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

Archive for March 13th, 2009

Drivers face tax of up to $100 to fund transit, roads

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I am not sure there is anything more to say about this story. Translink started off with a very long list of fund raising ideas but has come back to the one that has haunted it since its creation – the vehicle levy. And I really do not see that anything has changed that will make that idea more popular now than in the past. Except of course for the daft notion of a “value proposition” – a universal transit pass.

Is there no-one at Translink now who can do simple math? Or are they as usual just ignored by the communications people?

Universal transit passes only work where there is spare capacity. If you have already paid for your transit system and there are lots of buses and trains running mostly empty, then almost any wheeze to put bums on seats is worth trying. But it assumes that for little or no additional revenue there is also no real increase in costs – just much better load factors. That is not the case here – and has not been for a long time. It was not the case when UBC and SFU students were given UPass far too cheaply. The result was overcrowding, pass ups and a stiff increase in operating cost.

If every driver in the region gets a transit pass in return for their new license plate sticker (or whatever the levy uses to indicate payment) who is going to pay full fare? Twelve three zone passes now cost $1,632. But some bright spark thinks that should be given away for $100 – and that, we are supposed to believe, will result in an increase in revenue. “Yes we make a loss on every unit but we make it up in volume.” Does anybody believe this?

Fares cover around 50% of operating cost – or perhaps a bit more these days. I am sure someone will leap in to nitpick this figure. The rest has to come from somewhere else. Because we have been bamboozled into thinking that public services have to paid for by user fees, and not general revenues, we get ourselves into a neat box which confines our thinking. It was not always thus – but that is how so called “lower taxes” have been finagled – to make sure the rich pay less and the poor pay more. You can see a great object lesson just to the south of us how far this neo-conservative thinking gets you. The richest nation in the world is now bankrupt. It did not work there and will not work here. Both socialism and capitalism have  demonstrably failed. So we need some thinking that comes up with new solutions, not old ones warmed over.

In this region we have recently been told that we will have to pay for a massive road building programme twice – through user fees and taxes. No one thought before this announcement was made that there should be any public consultation. Any more than the roads themselves were actually subject to much analysis – the consultation was cursory and did not allow for a “no” answer, the so called “environmental assessment” was known to be sham before it started. Somehow the provincial government can load us up with another $3bn of debt and we are expected to take that on without a murmur. But the transit system – which has not been anything like adequate for at least twenty years – and probably more – is starved of funds and forced to jump through hoops on a regular basis with threats of fare increases and service cuts as background music. And what money is devoted to it is steadily eroded by loading up the regional body with collapsing bridges and road maintenance bills.

It is time to say “enough” and come up with a better way of running things – and funding them. One over which we have some control. If we are expected to pay for it, then we ought to have some say in how it is spent. And the method for which the gap between fares and costs is covered should be tied to ability to pay. A progressive taxation system.  Or a method which starts a process by which we see a shift  from car use – user fees that have a direct link to use of roads by time of day so that congestion actually gets dealt with. That will not of itself be enough for ever – for the simple reason that if it works then people will drive less and revenue will fall. A bit like the way the gas tax produces less revenue the better the transit system wins new riders. So in this case we need to ensure that the cost to people who drive rises steadily.  Either way we see positive outcomes – progressive taxes produce a fairer society. Road user charges reduce congestion and fund alternatives to driving. I think the latter might also be saleable since it is car use that contributes so much to the other huge problem which we are so good at ignoring. Our cars and the urban sprawl they create have produced our huge greenhouse gas emission issue – and while we seem to be in denial about that too, the realisation is gradually dawning on most people that we cannot keep on heating up this planet.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 13, 2009 at 9:32 am