Stephen Rees's blog

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

Region’s sustainable transit plan must be funded

with 4 comments

Mike Harcourt published this opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun on October 22nd, before the Mayor’s vote to fund only current services not expansion. Oddly, that was not picked up by the Google News Alert that I use on a daily basis to track new stories with the phrase “Metro Vancouver” in them until today.

Of course, Martin Crilly, the transportation commissioner, had already told the Mayors that they could not legally authorize spending on expansion as they have no permitted additional revenue sources available to them. So there was really very little point in Harcourt hectoring them. He should have been addressing the provincial government, which has placed Translink in a financial straight jacket. Their freedom of movement is tightly constrained – as I explained at the time.

Harcourt includes some things in his forecasts which are not Translink’s responsibility, but will need to be dealt with by the Minister of Transport, Shirley Bond, though she will inevitably defer this to her successors

As well, over the next 10 to 20 years we have a number of old bridges and approach roads we will need to replace. The Port Mann and Pattullo Bridges you know about. But what about the 50-to-80-year-old Queensborough, Knight, Oak and Lions Gate Bridges, as well as an expanded Massey Tunnel?

Only the Patullo and Knight Street bridges are Translink’s responsibility. All the others belong to the MoT. And, as noted here recently, the MoT has discounted any expansion of the Massey Tunnel. The province has shown, however, that its policy for not tolling existing infrastructure does not apply to replacement structures. The new Port Mann bridge will be tolled. Translink will be allowed to toll the Patullo since Kevin Falcon stated that the Alex Fraser is an adequate free alternate to the tolled Port Mann. So if these bridges need to be replaced soon expect tolls on many of them: Oak Street is easy since there is the Arthur Laing as a free alternate. Tolls were rejected for the Lion’s Gate upgrade – and I would have expected that to last for more than 20 years. Maybe Harcourt has some insider information I have not seen.

Missing from Harcourt’s list but arguably much more significant to him – as he is a director of the Vancouver Port Authority – is the New Westminster Swing Bridge – the only railway crossing of the main arm of the Fraser in the region. This critical link is used by BNSF, CN, CP, Amtrak and SRY on a daily basis. It is single track and older than any of the bridges identified by Harcourt. It is the most significant bottle neck in the region and a major restraint on rail service expansion of any kind. Its replacement has been necessary for many years now – and, so far as I know, nothing is being done about it.

He is of course right to address both provincial and federal governments. He is also right to identify the need to create a sustainable region. Perhaps what is remarkable is, apart from a reference to “Metro Vancouver’s economic competitiveness” there is no direct reference to Gateway. That project is the one that is sucking up all the available resources for transportation in the region – from both federal and provincial sources – and is the least sustainable of all the options. It has no transit component (merely a few airy “promises” for later consideration) and will ensure that the region south of the Fraser will be unsustainable for the next 40 years at least.  We could have a sustainable region within that time if the billions of dollars devoted to building and expanding freeways were spent on transit instead. Indeed, with sensible choices, that might even leave some money to be spent on replacing the odd ancient bridge too. But what we are seeing now is the end of any hope for a sustainable region.

By the way, while we are talking about the need to replace aging infrastructure the same paper has this piece about Metro’s need for much more money for water, solid waste and sewers. And that will come from property tax. A 50% increase over the next five years. So you can see why the Mayors could not vote for a property tax increase for transit as well.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2009 at 9:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. It’s sad when you compare situation with Metro Vancouver and the province here to the comparably sized city of Perth, WA.

    Bombardier just supplied them with REAL trains for their new Mandurah Line, which doubled their rail network length.

    The Department of Public Transportation has a sustainable transportation plan for the entire state. Our Ministry of Highways, oops I mean Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, continues to forge ahead with highway plans from the 1970s.

    These few points are just the tip of the iceberg. I urge anyone to look at Perth, especially their beautiful rail system, and then compare to Metro Vancouver.

    We can’t even work out a sustainable governance and funding regime.

    This region is pretty sad. Buses, toy trains and bickering, that’s all we have.


    October 29, 2009 at 5:10 pm

  2. BC badly needs reform of political donation laws. The Liberal Party’s biggest donor in the last election was the New Car Dealers Association closely followed some construction and property development companies ( It’s pretty clear who they’re really working for. The developers are clear winners at both ends of the density spectrum – high density around Canada Line stations and low density around the new freeway interchanges.

    Chris S

    October 29, 2009 at 8:11 pm

  3. I’m pretty sure the only people Mike Harcourt was “hectoring” were the federal and provincial governments. I read his piece as making the case that the budget needs were real and pressing, not that the mayors were in a position to meet them.

    He points to possible revenue sources and says higher property taxes wouldn’t be necessary if those sources were pursued. And at the end of the article, he sums up: “If the governments of Canada and British Columbia are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing Metro Vancouver’s economic competitiveness, increasing our 2.2 million citizens’ quality of life and creating a sustainable region, then they have to partner with us. We need and deserve our 10-to-20-year,$10-billion-to-$15-billion sustainable transportation action plan.”

    Or am I missing something between the lines?

    (Disclosure: I’ve done some writing professionally for Mike over the years, and admire him tremendously, but haven’t worked for him in about three years.)

    Rob Cottingham

    November 7, 2009 at 5:32 pm

  4. Thanks for that Rob. You are probably right and I may have well read into it something that wasn’t there. I had assumed he was trying to push them to go for the $450m plan.

    Stephen Rees

    November 7, 2009 at 5:41 pm

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