Last Friday, 30 hardy folks braved the cool, breezy summer rains to gather at Portlock Picnic Pavilion to welcome our special guest, MLA Adam Olsen. Nine of them were avid cyclists who had just ridden from Fulford, an annual ride celebrating Kip Nash’s birthday, a former Salt Spring coach who was well supported by our community when challenged by a brain tumor. He, his family, and his friends make this celebratory fundraising ride every year to thank Salt Springers for their support during his difficult times. While many rode from Fulford to Ganges, this hearty nine continued on to Portlock Park to speak to Adam.
They came with a plea for better infrastructure for cyclists. They spoke with passion of their fear of cycling on Salt Spring and their sadness that their children could not grow up as they had with the freedom to explore island roads on their bicycles. They spoke of non-existent shoulders and angry drivers unwilling to share the road with cyclists. (Adam had just driven from the ferry as well. He corroborated the near-rage he saw when cars had to slow for cyclists as well the frustration directed at him for maintaining 60 km/h on the 80 km/h Fulford Ganges Road.)
Cyclists spoke of far too many close calls and wondered why Salt Spring could not have pedestrian/cyclist lanes like little Hornby Islanders were able to build. (We learned from Adam that Hornby’s path was an amazing community cooperation built by volunteer labour on private property.)
Adam enumerated the challenges:
- Funding - While the provincial government supports active transportation, this initiative is woefully underfunded. According to Adam, most of the successful cyclist pathways were either created by a municipality or by the sweat equity of a community - like Hornby Island.
- Liability - Concerns about risk paralyzes too many decisions. The projects that are undertaken are too expensive due to the perceived necessity to manage risk by building pathways to an urban standard.
- Ownership - While many believe that the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) owns a healthy chunk of property along the side of all of our roads, convoluted ownership patterns has complicated this rule of thumb. There are too many instances in which roads and rights of way are actually on private land. These sections of private ownership have created a complex set of variables leading MoTI to avoid these areas whenever possible.
- Poor Road Beds -Most of our major roads are old and were built on poor foundations. Asphalt is very expensive, costing about $1 million per kilometre. Given the pervasively poor road beds, it makes no sense to use good asphalt until the base of the road is sound. A very logical conclusion - but also an extremely expensive one as rebuilding road foundations is a costly enterprise. Given these challenges, it is understandable why MoTI is cautious about taking on our needed road upgrades.
- Politics - Too many road decisions are politically-driven. There is also the propensity for politicians to think no farther than from one term to the next. This short-term thinking rarely allows needed investments in the future needs of our communities.
Salt Spring is not alone with this challenge - it is a pervasive issue throughout all of the Gulf Islands. According to Adam, roads have become British Columbia’s biggest physical infrastructure concern. He maintains that we need a different conversation about our roads. We may need to lower our speed limits; we may need to consider the far-less expensive gravel for many of our minor roads; we may need to agitate for a lower build-standard for our rural roads.
Adam is interested in participating in a conversation to look at our roads differently. He believes that there is a way to use our roads to provide safe and essential links to connect us all. A part of that conversation will likely be an analysis of our car culture and whether it is serving us.
They are our roads: How can we best use them?
Our road problems are made worse by a poorly funded MoTI working in its silo alongside all the other silos in the provincial government. According to Adam, the NDP has been blaming the Liberals for long enough. Both politicians and ministers need to stop blaming and take ownership of the issues they inherited. They need to work with communities to solve their serious infrastructure problems.
Adam also reminded us that ministers - currently managing their budgets in relative isolation - should able to recognize impacts across silos. For example, good bike lanes have a positive impact upon our Health budget. Can we begin to see some budget crossover where, for example, the Ministry of Health understands the benefits of safe biking for healthy, safer communities and contributes funding to bike lanes?
One optimistic example of collaboration between ministries for the common good was noted by a participant: The food coupon program recently offered qualified families and seniors coupons to buy fresh produce at farmers’ markets. Initiated by the Ministry of Health, this project was supported by the Ministry of Agriculture.
We compete for funds with Vancouver Island, and we have many kilometres of roads to maintain with a relatively small population. When seeking to spend funds to serve the most people for the least amount of money, Salt Spring does not compete well against the more populous Vancouver Island.
According to Adam. British Columbia does not invest in tourism infrastructure - like bike lanes - that would attract the visitors we would like to welcome. Instead, the money is spent simply marketing and expecting locals to provide everything else needed to sustain it. Without the needed infrastructure to welcome visitors, these efforts are destined to fall far short of needs
We need to seek new ways for the Gulf Islands to work together addressing the big issues facing us - like roads, tourism, and climate action. And, this conversation cannot be led by those decision-makers who are nurtured by the status quo, like politicians, civil servants, insurance companies, lawyers, and contractors.
We all took a few moments to celebrate the innovative HUT tiny home, by Wagon Wheel, a safe, portable, affordable ($2,000) doable project for Salt Spring. Many agreed - Let’s just do it!
Concerning the issue of governance, Adam worries that politicians do not have the political courage for conversations that question whether we are being well-served by our government. Currently driven by a centuries-old colonial structure, is now time to ask the hard questions? How do we need to be served? How can we achieve resiliency in an increasingly uncertain future?
Our vulnerabilities are a clear and present danger: Even in the immediate future, the commercial tax deferments in response to COVID-19 are forcing communities to use their too-small reserves to pay for day-to-day operations. What will happen to these communities when these reserves are gone?
Why not create a Citizen’s Assembly asking whether we are being governed well? What about regular audits as well - and welcoming auditors to identify expenditures that may not have been the best uses of out tax dollars?
A damaging structure of our government is the law requiring a balanced budget. While there is nothing wrong with balanced budgets, this law makes it impossible to invest in the projects that will bear fruit in future years. It forces ministries to continue to merely maintain rather than making any effort to invest in our future. This aversion to risk is crippling any planning beyond the fiscal year.
And, suddenly, our time was over. . . and, despite the energizing and thought-provoking conversation, we were freezing!
So - we bid a grateful farewell to Adam, already looking forward to our next gathering, Friday, July 10, from 11-1, at the United Church Meadow where we will welcome Gary Holman. (Portlock Picnic Pavilion if raining.)