Stephen Rees's blog

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

TransLink in cash crunch

with 14 comments

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

14 Responses

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  1. I believe the growing financial crisis with Translink needs to be juxtaposed against the continuing SFPR & Gateway project. Those massive highway expansion projects are proceeding at a pace while the various promises of the BC Liberal government for transit expansion are in jeapardy. It would appear the Evergreen line is once more in limbo and most certainly Gordon Campbell’s promise to double transit by 2020 is just another empty bit of sloganeering.
    It’s very evident that the Campbell government’s first priority remains highways and bridges. While transit projects struggle and face delays, service cuts and funding crisis, there is no such delay in highway expansions.
    The true motivation behind privatization of those mega-projects can be argued in any number of ways but the results are clear. Private interests own the projects, reap the tolls or “performance payments” for 30 years plus and don’t invest any of those dollars in public transit. The taxpayers only get ownership of the project at the end of the contract when the bridge or highway – or hospital – have reached the end of their lifecycle and are ready for replacement. Wouldn’t it be more fiscally prudent to build a public project and invest tolls back into public transit?
    There is no question that we need light rail and more buses. We need them now and not in ten years. There is nothing to stop us from proceeding with both of those initiative, except the current government’s lack of commitment to those concepts.
    Translink’s current financial situation is a mess but the government has not taken any steps to rectify it. Gordon Campbell announced a $14B plan that had no funding. He declared the province will reduce GHG’s but has shown no substantial plan to achieve that. Instead he continues to build roads while communities are demanding public transit solutions!
    BC is out of step with the rest of the world. We’re stuck in 20th century, old-school thinking. It’s time to get some new ideas and make real progress on changing our transportation choices!

    Maurine Karagianis

    December 8, 2008 at 11:27 am

  2. Or in other words, vote the bums out this spring!


    December 8, 2008 at 1:38 pm

  3. I hope Maurine Karagianis understands the difference between light rail and light-metro. Also, please let us not forget that, now over, $200 million debt in servicing charges and other costs, that is quietly paid to SkyTrain by the provincial government.

    “BC is out of step with the rest of the world. We’re stuck in 20th century, old-school thinking. It’s time to get some new ideas and make real progress on changing our transportation choices!”

    Too true, sadly those in power will not change their ways and continue to rearrange the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

    Today at around noon I saw a 620 articulated bus going to Ladner Loop from the Ferry, with just 10 people on it, yet the need for artics. on Broadway is great.

    It is not just Gateway, P-3’s, etc. but an inept operation of the transit service by and OK’d by the Liberal dominated TransLink Board. Before the Renaissance of LRT in Europe, there was much study and a complete rethink on how and why to provide public transport by many transit operators. Many old myths were dispelled and a culture of treating transit users as customers has evolved. Not so here, as the powers that be generally ignore transit riders and do what they please because, “public transit is good for you.”

    Until we change how and why we provide public transport, TransLink will continue to be a bloated pig, needing more and more money, achieving very little.

    Malcolm J.

    December 8, 2008 at 2:32 pm

  4. What I want to know is, will the SFPR and other Gateway projects be set in stone (contracts signed, etc) before the election, or will we still have time to pull out?


    December 8, 2008 at 4:27 pm

  5. Corey

    Right now contracts have not been signed, and it is not too late. But it is clear from the indecent haste that the province has adopted for both the SFPR and H1PM2 that they are determined to go into the election with visible activities on the ground. Their reading of sentiments in the area is that voters will welcome more roads. I suspect that they may be wrong.

    Stephen Rees

    December 8, 2008 at 4:56 pm

  6. Interesting article in this week’s Georgia Straight interviewing Paul Palango:

    “In the early 1980s, as a reporter at the Globe and Mail, I undertook an investigation into the Urban Transportation Development Corp., an Ontario Crown corporation. The UTDC, as it was known, was the baby of then-premier William Davis, who had received international recognition for promoting the company’s linear-induction train technology. I found that the technology was extremely expensive and would not likely sell in a competitive market without enormous government subsidies.

    The UTDC never sold another train after that article.”

    The “huge government subsidies” part jumped out at me, and I’m sure Malcolm can enlighten us as to the next part of that story and its connection to Vancouver, Translink, and the fix we currently find ourselves in…


    December 8, 2008 at 5:42 pm

  7. Sorry, article is written by Paul Palango, not an interview with him.


    December 8, 2008 at 5:44 pm

  8. Yes Corey, Paul Palango put the knife to SkyTrain. The late Des Turner ( a founding member of the LRC)had many conversations with the reporter about the UTDC and ICTS and Mr. P had no time what so ever for the light-metro, in fact his articles killed the proposed Hamilton ICTS/ALRT transit project.

    Charlie Smith also has done much investigative reporting on SkyTrain and hidden problems.

    SkyTrain, known in Ontario as ICTS, had a quick name change to ALRT and sold to the Bill Bennett Socreds in a deal which also included the Socred’s getting the then much vaunted Ontario “Blue Machine” in order to win the next election, which they did.

    The problem with the LIM’s on SkyTrain is the expensive maintenance needed to keep the 1 cm. gap between the reaction rail and the LIM. According to Prof. Laithwaite, who worked extensively on LIM’s, the UTDC used the wrong type LIM’s, attracting LIM’s, instead of repulsive LIM’s.

    The LIM idea came from a failed Krause Maffie MAGLEV monorail which could not turn corners! Evidently, a prototype was in operation at the CNE in the 70’s. LIM’s are the propulsion method favoured by MAGLEV’s.

    According to one source, it was the extra cost of the steal needed for the reaction rail tipped the scales to favour the conventional ROTEM metro, instead of SkyTrain, on the price sensitive RAV/Canada Line project. Note: LRT was dismissed by Dobel & Bird early on.

    Malcolm J.

    December 8, 2008 at 6:35 pm

  9. 20th century thinking? B.C is still in the 19th CENTURY!! The last quarter of the 20th century has brought a big number of LRT systems that have been built in many countries around the world. Not to mention the very fast trains of Japan and Europe. Talking about Europe and Japan, many of their transit systems are a mix of public transit companies and private ones and, amazingly, the unsuspecting traveller can travel from one place to another using these different companies yet pay only one fare. In the European town were I was born the transit system has been managed by a private company since the 1880s (yes 1880s!). The workers in that company have long been unionized by the way. There is a huge difference between that transit management company (part of Veolia transportation) and TransLink: Veolia only run the transit system. Planning for new lines, buying buses, trams etc. raising or lowering fares, staff wages etc. is decided 100% by the government of the Metropolitan region i.e the mayors of the various towns in the region. Extra financing for special big projects come from the Regional, National and European Union governments. Today I saw in TV News from Europe the President of a major European country and several ministers working on files in a train on their way to a meeting in another town. Can we visualize anyone of our politicians doing the same?

    Red frog

    December 9, 2008 at 12:54 am

  10. Over 100 new LRT lines have been built since 1980, with over 100 more, either under construction or are in advanced stages of planning. This does not include proposed lines.

    It is the mind set here that is disturbing, we will do it our way and to hell with you! Back in the 90’s, during the Millennium Line debate, the newly formed LRC was asked by a Burnaby group to a question and answer session about the metro. BC Transit representatives walked out!

    When Puil & Co. went to the UK, to see how they operated transit systems, they only visited the “Underground” & “Docklands” and did not view the newly opened Croydon TramLink, or Sheffield’s & Manchester’s LRT operations.

    Our current transit planning is based on metro, where people take the bus to the metro for a (fast) trip to their destination or transfer again to bus. Every transit planner I have corresponded with overseas has stated that this sort of ‘transit philosophy’ is fraught with peril as buses are poor in attracting ridership. A common theme in the UK and Europe. The key to transit success is the seamless or no-transfer journey and this is what European transit planners vie for tram and bus. I wish it were so here.

    Malcolm J.

    December 9, 2008 at 7:06 am

  11. I think that the key to understanding what is happening here is that those in power – and both NDP and Liberals have done the same thing – are convinced that rapid transit has to be grade separated. There are many ways of achieving competitive overall journey times for transit, and many are much cheaper than new build, grade separated.

    It is also the case that most places first look at what existing rail capacity is available – and that tends to be the first choice for most systems.

    While grade separation can produce faster station to station timing, the access time to the platform often eliminates the journey speed benefits – especially for shorter journeys. The other main effect is that space for car traffic is not reduced – and in some cases is increased. I have even heard from traffic engineers in Toronto that the construction of their subway system actually increased the amount of car traffic on streets downtown. This was because the subways freed up road space formerly occupied by streetcars.

    We should have also been serious about changing land use to match the rapid transit system. Pretending that transportation and land use are not intimately related – as Mr Falcon still does – is stupid, since it ignores the inevitable and completely predictable results. It was always the weakest link in the regional growth strategy: no one can override a municipal planning decision – and most are made based on short term, immediate advantage. There have been exceptions but they are rare. We can no longer afford this development pattern.

    Stephen Rees

    December 9, 2008 at 7:54 am

  12. Malcolm,

    You seem obsessed with trashing every single aspect of SkyTrain and spending no time addressing the real issue which is the cost of grade separation. SkyTrain is very reliable. The cars don’t require that much maintenance. SkyTrain leads the rail industry in vehicle availability and has a very cost effective ratio of maintenance staff to rolling stock. SkyTrain does very well at providing full service with an almost unheard of spare ratio. SkyTrain does a lot of things very well for what it was designed to do. Yes, the cost vs. capacity issue is a significant one, but that comes down the grade separation.

    Yes, LRT can be built for a relatively small amount of money indeed. To do so, you must take away road space from the automobile. That is always a politically tough sell and no group of politicians have had the collective will to take on that fight in favour of LRT.

    Your approach of attacking SkyTrain exclusively to advance LRT does not get your cause anywhere. The real battle is the notion that more road space is better and worth pursuing regardless of the cost. That is the mentality that sees the freeways expand, that sees the Port Mann get twinned and sees a subway go down Cambie instead of modern light rail down that very wide boulevard. Nothing will change until the “more roads are better” mentality is taken on. Any LRT project that comes along will only see its costs sky rocket in an effort to get it elevated or buried out of the roadway….and then you are back to the “for only a few dollars more….we could have SkyTrain!” argument.

    There is only one central theme, the car is king, the more everyone focusses on fighting that, the better. Constantly slagging SkyTrain with half truths will not get you anywhere.


    December 9, 2008 at 11:11 am

  13. […] and additions to transit service can be for nought, as the latest we-have-no-money update (and here) could leave TransLink in the red, and service cutbacks are one way to avoid or mitigate this. […]

  14. I agree with John (post above mine). It should also be noted that in towns that have bigger transit systems than Vancouver–I am talking about towns relatively similar in size as Metro Vancouver– there are heavy metros, suburban trains, buses AND tramways (sometimes both an old fashioned one and a modern LRT). Big towns usually use something like SkyTrain or VAL (automate transit with rubber tired wheels) for outlying areas BUT it is only one of many modes of transit used in these towns. I love Malcolm J. dedication to LRT but the fact is that none of the LRT I have ever used in Europe and Japan provide seamless transit from home to whatever destination one goes to. The ONLY mode of transportation that do this are feet, bikes and–HORROR–cars. In most towns with a good-to-great transit system SEAMLESS means that one transfer very easily from one mode of transportation to another and another still. For example one will bike from home to a suburban train station and ride a train to another station where one take a subway. A few subway stations later one will change to another subway line then, just outside/ or within, a station one will take a bus for a short trip to work. We often blame the average Vancouverite for being car-crazy but so are the Europeans and Japanese and other nationalities..The reason they have good public transit is because private companies started building them at a time when private cars were out of reach of most people (this was also the case in the Eastern USA). Another reason is that old towns were so densely built that when cars became available there was no room for a garage so even well off people had to use subways etc. As a matter of fact I had several clients with huge apartments in Paris’ posh districts that included rooms for 3-4 full time housekeeping staff but no garage so they took the Metro everywhere or a-slower-taxi.

    Red frog

    December 9, 2008 at 9:52 pm

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