Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

with 13 comments


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

13 Responses

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  1. Two items illustrates TransLink’s money dilemma:

    1) South Delta has 3 hourly ‘Community’ bus routes, that run almost empty, from 5 in the morning to midnight. This just plain silly and TransLink refuses to address this or even try to make the service workable.

    2) Calgary’s C-Train cost about half as much to operate than SkyTrain, yet carries more passengers. This amounts to over $40 million annually. Add the Canada Line and the cost will rise even more.

    The reason there is no consultation is that the powers that be, do not want simple peasants telling them what they want or what they need for a transit service.

    Sadly, what I see is a repeat of 1970’s Germany, where dwindling ridership on public transit systems, put many of the tram-lines in jeopardy. Massive monies were being spent on U-bahns and S-bahns, but public ridership eroded. It was the notion at the time that only a few trams-ways would last in the 21st century.

    Local operators were given an ultimatum – use it or lose it!

    The Germans, being a pragmatic lot, opens in honest consultation with the public, or more precisely the transit customers and the result was dramatic. Ridership on public transit, spearheaded by a reinvention of the ‘tramway’ (streetcar or LRT), did a complete U-Turn. By the 90’s, the tram was secure and now over a decade later the lowly streetcar became the savior of public transport – well almost but since the closure of Essen’s tramway’s in the 80’s, there have been no major tramway abandonments.

    France was quick to see what modern LRT could do for a city and largely abandoned their ‘SkyTrain’ or VAL, in favour or trams and even the USA is trying to wean off metro and subways in favour of light-rail.

    In Vancouver its SkyTrain all the way, which reads, new highways for everyone!

    D.M. Johnston

    March 13, 2009 at 10:10 am

  2. Here’s info on Seattle’s Regional Transit Authority Tax (0.3% of the value of the vehicle):

    The RTA tax is an excise tax of 0.3%, which means it is calculated based on the value of your vehicle. Your vehicle’s value, for the purposes of this tax, was set by the state legislature, and is not based on the fair market value.

    Ron C.

    March 13, 2009 at 11:22 am

  3. From the Sound Transit website:

    The tax equals $30 annually for each $10,000 of vehicle value.

    Ron C.

    March 13, 2009 at 11:26 am

  4. I think an excise tax is much more equitable than a fixed levy.

    Massachusetts has a motor vehicle excise tax that goes into a city or town’s general revenue. The tax is $25 per $1000 of value.


    March 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  5. If we get a free yearly pass for $ 100 I will pay the $ 100 for a friend’s car and use their pass as they will not take the transit, not matter what, and this will save me lots of money. If the pass is “dedicated” i.e name and photo of a driver I bet this will do nothing to increase the ridership anyway.

    Red frog

    March 13, 2009 at 12:21 pm

  6. They aren`t offering a 1300.00 $ yearly pass, they have TALKED about a free ride one day per week.

    Grant G

    March 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

  7. Hingdsight is 20-20, but the Donsanj government shouldn’t have backed down…. it certainly didn’t do them any good.


    March 13, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  8. I was once a very frequent user of public transit. I grew up in Toronto, and did not own a car for many years. When we got a car, I left my it in Scarborough, and used TTC to go all over Toronto. I loved the TTC. But now? I can’t do this any more. I am unable to climb tall stairs, and whenever I try to use the Subway, the escalators are broken. Drivers get irritated when I cannot climb on the bus, and other passengers are less than sympathetic. Toronto gives lip-service to access, but in reality the TTC cannot serve a very big demographic.

    I am on the front end of the baby boom. Behind me are many who will soon have the same difficulties, but unlike me, have never acquired a taste for public transit. I expect them to want their car use facilitated (ie. more handicapped parking, etc.) If you want to see the reality gap get worse, wait ten years.


    March 14, 2009 at 6:12 am

  9. Vancouver seems to do a bit better with a (mainly) low floor bus fleet. Making transit accessible is not just about people with disabilities – it makes life easier for everyone

    But getting to the bus stop is going to be an increasing problem for many people. In most of the suburbs things like sidewalks and dropped kerbs are a rarity, and buses cannot penetrate very far into subdivisions with dendritic street systems. We need to come up with ways of retrofitting the suburbs to shorten the walk to the bus stop

    Stephen Rees

    March 14, 2009 at 6:30 am

  10. The low-floor tram, which heralded a revolution in public transport (including low-floor buses), was first conceived not to cater to the mobility impaired, but to speed loading and unloading on trams, to reduce dwell times.

    It very soon became evident that low-floor cars were a boon to the mobility impaired, a largely forgotten customer base, but another segment of the population saw the low-floor tram as a positive and that was people with babies with prams.

    Taking a pram on a bus or tram was a contortionists delight of folding, carrying baby, stowing, then repeating the process to alight. With low-floor cars, one simply walked on the tram and walked off.

    I have been told that cities which first introduced low-floor trams saw a big increases in ridership, especially with young families (with babies in prams), where taking public transport became easy and convenient. In some cities, transit authorities consider people with babies in prams as mobility impaired.

    In the 1980’s low-floor cars were considered revolutionary, today, they are a necessity.

    Malcolm J.

    March 14, 2009 at 7:46 am

  11. Sorry but you are quite wrong. A free annual transit pass is exactly what Falcon discusses here

    Stephen Rees

    March 16, 2009 at 7:45 am

  12. Mr. Rees,Falcon hasn`t committed nothing about universal passes,I read the article, but you would have chaos,people who ride busses would freak about having to pay anywhere from 1300.00 to 1700.00$ for their yearly pass!And drivers get a yearly pass for a hundred bucks.
    And with 1.4 million cars being insured would mean there would be 1.4 million passes!
    Translink would end up losing more money then they gave,I heard a radio interview with Falcon,and he talked about a pass good for a ride a week.every parent would insure their vehicles and add the 50.00$ other driver fee and then the pass would be handed to their kids.
    Think about Mr. Rees, for every 1 annual pass used would cost Translink over a 1000.00$

    And I am glad your on board with mr.honesty,Kevin Falcon,he always tells the truth,he`s telling the truth about why were knocking down the port mann when the lion`s gate is 30 years older,and the truth about the SFPR–and port expansion-burns bog-the value of 1.4 million passes at 100.00$ is 140 million dollars–The value of 1.4 million passes at 1000.00 to 1600.00 is 1.4 BILLION dollars to 2 BILLION dollars!.

    Maybe your not an accountant,but make a call to Translink and inform us one-way or another.

    By the way,I questioned Falcon on the SEAN Leslie show 4 weeks ago about the Macquarie group–I asked him a direct question,I asked Falcon “is the Macquarie group part of the consortium on the sea to sky upgrade” Falcon answered “No absolutely not”–Later that day I sent sean documents proving that Macquarie group is the GENERAL MANAGER of the sea to sky upgrade.
    I re-questioned Kevin Falcon on the SEAN Leslie show 2 weeks later(Falcon was back on the show) I asked him again and he -re-canted his statement saying “well I can`t keep track of everything”

    For goodness sakes MR REES –Macquarie group is the general manager of that high profile sea to sky upgrade!
    Even if 10% of annual passes were used by drivers kids who were using transit anyways they would only break even.
    But you go-ahead,believe Falcon,he`s honest –and drivers could insure the car in their kids name if their of age, whats 200.00 more for insurance for 1300.00$ pass—
    Anyways,you have some clout,it should be real easy for Translink to give you an answer!–Just ask them, if the 100.00 fee is approved on 1.4 million cars are there going to be 1.4 million UNIVERSAL TRANSIT PASSES that are equal to 1.4 million regular annual passes.A pass that is good 24/7 365 days a year–Could someone insure a vehicle for 3 months/pay the 100.00 and get a pass/insure a vehicle for one week,pay 100.00 and get a pass/ insure a motorcycle/etc etc etc
    You better clarify/ in fact I will call translink myself tomorrow and get an answer, the answer will either be yes or no—Even though I already know the answer.
    I stopped drinking the BC Liberal kool-aid sometime ago!


    Grant G

    March 16, 2009 at 10:58 pm

  13. One more thing Mr. Rees

    How many people right now travel everyday on skytrain,or busses, that have vehicles insured?

    I rode skytrain for years and I had an insured vehicle,just think about the Vancouverites that have insured vehicles and take transit everyday!

    Just think how many husband and wife teams there are with one insured vehicle and hubby or wifey takes transit!
    Right now the largest source of income for Translink are fares–

    I don`t care what Falcon ” sort of suggested ” he isn`t Translink.

    I have a half dozen freinds in my inner circle that take transit and have insured vehicles, —-

    I just fired off an email to Translink,waiting for an answer—

    And don`t forget all those wealthy folks who get the sea bus everyday from the north shore,how many insured cars in that group.

    Grant G

    March 16, 2009 at 11:15 pm

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