Driving a point home There may be more to Whistler’s transportation strategy than pay parking By Bob Barnett Two weeks ago, Banff residents overwhelmingly rejected a plan for pay parking in the downtown core of their Rocky Mountain town. In a plebiscite vote, 1,138 residents — 80 per cent of people who voted — said no way to pay parking. Popular perception is the 263 people who voted in favour of pay parking either do not have drivers licences or are part of a fringe group that never refuse a donation to a worthy cause and don’t cheat on their income tax returns. Nevertheless, the vote has left Banff town council in a bind. Pay parking was one aspect of an overall transportation plan, but it was expected to produce annual revenues of between $250,000 and $300,000 to fund many of the other initiatives. The revenues were earmarked to support public transit, fleet management (which would see fewer large delivery trucks in town), traffic management, and alternative forms of transit, such as pathways and bicycles. But following the vote on pay parking, Banff council now has to re-prioritize its transportation plan and find alternative sources of funding. The lesson is not lost on Bill Murray, chair of Whistler’s Transportation Advisory Group, which recently presented the Whistler Comprehensive Transportation Strategy to council. "People don’t like to pay for parking," Murray says, if letters to the editor of local newspapers and the Banff vote hadn’t already made that clear. But despite the rhetoric and popular belief, Murray says there is more to Whistler’s transportation strategy than pay parking. The strategy is designed to maintain or enhance life in the Whistler Valley. Moreover, it should be remembered there are costs to transportation solutions, just as there are costs to maintaining the status quo. A little refresher on how TAG arrived at its transportation strategy might be in order. "When we started this process more than three years ago, the two mountains were separate entities," Murray recalls. "The mountains didn’t want to include the day-skier lots when we started. It took a lot of discussion before they agreed to include the parking lots in the transportation package. What we finally ended up with is a proposal that revenue from the parking lots should be allocated for other aspects of the transportation strategy." That the mountains — which had representation on TAG from the start and which merged under the Intrawest banner while the transportation strategy was being developed — came to agree to include the day-skier lots in the plan is illustrative of how the thinking behind the transportation strategy evolved. Initially the mountains were adamant that there had to be plenty of free parking for their customers. Part of their acceptance of the TAG plan has been the realization that there are more and more destination visitors in the winter — people who don’t arrive by car, and hence have no need for a parking lot. While pay parking is in the plans, when and how many of the day-skier lots will become pay parking is something that still hasn’t been determined. "I hope we can be creative with the parking issue, provide at least one free lot," Murray says. "And we may have reduced charges or free parking for people who carpool. We have to get people thinking about how and when they get in their cars." But long before pay parking became a hot political issue, TAG looked at a spectrum of transportation solutions, ranging from "the car as king" — building roads and parking lots to meet all future traffic demands — to "the car as evil" — discouraging use of the automobile, including not building any further roads or parking lots. What was finally settled on was something of a compromise. "People saw the road solution as pretty damaging to the valley," Murray says, "but if we can’t change people’s habits, if Transportation Demand Management doesn’t work, it would be crazy not to plan right-of-ways for additional roads." Hence, the largest cost items in the $45 million transportation strategy capital plan are $23 million for a Nita Lake Parkway, which would traverse the west side of the valley from south of Function Junction to north of Nita Lake, where it would join Highway 99, and $13.4 million for additional north- and south-bound lanes between Nita Lake and Village Gate Boulevard. But Murray says the hope is that through TDM measures, better traffic management and alternatives to the automobile, the parkway and additional highway lanes might be avoided all together. "We’ve had improvements in traffic on weekends and holidays the last two winters," Murray points out. Three winters ago, lineups on Highway 99 from Lorimer Road to south of Function were the norm on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. That hasn’t been the case the last two winters, for a few reasons: some people have decided to travel at different times, there are more people riding more transit buses, and there are more destination visitors — people who came to Whistler without a car. Pay parking is the aspect of the transportation strategy most people have focused on, but the $400,000 study produced a lot of data on movement within the valley, both in winter and summer, which changed some assumptions and development plans. For instance, it was a simple counting of beds in the village that led to the conclusion Whistler Mountain needed another access lift from the village. Prior to that realization other on-mountain lifts and a second Creekside access lift were priorities. The Creekside redevelopment, which will likely include another grocery store, liquor store and post office, is also going to affect movement patterns in the valley. These type of changes, co-ordinated with increased local transit, an expanded Valley Trail system and TDM measures — including at some point, pay parking — are hoped to stem the need for additional highway lanes. One of the problems in selling this plan is there isn’t much in the way of tangible solutions — other than pay parking. After the $36.4 million for the Nita Lake Parkway and additional highway lanes, the remaining $9 million in capital costs has $3.2 million earmarked for a cabriolet lift to carry people from Lot 4 to the village base area, $1 million for a southern satellite parking lot and $1 million for construction of a village transportation centre. The rest is to be spent on establishing carpooling programs, new traffic signals, improve traffic operations, studies, communication plans and other "incremental" items. TAG’s goal is a 15 per cent reduction in automobiles during peak hours, but Murray acknowledges, "We only have so much control over what happens outside the municipal boundaries. If the province decides to four-lane Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler’s borders… we’re going to have more cars." Given the state of the province’s finances, that’s not likely any time soon. However, a new issue is surfacing: summer traffic. As predictable as winter traffic is — most people go to the mountains in a two-hour window in the morning and leave the mountain during a two-hour window in the afternoon — summer traffic isn’t. People are on the move at all times of the day and they’re going to various locations, rather than just the mountains. While summer traffic is becoming a bit of a worry, Murray says the solution is the same as in winter. "There’s no magic bullet, it’s lots of little things. If you take one out it’s not going to kill the plan. But if you take out a few TDM measures, it’s probably going to erode the plan." For that reason Murray told council last month he feels it’s important TAG remain together and help with the implementation of the program. Revenue from pay parking will at some point be needed to help fund the additional buses Whistler has planned — there are 19 as of this year, the plan is to go to 31 over the next three years. Eventually public transit may be free, but that will probably require wholesale changes in municipal financing, including a resort tax. In the meantime, Murray points out that Aspen had a very different experience with pay parking than Banff. Nearly four years ago Aspen city council introduced pay parking in the downtown streets on a trial basis, to great opposition. Six months later, most Aspenites — including downtown merchants — were solidly behind pay parking. Locals’ parking needs were accommodated through portable parking meters hung inside their cars, and store owners were pleased with the increased customer traffic. Banff and Aspen, which both have downtown cores set out in a grid-work of streets, may have more in common with each other than with Whistler and its pedestrian village, but the attitude in all three towns toward pay parking has been the same. At least until it has been tried.