2021 Capital Plan:
Yesterday was one of the biggest days in Council’s annual budget deliberations: the review of the capital budget. HRM has no shortage of good ideas, but the municipality’s funds are limited. The result is a rollercoaster ride for most Councillors as we flip through the budget book to find out what’s in and what’s out. There’s always a mix of cheers and tears.
As I wrote earlier, HRM is adopting a new approach to capital budgeting and debt. HRM has had a very conservative debt policy that has basically amounted to a “pay as you go” approach. That has resulted in the municipal debt decreasing from around $350 million to $235 million today, even while the population has grown and HRM’s ability pay for debt has greatly increased. While the debt policy has been a success in reducing what’s owed, it has left HRM struggling to maintain our existing assets and advance big picture city building projects. There is never enough money for everything, but there really hasn’t been enough money in the capital budget. HRM has basically been trying to pay cash rather than take out a mortgage. The former is cheaper since we avoid the expense of interest, but the latter lets us spread costs out over the long-term and benefit from facilities today. HRM is going to create a strategic stream for major capital projects and increase the regular capital budget to provide a more balanced approach.
In the strategic fund for the next four years are active transportation improvements, Cogswell redevelopment, electric buses, HalifACT (Climate Change Plan), Mill Cove Ferry, Ragged Lake Transit Garage expansion, Windsor Street Exchange, and the Forum (delayed till the very end of the 4 years). A large portion of the strategic fund is transit related, specifically electric buses (approximately $110 million of the total $226 million allocated for strategic projects). That’s more than half of HRM’s entire regular capital budget in a typical year! For us to move forward with electric buses and the supporting infrastructure at Ragged Lake at the pace envisioned, and to add a ferry to Bedford, will require federal and provincial support. The federal government is keen, so it will likely come down to whether the Province is on board or not. Early indications are positive (Premier Rankin indicated support for the new ferry and electric buses in the leadership race), but we’ll have to wait and see.
There is a lot more in the capital budget than just the strategic projects. 2021 will see HRM spend $175 million on smaller items, with plans to increase that to over $200 million in future years. One of the key projects for Downtown Dartmouth that I have championed several times in the past is the Sawmill River daylighting project. The Sawmill project is about mitigating the risk of flooding in Dartmouth, restoring the environment, lake water quality, connecting our trail network, enabling redevelopment in Dartmouth Cove, and creating new public spaces. There is so much good stuff wrapped up in this project!
The good news is the Sawmill River project appears in the four year outlook. HRM is budgeting, in principle, to spend $8.5 million over 2022 and 2023. This will still be subject to approval next year, but hopefully I will not have to push so hard for this project like I have had to in the past. It would be nice to get started this year, but I think we can wait until 2022.
The one big piece around the Sawmill project that’s still unknown and that I asked about is what daylighting will look like between the Prince Albert, Portland, Alderney intersection and the Lock4 Condo. This area around Irishtown Road is unique along the River’s route in that it is the one spot where we have the space for a more naturalized approach. This is where it might be possible to reach out and touch the River. For something like that to happen will, however, require HRM to be more directly involved. Halifax Water doesn’t have the mandate to build parks. That’s HRM through and through. If we leave this section to Halifax Water, we’ll get something that’s nice, but it’s unlikely to live up to the potential that’s there. We have one shot at doing this as once built, it’ll be 50 years or more before there will be another opportunity. I will continue to follow up on planning for this section.
Other District 5 Items
There are a number of other projects in the capital budget in District 5. It’s actually a busy year because a number of things that have been in the works for the last several years have come in together all at once. Below is the list of what will be happening around District 5:
- Canoe 22 means improvements are in the works for park space at Silvers Hill and Birch Cove
- New parks building at Grahams Grove with a public washroom and space for the Kiwanis and the Dragonboaters. Parking lot at Grahams Grove will also be paved
- Dartmouth Splash Pad on the Common
- Resumption of delayed work at Alderney Gate to extend the Pedway renovation down to the lobby (carryover project with funding from previous years)
- Northbrook Park Phase 2 of the park plan (carryover project)
- New green for the Dartmouth Lawn Bowls Club
- Flower Streets Complete Streets project
- Wharf repairs at Alderney (Phase 2 of this project)
- Pathway repairs in Brownlow Park
- Repairs to the Banook Boardwalk (section that’s caving in by the gazebo)
- Grant to the Penhorn Lake Area Trails Association for the construction of the recreational trail loop around Penhorn Lake
- Road rebuild and new sidewalk on Renfrew Street (intent is Renfrew will match changes made previously on Chadwick)
- Prince Albert Road redesign from Sinclair to Braemar (carryover project)
- Wyse Road bike lanes and pedestrian improvements (carryover project)
In terms of the capital budget, the big snowstorm from two weeks ago proved to be well-timed. Half of District 5 (Downtown Dartmouth and everything on the west side of Victoria Road) is cleared by in-house crews. Contractors clear the rest including Crichton Park, Manor Park, North Woodside/Southdale, Brightwood, and parts of Dartmouth North.
Dealing with 40 cms of snow is always going to push HRM’s standards. Councillor Mason and I became concerned though about what we were seeing as our in-house staff struggled to deal with the it during the last storm. We have great people working for HRM who are dedicated to the job and work hard. Even the best people though are going to struggle if they don’t have the right tools.
What became clear is that a lot of HRM’s snow clearing equipment wasn’t up to the task. Not only are HRM’s sidewalk plows old, the municipality also has no backups. When something breaks, HRM ends up down a person and work doesn’t get done. Councillor Mason and I met with staff and then when staff presented the fleet budget we requested a briefing note on HRM’s sidewalk equipment. What came back yesterday was a revised plan to replace all seven of HRM’s trackless plows instead of just the two that staff had originally planned to retire. HRM will also keep the best of the old equipment around so that we’ll have backup gear for the first time. Hopefully this will make a difference when winter rolls around in 2022.
Council did move one major item to the budget adjustment list for additional consideration. Councillor Cleary asked Council to consider allocating an additional $1,000,000 for traffic calming (basically a doubling of the program). HRM is scaling up the program, from the dozen or so streets that we normally do each year, to around 20, but the list of qualifying streets is nearly 300. Traffic data collection didn’t happen last year due to COVID which means there is also a backlog of 209 streets waiting to be assessed (probably most of them will qualify). Basically, the list keeps getting longer and longer. The demands for traffic calming far exceed HRM’s existing budget.
I supported Councillor Cleary’s ask, but the big caveat is that it’s likely that HRM won’t be able to spend an extra $1,000,000 on traffic calming. We don’t have the staff to do the planning and design or to manage contracts for that work. If Council is serious about expanding the traffic calming program (something that I think is important) then we need to look at it in more of a permanent scaling up of the program. We need to hire the staff and allocate money on a regular basis rather than looking to top it up as a one-time thing during budget deliberations. We’ll see what comes back.
Change is coming to Dahlia and Oak Streets this year. The Flower Streets Complete Streets project is a go. I have already written about this a few times now, including in my last two e-newsletters, so I won’t go into in-depth detail now. The quick highlights are:
- A pedestrian/bike crossing will be installed between Dahlia and the Common. Crossing will have a rapid-flashing beacon (like the one at Maple and Dahlia) rather than a traditional overhead crosswalk light
- Dahlia will get speed bumps and curb extensions to slow traffic
- A new sidewalk will be built from Beech down Dahlia to Crichton, along Crichton to Oak, and then up Oak to Tulip
- New pedestrian/bike crossing from the new sidewalk to Sullivan’s Pond with a rapid-flashing beacon
- Extension of the multi-use trail through Sullivan’s Pond (behind the rhododendron and the magnolias) to connect Banook Greenway to Dahlia Street
Taken together, these are some significant improvements for the neighbourhood. I get regular complaints about the mess that is the intersections of Dahlia and Oak at Crichton, and about the lack of a crossing to the Common. This project fixes both and fills in an important piece in the Regional Centre Bike Network. Very pleased with the work that has been done and looking forward to seeing it built later this year.
Council approved changes to the Streets Bylaw to allow Boulevard Gardening. You may recall that this is an issue I brought forward to Council in 2019. Boulevard gardening is something that’s somewhat common in HRM, but it existed in a legal grey zone. The Streets Bylaw assigned responsibility for boulevard maintenance to the adjacent property owner, but all the Bylaw said about what was required is that “any” grass must be regularly cut. Emphasis here on the word any. The Bylaw really didn’t contemplate gardening, which led to some inconsistent responses from HRM since it wasn’t clear whether it was allowed or not.
I’m pleased to report that the grey area around boulevard gardening is no more. The new Streets Bylaw revisions and Boulevard Gardening Administrative Order makes it clear that gardens are permitted, subject to some reasonable conditions:
- No plants taller than 1.0 meter to preserve sight-lines (0.6 meter height if within 5.0 meters of an intersection)
- No permanent structures such as irrigation systems
- No woody plants or trees (HRM does the tree planting)
- Maintain 1.0 meter separation from other street stuff like utility poles, mail boxes, street trees, etc
- No gardens in front of accessible parking spaces or in areas of short-term paid street parking
- No planting invasive species (there is a list!)
- Don’t raise the ground above the edge of the sidewalk
- No hardscaping (rocks)
Those all seem like pretty sensible rules to me! HRM isn’t making this overly bureaucratic. There is no permitting process or inspections or anything like that. Issues with specific gardens will be dealt with when problems are identified. So feel free to go forth and garden!
Council has made a multi-year commitment to the Street Navigator program. The Navigator program is an outreach effort aimed at providing assistance to street-involved people. The goal is to help people connect with services, housing, and employment. The program is a partnership between HRM and the Business Improvement Districts in the urban core (Spring Garden Road, Downtown Halifax, North End Halifax, and Downtown Dartmouth). The Districts operate and administer the program, while HRM provides part of the funding. The program has two navigators, one who works in Downtown Halifax and Spring Garden Road, and one who works in the North End and Downtown Dartmouth. Shawn Parker is the Navigator in Downtown Dartmouth.
The Navigator program dates back to 2007, but it has generally been delivered on an ad hoc basis. The program has received funding from the federal and provincial governments in the past, but that funding has been inconsistent. For the last several years, it has been the BIDs and HRM running the Navigator Program alone. The Program is really important and to provide certainty, Council agreed to enter into a three year funding arrangement. HRM will provide $140,000 a year for the next three years. Many thanks to the BIDs for being such great partners.
The insufficient supply of accessible cabs in HRM was back before Council. The problem is our owner-operator taxi model makes it hard to add accessible vehicles because the cost of an accessible vehicle is entirely borne by the individual operator. We don’t have company-owned taxi fleets where costs can be distributed across multiple license holders. Unfortunately, it not only costs more to buy an accessible taxi, it also costs more to operate because of the specialty equipment. It also tends to be less profitable because many accessible passengers require more time to load and unload, reducing the number of calls a driver can take, and those calls for an accessible taxi come from all over HRM, increasing the amount of dead-time that a driver spends travelling. The accessible taxi business isn’t a great place to make money and drivers have exited the business in droves over the last few years. From a peak of 57 accessible vehicles, the supply has dwindled to just 16. The current system isn’t working.
HRM’s first choice for dealing with the problem was to offer financial incentives to drivers. Doing so would require a Charter amendment though because the municipality isn’t allowed to provide grants to individuals or businesses. The municipality made the request to the Province in April 2019 and the Province has not taken action to change the Charter. As part of allowing ride hail companies like Lyft and Uber to come to HRM, the municipality sought the ability to charge a per trip fee with the intent that the money generated would be used to create an accessible fund. Charging a per trip fee isn’t unusual and is something that exists in many other cities across Canada. Unfortunately, that’s not how things played out here. In one of the most frustrating moments of my last four years, the Province waited for Council to debate the issue before informing us later that very same week that they wouldn’t allow a per trip fee. They held their decision and let Council proceed with incomplete info. Basically, the Province has been completely unhelpful when it comes to accessible taxis.
So what to do? The only solution left is for HRM to contract for an accessible taxi service to provide door-to-door service. The taxi provider would charge fares like a normal cab, but HRM would top up the fee with a set rate. HRM is estimating the cost of contracting for an accessible taxi service will be between $280,000 and $600,000 a year. Council agreed to move forward with this plan and, assuming procurement goes okay, a contractor could be in place later this year.
Mic Mac Mall Development:
You might have heard in the news that Council was looking to initiate a planning process for Mic Mac Mall. Mic Mac Mall is identified as a future growth node in the Centre Plan. A Future Growth Node is a large piece of land that is well situated for future redevelopment. Other Future Growth Nodes in Dartmouth include Shannon Park, Dartmouth Cove, and Penhorn.
The big difference between Mic Mac Mall and the rest of Dartmouth’s Future Growth Nodes is there hasn’t been any work done to look at what redevelopment at Mic Mac Mall could look like. Shannon Park, Dartmouth Cove, and Penhorn have all had in-depth planning processes over the last few years that worked out the broad outlines for future development applications. That isn’t the case for Mic Mac Mall. HRM was going to initiate a process to look at Mic Mac Mall, but at the last moment this week, the Mall’s owners had second thoughts and asked for HRM to cancel the initiative. Their plans have changed. It makes little sense to proceed with a planning exercise without the support of the property owner, so a rethink of Mic Mac Mall will have to wait for another day.
- Designated 6215 Coburg Road as HRM’s newest heritage property
- Approved a new zone for the corner of Dunbrack and Willett Streets in Clayton Park to allow for a new multi-unit redevelopment
- Endorsed the new Halifax Regional Integrated Tourism Master Plan
- Asked staff to add a potential South End Heritage District to the list of future heritage districts identified in the Centre Plan
- Initiated a planning process to look at adding residential development to lands near Dartmouth Crossing (Frenchman’s Lake)