Stephen Rees's blog

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

Victoria blocks path to improved TransLink: CEO

with 6 comments

Jeff Nagel in the Surrey Leader paints an interesting picture that pits Tom Prendergast head to head with the Minister of Transport. In today’s Cabinet announcement that is now Shirley Bond – with Colin Hansen still Minister of Finance.

Basically he claims that there is consensus that expansion of transit is needed (he’s right about that – and it is not something that’s recent either) but this will need an extra $450 million a year in operating funds. That is not possible in the current legislation which both specifies all available funding sources and also caps them at $275 million a year in total.

Brian Lewis in the Province thinks it’s easy – just use the carbon tax. That would require a a major volte-face from the position the Premier has taken to date which is that the carbon tax is “revenue neutral” – that the increased revenue collected is offset by tax cuts elsewhere, so the overall tax take is not supposed to change. This is actually one of the hardest things to convince skeptical voters about: in fact the current position is that the first year the carbon tax returned more than is collected.

I have a hard time believing that just changing portfolios is going to have much impact on government policy overall. Even though Prendergast is right – transit is underfunded and the province is in a much better position to fund it than the municipalities.  But the province also has a really tough time pumping more money into  Metro Vancouver, especially during a recession when resource based communities in the interior – especially those based on forestry – are hurting much worse economically. They might be able to get away with a one off splashy capital project (which is always their favourite way of new spending) but not a commitment to a large annual payment not made to other communities. For the rest of BC the mantra has always been one of matching funding for transit operations – which of course also neatly limits the province’s exposure, given the very limited taxing ability of municipalities.

But just because we have always done something one way does not mean it is right for the future. The province is already in a clear bind: it wants to be seen to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions (and isn’t) but it also wants to expand the freeway (one of the biggest sources of GHG in the region). The province also claims it has a transit “plan” worth $14bn of capital spending (even through that includes the Canada Line, and needs matching funds from both federal and municipal governments) but has never given a convincing explanation (or indeed any explanation) of how we are supposed to pay for all this new transit service.

It seems to me that Prendergast would do better not to confront his paymaster (or paymistress) in public – after all Translink is now effectively a provincial agency – but rather come up with a face saving strategy that allows the provincial government to come to the table with a realistic set of proposals. Of course the carbon tax seems an easy one for the Mayors – but they aren’t inclined to be conciliatory either since they are still smarting about being pushed out of the Translink driving seat.

The current process of Translink’s public consultation may well be part of the Prendergast approach: he seems to be lining up popular opinion in the region for both transit expansion – and one that others will be paying for, not all of the burden falling on the region. And of course that will be the popular choice. But it cannot be one that a new Minister of Transport is going to embrace – there are no points at all for seeming to give in to local pressure. And the BC Liberals have had a shot of confidence boosting electoral success – they do not see the need to appeal to the transit proponents of the region – or indeed anyone at all at present.

And yes all of this does have a very familiar ring to it to anyone who has been around transit in Vancouver for a few years. It would be nice if someone can cut this Gordian knot. I just don’t see that as Tom or Brian on present evidence.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Posted in politics, transit

6 Responses

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  1. Stephen,

    It’s disappointing to see you take up the refrain that TransLink is ‘a provincial agency’. On what basis do you make that claim…why…and what are the implications in your mind?


    Ken Hardie

    June 11, 2009 at 6:00 am

  2. I am sure that Stephen can reply for himself, but really Ken, history has proved that the province runs the show.

    All three metro projects were forced onto the GVRD/TransLink by the provincial government and the dissolution of the previous TransLink board was at the behest of Campbell & Falcon.

    In South Delta, there is a very good example of political interference with TransLink.

    This spiring, TransLink initiated a new South Delta Community Centre to Tsawwassen First Nation bus route, the 609.

    Daily ridership on the 609 is under 20 passengers a day, with the bus running empty most of the time. I would severely doubt that the income from fares would not even meet one hour of a driver’s wages and not even pay for gas & maintenance.

    It was a wonder why such a service is operated? Well, failed Liberal candidate Wally Oppal lives in Tsatu Shores, which is serviced by the bus and on election day, empty 40 foot buses plied the route.

    In the real world, such a route just would not be operated, let alone planned for. But have a ‘star’ political candidate run and guess what, you get a bus service. Who ordered that? Three guesses and the first two don’t count!

    By the way Ken, in the real world, SkyTrain and RAV would not have been built on the routes they trundle back and forth on. But that, of course, is another story.

    DM Johnston

    June 11, 2009 at 7:31 am

  3. Ken

    The current SoCoBriTCA is not an independent, regional agency in the way that the GVTA was supposed to be. It was created by Kevin Falcon because the GVTA showed signs of independence – and therefore it had to go. The role of the Mayors is now simply to take the blame for the inevitable tax and fare increases that have to be imposed on the region to pay for the operating costs of the province’s ill conceived capital projects.

    Shirley Bond is so far an unknown actor in the upcoming drama – but if the province cannot impose its will on the region through the current arrangements then no doubt they will be changed again. Indeed since this government is run out of the premier’s office, it may not matter who is Minister of Transport. But I am willing to bet that she will be more responsive to the needs of “the heartland” (a term not heard much recently) than Metro

    Mr Prendergast is a breath of fresh air – but CEOs come and go. Indeed given the rate of turnover in senior executives in recent years, I think he has taken an unusually risky path.

    Stephen Rees

    June 11, 2009 at 9:05 am

  4. But if or when he does get canned, he certainly won’t be walking away empty handed!


    June 11, 2009 at 6:44 pm

  5. Pretty much everything Prendergast has said since he started, including that LRT should be considered, has been a blast of fresh air in the stale closet that is the BC government. I have the feeling that he is very frustrated by the transit illiteracy of our municipal and Provincial politicians and may well jump off the slow train before he get shoved off. He knows what should be done, what is done in other places, but can’t do it so why would he want to stay? He is like a chef with 3 Michelin stars whose clients only want artificial hot dogs.

    Red frog

    June 11, 2009 at 7:57 pm

  6. […] Stephen Rees has a nice analysis of the politics behind the consultation and an assessment of the options TransLink’s looking at in this post. […]

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