Revelstoke city plans $2 million debt borrowing for school road traffic projects this summer

In an election year, city council hopes to push through two traffic projects at local schools, funding them through $2 million in long-term external borrowing.

A vehicle drives by Arrow Heights Elementary School during spring break in 2022. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Revelstoke’s city council will ask electors if they support a plan to add $2 million to the city’s debt to pay for a what is billed as school safety road works projects.

The proposed projects are located at the Arrow Heights and Columbia Park elementary schools, both of which have been the subject of traffic safety complaints for years. Arrow Heights Elementary has seen traffic safety complaints since Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened, dramatically increasing traffic on nearby Nichol Road.

Morning student pick up and drop off traffic is also problematic at both schools.

Although the city is mid-process in its transportation master plan process, a document that sets direction for future transportation projects in the city, the plan is to push the projects forward for this construction season, wrapping them up before school resumes in September, ahead of municipal elections in October.

By funding the project through an additional $2 million in debt, city council can avoid a taxation impact this budget cycle; instead, it will be repaid with interest in the years to come.

Discussion of the proposed borrowing came at a special budget meeting held on Mar. 22. 2022. The plan was supported by the mayor and all councillors, except for Coun. Tim Palmer, who was elected to council in a Feb. 2021 by-election.

At the council table on Mar. 22, some councillors voiced support, including Coun. Nicole Cherlet: “It is an important project, that our community has been talking about for a long time,” she said. “As much as I would love to not have to fund through debt, I think it is a valid use of long-term debt for a finite, relatively hopefully clean project that won’t bridge out in scope into our basic reserves that we should be funding through reserves and taxation.”

When asked for a statement explaining his reasons for opposing the plan, Coun. Tim Palmer responded to revelstokemountaineer.com with a statement: “First, I strongly support comprehensive improvements to the pedestrian corridors leading to the Columbia Park and Arrow Heights schools.

“However, with the absence of a design overview and financing details, a borrowing decision is premature. Neither the public nor council had the opportunity to provide input into the design,” Palmer said. “Furthermore, staff are already talking about reducing the scope of the project. This ad hoc decision void of 2022 budget impact is sloppy; the community deserves better oversight by council.”

When asked at the Mar. 22 about the state of design preparation for the project meeting, city engineering director, Steve Black, said that he had met with the design team that day and that the design process was ongoing and would soon produce more accurate cost estimates.

“Obviously, estimates are estimates,” Black said. “However, we are relatively certain that we can get this project with the budget that has been assigned, and if we do need to, we are looking for opportunities to reduce scope in order to achieve the goal of this, which is school safety.”

Black said council would be involved in the award of the contract, so it would see the final proposal when the design is complete and costed. He said the project would include asphalt on the roadway.

Debt borrowing needs elector approval through a counter-petition process that requires registered electors to write in to oppose the proposed borrowing.

In response to questions from revelstokemountaineer.com, city finance director, Tania McCabe confirmed the city will need to use the alternative approval process: “Long-term borrowing requires electoral approval, with very few exceptions. And those exceptions are not met for this project.”

McCabe said that the alternative approval process would not start until after the budget had been adopted. The process takes at least 30 days, often longer. In B.C., municipal governments must have their budgets approved by May 15, meaning city staff won’t know for certain if they’ve received funding for the project likely until at least mid June, and likely later, giving staff a short lead time between the go-ahead and construction start.

If enough people write in to oppose the plan, council can reconsider options, such as revising the plan or proceeding to a full referendum, options that seem certain to push the project past the summer construction window.

Black said that the project would add to sidewalk connectivity, and once the transportation plan has been completed, the project could dovetail with other future nearby sidewalk connectivity projects.

In a staff report, city finance director, Tania McCabe, notes that external sources of funding for road projects are hard to come by.

Although provincial and federal governments will provide grants for various infrastructure projects that align with their goals, when it comes to one-off paving and patching local roads, municipal governments are essentially on their own. They need to build transportation funds through taxation or other more predictable forms of funding, such as gas tax funds.

One potential source of funding to offset impact on taxpayers is development cost charges, otherwise known as “DCCs.” The Development Cost Charges bylaw won’t be completed this term and not before the summer construction window.

What construction work is actually proposed?

The projects have not been finalized yet, and are currently in a stage of construction development. When asked for details on the projects, city staff provided a link to this report completed in 2020. It is a consultant’s engineering report into possible solutions to ongoing issues, not a construction plan.

For both school sites, the report proposes extensively changing road signage in front of and around the schools, adding some sidewalks, changing school crosswalk locations, and revising parking at the schools.

However, the report is preliminary, and not a final plan. For example, it shows a mini-roundabout on Pearkes Drive, but notes that it is “potential.”

The report also notes many current road safety deficiencies, such as non-standard signage, and problem areas where motorists picking up and dropping off students use private driveways to turn around.

A Mar. 15 discussion paper produced by the finance department notes that long-term debt funding is “not the preferred option” for funding capital projects like the school safety plan, resulting in interest payments. The city’s debt management and financing funding policy notes disadvantagse of external debt is there is no option to pay out or pay down the debt before set refinancing periods, and that interest rates can increase at the time of refinancing.

Analysis: A election-year project

Road safety around the schools has been an issue for years. In an election year, political leadership is leaning on the engineering department to complete a construction project with high visibility and no tax impact on this year’s tax bill — to be paid back later with interest. However, this creates a rush to get the projects designed and completed, and could drive up costs or lead to scaling down of the project. It is moving forward without a completed transportation master plan, a document that is used to generate calculations for development cost charges, meaning that a portion of the projects that could be recovered from adjacent development projects will be borne by taxpayers in the future, with interest.

Watch council discussion of the proposed plans for the schools at the Mar. 22 budget meeting here:

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.