Friday, June 29, 2012

Why twinning Hwy 63 is the wrong road for Alberta

Picture courtesy:

Twinning Highway 63 to Ft. McMurray is a popular idea. Governments like to adopt popular ideas, as evidenced by today's provincial report on the future of Highway 63.

It's mandate seems narrow - how do we improve safety on the highway by changing the highway? If the mandate had been simply, how do we improve safety on the highway?, the best answer could have come to light - getting private vehicles off the highway by offering passenger rail service to Fort Mac.

This is a clear-headed report drafted by two engineers in 2011 that takes the right view of transportation problems in the area.

The engineers favour a multimodal transport model that involves the use of heavy passenger rail and/or high-speed rail to get passenger vehicles off the road.

Most noted fatal collisions, from what I've observed, involve at least one passenger vehicle. These are impatient oilpatch workers either rushing to get to site or rushing home to see family. They're not professional drivers like those driving the semis on the highway. The stress of being in a rush on a long, two-lane highway causes road rage, which leads to risky passing and speeding - and deadly collisions.

The report shows the benefits, in terms of costs to citizens, to the government and reductions in emissions, of taking private vehicles off the road using buses, rail and airplanes.

A multimodal system could transport workers to Ft. Mac or near to site, with connections by public transit or employer-sponsored buses. There is already a rail line to Ft. McMurray, which raises the possibility of starting rail service in the near future. Upgrading that railway or building a new line to offer high-speed service could follow. A large community surrounded by large employers is ideal for offering quality transit service.

Imagine a tired oilsands worker coming off a couple weeks on site having the choice of a train ride to Edmonton, on which he or she could sleep or watch movies on wi-fi. No worrying about thousands of other frustrated, tired drivers, and no worries about weather conditions.

Twinning 63 may solve volume problems and help reduce risky driving behavior. But they come with big price tags, not just up front. Maintaining essentially two highway that takes that much heavy truck traffic is extremely costly over the long term. It costs millions, if not billions in extra gas for everyone to drive themselves to site. It also produces way more greenhouse gasses than necessary.

Embracing rail could not only fix the traffic problem on 63, but also be a public relations coup for industry and the province, a sign that we're taking climate change seriously. We could have all this while reducing the overall costs to government and workers.

I'd like to see a study that considers all the options, including rail, in improving safety for oilsands workers and Ft. Mac residents.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why you can't afford not to rent longer before buying a home

Generation Y'ers like me - the ones who bother to read the news, at least - likely feel like someone has been trampling on their dreams with shiny budget shoes lately.

Finance minister Jim Flaherty's changes to mortgage rules this week disproportionately affect first-time buyers. The Globe has some pleasantly thorough coverage on the matter today.

I'm a renter in my late 20s, so every pamphlet in the mail from home builders that begs the question "why rent when you can own?" indeed makes me wonder, why am I throwing away my money?

Tighter mortgage rules may mean some don't have a choice in the matter.

Either way, there appears to be some room for relief.

Included in the Globe's print coverage was a dandy breakdown of home and mortgage costs across the country, including in Edmonton. Call me naive, but I found it startling to see in one big number that servicing a $347,000 mortgage (the Edmonton single-detached average) costs you $273,000 in interest. That's for a 30-year mortgage, which will no longer be allowed lest you have a 20 per cent or better down payment. The amount you'd pay in interest on a 25-year mortgage for the same Edmonton home would be $220,000 - a savings of $53,000 in interest versus a 30-year mortgage.

It begs the question, especially in light of the coming ban on 30-year insured mortgages - why rush into home buying when it may be cheaper to rent, save up and wait?

Say I bought a condo three years ago, just after I moved to Edmonton. With the job I had as a newspaper reporter, I would almost certainly have needed a 30-year mortgage.

But lets say instead I wait 5 years to buy the same home, but with a 25-year mortgage, paying rent in the meantime. In the last three years, having coupled up half way through, I've paid about $25,000 in rent. I can expect to pay about $13,000 more in rent to reach five years of renting before buying.

Total paid in rent: $38,000. Money saved in interest: $53,000. Plus, my income has steadily, thankfully, increased over that time. My capacity to pay the higher payment of a 25 or even 20-year mortgage has increased. It's also given me the chance to build savings for a down payment. I've also been able to enjoy the walkable lifestyle of an urban neighbourhood, rather than putting up with the long commutes to lifeless fringe suburbs where homes are most affordable.

Maybe I'm overlooking a major step here, but that looks like a pretty solid case to hold off on home buying, even if it means paying rent longer. Now only can I afford it, I can hardly afford not to.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

There's no buzz about 109 St. S, and I like it that way


When the Three Boars Eatery (read pub) opened on 109 St. and 85 Ave in recent weeks, a pack of hipsters seemed to grow from the seats like asparagus or bamboo shoots. The place was packed from day one.

I didn't see an ad campaign or any neighbourhood lit, and I live two blocks down the street. Yet the place is full. So it goes with most of the spots on 109 St. between Whyte and Saksatchewan Drive. Little buzz, lots of variety, lots of bums in seats.

Just a couple of years ago, I would never have used the term lively to describe the Garneau gaggle. It was less a strip than an archipelago comprising a few reputation-driven locales like the Garneau pub, Sugarbowl and the High Level Diner. Between were black waters of early-closing retail (including a Bible store, which really draws the night crowd) and some sketchy spots or downright empty commercial space. It made the walk down 109 St. intimidating after dark, which is a kiss of death for attracting anyone but dedicated regulars to particular establishments.

The renaissance on this humble street began at its one visual gem: the Garneau Theatre. A big reno completely refreshed its look, and the Metro Cinema kept the movie projectors running after the last theatre company pulled out. The reno also pushed out some long-term commercial tenants in favour of four new dining and drinking spots, along with a hair dresser. Since then, Noorish, a raw/vegan resto/yoga spot, took over the bible store down the street and Three Boars just opened in the former spot of a rather sketchy pizza joint. At the same time, the nascent and fabulous Da Capo Lifestyle Caffe finally found its crowd by uniting wealthy urbanists with cyclists. Urban Diner expanded from its popular 124 St. spot to the Garneau area, replacing a mediocre Italian joint with a solid brunch spot. Given the horror stories I've heard about the condition of the kitchen when Urban Diner took over, let's all be glad.

None of these places or changes were fundamental. But importantly, they have created land bridges between the established and undiscovered spots, like La Tienda cigars. There's now plenty of reason to stick on 109 St. on a weekend or weekday evening, bouncing between one character-soaked pub and restaurant to another.

Much of the buzz in town has revolved around Jasper ave/downtown. It's the beneficiary of some streetscaping, new condo development, a farmers market, potentially an NHL arena and a recent glowing Edmonton Journal piece. But downtown could take a number of lessons from growth on 109 St. It's attracted visitors by catering to diverse lifestyles, but in doing so creates a vibrant scene that makes you want to try each place. I'm excited to see where 109 St. goes, and hopeful that the KFC/Taco Bell will close soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dutch disease symptoms include denial, irresponsibility

Paul Martin had Bono. Tommy Mulcair now has the OECD.

The Conservative network has been apoplectic over Mr. Mulcair naming dutch disease as a problem that must be addressed. They've denied, insulted , and denounced - every tool that's become part of the Conservative network trade in disposing of inconvenient issues.

The only thing they haven't done is answered the damned question.

I'm not going to discuss Mr. Mulcair's policy suggestions., largely focused on environmental legislation. I'm interested to hear his position on Canada's monetary policy as well.

Rather, in light of the OECD's acknowledgement of mild Dutch disease conditions, and similar acknowledgement by Canada's IRPP, lets look at how harmful the Conservative network's response is to our economy.

Studies and facts aside, logic dictates that the investment in Canada's energy sector raises the value of our currency. As an investor, I'd look to Canada's oil wealth as a guarantee of prosperity and returns amidst a shaky world outlook. If your dollar is high, it makes your product more expensive to buy relative to states with lower currency values. There's no way this hasn't negatively affected manufacturing. Even if it's a small effect, a progressive and responsible economy seeks to correct the problem somehow. Government can have a role in a response. So to hear political leaders respond emotionally, as if naming a problem is an automatic assault on their castles, demonstrates a decided lack of maturity and pragmatism.

It feels like me willfully ignoring my bank account balance lest I feel bad about frivolous purchases. It's a practice I try to avoid because I know it doesn't matter what I think about my account balance - ignoring debt doesn't make money. This is part of what I call personal responsibility.

But I'm not surprised in the least that prominent conservatives in this country are failing to act responsibly. For years, their leader Stephen Harper has refused to act in line with his stated values. He denounces big government, but oversaw massive growth in spending and public service employment. Mr. Harper trumpets fiscal responsibility, but cut the GST only to be faced by a deficit that one could argue is now structural thanks in part to that decision.

No one should believe a word Stephen Harper says, but that shouldn't be news. What is news is that we have a batch of leaders who seem unwilling to even consider, let alone address structural problems in our economy. That news should worry all of us. Because leaders who don't watch the bank account won't know when the money runs dry.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wine - Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon

Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon (Organic) 2010 - If you can't trust a wine brand anymore, what can you trust?.

- Price: $17
- Could Richard have designed this label: Too pretty for me to design - or want to design

As I grow up, I'm learning about the things you should trust, and things you shouldn't - and drinking ever more wine, come to think of it.

You should trust your lawyer, because my favourite cases to watch involve self-representation. You should not trust online ads that use the word "free". You should trust that McDonald's will titillate your taste buds, but torture your intestines (I tell myself this as I stare at the Golden Arches with a mean late-night hunger coming on). Apparently, you shouldn't always trust a winery.

Bonterra, and organic cabernet sauvignon out of Mendocino County and Lake County in California. Wine Access scored the 2009 vintage at 89:
This is well-priced for such an elegant and well-balanced cabernet. Expect cassis and black cherry jello notes, with pencil shavings plus some floral and leathery complexity. It seems light on the palate due to a seam of fresh acidity. It is velvety smooth with good length. Very pretty. Drinking best 2011 to 2014.

While I cruised my favourite liquid lunch supermarket, Bonterra stuck out. I grabbed it. It was the 2010 vintage. But I mean, same winery, same grapes, one year apart.

I'm sure fellow wineophytes can sympathize with me. With most consumer brands, except investments, past performance is usually indicative of future results.

But Bonterra 2010 was ... how to put it gently ... repulsive on first taste. Lifeless. No fruit, lots of mineral, little structure. It didn't get a lot better over time. It was dry without being crisp. I felt continually disappointed. When drinking starts to feel like a task, it's time to leave the nightclub immediately; or time for a new bottle.

Wine Access knows much more than me. So I'm going to chalk this little error up to learning what to trust in life. Should we trust wine bloggers?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Now for something completely different ... wine.

If there's something that pairs well with politics, it's wine, or scotch. So, I'll review both here.

Back story: I'm getting married July 27. Eggs and I decided to host the show at Hawrelak Park. Note to city council - it's a bummer that you don't allow booze in the park. So in lieu of an open bar, we'll be treating our guests to wine as a takeaway gift. Really, take it away - we've seen teenagers get ticketed for open liquor at Hawrelak. Please don't behave like a teenager at our wedding.

So with a little help from my sommelier friends, I'm endeavoring to test a few reasonable bottles.


- Costs about $15, or less. Less is more easy on my wallet.
- Must impress upon first sip. And not in a "I knew Richard was cheap, but wow" way.
- Must be available in Edmonton.

So, the first edition: El Petit Bonhomme - Man wine.

- Price: $15.75
- Purchased at: Bin 104, 5454 Calgary Trail (that one classy strip mall, next to Bonanza and Tony Romas)
- Could Richard have designed this label: Yes. It's a stick man.

Apparently Nathalie Bonhomme, the wine's producer, is a good ol' Canadienne made good. Born in Quebec, she started making wine in Spain, via England and South Africa. What a life.

I'm going to intentionally try not in these reviews to produce wine tasting notes that look like the grocery list of a very hungry person (Vegetable stalk? Compost? I may not be a sommelier, but I know which part of the vegetable to eat).

This is a man wine - smoke and meat. You can taste the plans for world domination. Huge presence off the nose - didn't they ban smoking indoors? Upon taste: enough tannins to pucker a bit on the first sip, but by the third it has mellowed out and presents steak, blackberry, and smoked or roasted spice. Lovely smooth finish, with a bit of juicy steak presenting again. Eggs says it smells like A535. But she just got back from working six hours on a Sunday. And she clearly doesn't know alcohol is an acquired taste.

I go back to the idea that this is a "man" (in the gender stereotypical sense) wine. The scotch drinker in me doesn't feel like he's betraying himself in enjoying this without a meal. The wine drinker in me, who lives Zin, missed the berry sweetness on the first sip. But that's a nice turn - a wine that's not berry-centric but doesn't taste like dirt (I'm looking at you, Italia!).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some politicians, and apparently some citizens, need reminding that money in government coffers doesn't belong to the government - its a common pool of public wealth.

The primary philosophers of western thought saw government arising from the common interests of society - the social contract. Said Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
"The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled." (On the Social Contract, Book 3, Chapter 12)

So it was frustrating to read Paul Wells column on the Quebec tuition row. In one of those 'I'm joking. But seriously, what do you think?' intellectual balloon-floating moments, he proposes letting some universities raise their tuition freely, while others either freeze or further lower tuition, and suffer the supposed consequences of poor education quality.

He may as well have given the Quebec student protest movement the 'here is how things work in the real world' speech that's genetically coded into fathers across privileged North America. He cites the university funding deficit of $620 million Quebec schools face versus the rest of Canada, where tuition is much higher. He's correctly identified a tension. Educating students costs money. Keeping tuition low can starve schools and leave students with poor quality education. It's one reason why I've generally opposed tuition freezes.

But funding education is not a fight between students and government alone. Public university education is a benefit, directly or indirectly, to almost all actors and members of our society.

A study of the impact of university spending by the Minnesota government suggests it costs the state there $326 million in economic costs for a benefit of as much as $786 million per year.

Students and government benefit in terms of higher wages, fewer demands on public programs, lower crime and more. But what the study fails to measure, but mentions, is the benefit to businesses. Specifically, businesses who hire more university-educated workers see boosts in productivity in university educated and lower-educated workers alike. Not only does a university education increase the quality of workers available; for many jobs, uneducated workers simply could not fill needed positions without further training.

In essence, the costs of training demanded by employers has been downloaded to the public university system and subsidized by all taxpayers. Train conductors and engineers for Canada's railways used to be educated in-house, at the employer's expense. But recently, a program was struck at a college in Manitoba. Now students pay $10,000 for a months-long program to be able to be employed as a conductor.

Corporate taxes directed specifically toward public education would help level the balance of obligation amongst those who benefit from public education. Yet raising corporate taxes specifically to fund education has not been part of the discussion while students are being called on to pay more. Corporations receive direct benefits from publicly funded university just like students do.

This option would be on the table if we saw government for what it really is - a re-distributor of private, corporate and public wealth, not a source of money in and of itself. If we want to have the benefits of public education - as the Minnesota study suggests we should - then we need to as a society decide the contributions of every beneficiary - private, public and corporate - to fund the best public education system possible.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Throne speech - check against delivery

My fellow Albertans,

Since it has come to the government's attention that we allegedly don't like Alberta all that much, we're going to go out of our way to give Albertans outside of southern rural Alberta exactly what they want - a Liberal government, but without the name, the doctor, or the tax increases. Well, no new taxes for now at least. We'll have a chat about that later.

We're going to keep the promises to liberal-minded voters we made in our platform. Don't worry that our platform doesn't mention climate change or publicly delivered health care. Past PC governments have shown we can be trusted on those fronts.

• Follow a renewed fiscal policy and savings strategy to reduce dependence on non-renewable resource revenue and seek Albertans’ input on the future of the Alberta heritage savings trust fund.

• Identify strategies to expand the recruitment of post-secondary students in rural areas, including those within Métis and first nations communities.

• Serve as the catalyst for a pan-Canadian Energy Strategy that promotes inter-jurisdictional collaboration to develop a sustainable energy roadmap based on common goals and priorities.

• Implement Alberta’s International Strategy, including the negotiation of “externships” – competitive placements for talented Albertans in international organizations, foundations, multilateral institutions and the private sector.

• Implement increases to the monthly living allowance and the employment income exemptions for participants of the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, as outlined in budget 2012.

• We will build a network of up to 140 Family Care Clinics based on the pilots in calgary, edmonton and slave lake.

• Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

• A new PC government will increase the number of long-term care spaces by 1,000 per year over the next five years and meet the needs of Alberta’s aging population and changing demographic profile.

• A new PC government will implement a province-wide ‘After School Recreation Strategy’. the ‘After school recreation strategy’ is supported by evidence that unsupervised children, between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m., are more vulnerable to anti-social and other behaviours that lead them into trouble with the law. we would spend an estimated $1.5 million to develop the program, with an ongoing operational budget of between $3 and $5 million per year. funding for the program would come from the Alberta lottery fund.

• A new PC government will build an additional 50 new schools and renovate 70 more over the next 4 years in the communities that need them most

• The Canadian Energy Strategy will help provinces and territories understand how all of canada benefits from resources in Alberta. (along with our plan for Securing expanded pipeline capacity to Eastern Canada)

• This year, agencies contracted by Seniors and Human Services received an additional $62 million – the equivalent of a five per cent wage increase and a $1,500 lump sum payment for an estimated 17,000 agency workers.

• A new PC government is committed to strengthening supports for Albertans in their time of need. our Plan for Poverty reduction will focus on a 5-year plan to eliminate child poverty and a 10-year plan to reduce overall poverty.

• To help keep traffic moving, our water clean and expand transit we will renew our ongoing commitment to fund cities through the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI). A new Progressive Conservative government will commit an additional $600 million a year to Msi in 2014/15 and guarantee yearly funding of $1.6 billion a year through 2023.

So, Albertans outside of southern rural Alberta, take us at our word - we've got the change you want. Go ahead, hold us to it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trudeau's shadow

Hat tip to the National Film Board - can't believe Harper hasn't slashed it yet - and their excellent website, It's packed with awesome documentaries from years back. What an asset to Canadian culture. The question of who will be Canada's next great leader seems decidedly undecided right now. Though he's achieved his political objectives, Stephen Harper is not a great leader - a man who inspires us to greater highs - nor a nation builder - sensible for a politician who sees little role for government in nation building. Thomas Mulcair is showing a divisive, calculating streak by hanging his economic credentials on Canada's "dutch disease". But he has years to prove himself. This weekend's free TV - Hat tip to the Internet, wag of the finger to the cable companies - included this series on the simultaneous rises, falls and interplays of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque. The first of three: Trudeau's removed intellectual style seems wildly out of place in today's Riddelin-starved retail politics - see Michael Ignatieff. Yet he was the last to reshape our nation. Significantly, he was the last prime minister a significant number of people seemed to love. But a review of his governing record, as the documentary suggests, returns many periods of listlessness and managerial dysfunction. On environmental sustainability, indigenous living, urban challenges, health care sustainability, competitiveness and more, Canada needs fundamental change - realignments of responsibility, bold but careful intrusions into the market, a reconsideration of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Yet we have elected, since Mulroney, incremental managers in the style of your supervisor at work. Chretien and Martin succeeded in slaying the deficit in the 90s, yes - but those are trophies from award dinners, not the stuff of grade-school textbooks or tearful flag-raisings. Despite his style, the meaningfulness of Trudeau's big accomplishments are with us still exactly because they impacted both our emotional and material lives. In retrospect, it's possible to draw the connections between a strong stance on rights and the impact the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has had on the lives of all Canadians. Trudeau's intellectual rigour on rights - the succinctness of his thinking - eventually and almost accidentally came around to unite the heady and the daily. I've yet to see a leader emerge who has thought through all those fundamental challenges and can explain why the work must be done. No leader has stepped forth to present with ruthless honesty and unending patience a plan that rises above easy criticism. Is there a leader who could do both and get elected in Canada today? Would we listen? The search goes on.