The Granville Bridge bike-walk path, Robson Square and priorities

Design not yet finalized for bike-walk path down the middle of the Granville Street Bridge, but with funding approved, the project seems likely to proceed.

An idea, years in the works, for a walk-bike path through the Granville Street Bridge’s centre lanes is in the news again as council considers the plan this week, prompting questions from some corners about spending priorities.

Council is set to vote Wednesday on moving forward with community engagement on the design concept for an elevated path down the middle of the bridge. But whether residents love or hate the proposed dramatic design for the “Granville Bridge Connector,” some question if it’s the best way to spend millions of the city’s dollars.

Some Vancouver Sun readers who wrote letters last week expressed hope the city’s new mayor and council will steer tax dollars away from cycling and pedestrian improvements on the Granville Street Bridge, and towards other priorities.

That’s not likely to happen: Vancouver’s voters have already approved spending for this project.

A conceptual drawing, from the City of Vancouver, showing what might be possible with a Granville Bridge centre pathway raised above traffic, along with a ‘before photo’ of the same segment.Submitted photo: City of Vancouver / PNG

Vancouver’s 2019-2022 capital plan, approved in July by the previous council, earmarked $25 million for structural and seismic upgrades for the Granville Bridge, which are already underway. The plan also included another $25 million for the “Granville Bridge Connector” transportation improvements, and was approved by voters in October’s election.

At this stage, it wouldn’t be a straightforward thing for the new mayor and council to scrap the bike-path plan and spend those millions on something completely different, said City of Vancouver transportation director Lon LaClaire. LaClaire explained the approved funding must be used for transportation, and can’t, for example, be re-allocated to housing.

“This is very much a growth-related investment, so that we can grow the number of trips over the bridge,” LaClaire said, pointing out the bridge has substantial excess car capacity, but improvements could increase trips by pedestrians, strollers, wheelchairs and bikes: “So if we were to re-allocate to another transportation project, we would have to find one that’s actually accommodating growth.”

Vancouver’s new mayor and council have already demonstrated that they’re willing, when they can, to consider rejigging spending from public spaces to other priorities.

In December, while council discussed the 2019 budget, NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova proposed an amendment to defer approval for $5.3 million for improvements to Robson Square, saying she wanted to look at allocating that money for housing.

The plaza on the 800-bock of Robson Street was created after Vancouver’s previous council voted in 2016 to close the street to car traffic. Later that year, council received information from staff for the design of the permanent plaza with funding from the capital budget.

But De Genova proposed, at last month’s budget meeting, holding off on that funding, saying: “In the midst of a housing crisis, and considering we have a new government … We could consider making the plaza that we already have more fancy and dressing it up or we could consider providing homes for people.”

Representatives of all four parties on council then took turns saying while they support public spaces, they agreed with the spirit of De Genova’s amendment. They all mentioned housing specifically, and they all used the word “priorities.”

De Genova’s amendment, eventually approved by the mayor and every councillor in attendance at that December meeting except two from her own party, directed staff to “seek partner funding from the province and/or private-sector partners.”

That staff report, also before council Wednesday, says staff worked with TransLink to secure approval for reallocating $1.13 million earmarked for active transportation to Robson Square. Staff recommend moving forward with the Robson Square upgrades using that TransLink money and up to $4.25 million of transportation development cost levies (city charges on real estate development earmarked for transportation).

Staff are also exploring private-sector partnerships, the report said, and seeking federal government funding grants, although the timeline for a response from the feds is “unknown.”

Speaking Monday, De Genova said she hadn’t decided how she’ll vote Wednesday on the Robson Square funding, but she had concerns about the staff report.

In 2018, NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova talked about returning vehicle traffic to Robson Square as a way to combat the pop-up marijuana market in Vancouver. Nick Procaylo / PNG

“What concerns me is we’re applying for these grants (now), so we’re committing to the project before the money is in the bank,” De Genova said. “Does this really set a precedent where we’re going to be funding (projects) ahead of time and crossing our fingers and hope the money comes in?”

And regarding the Granville Street Bridge, De Genova expressed an interest in at least exploring the idea of whether some of that money could be re-allocated, saying she plans to ask staff “if there is some provision in the Vancouver Charter that precludes us from allowing council to decide to move money from one bucket to another bucket.”

An image highlights the current accessibility and safety challenges on the Granville Street Bridge. See Notes / DirectionPNG

But other councillors like COPE Coun. Jean Swanson and OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle — both of whom supported De Genova’s December proposal to defer approval of Robson Square funding — expressed support for the Granville Bridge project, citing climate concerns.

Swanson, who has for years called on governments for more funding for housing, said: “My other big priority is climate change. So if we can make the bridge nice, maybe more people will leave their cars at home.”

Boyle said: “An important part of meeting the city’s climate action targets is creating safe, appealing alternatives to driving. These upgrades will be an improvement for everyone, and will continue to move us in the direction we need to be going.”

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