Open Letter to Thunder Bay City Council: Back to Basics

Thunder Bay is entering into a period of fiscal restraint and decisive decision making which it has yet to see before. Budget deficits, MPAC reassessments, globalization and infrastructure deficits are all combining to force Thunder Bay’s hand when it comes to the decisions it makes now and into the future. Thunder Bay’s city council, administration and citizens need to be willing to accept change, embrace hard decisions and sacrifice. We need to part with, make sacrifices in order to sustain overall gains made over the last 50 years. Hard decisions will need to be made during the 2015 and future budgets but these decisions if laid out correctly will effectively repair Thunder Bay’s foundation for the future.

I am writing this open letter to ask a single member or council members to bring forward a recommendation that core services from now on be fully funded and effectively managed. These core services would include Infrastructure & Operations, Emergency Services, Transit, Administration and other provincially required mandates. Bringing these different operations to full funding in order to effective preserve the mandate in which the municipal government is required by the Municipal Act. After these services are fully funded and operational providing services to institutions like the Shelter House, Thunder Bay Art Gallery etc.. with funding that is requested if available. Our core services have been eroded in order to fund pet projects, well intention operations and items beyond the city’s scope. A return to our basic services will be hard and some operations will fail but we need to provide the best service possible and then go above and beyond.
Thunder Bay was recently given a C rating by an internal report which outlined the state of our infrastructure within city limits. This report states that we are severely underfunding our infrastructure and running an annual deficit of around $17 million dollars. It needs to be a priority for the City of Thunder Bay to raise the proper amount of funding for infrastructure to protect not only itself from liability issues but provide citizens with safe, clean infrastructure. The Enhanced Infrastructure Renewal Program (EIRP) is an effective start but more money will need to be allocated through the capital and tax supported budget moving forward. Returning to basics in how council funds projects would see items like roads, sewers, sidewalks along with city own buildings be renewed and upgraded at a much faster rate. Using money currently allocated for other items would provide both potential tax reductions for citizens or potential cost reductions in deficits and backlogs of projects. Roads when left to decay often cost much more then if they were replaced at their proper time frames. We annually add cost to our bill by deferring projects to the next generation.

The Event Center is a hot topic in Thunder Bay but it is an effective means of taxpayers money when it comes to replacing existing city owned property. The benefits of the project have been laid out in the Phase 3 report found here: http://www.thunderbay.ca/Assets/City+Government/Event+Centre/docs/Phase+3+Feasibility+Study+Report+Presentation.pdf. Along with replacing aging city own venues this building will make use of existing infrastructure and increase the tax values of neighbouring businesses. As an infrastructure project I feel it is something that needs to be promoted and pushed ahead. Our current facility has seen its life come and go and needs to be replaced. This is not simply a facility replacement but needs to be a representation of the community as it stands today and where we hope it will be in the future. There are many ways to reduce the cost associated with this building and managing its operational costs.
Emergency Services are a hot button issue for Thunder Bay but we are seeing the detrimental effects of under-budgeting annually. Thunder Bay Police Service are expected to run a deficit in their budget and are asking for additional money come budget 2015 to ensure capital budgets are maintained at effective levels. I personally feel that it is more prudent budgeting to set aside more for these departments then to annually come back with deficits. Providing the departments with their proper budgets means they will come back with budgets in the black annually. This will help for future budget projections and to maintain emergency services effectiveness and operations. Thunder Bay needs to receive some help from the emergency services in order to maintain these budgets going forward. We need to look at the potential for items such as a volunteer-public operation of fire halls in the suburban areas of town. Reducing the number of firefighters on city payroll with volunteers can be an effective way of providing fast and reliable service but at a reduced cost. Thunder Bay Police could also look at a auxiliary program to get more officers onto the road and have more 2 man vehicles for officer safety and cost savings. Many businesses experience a majority of their costs with wages and our emergency services are no different. If at all possible wage increases should be maintained at inflation or below for both Thunder Bay Police Service and Thunder Bay Fire Department. Population stagnation and a tax base collapse has caused these two items to become a significant strain on the overall budget. These jobs are difficult and deserving are paid very well but lower costs associated with wages could allow for increases in personnel or increased assistance with items such as mental health. We can have a productive meeting with the members of both groups and come to a outcome that works for both groups.

Transit is an important part of the lifeblood of Thunder Bay. Thousands of people use the system daily and it helps to reduce the strain on city infrastructure, the environment and negates negative health effects. The transit system will need more then funding from council to maintain its service and grow the system. It needs a promise from Thunder Bay city council and administration to fast track development along its routes. Promote density around the areas of its terminals/stops and provide the citizens of Thunder Bay with a fast and effective system. A fully funded transit system will provide many benefits for its citizens and could help to rein in the outward urban sprawl that has been sapping Thunder Bay of infrastructure dollars. In a follow up blog post I will present a proposal to change Memorial Avenue to be as transit friendly as the Mississauga Express Link. There are a number of bright, young individuals coming up in the transit management such as Mr. Jon Hendel who will see Thunder Bay Transit through to its future. Introduction of new routes and improving existing ones will be important for its promotion as a viable option for travel. Working with businesses and events to show people who normally wouldn’t travel transit it is viable will be important for its exposure. I am extremely proud of Thunder Bay transit for having a completely accessible transit system. This is something that all citizens should be proud of.
There are a number of provincially mandated operations in which Thunder Bay needs to operate and should continue to operate as effectively as possible. Operations such as the DSSAB, Pioneer Ridge retirement home among others should be funded to the provincial average.

Providing these departments with their respective required funding will not be cheap and will require that the Citizens of Thunder Bay lessen their requirements/expectations of the city and allow for services to be reduced or eliminated. Below are a number of services and items, I personally believe should be looked at in order to reduce the cost associated with the city.

City print shop – Many private operations can do this

City owned Daycares – Daily losses of $3000. Sell these spaces to the private sector and rent the buildings to these operations.

Reduce number of ball parks/soccer fields – Number is too great to support and maintain

Close Neebing Arena and Grandview – Buildings cost $1 million in annual losses. Replace with a second sheet at Port Arthur Arena and Delaney.

Close the Conservatory – $600,000 annual losses or 0.6% tax assessment

Eliminate sidewalk plowing for residential areas (minus those heavily populated with seniors)

Reduce Staffing associated with these areas and simplify the management throughout the entire system.

Sell Trowbridge Campground and Chippewa Campground

Introduce technology to make working away from desk (on site) easier for staff members

Introduce pay-per-use fees. 15% fee on top of capital fees to pay directly for the use of that site. Ex. A complex gym membership – 15% goes to replacing equipment and upgrades.

Find ways to reduce the 17 million annual payment from Tbaytel. Allow the Tbaytel board to set this based on their income and business needs.

While not all will agree with my list of closures or what I view to be as core services there is one common denominator. Thunder Bay has some big decisions to make in the coming years. Either it continues to increase taxes, over extend itself and provide a number of different services at lower quality levels or it can focus itself on a smaller number of services offering them at greater levels. Thunder Bay is in the predicament where its industrial tax base is being ripped from beneath it by globalization and MPAC. It cannot afford to continue offering all these services at the same rate it once did. Thunder Bay finds itself now looking and choosing which services it believes it can afford and which ones it can’t. I like this option of picking and choosing cuts rather than the potentially disastrous option where we need to cut and slash without mercy due to budget restraints. Even if Thunder Bay sees a boom from a mining sector growth or massive tax increases it still needs to adequately fund the core. Without doing so we will find ourselves in worse condition tax wise and infrastructure then we currently are when the taps run dry.

References:
http://www.tbnewswatch.com/News/366143/Report_card_gives_city_infrastructure_C_grade

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Memorial Avenue Proposal

Problem:

Thunder Bay is an extremely large city geographically for its population density. There are many parts of the city don’t have adequate density to support the surrounding infrastructure. One of the city’s services that falters and struggles the most due to this lack of density is Thunder Bay transit. Our transit system is stretched to serve the city geographically but this in the end results in lower quality service and a lack of riders. Transit riders pay $2.65 dollars for an antiquated service that is slow by many people’s opinion and ineffective. Many in Thunder Bay wouldn’t consider Thunder Bay transit as a viable option to get to work, school or pleasure over their vehicle. Councils of past have been to invested in making Thunder Bay drivers happy, as well as supporting urban sprawl through antiquated urban design. While letting Thunder Bay transit falter and failing to prevent the stretching of the city limits. Thunder Bay needs to find ways to make transit more effective, time efficient, build a city on modern urban designs and get more people out of their vehicles and onto city buses.

For this I propose redeveloping Memorial avenue from John street in the north to Donald street in the south (Memorial turns into May at the Habour Expressway). This is a main route for city buses going from the Water Street terminal to City Hall terminal and back. This North-South route is heavily used by city drivers but it is also heavily relied upon by city transit. Often this route can be done in 15-20 minutes but I believe with these changes we can make this into 10-12 minutes. Cutting 2.5-7.5 minutes off the average transfer time while improving traffic flow for motorists and cyclists. This project if redeveloped would also improve the look of this important street and make transit between the north and south end of the city more effective and fast. This proposal would be a major change for the way Thunder Bay operates and would be a first major step in changing Thunder Bay traffic though and development.

Fix:

Thunder Bay is in the middle of investing heavily into its surface infrastructure. Over the last couple years Thunder Bay has added 1.5% to the annual tax levee specifically for infrastructure projects such as roads, sewers and sidewalks. Memorial Avenue is one of these areas that will shortly be in the pipeline for repairs and upgrades as its lifespan ends. We are already seeing areas of May St. Being redeveloped to repair damage done by years of use. The importance of Memorial Avenue lessens as Golf Links expands to a 4 lane road and reduces the annual traffic on this stretch of road. Thunder Bay is also looking to improve a number of street it considers to be ‘image routes’ and Memorial avenue is one of these streets. This proposal also coincides with consultants and the city looking at creating a new traffic study for the roads in Thunder Bay.

There is a growing desire in the community to see an effective North-South bike lane or active transportation route to connect the growing cycling routes in the north and south ends of town. As it stands there isn’t a complete and protected way to get from Port Arthur to Fort William without having to merge onto traffic; of which the maximum speed can reach 70-80 km/h. A protected route would benefit greatly to those who use these active transportation routes to get around town and drivers who are uncomfortable with driving beside cyclists. This route would also connect the city’s bike lanes throughout the city which has been an important project of the city in the past number of years.

The accumulation of road reconstruction timing, the city’s desire to bring more environmentally friendly designs and artwork/image route improvement to these is area, a desire by members of the community to have alternate ways of getting to work, school and play all combined in my thinking of redesigning Memorial Avenue.

Idea:

The idea I am promoting here today is that we reduce the number of vehicular lanes on Memorial Avenue from 4 to 2. The road would be turned into a through fair of the city which would get drivers from the North end to the south in a much quicker time. A median (a planter) would stretch across the traditional turning lane barring left hand turns on this road with the exception of intersections. This means that drivers would be intent on driving to the other end of town or making right hand only turns out of traffic.

The ‘slow lane’ or the old right hand vehicular lane would be turned into a bus only lane with small areas for merging into traffic and out of traffic into businesses parking lots or East-West directions of traffic. This lane would allow for buses to move freely between stops, terminals and provide a safer experience for customers. I believe that this lane could have many positive benefits for the community and the transit riders. I believe that a fast and effective transit system could pull in larger numbers of riders and as more people move into the downtown cores more effectively spur development along this route. We see the province of Ontario through Metrolinx investing in project such as this to improve transit. Missisauga’s MiWay is just one example of a segregated bus lane that is designed to promote traffic and provide a better system for bus transit users.

An example of the roadway coming to a intersection at the north end of the image.

An example of the roadway coming to a intersection at the north end of the image.

There would also be room for a bike lane as the median in the middle reduced in size and traffic lanes shifted over. This means that we could place a protected bike lane from John street to Donald street that could positively benefit bike rides, transit users and protect cyclists from vehicular traffic. The bike lanes would run along with traffic but have a concrete curb between the bike and the bus lane for their protection. Thunder Bay has spent a lot of time and money to expand the Active Transportation routes in the city and specifically the number of bike lanes that the city has.

In order to make the bike lane and traffic/bus lane work effectively there would need to be a number of changes to the bike lane in order to ensure everyone’s safety. The bike lane would be at the pavement level for most of the road length but when it came to a parking lot entrance or a bus stop the lane would raise to the level of the sidewalk to provide a level section for accessible scooters, walkers and those that need extra help. Stop signs would be placed at these junctions forcing cyclists to stop when a vehicle is coming or a bus is attempting to load passengers. New bylaws and rules would need to be implemented and enforced by Thunder Bay Police or a Transit Police in order to enforce compliance with these areas. For the safety of the riders and the safety of the transit customers.

Memorial Proposal #3 (3)

The road itself would need to see a number of changes in order to make traffic flow smoother. Businesses along the roadway would only be allowed to have a single entrance/exit onto their property. For example the front entrance at Gore Motors Honda and Shooters would be allowed and their second entryway. This will reduce the number of areas were the bike lane needs to be unprotected, it will allow for more green space along the road and it will reduce the number of areas where motorists would be in the bus lane. Reducing the number of entrances into businesses would allow for faster travel along this route for motorists and other forms of travel. There would be areas of allowances into the bus lane which would let motorists move over in order to allow them to merge into business parking lots or other roads. These areas would be represented by a stripped marker on the road itself along with signage advising motorists of the access. The bus lane itself would also be painted so it was a solid colour (ex. green) to provide motorists with a easily identifiable area of no access and potential for fines.
Memorial Proposal #3 (1)

I would also like to see the transit shelters along the route be designed and built by local artists. These could be designed to represent the history of the city, the aboriginal history and other items that could be beneficial for improving the design along this area. This would provide local artists with a great opportunity to show off their talents and provide Thunder Bay with a different and interesting area. I believe that the local businesses around these areas could have an important part in helping to design and answer as to what type of shelter goes around their business. The area around Pinewood Ford could see a transit shelter designed like a vehicle to represent the old Can-Car facility and its history.

Steps:

1. Introduce the bus lane to the length of the roadway and set up signs announcing the new rules on this road.

1a) Introduce a transit police or invest in cameras on buses that would catch drivers using these areas improperly

2. As you reconstruct areas of the roadway bring in the separated bike lanes, reduce the number of entrances to private lots and paint the bus lane a noticeable colour in order to differentiate the two lanes.

3. Introduce new bus stops, cut outs and greenery to improve the vision of this roadway and the view for the businesses surrounding the area.

Conclusion:

Thunder Bay needs to move away from the personal car and made it a more transit friendly city. Investing in transit is cost effective for the city in terms of maintenance , healthy citizens and cost benefit. Memorial Avenue is a perfect place to start this, it is heavily used by transit and part of the city’s plan of image route. We have a great opportunity with some vision and political will to change the way our city travels. This is a potential perfect mix of active transportation methods that will benefit transit, citizens and make the commute between the North-South end of the city easier and safer. Junot/Golf Links will take the potential extra traffic associated with reduced lanes but I feel that this could be beneficial for the city and a positive venture forward. Thunder Bay cannot afford to expand outwards it has been a failing venture and done nothing but add to the infrastructure deficit we are facing. This investment into transit could help the develop the areas around this route and make Thunder Bay more dense. Transit in Thunder Bay is in need of a boost and this could be a potential boost that it needs to get our citizens out of their vehicles and into a city transit bus.

Thoughts? Opinions?

References:

http://www.mississauga.ca/portal/miway/transitwayconstructionbus-shelter-songs