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Archive for July 28th, 2009

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