Stephen Rees's blog

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

Mayors kick off quest for ways to fund transportation system

with 18 comments

Globe and Mail

Frances Bula writes about the problem of funding transit expansion as though it were a dialogue between two levels of government – the province and the Mayors of the region. But it clearly is not a dialogue of equals. Transit expansion is necessary of course. That is not new – it has been a critical issue for as long as I have been around here and has never been dealt with properly. The province has always expected that local property taxes will be a major part of the funding formula. That is because the province does not have to take the political consequences that raising local taxes will bring. The municipal governments have always said that they do not think property taxes are the right way to pay for transit – and the senior levels of government have much more “headroom” than they do.

The debate is old and tired. The province also has much more power than the Mayors do. The province has now framed the debate with its new arrangements which leave the Mayors holding the bag – but without any powers to influence (let alone  control) how the money is to be spent. “The mayors’ council legally has until Oct. 31 to approve a plan for the next decade.” And what happens if they don’t? The province decides anyway. So there is no pressure on the province at all to reach any kind of settlement – they “win” even if they do nothing. So that is what they are doing.

According to several sources, provincial politicians have been pressuring local councils to approve the $450-million-a-year improvement, but pay for it through property taxes. Local mayors have been adamant in saying that’s a no go.

So if they do not agree, there is no transit expansion and the provincial politicians can say it was the Mayor’s decision. Meanwhile, the massive road building projects will be steaming ahead at full speed.

Fances Bula quotes Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson

“The provincial government legislated greenhouse-gas-reduction targets and they announced a $14-billion capital plan for transportation and now that we’re at the nitty-gritty of how to fund those two commitments, we’re not seeing a solid dialogue with them about how we do it.”

But the province does not actually give a damn about greenhouse gas reductions – its actions speak much more loudly than its words. The revenue neutral carbon tax has not – and will not – reduce emissions by one iota. The Gateway program – by its own calculations published as part of the environmental assessment will greatly increase emissions – but of course by far more than they admit. The “capital plan” was no such thing. The $14bn included the under construction Canada Line – and of the rest two thirds had to come from federal and municipal governments who had not even been consulted let alone committed. So that’s not a PLAN – that’s a wish list – and not even an original wish list but a hastily cobbled together rehash of old plans designed as a PR spin on an untenable position – that the Gateway “included” transit when it never did because it was designed by the port and the truckers association and a few Liberal supporters in the “Gateway Council”.

Gordon Campbell is a bully. He is also self centered and mainly interested in his own image. There is no intention whatever of reaching a deal with the Mayors – they either fall in line and take the hit of the wrath of the local taxpayers – or don’t and take the wrath of local transportation users – who are, of course, the same group of people. This is not governance – it is politics. Which is neither pure nor simple. In BC it is a blood sport. It does not serve us – or our environment well. But do not expect Mr Campbell to lose much sleep over that. He has at least four more years in power and no doubt has something cushy lined up for afterwards – well rewarded and requiring little effort.

There is only one, very faint, hope. That the corruption scandal of the BC Rail sale will finally blow apart and bring down the provincial government. For they are the architects of the present mess – and until they are removed we are stuck with it.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

18 Responses

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  1. I would assume that the wrath of transit users would be greatest in Vancouver (which taxpayers are decrying large property tax hikes in the city); while at the same time, in the burbs, the wrath of the property taxpayer would be far greater than the transit users.

    Don’t expect funding for transit initiatives any time soon.


    July 22, 2009 at 12:20 pm

  2. zweisystem, instead of the all negativism, how about getting people excited about investing in transit and the benefits of such investment to the liveability of the region. After there are proper resources to create a great transit system, then lets have the debate on what type of transit is best for what context.

    You would be amazed that how much better a respectful, positive attitude works in creating change.


    July 22, 2009 at 2:07 pm

  3. There will be no repercussions from the BC Rail fiasco.
    Someone made darned sure that all the incriminating emails were “accidentally” deleted along with all backup copies.

    I doubt anything short of a lunatic with a gun will get in the way of an extremely cushy retirement for GC.

    As for funding transit, I’m quite certain me and my fellow City of Vancouver taxpayers will continue to get the dirty end of the stick. At least we get pretty decent service for the money. My wife doesn’t drive, but is able to get everywhere she needs to thanks to the dense and frequent bus network in the city.


    July 22, 2009 at 4:03 pm

  4. Investing the carbon tax just makes sense to me. It’s logical, politically palatable, and wouldn’t be dependent solely on driving habits like the gas tax. If industry is taxed as a part of the carbon tax, there would be more than enough to invest in transit province-wide.

    Where is the downside? Anyone? What does the Province lose by committing the carbon tax to transit? Half the population doesn’t even believe it’s carbon neutral anyways…


    July 22, 2009 at 5:14 pm

  5. Corey – the province has made it abundantly clear that it will not consider using the revenue from the carbon tax to build transit here – or indeed anything else except allow for tax cuts elsewhere. What half the population believes does not matter either.

    Stephen Rees

    July 22, 2009 at 5:19 pm

  6. BC vote conservative yet Harper gives billions to Toronto for its transit (including LRTs that the BC liberals don’t want) but only give crumbs for the Evergreen line. what gives?

    by the way zweisystems, many transit users are also property owners…I had rather put my $ in a home than in a car!

    Red frog

    July 22, 2009 at 8:30 pm

  7. Red Frog, I totally agree. I sold my car to get my home. It was a nice boost to my down payment during a time when apartments are worth what houses were 10 years ago.

    The poor Evergreen Line…the Ever-distant and Never-built Line….sigh..


    July 22, 2009 at 8:45 pm

  8. A lot of this problem goes back to the foundation of TransLink. When TransLink was formed, the Province gave it a big chunk of money that they could chew into for a few years while technically running a deficit. From the get go, there was a disconnect with taxpayers between the the fees/fares/taxes being levied and what it actually cost to run the system. A few years into things, the nest egg ran dry and the vehicle levy was conjured up to balance the books and provide for some expansion funds as well.

    The Vehicle Levy fell over as we all know and thus TransLink’s first funding crisis was born. Service was cut immediately to balance the books and fares + property taxes were eventually raised to eventually restore what was cut plus provide for a modest increase in service. The cast was in place though. The public is asked to pay more to simply maintain or get back what they once had and didn’t get any expansion beyond what it would take to merely keep up with population growth in the region.

    Years later a surplus had built up again due to various factors. Now cash has run short and TransLink is again in a deficit position. They are chewing through cash reserves yet again to keep things afloat. That tap will run dry some time after the Olympics. Again, the public is being asked to pay more to simply maintain what they have…this time to the tune of $250 million a year. Add another $200 million if you want some sort of serious expansion. Give TransLink nothing and your service gets cut back severely.

    When you keep offering the public the proposition of paying more to simply maintain what you have, you get all sorts of negative feedback. The public thinks that costs have skyrocketed and are out of control and that public monies are simply a big trough to scoop out of.

    The true story is that costs have risen gradually, but service has expanded. The public has however never really had a taste of how much it really costs to deliver what you get. Various windfalls of money come and they simply mask the truth of what it costs to run the system. When the windfalls run dry, we are all of the sudden “in a crisis” and must pay more to simply keep what they have. The public will only support increased fees/fares/taxes if there are tangible benefits at hand. Right now its…..give us at least $250 million a year or we send you service back to 1970s levels. The public can only perceive they are being screwed. What else is there to interpret?

    In no way is the Province absolved from any blame here. TransLink though must bear some responsibility for the public being in such a fickle mood over fee increases. From day one, if TransLink did not have enough money to operate, they should have cut services then when the clear connection to the Province could still be made in the public’s mind. By living off a big nest egg and shed the public from the fiscal truth for a few years, TransLink squandered the power they have to arm wrestle the Province for greater ability to raise funds.

    None of this changes where we are now nor offers any sort of solution. Every combination available comes up as a win for the Province and a lose for local politicians. What TransLink has yet to figure out is they actually lost the game from day one. How do you get it back on track now? I dunno, but I would expect our public transit system will undergo yet another name and governance change in the next five years. At this point, why should we not expect history to simply just keep repeating itself.


    July 22, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  9. […] Farmers Market [Buzzer Blog] Density around SkyTrain or industrial land? [State of Vancouver] Mayors kick off quest for ways to fund transportation system [Stephen Ree's Blog] Vancouver needs czar to look after pedestrians’ needs, expert says [The […]

    re:place Magazine

    July 23, 2009 at 7:08 am

  10. I think John’s analysis is dead on. This financial crisis was predicted by myself at least 5 years ago and no one took heed.

    The carbon tax is, I believe, actually the RAV tax and has nothing to do about reducing carbon levels. According to snippets in Susan Heyes lawsuit against TransLink, that the real cost of RAV is now approaching $3 billion and that doesn’t include debt servicing! Campbell simply needs the RAV/Carbon/Gas tax to fund is pet RAV and Gateway projects.

    I have always called for a Royal Commission on urban transportation in the region and I think the time for one is now.
    We really must take off our ‘rose coloured glasses’ and see TransLink for what it is; a ponderous, over staffed bureaucracy that has achieved very little.

    Metro construction forced onto the region, by provincial politicians, has hobbled transit planning and the notion that by throwing more money into TransLink will fix it, should be dispensed with.

    Transit is treated as a ‘motherhood and apple pie’ by most people and hard questions are not asked.

    I think that TransLink will split into two within 5 years, with the cities with SkyTrain or RAV remaining in TransLink, with the remaining muni’s rejoining BC Transit or form their own transit authority, like a South Fraser Transit authority.

    D. M. Johnston

    July 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm

  11. And I think the Province will simply not let any municipalities split from TransLink. If anything they will force the entire region from Squamish to Hope to become part of TransLink in order to fund the asinine UBC subway.

    Things are only going to get worse until someone in Victoria grabs a brain and realizes we can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again and calling it “progress”.


    July 23, 2009 at 9:09 pm

  12. John’s analysis is not quite “dead on”. The Province on the founding of the GVTA did not “give it a big chunk of money”. The on going dispute prior to the formation of the GVTA was the use of gas taxes collected in the region – which the municipalities said were “local” funds – as they were not collected from anyone but GVRD residents – but the province labelled them “provincial funds” as they had collected them. The municipalities refused to collect matching amounts of property taxes so they had not been spent.

    In other words, the current battle – the province trying to force municipalities to raise property tax to fund transit – is just a continuation of this old battle. Moreover, the province in setting up the GVTA also downloaded provincial roads – and some very rickety bridges. The GVTA had to spend money on their upkeep – not transit expansion, which had been their major concern. the idea that this made Translink a “transportation agency” was PR spin.

    The carbon tax is not a “RAV tax” either – it is collected province wide and has been matched by province wide reductions in other taxes, including the initial “refund” made directly to tax payers. To perceive it as simply covering the alleged cost overruns on the Canada Line is short sighted – not everything is about LRT in Vancouver!

    Stephen Rees

    July 24, 2009 at 9:06 am

  13. […] Posted by viewfromthe44 under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  Stephen Rees has a good discussion of the coming fight over transit funding between Lower Mainland mayors and the province. The […]

  14. Stephen, any predictions as to how this is going to play out?

    Dejan K

    July 26, 2009 at 7:18 am

  15. No – I am not going to make predictions.

    Stephen Rees

    July 26, 2009 at 9:09 am

  16. “The best way to predict the future is to create it”, Alan Kay.


    July 26, 2009 at 9:35 pm

  17. Frances Bula has more on this topic in her most recent column published last Friday

    Quotes from Pat Jacobsen, Gord Price and George Puil – none of whom are currently involved of course.

    Stephen Rees

    July 27, 2009 at 5:31 pm

  18. […] This unsigned op-ed from the Tri-City News has a nice little illustration of something Stephen Rees was talking about last week.  The province has nothing to lose in their stand-off with Lower Mainland mayors over […]

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