Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for December 8th, 2008

TransLink in cash crunch

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Vancouver Sun

It is not in a cash crunch yet, but it will be. For the last few years they have been putting money aside into a reserve, but now they are starting to dip into it and that cannot go on for long. By 2011, a new revenue source will be needed to maintain service. This, of course, is not exactly news. They have been saying the same thing for some time, but so far there has been no response from the people who really hold the purse strings.  Given that an election is coming up over the horizon, Falcon and Campbell do not want to be talking about either a new tax for Metro Vancouver – or even hinting that Translink raise its take on property taxes. Especially when assessments are going to start going down soon and tax rates will have to increase just to keep the same levels of municipal revenue flowing.

In adopting its $1.3-billion budget and capital plan for 2009 on Friday, TransLink said it will have to dip into its reserves in order to proceed with the projects it has committed to for the coming year.

These include adding another SeaBus, providing more cars for the West Coast Express, launching the Canada Line and opening the Golden Ears Bridge.

Golden Ears Bridge construction in July this year

Golden Ears Bridge construction in July this year

That last little gem confirms what I have been writing here for some time. As a P3, the revenues from the Bridge have yet to start flowing. But the private sector partner obviously has its hands full with the construction costs, and the way that they have been rising steeply since the project started. “Opening” the bridge, you might have thought should also be a cost borne by the bridge builder – to be recouped later from the projected $13m a year in toll revenue. Come to that “launching the Canada Line” should also have been a cost included in that P3.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about P3s – its just that this administration seems to be incapable of writing and enforcing contracts that work in the public interest. In their haste to get private sector investment into the system, far too many concessions are made. It is not clear if this is simple incompetence, or a determination to get as much money into the hands of investors as possible. Either explanation is equally plausible. What we now cannot tell is what could have been achieved if a different approach had been taken.

Equally, it is clear that the set of priorities imposed by the province on the region are not the ones it would have chosen itself – whether or not the region’s politicians actually paid attention to either public opinion or the region’s legally mandated  growth strategy. And that is what we are paying the price for, and will continue to do so unless the direction  changes. Massive road expansions and needlessly expensive, short sections of rapid transit lines are what has lead us to the point where we are paying far too much for a very poor regional transit service. This was bad enough before we began to realise the realities of post peak oil, environmental degradation (which has not been and will not be mitigated thanks to our useless environmental “protection”) and continuing urban sprawl.

But the message for the future could not be clearer. And is the same as the one being delivered to President Elect Obama. We must stop freeway expansion now. There will still be need for refurbishment and replacement of life expired assets – like the Patullo Bridge – but the Highway #1 expansion and SFPR are not needed. Much more efficient, effective and environmentally sound investment in transit is essential – as well as a commitment to support the system’s operating and maintenance costs. Gating SkyTrain and building deep level tube railways is wasteful and irresponsible.  More buses, more bus priority on street, and new light rail/tram services are essential. So are really innovative services for low density suburbs – which will otherwise become uninhabitable as gas prices start to rise inexorably. Transit oriented development must replace existing plans – and retrofitting the region to reduce car dependence is also essential. And this is not some distant  goal. It is an immediate priority – and its success will be measured by a reduction in regional ghg emissions despite an increasing population.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 8, 2008 at 9:30 am