Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 15th, 2009

Campbell promises cheap transit passes to post-secondary students

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B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell rolled out his election-campaign platform Wednesday in Vancouver, promising to extend a popular subsidized transit program to all post-secondary students in the province.

Campbell said if his party wins a third term in the May 12 British Columbia election, they’ll give all college and university students U-Passes starting in September 2010. The transit passes, which were first issued to university students in Metro Vancouver about five years ago, let all registered students pay a low monthly fee for access to public transit.

They have been in power for eight years and, as far as I know, this is the first anyone has heard from the provincial government on this issue. And that should come as no surprise since it really is none of their business. Everywhere in BC transit is a partnership between the municipal and provincial governments. Except that in Greater Vancouver, the province has always taken a more proprietary interest and under the BC Liberals municipal control has been greatly diminished if not quite removed altogether.

UPass costs a lot of money. But the policy to date is that it should be “revenue neutral” – which is a stupid concept for a system which is both cash strapped and capacity challenged. Systems that had spare capacity even at peak periods could afford to cut prices to fill it, since a seat mile is a highly perishable commodity. But that was never the case here. Since UPass was introduced at UBC and SFU, Translink has been playing catch up – and is still nowhere near even. Which is why they have not been able to afford to cut better deals with other institutions.

With this announcement, Gordon Campbell is telling the region that the last vestige of local control  over Translink will be removed if he is re-elected. Because he will impose UPass on the region no matter what anyone here says – Mayors or taxpayers. And this being an election pledge he does not have to say how it will be paid for. My bet will be that it will be local tax payers – not provincial ones. I do not expect any additional transfer of provincial revenues to cover increased operating costs. And universal UPass will cost plenty of those. And in many cases to provide an attractive price to students the idea of revenue neutrality by institution will have to be dropped too. 

I have no objection to UPass as an idea. What is of concern, however, is the priority that has been allocated to post secondary students in getting a break on transit fares ahead of many other deserving cases. Quite why students are more deserving than say single mothers on welfare or people with disabilities or schoolchildren who cannot now look forward to the occasional field trip (the cost of the bus fare is now prohibitive for group travel). Now you might think that this is the sort of question best dealt with by each community based on their local needs and ability to pay. And that is true in every part of BC – except Greater Vancouver. And somehow the policy wonks at the BC Liberals think this might be a good time to expand Translink to places like Abbotsford and Chilliwack which still retain local democratic control of their transit systems.

It is also the case that Translink has been trying to interest people in consultations on their long term plans – but of course this massively expensive idea is not in their plans. And without new revenue sources, those plans are unachievable. Indeed service cuts are promised once the reserves are drained. 

Of course, Gordon Campbell is also not known for keeping his pre-election promises. Either way, voting Liberal this time means you – the person who picks up the tab – lose.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 15, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Posted in transit