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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

This reform needs a rethink

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Richmond Review Editorial

(note: the editorial published in the Review was a shorter version of one that appears in the Surrey Leader) This article has been revised in view of comments received.

The Black Press is gradually becoming more critical of the BC Liberal Government. This in itself is not remarkable – it is almost inevitable that over time the media will become more critical of any government. This particular editorial though is mainly about accountability – and how there will be less of it in future.

But the real stinger for me is this:

The board ultimately agreed—but only just—to push the Richmond-Vancouver rapid transit line ahead of other priorities. It drained any trust Victoria had in the locally elected mayors and councillors, who will be booted off TransLink’s board in January.

It is not about “trust”. The Board of Translink was doing what it was appointed to do, as set out in the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act, a piece of provincial legislation. Every government, once it is elected inherits a system from previous governments, and it has to continue with what it inherits until there is enough legislative time to change some parts of it. It is simply unrealistic to think that a new government can simply come in and start doing everything differently, since they are as much bound by the law as everybody else.

The Canada Line was not in Translink’s strategic plan, as Richmond already had the B Line. The GVTA is bound to support the LRSP as it is the legally mandated Regional Growth Strategy. The BC Liberals did not repeal any of the legislation (Growth Strategies, GVTA Act etc). The Canada Line was a recreation of a former idea of a rapid transit line to Richmond that had been around prior to the previous NDP government. But that was a while ago. The thing about plans is that they only work if you stick with them. That is what a strategy is: we all agree to follow the same path – even if privately we might have reservations about it – since that will ensure the best chance that we will end up where we intend. Now this is not as exciting and daring as making it up as you go along. But is also less confusing for everybody, since a strategy works by replacing uncertainty – and if there is anything that markets, and investors, and indeed almost everybody involved in trying to achieve some goals, is uncertainty.

Not only was the Canada Line not in the strategic plan but it had features that were unknown. It is the first major public transportation P3. It would not connect with the existing SkyTrain. It would be in a very expensive bored tube – something not seen in any line so far built here or planned here. And it would run through a relatively low density area (where change in land use was not very likely) to a place the LRSP had determined should not be a growth concentration area since it was subject to both flooding and ground liquefaction in the event of seismic activity. Let us leave aside any consideration about the political allegiances of the area.

Given the above, the Translink Board would have been derelict in its duty not to question the province’s proposal. Except that it had been cooked up by its own former CEO who had personally directed the creation of the project. And he is a man who does not recognize that anything he has a hand in can have any taint of conflict of interest. As he himself has always been at pains to make clear. And, by the way, he was also City Manager for the City of Vancouver prior to going to Translink, and the City of Vancouver was not going to see much rapid transit spending as the Broadway rapid transit line was itself highly controversial, and the Coquitlam extension (now known as the Evergreen Line) had been the on again, off again priority for years – even before the extensions into Surrey. And the best thing about the Canada Line, as far as the City of Vancouver was concerned, was it removed a threat to the home of the “creme de la creme” – The Arbutus corridor.

The Black Press is right. It is a “serious erosion of local democracy”. The problem is that the GVTA itself is not especially democratic and hence not known for its responsiveness to local concerns. Some might think that is an advantage in a regional body, but the real problem that I see in a “two steps removed” election process is that people do not feel that – despite its cloak of legislative authority – the Board is representative or responsible (in the sense of other democratically elected bodies).

The GVTA is sui generis. There is nothing else like it. The GVRD is one step removed from municipal elections – and that in itself causes a problem for most voters. There are all sorts of crown corporations and provincially mandated boards and agencies, but the GVTA does not report to the Province – not should it. The whole idea of the GVTA was that the province was supposed to get out of the regional transit business. Nowhere else in Canada does the Province deliver local transit services itself (with the exception of GO Transit – where there is no one regional municipal body covering the whole of its service area).

The proposal that will be brought back to the leg this fall is driven by a combination of spite and pique. Neither of these is a respectable reason for legislating administrative changes to regional transportation. It is based on a misconception, that regional transportation should be run just like any other commercial enterprise. That is a big mistake. We can already see the damage that this approach is doing to the region by the attitudes and aspirations of the boards running our port and airport. More business for them is not necessarily the best thing for the region – far from it. The residents of the region are suffering now from more pollution from shipping and truck movements and noise from aircraft, as the traffic for other places is now routed through here rather than Seattle or Oakland. And it is just not good enough for these boards to simply shrug their shoulders and say that this is a cost of doing business.

I think that reform is needed. I think what we need is a democratically elected body that is in charge of both regional planning and transportation. All of it. You cannot possibly be successful trying to plan transport if you do not ensure that it fits the development pattern. The LRSP is being whittled away, as is the ALR. Yet this region has made it clear that it did not, and does not, wish to develop in the same way as most other North American cities have developed. The fact that one or two politicians elected to the provincial legislature think differently is simply not important. The fact that they can command a parliamentary majority is. But one of the other meanings of “responsibility” is that an elected politician is supposed to set aside personal preferences, and allegiances, and act in the best interest of all the people – not just those who might vote for him next time. And in my mind there is no doubt that the integration of regional transport and land use planning is very important, and must be done better in future than it has been up to now.

The problem with the new Board is not so much that it is not going to respond to complaints about fare hikes: none of its predecessors did either. The problem will be that that the people running it in future will not be concerned about much more than “the bottom line” – the way most business people learn to think. We even have the Premier telling us the Evergreen Line does not have a business plan! Well, it is actually better planned than any other line – including the Canada Line. And what is the value of a plan (build it in bored tube) if you change it once you see the size of the invoice (ok, cut and cover along Cambie)? Making cities livable is not entirely and solely about making money.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2007 at 1:36 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Just a note that an intermediate capacity transit line (light rail or busway) IS in the Livable Region Strategic Plan – it just wasn’t next in line to be built. See map here:

    Click to access LRSPMap.pdf

    From what I recall, Richmond was allowed to be a Regional Town Centre under the Livable Region Strategic Plan (despite being in the flood plain, etc.) because it refused to sign on to the LRSP if it wasn’t so designated – and the LRSP requires unanimous ratification by each member municipality. i.e. it stonewalled the GVRD into getting what it wanted.

    ron c.

    October 18, 2007 at 2:24 pm

  2. You are right to correct me. When I used the words “not in the plan” I should have been specific about which plan. I was thinking at that point of Translink’s Strategic Transportation Plan – or what was left of it after the vehicle levy got dropped. The timing is significant because there was a significant period of “drift” – uncertainty – once it was clear that Translink could not put into place its preferred options. This was not helped by the approach adopted which was to make a list of major capital projects and then only proceed with those that could be financed externally.

    The 98 B Line was the ICTS for Richmond, of course, not that there was much of “Rapid Bus” left after Vancouver got done with it. And of course the whole point of the median bus lanes on No 3 Road was that they could be converted to LRT in future.

    And being a Regional Town Centre meant jobs and retail – not necessarily a huge increase in population in high rises! And wasn’t it the case that the rapid growth of suburban housing in Richmond led to the creation of the ALR? Isn’t that why Harold Steves is often credited as “the father of the ALR”?

    Stephen Rees

    October 18, 2007 at 3:01 pm

  3. At the time of the RAV votes, I thought that a reasonable means to appease the camps would be to build the RAV line as an airport line (with provision for a future No. 3 Rd. branch) and retain the existing 98 B-Line to feed into Bridgeport Station. That would give Richmond rapid transit to the fringe of the municipality (akin to Lougheed Station serving Coquitlam through a B-Line). That would free up funds to build the Evergreen Line and then afterwards, the No. 3 Rd branch could have been built after the 98 B-Line infrastructure was used for a bit longer. I suppose the problem with that is that it would have skewed the ridership projections so much that the whole business model would have required re-evaluation.
    But, I recall that one of Bombardier “alternate” plans was to run MKIIs to the airport and have a Bombardier Flexicity Streetcar link in at Bridgeport for the No. 3 Rd. portion – apparently the overall cost of that “hybrid” system was higher than the InTransitBC bid. Not sure if I could imagine No. 3 Rd. functioning well with a LRT or streetcar running down the median.

    Of the Regional Town Centres, Richmond strikes me as the one most devoid of office space. Granted, there are three small towers clustered at No. 3 & Westminster Highway, but I haven’t heard anything recently about office construction, like I’ve heard for Brentwood (and that’s a minor town centre). I tend to think of office parks when I think of Richmond.

    ron c.

    October 19, 2007 at 2:04 pm

  4. Clarification – wrt “the streetcar linking in – it wasn’t a dual running system – a transfer would have been required.

    ron c.

    October 19, 2007 at 2:05 pm

  5. The editorial that ran in the Richmond Review was a shorter version of one that appeared today in The Surrey Leader which also talked about the Tsawassen Treaty as a question of trust. The language used for the Translink “reform” is much tougher – and is worth reading.

    Stephen Rees

    October 19, 2007 at 2:58 pm

  6. The board’s refusal to just rubber stamp RAV and demand that, if the costs escalated, which they did, the project was brought back to the board for approval, was simply them doing their job. In the end, all this probably ended up saving TransLink $50 million dollars or so because it forced InTransit to really “sharpen their pencils” and give TransLink a better price. I’m not sure if it was intentional but it turned out to be a good bargaining tactic. Falcon should be congratulating the board for this rather than complaining.

    Building just an airport line likely would have cost TransLink more than building the line to Richmond as well. The airport segment accounts just for 15% of projected ridership. $500 million of the project costs are being funding through increased ridership revenue and decreased bus operating costs. Without the Richmond segment, much of this increased revenue and decreased operating costs would not have been realized. The cost of the Richmond segment is probably around $300 million, a relatively small portion of project costs. As well, the amount of new development happening around Richmond Centre is staggering. Hopefully it won’t flood for a while.

    It was actually cost overruns on the Golden Ears Bridge that resulted in the initial shortfall for the Evergreen Line. TransLink staff never bothered to tell the board about the impact of allocating extra money for the Golden Ears Bridge on the Evergreen Line. It is kind of strange that in many ways, the Golden Ears Bridge is a much worse project than RAV yet it has received so little attention. $800 million for a project that will only serve 20,000 per day when it opens.


    October 20, 2007 at 11:30 am

  7. And hopefully these new residential towers won’t get hit too often by passing planes

    The Golden Ears didn’t really get anyone very excited – except the locals and environmentalists concerned about the the impact of the approach road on farms. The only reason that it got on the agenda so quickly was that it could be paid for by user tolls of a conventional kind. Therefore cost escalation is less contentious since it will eventually be recouped – either higher tools or a longer pay back period. There was still, as I recall, quite a bit of uncaptured “consumer surplus” left in the demand forecast after the impact of tolls was taken in to account.

    Quite why the over development of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows that will follow the bridge was less contentious than, say, the potential loss of Barnston Island from the ALR I do not pretend to understand.

    Stephen Rees

    October 20, 2007 at 11:57 am

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