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

Archive for July 2009

TransLink proposes tolls on all Metro bridges, new vehicle levy

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Vancouver Sun

I am only going to look at what is new in this announcement – not go over again all the arguments about who pays for what.

The vehicle levy has long been an option – but road pricing was regarded as an alternative, not in addition to a levy, mainly because a levy can be put in place quite quickly, but installing tolling technology takes much longer. Since the vehicle levy is at best a coarse tool – one that impacts everyone no matter how far, when and what they drive – it could be replaced by one that varies by type of vehicle, time of day (and day of week) and distance driven, which obviously has much better effect on travel patterns. The suggestion that all bridges get tolled has always stumbled on the fairly obvious – which bridges – and the fact that if there is to a set of “cordons” at which the toll is levied, presumably based on distance from Vancouver in concentric arcs, there are a lot of people along the Burrard Peninsula who escape. A drive from north east Coquitlam to UBC would be toll free, while Ladner to downtown crosses three water bodies. (The story does not say “tunnels” but I would bet the Massey would get tolled but not the Cassiar.) Obviously some places like Richmond get hit much harder than Burnaby – which has a much greater range of destinations available without a bridge on the way. The devil, as they say, is in the details and this announcement seems remarkably light on detail.

Road pricing is one of those things that makes obvious sense to economists (The Economist newspaper endorsed it many years ago) but is very hard for motorists to accept. First there’s the use of the word like “freeway” (which actually refers to the flow of traffic not the cost) and ideas like the freedom to travel where and when you like that is part of the illusion sold by the car industry. And the fact that we pay for roads through our taxes already – even though the taxes directly levied on fuel and vehicles are well below the cost to society of road use. This is also the problem with the levy – motorists in the region will feel even more put upon, especially when compared to those who can register their vehicles outside the region. But secondly, and more importantly, road space is a highly perishable commodity – like seats on planes. For many hours of the day it has very little value – but at peak periods its value soars. That ought to be reflected in road pricing but so far this element seems to be greatly neglected. It is not just the use of the road that causes the problems, but the use of the road when everybody else wants to use it. Without a price system to ration demand, we resort to queues. Just as they did in the Soviet Union for almost everything. Or how they allocate seats at Bard on the Beach.

Without new revenue, TransLink is projected to go into deficit by 2011, as it subsidizes the private operators of the Canada Line and the Golden Ears Bridge for four to five years until they reach projected ridership figures. [emphasis added]

Now that is news. I have been tracking both these projects for a while – and the general discussion about how wonderful P3s are supposed to be and I have not heard of these requirements before. If you know differently than I expect you to provide a citation and a link to the evidence. My understanding of the P3 case was that it removed the need for public sector funding and that the private sector would take on the risk, which obviously includes low revenue in the early years in return for a bigger share of the fat years at the end of the deal. I have always been critical of the way that these two projects have sucked up Translink’s resources since neither should have been such a high priority in a region that is starved of basic bus service.

And that is the second bit of news – that all of this appears to be implemented ahead of transit improvements for most of the region. This is just stupid. In London, when the congestion charge was introduced, bus services – and bus priority measures – were significantly increased when the new charge was imposed. Obviously people have to have some alternative – in London’s case much of that could be satisfied simply by diverting since many car trips through the centre did not need to go that way at all. There were already other, better routes available. Imposing new fees and charges now and promising better service later will not do at all. Because the whole point is to change behaviour at the same time as raising revenue. This is why this plan will once again be characterised as a cash grab. Because there is no alternative but to pay more, becuase there is simply no bus to get on.

Translink has been put into an invidious position – partly by the province’s unreasonable demands and policies but also by its own decisions to press ahead with expensive capital projects and then noticing too late that it dod not have enough to fund even existing operations let alone new ones.

It is also the case that the province has always stuck to the policy that tolls can only be applied to new infrastructure – which was why the Golden Ears got built and the ferry was not replaced because only the bridge could be tolled. So all of this simply puts Translink at loggerheads with long established provincial “principles”.  Nothing new there then.


TransLink must look for in-house savings before passing on transportation costs to taxpayers said Premier Gordon Campbell at a press conference today.

“I think that before people start talking about tax increases, they should start talking about savings in their own organization,” said Campbell.

This just in on the Sun webpage. In other words even before the review he commissioned has started, he has determined what the outcome will be.  Of course he does not just talk about tax increases – he has just brought in a big one under the guise of “harmonisation” – and pretends that will reduce costs. Which it will for the province and some businesses but will cost taxpayers plenty. I don’t see him rushing to pay big chunks of his own compensation either – something Maggie Thatcher liked to boast about (without mentioning the wealth of her husband of course).

He also said the transit authority overstepped their boundaries in planning tax increases.

“What I’ve heard of the report is that it is outside the framework of their legislation. …and I think everyone’s disappointed they haven’t acted within their legislation and they have a responsibility to do that,” Campbell said.

This is called being disingenuous. If they act “within their legislation” and also try to implement his “$14bn transit plan” the books don’t balance. In fact they don’t balance if they just keep on going as they are. Pretending this can all be sorted out by cutting Board members compensation and a few mythical savings is assinine. As is the provincial requirement to install faregates on SkyTrain which will be a huge money losing proposition.

Campbell can find $3bn for Highway #1 widening  but he can’t find any money to keep the buses running. And this is called ” a balanced plan”.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2009 at 9:18 am

Is Vancouver About to Become the Greenest City in the World?

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Allan Hunt Badiner, AlterNet

When you read any press story abut things you know about, you always realise how limited the view of the journalist is. I get two news alerts a day from Alternet, which promises a different view from the mainstream media. “Allan Hunt Badiner is a writer, activist, and editor of three books” who came for a visit and saw pretty much what he was programmed to see. As an American activist he was looking for an example of what US cities should be doing. And he did not, it seems, really dig very deep.

From the airport all along Granville Street, Vancouver’s longest artery, my eyes kept searching for urban blight, some garbage or a little graffiti — but there was none.

Oh well that’s all right then. Just as well he did not look at Hastings, isn’t it.

As I have often said, Vancouver seems to be doing pretty well by North American standards, but those are not very high. And there is also the way that the City gets confused by the much larger, and much less successful, metropolitan area. One bike lane on Burrard Bridge and some short term additional shelter beds do not actually do very much at to deal with our car dependence or homelessness.

This is not to say it’s a city without problems, or that it doesn’t have its own share of the poor and homeless.

But to not notice that the region’s transit system only carries 11% of trips – impressive compared to some US cities of similar size no doubt – and that despite one new rapid transit line to open next month, most the efforts in transportation are to expand the highway system and to increase car use in the suburbs seems like, at the every least, inadequate research. And what does it say about “greenest city in the world” rankings that could ignore completely almost everything outside the City in its functional urban region? OK he notices the Richmond Oval too. Whoopee.

“In the world” means we are up against places like Copenhagen and Zurich. They both do transit much better than we do. Copenhagen is also very much further ahead in closing streets to cars and encouraging cycling and walking, as well as renewable energy use, and recycling of waste.  Yes we have hydro – but our biggest source of greenhouse gases remains transport – and we are not dealing with that at all. Even more freight is being shipped around the region on trucks, thanks to the railways themselves do that, and will increase significantly due to the investment in more highways. Outside of the City of Vancouver, transit mode share to to 4% in the region’s second largest city and the one that is growing fastest. Does CoV deserve the prize because Surrey is not within its legal boundaries?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 30, 2009 at 10:25 am

BC Ferries, TransLink not bound by recommendations in government review

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There’s more reaction to the Province’s announcement of a review – this time from the agencies themselves.

Both point out that as so called “independent” bodies they are not bound by the findings of the review. The government cannot tell them what to do. Both BC Ferries and TransLink were set up to operate independently, with no government interference agrees Minister Shirley Bond, who is further quoted

“Having said that, I find that an interesting response,” she said …

“So I would assume, and I think most taxpayers would expect, that if this review actually demonstrates ways to use dollars more efficiently or in fact we could find savings, that of course BC Ferries and TransLink would want to adopt those recommendations,” she said.

So Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland in the space of three months, looking at two agencies operating in a complex environment and facing difficult challenges for many years is going to find savings that those agencies have missed? And anyway she has already been given clear direction that her target is to be executive compensation – even though in terms of the overall spending that cannot achieve very much and anyway is determined by outside consultants with detailed data on executive compensation. Something the CG will not haver access to unless she is prepared to pay for access to the same data sources to get the same answers.

Of course there are always ways to cut costs – but that may not be a very sensible thing to do. For instance, it is clear that in Washington DC as a way of keeping costs down, the metro operator allowed its signalling system to deteriorate and continued to operate old equipment that needed either upgrade or replacement. Yes it made the books balance for a while but it looks like that decision cost lives – or rather will probably look like that once the final reports of safety authorities are in. You can also point to all kinds of things in the collective agreement of CMBC which would result in operational savings – but do you really want to go battle with the CAW again?

This review is not really about “finding savings” – it is a diversionary tactic and an implied threat to the agencies to fall in line with the wishes of the Province. Or rather Translink – BC Ferries was just added to make it look more objective. But as Prendergast has demonstrated he can get a job somewhere else – and maybe get an even better deal. Why would he want to hold on to a job where he was expected to take a hit just for PR effect for the government’s short term gain? And what would that do to Translink’s ability to replace him? Of course the professional board will want to demonstrate that it really is independent – and also to continue to hold up the argument that they are doing a really good job running the place. Wenezenki-Yolland has not got an enviable task – and do not be surprised if her report is predictable and just filed away like so many other “reviews”.

UPDATE July 30 2:53pm

You can also read what Jim Sinclair has to say on his Vancouver sun blog – predictable but true. And the headline writer seems to have a better way of sparking attention

Written by Stephen Rees

July 30, 2009 at 9:58 am

TransLink may face new overhaul as province orders review

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BC Local News

When I first saw the announcement from the Province that they were going to review Translink and BC Ferries, I did not immediately see any need to comment.

BC Ferries is in deep doo-doo – and has been for some time – because none of the conditions expected by its financial plan actually transpired. I am not at all sure that this is a function of its governance – but as usual re-organisation is often the first reaction to a challenge, not review of the unrealistic expectations placed on the agency. The right wing nostrum of “privatisation” is supposed to work magically. Call it private and it suddenly becomes profitable: well there are now plenty of examples of that kind of thinking that prove that notion to be wrong.

Translink is in similar difficulties. The Province makes all kinds of stipulations, provides insufficient funds and then gets peeved when things do not go the way it expected. But what prompted me to start writing was this reaction from Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini

he’s hopeful the review is a signal the province is realizing TransLink needs more money beyond what local residents can provide.

Area mayors and the board have been united in calling for Victoria to approve new funding mechanisms for TransLink, warning of severe transit service cuts if the authority doesn’t get enough money to finance a major expansion.

“Perhaps the reality is hitting home,” Trasolini said, adding it’s possible the province may opt to take over complete responsibility for TransLink.

It is not what local residents “can provide” – it is what can be taken from them by which level of government. There is only one taxpayer but three levels of government, and the municipal/regional level takes the least.

The Province is determined that residents of Metro Vancouver should pay more for Translink, preferably from property tax. They are also determined that the Mayors take the blame. Given the new structure, that is going to be a hard charge to make stick. The Province determined that there would be a new, unelected Board. The Province set up a convoluted process to make it clear they were not picking the new Board members directly. They did not have to. The new Board has limited room to maneuver: the legislation both specifies and also caps each permitted funding source – and the Board has to go to the Mayors for approval. But the Mayors now have no say at all over how the money is spent – so if they don’t like that they can only show disapproval by not approving funding. But the people who work at senior levels in Translink are also not stupid – despite what many critics would have you believe.  And some recent statements show that they are not afraid to point out the realities – which the Province is well aware of. The Provincial government thinks that residents of Greater Vancouver can pay more – but they don’t expect them to be happy about it.

Now the Province could take back Translink – and make into a new corporate entity like BC Ferries – but that did not seem to work out very well either. It would be a real admission of failure to have to reabsorb Translink back into BC Transit but you could blame that on the NDP if you had not created SoCoBritCA yourself. Then the question would be asked why Metro Vancouver doesn’t get the same local municipal input that every other municipal transit system in BC has? There could be talk about privatisation – which would stir up CAW and produce another transit strike. I am sure they don’t want either of those outcomes.

Threatening the pay levels of Board members may be popular, but does not do anything to solve the huge funding gap, and also seems contrary to the notion of a professional board – which seemed to work so well at the Port and the Airport (for the private sector interests  anyway).

There is an ongoing dispute. The Mayors are the ones who are refusing to raise property taxes – but even if they did there still would not be enough to pay for the Province’s transit “plan”. The Board does not have the ability to raise more funds. The biggest single expense at Translink is labour costs. Not management but labour, and the price of labour peace has been high. And the structure which puts direct operating responsibilities onto subsidiary companies fools no-one. Translink may not be the employer of record but they are in fact. The Province can of course review whatever it likes, but they have created the problem, and they are unwilling to take responsibility. For years, this has been the on going pattern in Metro Vancouver. The region has been steadily underprovided with transit – and what has been provided costs far too much and provides far too little. And yet the spin has always been that this is the best place on earth and we have one of the finest transit systems possible. And anyone who dares to point out the truth finds themselves out of job.

It does not matter what the review finds. The Provincial government is not about to back down – they are enjoying an recent electoral victory and they rather like the power the parliamentary sovereignty that gives them. They also have been pursuing a steady policy of shifting away from income tax towards expenditure taxes as well as a whole raft of new fees and charges for services. As quite a few people have remarked in recent years “the vehicle levy looks pretty good right now”. If the Province really wants to build all the promised goodies in its transit “plan” it could fund that by a combination of a vehicle levy and property tax increases – but it can only get the latter if the municipal politicians endorse it. And they don’t want to do that. Reviewing a management structure put in place only two years ago does not deal with that issue at all. Nor does the government want to use the Carbon Tax revenue to fill the gap – as they have made clear.

So this is all about moving the deckchairs on the Titanic again. Both the direction of the ship – and location and size of the iceberg – remain unchanged.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 28, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Carmaggeddon Averted as Broadway Comes to Life

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The closure of Broadway in New York City at Times Square and Herald Square is a lesson for us – and all cities that have yet to grasp the concept. The one that this blog has been talking about for a long time. Traffic expands – and contracts – to fill the space allotted to it. Streetfilms have produced this short video which demonstrates how it is working now there. It also seems to be working on Burrard Street Bridge for the cycle lane. But this is not just about how to move people more efficiently, it is about how to make cities work better for people.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Carmaggeddon Averted as Broadway Come…“, posted with vodpod

Annoyingly vodpod picked up another video on the same page about somewhere else. I am going to post this anyway since both films are worthy of your attention. I just hope that someone responsible for the “Post to WordPress” button notices this and works hard to improve it.

Incidentally, I happened to be in Herald Square not so long ago – before this experiment started – and took this picture of the bike lane.

Lane closure Herald Square Broadway

There had already been an attempt to recover some of Broadway to improve pedestrian and bicycle movement. There is a shot in the video from almost the same point. This new facility is not about movement at all – it is about creating a space where people will want to linger – where loitering is actually encouraged. For the last century we have been obsessed with moving people along, with speeding things up. In the process we lost something precious – which the people of New York are now beginning to appreciate once again.

I wonder how long it will take us to make a move in this direction?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 27, 2009 at 8:16 am

CN Withdraws Port Vancouver Rail Service

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Journal of Commerce

The Port Authority at Vancouver, British Columbia, is canvassing its options, including legal action, after Canadian National Railway switched its rail service to trucks for three of the port’s four container terminals.

CN “unilaterally” withdrew rail service temporarily to the terminals July 13, without informing or discussing it with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, vice-president Chris Badger told the Journal of Commerce.

The Authority will monitor the effects until next week of the rail-to-trucks switch between CN’s Vancouver Intermodal Terminal and the downtown terminals Centerm and Vanterm and Fraser Surrey Docks on the Fraser River and then “take whatever action is open to us,” Badger said.

The Authority is looking at terms of contracts and whether there are negative effects on truck flow. “We are looking at all available options,” including legal action, Badger said.

CN spokesman Mark Hallman said container supply to the dowtown terminals had dwindled and some steamship lines had moved their calls to Deltaport. CN still provides rail service to this fourth and largest box terminal.

Trucking rather than rail will “more efficiently serve the (three) terminals and improve transit times,” Hallman said. “The terminal operators are fine with this.”

The port isn’t – and neither should we be, and maybe this is the sort of story that the mainstream media should be jumping all over. It is not just that the railway did not tell the port what it was going to do – that’s bad enough, and shows a really bad attitude. My concern is over the increase of truck traffic. It has seemed to me in recent months that I have been seeing larger number of trucks with the tractor units painted in CN livery hauling containers. It is also unclear to me why the decline in the number of units being shipped – and the switch of port of call to Deltaport instead of other terminals justifies ending rail service entirely.

The Vancouver port call serves the Canadian market in general. Given the distribution of our population that means most goods are destined for Ontario and Quebec. The majority of containers go from the ship side onto a train and back east. Much of the rest still goes that way – but the contents of the full containers get split up and reloaded back onto other containers or truck trailers for onward distribution. And again, a lot of this is not destined for this region so it goes by rail. Rail service from Vanterm, Centerm and Fraser Surrey Docks may not need to be quite so frequent or on such long trains, but I do not understand the logic of extra handling of containers when there is already the infrastructure in place for the rail haul.

The key word seems to be “temporary” – well how long is that? And what savings does CN make? Obviously the communities directly impacted by these truck movements have an interest – and CN of course does not consult with them at all. CN also likes to portray itself as a good corporate citizen – and has all kinds of PR stuff about the efficiencies of railways and how good that is to reduce truck traffic. So to make a decision which increases truck traffic locally and which is sprung by surprise and with no detail on why it is necessary – “more efficiently serve” and “improve transit times” – how? And how does increasing the number of times a container is handled reduce cost?

What would make more sense – and would of course be even more of a concern to communities – is if this change is not really temporary at all and CN is looking to turn its tracks into developable real estate. Now CP have been trying to do that for a while – with the Arbutus line – with little success. Is that what CN is after too?

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Railway

Column: Try this on for size: Sales tax on bikes returns, fossil fuels exempt

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Vaughan Palmer in the Sun kicks the ball into the open goal.  I am not sure if the the tax on bikes is actually the most important feature but it does once again give the lie to the Liberal’s pretence to care about greenhouse gas emissions or urban traffic.

“…some …thought the … carbon tax had merit as a tool for putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases”

Very few, I suspect. The price on emissions was far too low to have any effect on behaviour. Moreover, the actual effect was more than offset by the decline in gas prices brought about by general falling in demand due to the recession. The carbon tax – already offset by those $100 cheques – really did not hurt at all. And to have any effect it had to be noticeable. It wasn’t.

The Harmonised Sales Tax is being touted as “good for business” since it reduces their administrative overheads a bit, though frankly I doubt that we will see a big increase in the number of accountants in the dole queues. The real winner is the provincial government itself, which sees a huge one time payment from the feds – over $1bn that can usefully have some impact on the provincial deficit when other revenues are down – and a steady stream of new revenue. Because lots of things that are now tax free will not be (not just bikes) and we will be paying more. The “revenue neutral” claim has very little credibility. And we are already hearing from the restaurant businesses – and the realtors and developers who have had such a close relationship with the Liberals – and who seem to have been taken by surprise.

The most obvious weakness of the Liberals case is that this move was not part of their election platform and they were denying right up to election day. But within a few days after the election talks started with the Feds. Just like BC Rail. This is not just breaking electoral promises it is clearly deliberate deception about their intentions. And with fixed election dates, of course they do that now and hope that after the four years of this term it will be forgotten.

For a party that ran on the “safe pair of hands” and “don’t vote for them they will raise your taxes” slogans, I think this one will stick firmly. Of course the NDP will have a field day – but a lot of Liberal supporters will be feeling annoyed, and with very good reason. But the people who will find this most difficult are those on low incomes. Our tax system has become steadily more regressive as tax is shifted away from income tax to consumption taxes. Changes in sales tax will have very little impact on those who have large incomes and already spend a great deal on “conspicuous consumption”. But for those people on low and fixed incomes – and there has been very little increase in the incomes of those at the bottom end of the scale in recent years – even small changes in sales taxes have a disproportionate impact on what they can buy. They already pay the government proportionately more of their small incomes – leaving less for essentials such as food and shelter and are  far more price sensitive than the wealthy for whom high prices are simply an useful guide to quality. It is a curious notion in the neoconservative philosophy is that the poor need less and the wealthy need more – but that is exactly what we have seen in recent years, and this is just another plank of the same structure.

By the way “fossil fuels exempt” is probably not a very wise line to take either. The province gets plenty of tax revenue from fuel. What should be noted is that GST is a tax on tax – and, as far as I know, Canada is one of the very few countries that levies national taxes on provincial taxes. I had never heard of this practice until I came here and I am still astonished that we put up with it. That alone would have justified refusing to join HST until that obvious unjustifiable impost had been removed.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 25, 2009 at 11:02 am