Banff Downtown Pedestrian Zone proposed for 2022-24
Banff Town Council will consider a plan to close Banff Avenue to vehicles for the next three summers, to create a downtown pedestrian zone similar to the closures in 2020 and 2021. Council voted on Monday, November 8 to have administration prepare a budget for the summer closure, but with a three-year plan instead of a one-year commitment. The plan will be debated in the annual Service Review in December, which leads to setting the Town’s budget for the year ahead.
The original intent of the downtown pedestrian zone was to provide increased opportunities for physical distancing during high visitation months, and provide customers with increased access to local businesses during periods of public health restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In surveys conducted by Banff & Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) and the Town of Banff in 2020, visitor support for the pedestrian zone was strong (97% would like to see it as a permanent feature), resident support was moderate (three of four respondents wanted to see it return as a permanent feature), and business reaction was mixed. BLLT told council that a recent survey of members showed very strong support for the return of the pedestrian zone, and the longer commitment will help their marketing of the visitor attraction.
A three-year commitment would also allow for a more predictable operational cycle for both administration and business participants, to better plan longer-term investments. Council said they will have to weigh the disadvantages of the closure to vehicles, which include detouring vehicle traffic onto residential streets and contributing to traffic delays for vehicles heading north over the Bow River Bridge. The cost to implement the 2021 pedestrian zone was just under $257,900.
No skating rink for Bear Street this year, but events to go ahead
Council voted against installing an ice skating rink on the Bear Street surface parking lot this winter, in favour of allowing vehicles to park in the heart of the resident service centre and commercial hub.
Bear Street was being reconstructed last year to replace the underground utilities and transform it into a plaza-like, pedestrian-friendly street. The road remained closed to vehicles last winter, allowing the Town to install a skating rink in the area where the surface parking lot was redeveloped. Council approved the rink, with lighting, music and amenities, to attract customers to the street, where business had been significantly disrupted by construction and the COVID-19 pandemic. The rink also helped distribute skaters away from the skating rink at the high school to reduce the crowding risk associated with COVID.
This winter, a skating rink will not be installed at the high school field to determine if student sports and recreation can start on the field in the spring, earlier than recent years. The ice rink damages the playing field, requiring extensive remediation and closure until summer. The Town is allowed to provide public skating in The Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, unlike last year, when COVID restrictions prevented public access. The Town will add outdoor skating in the Recreation Grounds after renovations complete the next phase of development this coming summer. A rink in Central Park is not possible this winter if the construction of the new pedestrian bridge is expected to start in the next month, pending approval from the Government of Canada. The Town may explore other locations in the community for an outdoor skating rink.
Bear Street will still be utilized for events and activities this winter, with some short-term use of the surface parking lot and intermittent closures of the street. Activities include market stalls and live music appearing at the end of November, the Banff Craft Beer Festival (Dec. 3-11), the Town of Banff’s New Years Eve celebration (depending on health restrictions), and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism’s signature winter event: SnowDays (Jan. 19-30), which includes giant snow sculptures down the closed street and the Tribute Craft Spirits Celebration over two weekends in the Bear Street parking lot.
Council considers using pay-parking revenue to stabilize taxes
In its Governance and Finance Committee meeting on November 8, Banff Town Council recommended adding a clause to its Financial Plan that would allow using net revenue from pay parking for stabilizing taxes between property categories and supporting economic recovery.
In March 2021, the previous Council established a dedicated reserve fund for collecting pay parking revenue. The policy indicated the revenue would be used to pay for the infrastructure costs, such as installing pay stations, and all operating costs for maintenance and enforcement, then earmark any left over revenue for specific uses. At the time, the five uses that revenue could be used for were:
- Roadway and parking improvements
- Transit enhancements
- Increased snow clearing
- Cycling or other active transportation initiatives
- Transportation decarbonization initiatives
In the November 8 meeting, Council added a sixth option:
- Tax stabilization and economic recovery
This policy for earmarking how to use net revenue from pay parking will return to Council for approval at an upcoming meeting. The addition was identified as an option that is important to consider for the upcoming Budget debates, which will see tax impacts.
In 2020, Council reopened the budget and cut the overall tax levy by 17% to lessen the burden to property owners during the height of the pandemic crisis. The return of services is expected to require a jump in taxes over last year, and inflation over pre-pandemic 2019. More significantly, the difference in property taxes for residents and commercial property owners is expected to be large, because commercial properties assessed value plummeted during the pandemic, while residential properties held or increased their value. The difference in property values between the two categories in Banff, means residential properties will see a much larger increase in property taxes.
Although the figures are still being determined for the November 29 start of budget deliberations, Council is adding the use of pay-parking revenue as an option to help stabilize the difference in property taxes between the categories. The option for economic recovery would also allow Council to dedicate revenue in future years to help with initiatives identified in our community to help with recovery from the COVID pandemic.
The net revenue from pay parking from 2021, which started in mid-July is expected to amount to $162,000. In 2022, depending on visitation and the impact of the pandemic, net revenue for the full year is forecast at $1.58 million.
Vehicle traffic to Banff up 15% over 2020
Despite the lack of international travel for most of the summer, Banff experienced higher traffic volumes this year in comparison to 2020, but still 18% below the pre-pandemic 2019. Council was updated with a summer 2021 transportation overview at their November 8 meeting, where they learned that traffic increases with relaxed COVID travel rules, traffic congestion and travel time delays can be expected next year. Statistics from the summer show:
At the main entrances to town:
- Summer 2021 vehicle volumes increased 15% from 2020, but were still 18% below 2019 volumes
- Summer 2021 had 16 days which exceeded the Town’s congestion threshold of 24,000 vehicles per day (two way, at main entrances combined) versus one day in 2020 and all 62 days in summer 2019. When the threshold is met, traffic delays occur, especially for traffic coming down from Sulphur Mountain and across the bow River Bridge. This requires manual overrides of traffic light cycles to move more vehicles through the intersections.
Banff Avenue Bridge
- Summers 2020 and 2021 had zero days which exceeded the congestion threshold of 16,000 vehicles per day (two-way traffic) versus 55 days in summer 2019.
Roam public Transit and Active modes
- Roam transit local ridership (Routes 1,2,4 combined) June through September increased 133% from 2020 and decreased 58% from 2019
- Active mode crossings of the Bow River in summer 2021 were 20% of total people crossings versus 22% in the previous three years
- Summer 2021 vehicle volumes were 134% of 2020 and 68% of 2019
Banff Avenue Pedestrian Zone and Travel Time Delays
- Greater vehicle volumes in summer 2021 combined with the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone closure resulted in increased delays
- Green override frequency to address northbound delays was restricted due to the resulting adverse effects on southbound and cross-town traffic
Visitor-Pay Parking, Resident Parking Permit systems and Intercept Parking Uptake
- The implementation of Visitor-Pay Parking and the Resident Parking Permit program freed up on- and off-street parking in downtown and residential areas
- Peak occupancy at the Train Station intercept lot reached Strategic Plan target of greater than 80%, and reached full occupancy on 4 days
- Visitor-Pay Parking promoted turnover in downtown parking stall usage, creating more availability for residents and visitors
- $162,000 in net revenue (profit after covering all infrastructure costs and operations from start in July)