Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

with 8 comments

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

8 Responses

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  1. The argument that people have no choice does seem a bit silly when fighting a measure to give them a choice. And as you say, he seems to be shooting himself in the foot as more choice = less cars = less congestion. Sigh… Well done you for telling the truth, maybe it’ll get through eventually…

    Andy in Germany

    July 14, 2009 at 10:46 am

  2. When you put it like that Stephen it is obvious Translink has two choices, out of the pan and into the fire or maybe between a rock and a hard place. They cannot win for trying. Personally I think Tom Prendergast deserves a show of support for all his efforts and was thinking of sending in my vehicle levy check for $125.00 or so one of these days soon.
    It would be worth it to get some decent transit improvements happening in the lower mainland and sitting around waiting for the provincial government to do something will only get us no where fast,
    well except maybe financial ruin. They are running a huge deficit way over what they promised, pre-election, insist on putting us on the hook for billions (thousands of millions) more for freeway building as stimulus measures, completely ignoring the fact that transit dollars are about 3 times more effective for job creation.

    Bernadette Keenan

    July 14, 2009 at 4:24 pm

  3. Ah but Bernadette transit investment doesn’t allow the government to line the pockets of their friends. That’s why money is spent on roads instead. I know it sounds strange that both the Liberals and NDP seem to want to pay off the same friends, but the NDP had a chance to do something different and they chose to build more hyper-expensive SkyTrain and fast ferries. Regardless of who is in power BC is the land of the white elephant.


    July 14, 2009 at 9:47 pm

  4. TransLink will be lucky to get the money they need to maintain current operations. It is clear, people want more transit, nobody wants to pay for it. Could they do more with what they have? Not when the Province mandates financial non starters like turnstiles which by the way will be installed no matter what condition TransLink’s finances are in because the Province says so. Privatizing more transit services? If privatizing services is done right, it will seldom actually save you any money. Things cost what they cost to run properly and good, qualified personnel won’t work for free. Privatization inevitably goes two ways; costs are either stripped to the bare minimum and service suffers or costs end up rising slightly but you end up with something of a premium service.

    The Province controls all of TransLink’s purse strings yet on paper get to point the responsibility elsewhere, to the Mayor’s Council. There Province has no care about the public interest here. Its all about pursuing power for its own sake. That is the state of affairs we live in folks.


    July 14, 2009 at 10:50 pm

  5. I found out a few years ago that the transit in my birthplace, in Europe, had been run by a private company since the late 19th century..It actually got the boot this year, as now the contracts are for 5 years only and performance is monitored. There is no savings at all compared to having the transit totally managed by the city (unlike here the council of the greater metropolitan area where I was born, made of the mayors of the various cities, is in total control..not the Regional and National governments, though they contribute financially).
    The management company get millions of $ per year no matter what and the transit work force is unionized–similar pay scale to city workers– and stays even when a new management company take over.
    Of course getting rid of the unions would save money ..I am opening a can of worms and going on a tangent here but proved in my workplace in Vancouver, the best way to ensure there is no union is to pay staff wages and benefits comparable to those of a union (our company refused, got a union, then not only had to double our wages but had to raise the managers’ wages and benefits to at least match ours!!).

    Paying low wages may save a company $ but it doesn’t benefit the society at large. I was making $10 per hour in a full-time relatively low-skilled job in Toronto in 1979 and, in 2009, we expect workers in Vancouver to go by on $ 8.50-10?? no wonder the government doesn’t get enough from taxes..

    Red frog

    July 15, 2009 at 12:00 pm

  6. This should interest a few people (no I wasn’t born in Lyon in France) Lyon is smaller than Metro Vancouver but has a very good transit system, with subways, trams, commuter trains..
    Lyon transit budget for 2009: the total income is 672.5 million Euros (about 1 billion $ Can.)
    The transport tax is 37 % of the budget or 245,6 M€ it is paid by both private enterprises and government services (education system, hospitals etc.) as they benefit from having their staff using public transit. Businesses with less than 9 workers are exempt from the tax.
    21% or 140,8 M€ are the share of the Rhône region and the Greater Lyon.
    14 % or 96,1 M€ is a loan from banks. 4 % or 28,6 M€ come from miscellaneous sources of income, including rents from historical buildings.
    The expenditures are roughly divided as follows: 50% for the network operating costs, 26% for equipment costs. 2% for Sytral–the local transit authority, whose board of directors is made of local and regional elected politicians-own operating costs. 22% for debt repayment.
    Keolis, the private company actually running the daily operations of the transit, has to meet qualitative and quantitative goals as part of its contract.
    SYTRAL’s mission as public transport authority is to: • Decide on routes, schedules, fares.
    • Maintain rolling stock, buildings, tracks, tunnels.
    • Design, finance and build network extensions.
    • Delegate network operations to companies (like Keolis) and control the quality of service.
    • Define and implement the urban transport policy. • Monitor traffic flow and conduct customer surveys. • Finance network operations and maintenance.
    For a North-American perspective on transit financing:

    Red frog

    July 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm

  7. Note on Lyon:

    City population: 472,305 (2006)
    Urban population: 1,783,400 (2007)

    Metro: The metro currently totals 25.7 km, with 37 stations and 4 lines, one of which is fully automated.

    LRT/Tram: Three tramway lines are connecting Perrache to the La Doua university campus in Villeurbanne, and Perrache to Bron, for a distance of 20 km covering the towns of Lyon, Villeurbanne and Bron , and Part-Dieu to Meyzieu.

    Funiculars: from Fourvière to Vieux Lyon
    from Saint-Just to Vieux Lyon
    from City Hall to Croix-Rousse


    July 15, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  8. Speaking of funding decisions, It’s been announced that the Nanaimo and Kamloops transit systems will have to significantly scale back expansion plans due to BC Transit cuts.

    Nanaimo: 10 new or expanded routes, an increase of 24,500 hrs of service, now to be 8,300 hrs.

    Kelowna: new service to the south, 10,000 hrs increase in service will now be reduced to 4,000 hrs new service.

    It’s unfortunate, that cities that have made a conscious decision to increase transit service so as to provide a service that goes beyond serving those who have no other choice have now after the election been told that the agreement no longer stands. As far as this looks, Translink will definitely need to find their own solution to their funding needs. And yet the most dubious of Gateway projects, the Port Mann project has no difficulty with obtaining 3 billion.


    July 15, 2009 at 9:20 pm

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