Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 14th, 2009

Paul R. Landry: The TransLink tax merry-go-round

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The head of the truckers’ association has a longish opinion piece in the Straight. It is not exactly helpful. The province has, predictably, rejected out of hand the suggestion from the Mayors, “business, labour, and environment leaders” to use $450m from the carbon tax to support Translink’s proposed ten year plan. The problems Translink faces are, after all, almost entirely of the province’s making. The province decided to build the Canada Line – and resorted to legislation to remove local control when the GVTA Board had the temerity to demur. But of course they were right – because they had learned from the SkyTrain experience that these very expensive grade separated rapid transit schemes cost so much that other needs – mainly lots more buses for the rest of the region – go unmet.

The province has also committed billions to road expansions – widening Highway #1, replacing the Port Mann and Pitt River Bridges, building the South Fraser Perimeter Road and so on. What the province refuses to do – and has done consistently, and no matter which party is in power – it regard transit provision in the lower mainland as in any way different to the rest of the province. Not that there is any other conurbation of 2m people anywhere else in BC.

Here is where Landry loses the plot

“Much of the burden will be borne by the 70-percent-plus residents who are road users, many of whom have no option but to use their car.”

Well exactly. the reason they have no option is that there is inadequate transit in much of the region – and it has been that way for years. That is what the GVTA was supposed to tackle – but was denied the financial ability to do so by the outgoing NDP provincial government. The problem now is the same only more so. In ten years, population growth, increasing decentralistion of employment and lack of investment in rapid transit in most of the region has made matters worse. Transit mode share has hardly changed – except at SFU and UBC thanks to UPass, which Translink simply cannot afford to extend to other post secondary institutions. And isn’t the Gateway program designed to meet the needs of Landry’s members? It certainly doesn’t do much for anyone else .

The outgoing Transport Minister was always very clear – he was quite happy to spend money building roads even if the P3 projects he favoured weren’t feasible. But he was not going to allow provincial money to be spent on increased transit supply unless both the region and the federal government each carried a third of the burden.  Shirley Bond seems to be singing the same tune.

There is very little to indicate that the over 35 percent of TransLink funding likely to be collected from road users will result in any change from the historic average of four to five percent invested in roads and bridges.

And why should there be? We do not allocate the tax from tobacco to simply treating smoking related diseases. We do not impose a tax on sugar to pay for diabetes treatment – though that might not be a bad idea. And we only tax carbon as a way to reduce other taxes.

At one time Landry himself acknowledged that the more people gave up their cars and used transit, the better traffic conditions would be for his members. In nearly every city in the civilised world it has long been recognized that designing cities for cars does not work. Cities are for people – and until the middle of the twentieth century worked quite well, since most people did not insist on driving a car everywhere. Recent urban history shows that trying to accommodate cars is self defeating – traffic expands to fill the space available. Moving – and storing – cars is dreadfully wasteful of space. If all you had to do to be succesful was to build roads and parking lots then Detroit would be the most successful city in the world. Talk to most people about traffic and they will point to Los Angeles as the place they would least like to have to commute in.

Importantly, the plan does not include strategies to reduce operating costs by, for example, involving the private sector in transit operations or maintenance.

This is simply a red rag to a bull. We had a four month transit strike over this issue. Which, by the way, Translink won. It established that it does have the right to contract out services – but in order to preserve labour peace has committed to the present arrangements. HandyDART, some of West Coast Express – and shortly the Canada Line – are the only parts of the system that are contracted out. Whether or not extending this practice could actually cut costs matters not at all. The CAW will not let it happen.

This time around the province hopes that Translink will be able to force through an increase in taxation in the region that they hope will be blamed on Translink. And this sort of article will help that. The provincial politicians also know that it is four years before they have to go to the electorate again – and as the recent poll showed you can fool enough of the people enough of the time. Whether or not Translink gets it ten year plan the province has washed its hands of the problem will be busy taking credit for the short term congestion relief its road building program will provide at the next election. The fact that the present strategy is short sighted and unsustainable will not matter to voters then, but it will do eventually. I think it is unlikely that given the present economic climate, and the probability that things do not seem to be getting better any time soon, that Translink will get endorsement of its revenue raising proposals. Some kind of half measure is likely: the compromise that dissatisfies everyone equally.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 14, 2009 at 10:28 am