertainty for the last number of months which has proven to be challenging,” noted the city’s news release on Friday.

Yet, what isn’t clear is what role Saskatoon’s policy of buying second-hand buses that other cities don’t want is playing in creating the demand for more mechanics and a repair backlog that had rendered the transit service unable to field a full complement of buses for its routes.

Mr. Howe says transit has sent as many buses as possible to be repaired by private companies. Given that the problem has been obvious for at least a month, when the previous route cancellations occurred, when did the city began to contract out the work?

Surely, transit officials should have known long before Friday that they lacked enough buses and told the public, instead of waiting until the last possible moment to disclose the fact. This is far from acceptable customer service and effective issues management.

Mr. Howe said in July that transit was upgrading its aging fleet and expects to get five new buses this fall. It’s now obvious that the decrepitude of his 158-bus fleet has reached a point where even more replacements are needed soon, making council’s decision to use for the new commuter bridge the funding slated for bus replacements seem unwise.

When it comes to transit, Saskatoon talks a better game than it delivers.

Excellent editorial but I have one bone to pick with it. I am not even sure City Hall talks a good game about transit.  If anything the message that I have heard from City Council at budget time is that transit is a burden on the city as they transfer more costs onto riders.

I have written about our aging fleet before but it is worth repeating.  Some of our busses are so old that people travel to Saskatoon just to ride of them like rolling museum pieces.  They shouldn’t be repaired by Saskatoon Transit but the Western Development Museum.  Instead of replacing them, Saskatoon City Council is building a bridge for cars.

It is to be expected.  With the retirement of Myles Heidt and the defeat of Bev Dubois, there are no councillors who are strong on public transit.  Unlike Calgary and Edmonton who both feature mayors who use and advocate for public transit, I am unaware of any councillors who actually use it.  Maybe that explains some of the problems that we have.

The other problem is the Saskatchewan government contributes nothing to the bottom line of our transit in cities.  Whereas Manitoba pays for almost half of Winnipeg’s transit costs (and injects capital for BRT), we get nothing except some money for Access Transit.  Arguably that money is spent on STC which is still needed but it means that Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, and Regina are some of the few cities that are left trying to provide funding for transit with no help.  While I agree that council has handled this poorly (again), a big part of the blame lands with governments going back to the Blakeney era that ignored public transit in the cities.

Why Saskatoon is so great

In a lot of cities, politicians are unreachable and need to be lobbied.  Saskatoon isn’t like that as we have a culture of approachable politicians at the civic and provincial level.  How approachable are they?  Well some even troll citizens.  Check out this tweet by my city councillor.


Of course the background was that I have been criticizing council (and Darren Hill) for voting for six lanes on the bridge when the city’s own report says it isn’t going to be necessary.  We have been taking lots of shots at him (and others) on Twitter and in person for the bridge and last night he replied with that tweet which made me burst out laughing.

Some politicians take their jobs and their positions very seriously but its good to see some of them being able to laugh and make fun of themselves and in their case, troll those that disagree with them, even if the 6 lane North Commuter Bridge is still a bad idea.

These were some of the replies

Councilor Mairin Loewen

Councillor Mairin Loewen

Councillor Mairin Loewen is on the latest OurYXE Podcast.  She talks about Ward 7 alleyways, bridges (we love to talk about bridges), taxes, snow removal, and her NCAA bracket.  It was a good hour long discussion where she shared some really good insight on the future of the city.  Our ambush style of questioning did take a bit of a toll when she threatened me with failing bridges but if Bob Woodward can be threatened by Obama’s staff, I can take it from Loewen.  Of course I can no longer go to the east side of the city until we get the water taxi issue sorted out.

Saskatoon’s Bridge from Nowhere

Sean Shaw has a great post on the proposed North Commuter Bridge and the process that surrounded it.

An internet search pinpoints an announcement on March 15th by the City Administration regarding the Integrated Growth Plan – the blue print that will guide Saskatoon’s growth for the next couple of decades – and the transportation plans included within that plan (Proposed Plan, March 2012 here). An article in the Star Phoenix the following day suggests that a North bridge has been on the planning books for Saskatoon since 1999. However, as recent as 2007, official City planning documents indicate only one proposed North Bridge, the provincially driven “North Perimeter” Bridge and Highway, which was originally proposed in 2000, with no mention of a second North Bridge (2007 University Heights Sector Plan – here – compare the map on page 2 to the Commuter Bridge Map). Moreover, the Sector Plan for University Heights has not been officially changed by City Council to include the proposed “North Commuter” Bridge or it’s connecting roadways, including the proposed arterial road that will now bi-sect the ecologically sensitive Northeast Swale (according to the Sector Plan no arterial roadways are supposed to cross the swale).

The lack of any historical documentation suggests that the “North Commuter” Bridge appeared out of thin-air early last year.

While researching this file last month, I made a request to City Administration to provide any public documents that outlined the feasibility of the proposed “North Commuter” Bridge – specifically traffic impact studies, like the one conducted for the Traffic Bridge, that demonstrated the requirement for the Bridge. I was told that no such study existed. Infact, the study (Transportation Functional Planning Study) that will determine the feasibility of different river crossings and how they will impact future traffic won’t be completed until later this month.

Furthermore, its commonly held in the local engineering community that the “North Perimeter” Bridge and Highway would be a better use of public dollars, in terms of addressing traffic movement for the City as a whole (funny enough, the same was said about the South Circle Bridge, namely that the North Perimeter Bridge should have been built first).

The entire post is worth reading until you realize that Saskatoon City Council has gone ahead and spent $100 million on a bridge that is going to be about 1/2 mile from another new bridge without understanding the impact of that bridge.  If anything they are doing their best to make city council spending in Regina and Markham sound reasonable.