• Sean M. O'Connell

Excuses, Excuses...

Updated: Apr 14, 2019

This week at council has been particularly frustrating. To use a Roman analogy, it feels like I am Nero watching Rome burn and you are powerless to stop it.

Yesterday, it was pointed out that the business case for BRT funding is a weaker proposal because the exclusion of London West and North has reduced the amount of transit ridership. Potentially harming the ability for London to secure transit funding. The Mayor and other councillors have not offered a comment. Western University students comprise a large portion of TLC ridership in the city. They feed $10 million into the TLC coffers annually and when students are in London provide an influx of economic activity. I warned Council at the public participation meeting that carving up BRT piece meal would scuttle the plan. Now there is a real risk that may happen. We are competing against other municipalities for funding too. The province and the federal government aren't going to leave money sitting there for us whenever we are 'ready'. This is what happens when one tinkers with years of planning for a municipal project.

Mayor Holder also announced his Jobs Task Force for London yesterday. I did not like the idea when it was first floated months ago, nor now. My first thought when he announced his intent, and I have been proven correct, was that this initiative is a glorified placement agency. In Mayor Holder's speech he specified how people need training to look for work or draft a resume. He spoke about how public transit isn't getting Londoners to their workplaces and those who lack a car definitely need public transit. The pot calling the kettle black isn't it? Council cleaved transit into two last month and thus ensured Londoners cannot use efficient public transit in the future to get to work in the North or West ends. Moreover, his initiative is terribly short sighted. This programme makes the assumption that it is about the numbers and that people are not trying hard enough to find work. He states there are 9,000-11,000 jobs in London that aren't being filled and we have 75,000-ish job seekers in London. Therefore we have to connect them with a job and voila! Problem solved.

It is not as simple as that. First, ask yourself, is it a job a person can do? Second, is it a job the person would want? Do they have enough education, skill sets, or capacity to do a particular job? Can they afford the education if not? Are they able to reach the job site with public transportation? Do they have the financial means for residency to take the job? Are you competing with people who already have experience in that type of job? None of these questions are answered in his speech. Nor will they be. His programme is simplistic and will fail.

This initiative makes no attempt to provide actual training whether for a highly skilled job or not. Most employers can't be bothered to. They want ready made employees who have the education and skill sets when they apply for the job. This is precisely why they bemoan how they can't find workers. Unless they are willing to invest in their employees, it is for naught. There are no allowances for market conditions. In a few months I am certain the Mayor will try to showcase the 'success stories'.

As for the vaunted job fair. I went to one at the Western Fair grounds a few years ago. It was disappointing. There were about a dozen placement agencies, various employers, all for the most part in landscaping or roofing, one accounting firm and the City of London. For a skilled worker like myself, there wasn't anything for me aside from the City of London. The line to their booth had the most people in it. Stable, good paying work is precisely why. To give another example, I attended an open job fair for Toys R Us at Argyle Mall before it was built. They had over 2000 applicants. These weren't for quality jobs either. It was for mainly for cashiers and stocking positions. So let's not pretend a job fair is the answer to getting people into work.

I appreciate the sentiment for wanting to get Londoners working but without making London a viable city, with mobility (and quality of life) being a key component to attract businesses to create those high quality paying jobs, the notion falls short.

Hence, council matters this week. The two topics of importance were High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and the Back to the River project.

HOV Lanes

HOV lanes as a motion was placed before council by Councillor Van Holst. The motion was an attempt to incorporate and have staff look at the use of HOV lanes as an alternative to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In order for HOV lanes to qualify for provincial funding it must be placed into a Transport Master plan. He believes HOV lanes are an 'interesting alternative' to BRT. He also stated that it would allow for people to carpool. Once again, a car centric view for London.

The idea behind HOV lanes is that it is a designated lane for more than one person in a vehicle. Think about that for a moment. An alternative to BRT designated lane is another designated lane? Moreover, HOV lanes are primarily used on highways when there are six to eight lanes of traffic and in the curbside lane. Most of our main arteries in the city consist of four lanes. Staff pointed out that aside from one section of Wellington road, six lane road are quite rare in the city. Which is a polite way of saying next to none. Even if HOV lanes were in place, there is no way to enforce the more than one occupant rule, and practically how would people pull out from a side street or their driveway? BRT dedicated lanes were for the most part were in the centre lane of the roadways.

The vote for this amendment is where council fell down. They voted for it, 10-5. Now I understand the logic people would employ over this, 'it can't hurt to look at it right?'. Ordinarily I would agree with that logic, however, consider that you are now wasting staff resources, money and time to analyse a road feature that obviously isn't viable for an urban setting. In short, a half-baked idea was given oxygen when it should not have been. This idea screams of desperation, after I presume the backlash from the BRT decision has sunk in.

Back to the River

In 2014, the city held an open design contest offering a $50,000 reward for a winning design of the Fork of the Thames. This was for the Back to the River project which reimagined the main portion of the Thames river in London from Soho to Springbank dam. It is an ambitious and necessary project to revitalise London. To remove the Spring bank dam is estimated to cost from $6-12 million while the Fork of the Thames will cost $8.2 million to add the Ribbon Bridge and $4.2 million for the other aspects of the site.

Cost Analysis for the Fork of the Thames

The on site features will include an amphitheatre for the public to use, seating and other amenities for the public. Each portion of the river front can be built in stages and is a plan stretched over twenty years. Various community groups and private donors have contributed money to the project including $2 million upfront and a possible $5 million in the offering. The Fork of the Thames is ready for building and has had the environmental assessment (EA) completed. The Springbank dam decommissioning EA is complete and the report is being drafted on our options to remove it. This project is straightforward and something the city has been planning for quite some time.

Councillor Phil Squire began his line of questions by not understanding the differences between an architect and an engineer in relation to the Ribbon bridge. He asked if an engineer went through the project. Engineers are brought during the EA assessment. On a basic level their job is to understand and assess a site, how well a structure can sit on the site and various stress tests of materials. Whereas an architect plans, designs and reviews the construction of a structure. To put it in another way, one creates the ideas, while the other says whether it is viable or not. I know this and I am not even in that profession...Squire later stated he wants the project to put on hold and move forward with the Soho portion because it offers affordable housing. The Soho portion of the project has not completed the environmental assessment and that it will take another one to two years to complete it. Nor is that portion ready to be built and won't be until four years from now (designing, planning and other processes, etc). It was pointed out to him that there is a $2 million donation 'on the table' and that the Ribbon bridge is an iconic site for London and will boost tourism. Think about that. Council again wants to leave outside money unused while intentionally trying to screw up an existing project under the guise of affordability and saving money?

Councillor Lehman asked about the annual cost for maintenance of this project. There isn't one as it hasn't been built yet. Van Holst asked about whether we own the other designs from the contest and if we can use one of those instead of the existing Ribbon design. Staff replied that they would have to get back to him on that. They don't believe we would own or have access to the other designs. He also asked what use is an amphitheatre? He was told that it is a public facility for residents to use as they see fit.

Councillor Van Meerbergen asked how much the suspension on the ribbon costs and proceeded to call the project a 'bridge to nowhere'. (It's $4 million for that component.) Why he was asking this, I am not clear. I can only assume he wanted to sound smart. However, his characterisation of the project as a bridge to nowhere is both disrespectful to the designers, planners and other city staff who have worked on this project to date and also shows immense disrespect to Londoners and its donors.

Councillor Shawn Lewis chimed in, reiterating PVM's characterisation of the bridge. He doesn't want the Fork of the Thames project as a priority criticised private donors as dictating what happens with the project. No one, let alone a donor is dictating how the project is to be done. Secondly, what does Lewis think a priority is? This is yet another major city building project to come before council that he dismisses out of hand. As Councillor Turner pointed out, the returns on investment for our city are 17 to 1 from these projects. ($17 in revenue compared to $1 invested.) Moreover, I have stated repeatedly that these projects are meant to improve our quality of life in the city, attract investments, boost economic activity and tourism. Lewis isn't interested in any of that. He, like others on council keep speaking about alternatives to sound detailed proposals as if they know something everyone else does not. The evidence is in their choice of words, actions and the non-existent constructive ideas.

It has been a politically turbulent week. Excuses or fictional alternatives are no substitute for leadership. Council needs to get to grips with itself and start building the city as we've planned. The Back to the River initiative is ok for now. In a few weeks I don't know. Our city continues to suffer at the hands of dogmatic and short sighted thinking that impacts everyone. I struggle to understand how things can go on like this for another three and half years.