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Archive for November 2009

“Major Translink Reform Needed” Part 2

with 4 comments

This post is intended to be a more thorough analysis of the Comptroller General’s recent report on Translink.   I know that she also looked at BC Ferries but that is not going to be part of this post, although I think it is interesting to note that the two corporations are treated rather differently. (Anyway The Tyee has already done a good piece on that.) My first go round was an admitted fast response.

The report has something very important to say about governance, and it is not complimentary to the provincial government. After all, it is only eighteen months since the new structure was imposed on what had been a regionally controlled body. That reorganisation was not well thought out and was based more on political spite than the public interest, and what we are seeing now are those chickens coming home to roost.

The key intentions of the revised legislation were to improve the governance, support TransLink in its purpose, and as discussed later in the report, improve planning, funding capabilities, financial sustainability, and accountability and transparency.

The terms of reference for our review indicate that the Province considers other intentions important.

So either we have a flip-flop – having brought in a new structure to do one thing, they now want to do something else – or incompetence. Having rammed through a change largely because the Mayors were nor sufficiently compliant, but continued to think that they were on the Board to represent the people who mostly pay for Translink, they now have a structure which does not seem to work very well.

This obsession with reorganisation is common with governments and bureaucracies. It is especially common when there is political interference in the provision of public services. Private sector companies are held up as “more efficient” but that is because they do not have to satisfy anyone but the shareholders, and the metric for that is simple to organise. Public sector enterprises typically have multiple objectives, some of which may be contradictory, or at least very difficult to measure in a satisfactory manner. Or, in the case of Translink and its predecessors, are not measured at all.

We attempted to determine levels of ridership or route capacity to identify other possibilities for cost containment and efficiency while balancing service level needs, but we found the available data of limited value. TransLink informed us they do not cost by route, but rather over the entire transit system using cost per service hour and cost per kilometre as the key drivers. As a result, TransLink has useful broad system-wide information, but, to manage their costs and conduct service rationalizations they require more specific information.

There are two reasons for this state of affairs. As part of a cost cutting exercise when still under the aegis of BC Transit, the staff who collected bus ridership data were reduced in number. Since that time, detailed ridership data has been grossly inadequate, but very little has been achieved to correct that. The electronic farebox was supposed to help, but operational and planning staff refused to develop a model that would convert the data on cash and swiped tickets to ridership, using survey data on flash passes. Automatic passenger counters (common on other systems) have yet to be widely installed. Moreover, transportation planning for the region inherited from the GVRD has never been supported with adequate data collection for anything but broad brush analysis. The GTA travel survey covers 4% of trips: ours covers 0.4%.

But the second reason, and one I think is most important for this review and its consequences, is the understanding that individual bus routes or segments of bus routes do not stand-alone as cost recovery units but serve as feeders to the system as a whole. Ms Wenezenki-Yolland seems to be suffering from the same professional purblindness that afflicted Dr Beeching. He took an axe to the branchlines of British Railways, cutting off much of the feeder traffic and creating access problems which are now having to be solved by reopening some of the routes he “rationalised”. The last decision the Mayors’ Council made was to avoid this kind of surgery by adopting a funding strategy that would avoid major reductions in service delivery. I suspect that this report will now revive the demands to cut low ridership bus routes as an “efficiency” measure. What this will achieve is the start of the declining spiral again: falling ridership, falling revenue, more cuts.

If the only objective of running Translink was to avoid tax increases and keep the shareholder happy this might make some sense. But the transit system is much more important than the traditional, mistaken view taken by business types. Transit is subsidized because its major competitor is also subsidized. The car also imposes significant social and environmental costs  that increasing transit use may help to mitigate.   I just did a search of the document for the phrase “mode share”. I found nothing. There is much of course about ridership, but absolutely no discussion of the extent to which this may or may not have been successful in attracting new transit users from trips that would otherwise be made by car. We do know that across the US, rising gas prices and a declining economy have combined to reduce car use and increase transit use. Again, this report does not seem to address these issues either. But we also know that if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this region, reducing car use is critical. Provincial policy of course is to encourage a considerable increase in car use to an extent that will of itself exceed any effect seen from the carbon tax. (And of course the increased exploitation of the province’s fossil fuel reserves and the new pipelines to deliver Alberta’s tar sand output to Asia will significantly compound the problem. The forestry sector is also now a net producer of ghg and is no longer a carbon store.) The report makes no mention of the topic of greenhouse gas. Presumably this reflects the fact that our Premier is much less interested in global warming now that he has been re-elected.

But even if we ignore greenhouse gases, the benefits of adopting policies that reduce car dependency are manifold, and places – most but not all outside of North America – that have not just good transit systems but also encourage walking and cycling have reaped the rewards of that. Part of the reason being that other governments at all levels recognize that transportation policies that focus on keeping cars moving and reducing funding for alternatives are self-defeating. Congestion in cities seems to remain at a constant level: there is a sort of equilibrium where users put up with a lot of delay, and society suffers greatly, but nothing much changes. Cities that were gutted by the interstate freeways, of course, saw significant decline and flight to the suburbs which is only now being arrested and in some places reversed as the viaducts are pulled down and the streetcars return.

Transportation, density of development and urban planning are all intimately intertwined. Most people seem to understand that. Not, apparently at least one CMA.

But let us now return to the vexed question of “governance”. I have used quotation marks because the choice of the word is in itself significant. It came into vogue a few years back when discussing what was going wrong with North Americas businesses. There has been very legitimate concern over the ability of company executives to use corporations as a sort of personal piggy bank. A few spectacular crashes, and a much smaller number of successful criminal prosecutions are but the tip of the iceberg. CMAs will probably tell you that these cases were the result of a few bad apples and that enough has been done to ensure that the rot does not spread. I disagree. I think what we have seen has been the deification of Gordon Gecko. At one time, some of the most successful companies were those that took good care of their workers and their customers. I am not talking about the robber barons who became philanthropists after they made more money than they knew how to spend on themselves. I refer to people like the quakers who ran chocolate businesses, to give their coreligionists an alternative to alcohol, but were also pioneers in urban planning and especially housing provision.  Even Henry Ford recognised that paying the men on his assembly lines enough that they could afford to buy his products made good business sense. British retailer Simon Marks (of Marks and Spencer) introduced all kinds of in-house services for the shop assistants he employed to keep them happy and healthy. This kind of approach is now seen as quixotic. Work is shipped overseas, to the cheapest labour and lowest environmental standards possible. Wal-Mart grows wealthy by destroying the economy of small towns. And Microsoft – well, you get the point.

These excesses have concerned shareholders – but so also has been the vexed question of how much to reward the people manage the company. I would say that the current business model – which now includes huge amounts of government support to keep going the businesses “too big to fail” – is flawed. Yet that is the model that is being cited in this report as the one we should follow for transit. Even though in this case there is little evidence of the excess rewards for executives, and 80% of the operating costs are labour costs. Although that figure I just quoted is now out of date, since it comes from five years ago and my memory. Increasing debt service being another whole issue.

the cost of operating the Canada Line (net of bus fleet operating efficiencies) is expected to exceed the additional system revenue it generates until 2025, with costs exceeding incremental revenues by $14 million to $21 million for most years until then.

The big issue, you will recall, between the Mayors on the Board of the GVTA and Kevin Falcon was the cost of the Canada Line. That was one of the reasons why they voted it down twice.

We were advised that while TransLink had both the Evergreen and Canada Lines in their long term plans, the region‟s and TransLink‟s priority was the Evergreen line. The provincial priority was to participate in the Canada Line, in part because they felt it had a stronger business case and because of the desire to have the line available for the Olympics. Given the provincial and federal funding availability, TransLink proceeded with the Canada Line.

Not quite. The Mayors were also told that the Evergreen Line would be built – and it has not been. Moreover, there is no provincial or federal funding in place to support the increase in operating cost. Senior governments will provide capital that brings them ribbon cutting opportunities in key constituencies, but they are much less interested in keeping the system going. Except, in the case of Kevin Falcon and his strange obsession with fare gates, which will never recover their cost and will also raise operating costs significantly. With almost no perceptible change in “security” and  no impact at all on fare evasion.

The report also fails to note the impact of U Pass – on revenues, costs and ridership. Like Martin Crilly, she notes the effects of suburban bus expansions and the apparent spare capacity of low ridership routes but says nothing about the number of pass ups on routes serving post secondary institutions that have UPass – most of which is borne by the bus system.  She does notice Community Shuttles. But what she does not remark is that these are now simply lower cost ways of operating regular bus routes and no longer seek to increase the penetration of subdivisions to improve transit access and thus encourage a shift in mode share. A shuttle is now just a cost cutting measure that provides inadequate space at peak periods for some key demographics who we ought to be encouraging to change their perception of transit. But again, this is a subtlety beyond the comprehension of the accountant.

clarification and reinforcement of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities and improved strategic alignment and communication amongst respective government parties is required.

The one significant change that I would say is needed is not that the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure needs to be included in the model. As she herself notes

The Act does not identify the ministry’s role or responsibilities in the governance structure

That means it does not have any. It does, of course get consulted. But it has no expertise in transit at all. It exists to build roads. (The function of maintaining those roads has been privatised.)

What is really needed is for the Province to back off and allow the region to determine for itself what kinds of transportation system it needs to support its regional growth strategy. Indeed at one time there was just such an agreement (“Transport 2021“), crafted under the direction of the then Mayor of Vancouver and Chair of the GVRD – Gordon Campbell. I do not expect a Comptroller General to say anything of the sort. But that agreement, on the face of it, would have been a good start – if the province of BC had actually lived up to its commitments instead of seeking to undermine it at every opportunity. And that applies to governments of both persuasions, who behaved equally badly.

The new arrangements that Kevin Falcon’s Act brought about were the insertion of two extra layers of administration. The new professional Board and the Transit Commissioner. If anyone is responsible for raising the costs of administration and creating the “uncertainty” and the need for more accountability and transparency it is he. Not the Board, or the Mayors, who are trying their best to sort out the dog’s breakfast they have been served. And who are thwarted by the province’s interventions at every turn.

It actually does not matter very much what changes are put in place as a consequence of this report. The current government has demonstrated that it has absolutely no intentions of adhering to the principles that this report endorses. Transparency and accountability cannot be said to be strong suits of the BC Liberals. Their expertise lies in spin and obfuscation – and even, when necessary, downright lies. The Premier and his Minister continue to peddle the notion that the Gateway will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reducing congestion, when even their own, flawed, documents supplied to the EA contradict them. They do not adhere to any principles other than their own survival – and whatever bee Campbell happens to have in his bonnet at the moment. Whatever structure is put in place will have to bend to his will if he decides to change direction – as he almost certainly will. He runs his cabinet as a dictator, and it is a shame that the voters of this province have allowed him to get away with such a shoddy performance. His record contains far worse than a deck and a pocket knife. The Convention Centre alone cost more than the fast ferries – and at least they were able to be sold. We will be stuck with the Gateway and its consequences for many years – and quite likely his Olympics too.

The current fuss about too many executives and not enough transparency is a classic blind. It is a diversion to conceal the short comings of the present administration, that imposed its will and then found it got results that it had not anticipated and seeks to shift the blame elsewhere.  We now hear very little about the $14bn Transit Plan for the region. The one that Translink was trying to incorporate into its own planning cycle. There is a lot in the CG’s report about how cumbersome that process is as well. And again, derived from the same badly drafted bit of legislation.

Careful reading the CG’s report shows that the responsibility for the current mess cannot be fairly laid at the feet of local politicians, or the unfortunates who are trying to do their best working for Translink. I do not blame Tom Prendergast one bit for deciding to return to New York. That won’t be a bed of roses either, but at least Mayor Bloomberg can set a direction and expect to see it followed. No local politician in BC can do that.

The Minister in her remarks on Friday was careful to be non-committal about the report’s recommendations. They are not, of course, binding. And they do not require anyone to admit that the SoCoBriCTA mess is their fault. But equally, none of the recommendations will produce what the region desperately needs; which is a much expanded transit system, properly funded, and integrated into a sustainable land use plan. Instead we will have freeways, urban sprawl, poor transit service for most of the region and continuing high car usage. Frankly I find it hard to get excited about the concerns of the Comptroller. She seems to me to be filling the role of the purser on the Titanic, worrying about the audit of the bar receipts, as the ship continues at full steam ahead towards disaster.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm

“Major Translink Reform Needed”

with 7 comments

Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland released her report on Translink and BC Ferries on Friday morning. I only heard about it on the CBC News that evening.

So far I have only scanned what is in the report with respect to to Translink. I think it would be a good idea to take the time to digest the report carefully, but having said that it is also worth pointing out was this report is – and is is not. It was a rush job and was politically targetted to be critical of the role of the Mayors in this region, and was also designed to direct attention away from the province’s actions. Specifically it was designed to highlight attention on cost control and executive compensation.

The province tipped up the organisation only eighteen months ago with new legislation and a new structure. That in itself says a lot about this government. The new arrangements have hardly been working long enough to determine anything, yet already the province is clearly dissatisfied. There has long been dissent between the province and the municipalities in Greater Vancouver over transit. The old arrangements of BC Transit and the Transit Commission were clearly unsatisfactory and the creation of the GVTA was supposed to deal with that. But the Liberal government cannot resist the instinct to try and run things itself. While it made a great song and dance about independence and the need for a business model, it stuck to the idea that it alone was the right authority to determine major investment decisions. It also carries to this day the conviction that property taxes should be increasingly used to fund transit – and transportation in general. It is very significant that the Comptroller General says nothing about the impact that decisions on rapid transit have had – are are having – on Translink’s operating costs. Attention is only directed towards bus service. And right up front there is a table that compares how much other Canadian cities use property tax to fund transit compared to this region.

Transit share of City Property Tax and Utility Charges

I think the prominence that this report gives to the property tax issue and the way that it is presented is a dead giveaway of the province’s intentions. Throughout the discussion of Translink’s plans two themes were constant in statements by Minister Shirley Bond. That Translink had the capability of raising enough revenue and had not done enough to control costs.

In a report put together as quickly as this one, and with such a short document there is not a great deal of evidence presented, and even less discussion about what it means. The comparison in Figure 7.0 is inadequate, because Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa do not have access to a dedicated regional gas tax collected by the province. Prior to the creation of the GVTA the gas tax was a key point of disagreement: the province maintaining that it represented a provincial contribution and the Mayors stating that since it was only collected in this region it was a local contribution. Gas tax is actually not a very good way to pay for transit at a time when gas prices are rising. We have seen here and across the United States how reliance on gas tax tax has meant there has been less revenue at exactly the same time as more people want to use transit because of rising gas prices. This observation is, of course, absent from the report. Also absent from the report is that Translink is unique in having a hydro levy for transit – an historical anomaly, but one that is not a significant revenue source. If the comparison between different cities were to be valid I would argue that gas taxies that are solely collected in this region should also be included, becuase that would show the relative share of provincially raised taxes and locally raised taxes. It is who pays that is important (the taxpayers of the province or those of the region) not how they pay or who collects it.

The report also avoids any discussion of whether or not property taxes are an appropriate revenue source for transit – or transportation in general. It might also be worthwhile pointing out how municipalities are moving away from property tax as a revenue source, and substituting user fees or charges for essential municipal services such as water supply and garbage removal.  That in itself is another discussion, but it is entirely consistent with the local politicians approach to Translink funding.

The Comptroller General does indulge herself in presenting a model for publicly related enterprises which displays a distinctly conservative bias. Transit is not a commodity like gas or electricity. Indeed it is only recently that those utilities have begun a serious effort to try to reduce per capita consumption of their services, whereas it is very much in the public interest that transit use increase, and for very similar reasons. I do not accept her assertion that it is necessary for the governance model of public enterprises to reflect those of the private sector. Indeed I would suggest that her preference for such a model displays a political bias. The reason that governments established public enterprises (crown corporations being only one of several possible models) was that private sector provision had proven to be inadequate to meet legitimate public concerns. The health service being one of the most obvious examples where the profit motive was (and in the US still is) detrimental to providing adequate service to the entire population. Transportation is also very clearly a case where the supply of public roads, without user fees, has lead to a major distortion of the market greatly against the public good but very much in favour of a few, very powerful, private sector corporations. It has cost us dearly in land use, environmental degradation and also human health impacts. Transit has to be subsidized to exist at all let alone to compete effectively against the much more heavily subsidized private car. But once again none of this is in the mind of the Comptroller General. She is an accountant, not a policy analyst. So her characterisation of the need public control as the “shareholder” is not just misleading it is wildly inappropriate. Shareholders have only one interest: to maximise the return on their investment either through dividend payments or capital appreciation of their shares. Shareholders in general have very little control over corporations. Some groups of shareholders, often public sector pension plans, have a very strong influence, but they do not act in the broad public interest and indeed would fall foul of the law if they did. They are bound to pursue narrow financial objectives. So one the major drivers of Canadian urban sprawl has been the property investment arm of the Ontario teachers’ pension fund. I would bet that there are many teachers who would be very critical of how their funds are used to spread concrete over farmland, but who are also worried about how they will fare financially after retirement.

Because of her limited terms of reference, she could not examine why we need to have effective integration of transportation and land use, and what role transit provision plays on securing a more sustainable future. Those issues are not on her radar, but in dealing with the governance of Translink ought to be front and centre.

Her suggestion that there should be direct provincial representation on the Translink board is quite extraordinary.   The GVTA board was supposed to have had three MLAs. They never once took their seats. The province, on the other hand, has been quite overbearing in its relationship to the Board – even imposing new legislation to limit the powers of the Mayors when they had the temerity to stand up for the region’s priorities in rapid transit provision. With a majority in the legislature, the provincial government can do pretty much as it pleases and there is very little to stop them. Kevin Falcon did mange to bully the Board into reversing its decisions on the Canada Line, but then hit them with the legislative cosh anyway. Yet they still trot out the Comptroller General to suggest that even more provincial control is needed. The word democracy, or representative and responsible government, is also absent. But note too that among those who get to appoint SoCoBriTCA’s board is something called the Gateway Society. Not elected local representatives, but a special interest group gets to chose who runs Translink. No transit user’s group gets consulted, of course. Or anyone who might represent the people who pay regional taxes.

One thing she was supposed to look at was executive compensation. This was flagged by politicians as being excessive at both BC Ferries and Translink. I imagine there will be great disappointment in the premier’s office that she did not find that to be true at Translink. Without presenting any evidence at all , or explaining how she arrived at the conclusion, she does say that there are too many of them. Somewhat to my surprise  Translink does not disagree (scroll down to near the end of that article).  I am not clear if she is talking just about Translink, or its plethora of operating subsidiary “companies”. That structure, inherited from the GVTA was designed to stop local politicians from interfering with the day to day operations of transit services and keep their attention focussed on policy issues. Now that these politicians have been removed even further, perhaps this structure is no longer necessary. But I will bet that it will be retained since it facilitates eventual privatisation, which may not be a currently achievable arrangement but I am convinced remains a long term goal of the BC Liberals. One thing is clear that now there is a professional board as well as the Mayor’s board, the structure is top heavy. There is even less local input into decision making and almost no effective way of achieving a regional growth strategy that might be directed towards ends other than private sector profit maximisation. Which, of course, is the only thing that Gordon Campbell really cares about.

I will probably return to this report again. I cannot say that I am surprised by much in it, and I do not think it is enough for good decisions to follow. Simply because it is so devoid of evidence. I want in particular to look at what she says about bus service, because what she says has been happening and what I am aware of are two different things. But since I have already covered that in my discussion of Martin Crilly’s report, I think I will leave this for now. I am not all hopeful about the eventual outcome. I think it will be used as a justification for yet more provincial direction, which will lead to more tax and fare increases and bus service cuts and quite possibly a head on collision with the transit union similar to that we see with the Ambulance service and HandyDart. Because executive remuneration may be an easy way to get popular support but is not actually the big ticket item of bus operating costs. And sooner or later, that is where the focus will shift.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 7, 2009 at 11:30 am

TransLink CEO Prendergast departs

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Jeff Nagel on BC Local News reports that Tom Prendergast has decided to take a new job as president of the New York City Transit Authority. There has been significant coverage of changes at the MTA recently  in the New York media. The job there is much bigger and more important than his current job so although there are interesting insights in Nagel’s piece, I would think that there is as much “pull” as “push” in this decision. Prendergast did make a very good case for expansion beyond the funding provided in the current legislation, and I am sure that he was very saddened by the province’s intransigence on funding.

Being head of an expanding organisation would have been a much better job than simply keeping on at a steady state. But actually that also says a lot about the relative importance we attach to transit in this region. The next few years will see significant continued expansion of the highways in the region, which I would say have also seen more growth than the transit system in recent years. What is galling is that the spin that is put on this is the notion of “balance” in transportation investment, when of course far more is being spent – has been spent – on roads than transit. So there is clearly going to be a relative decline in transit’s importance here.

That is not going to be the case in New York’s system. Significant new projects of both new subways and bus rapid transit are planned. New York – as the recent talk by their Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan showed – is far ahead of Greater Vancouver not just in its provision but also its understanding of what the future city will need. We are comforting ourselves with the idea that we have enough capacity to charge a complete switch over to electric cars.  Not that that is going to happen anytime soon. And will do nothing at all to deal with traffic congestion anywhere. But it might allow for continued car dependency and all that entails.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

Posted in transit, Transportation

Good news

with 18 comments

Two good news stories this morning.

The Burrard Bridge trail looks like it has been a success. The report will go to the Transportation Committee tomorrow. Or you could could read the Vancouver Sun’s summary. (Or that of the Georgia Straight.)

Its popularity among cyclists – 90 per cent in favour, and pedestrians, with 79 per cent in favour — isn’t surprising, but the support among drivers may be.

Of those drivers who travel the Burrard Bridge without a passenger, 51 per cent support the continuation of the bike lane trial, with 31 per cent opposed.

So the promises of doom turn out to be wrong. Do you think there will be any public statement from the DVBIA aplogising? No, neither do I.

The other one is a bit further afield. The Guardian reports that one of the busiest intersections in Central London has been rebuilt. Following similar experiments in Kensington all the street furniture designed to pen in pedestrians has been removed.

This boosts available space for pedestrians by around two-thirds, as well as – the designers hope – encouraging all road users towards a more thoughtful, responsible attitude.

The biggest innovation is the use of diagonals for one pedestrian crossing phase. All vehicle traffic in all directions is stopped and pedestrians can cross diagonally, if they wish.  This is known by the unfortunate name of a “scramble crossing”. The reason for the redesign was exactly the same as that for Broadway in New York. There were far too many pedestrians for the space allocated to them. But due to the street furniture they could not spill onto the street, the way they did on Broadway, resulting in considerable congestion and a field day for pick pockets.

Oxford Street and Regent Street are two of London’s busiest shopping streets. Oxford Street has been closed to car traffic for a while now but is heavily used by buses, taxis and, of course, delivery vehicles.

Now that the cyclists can use Burrard Bridge safely, I hope someone will start looking critically at some of the busier intersections of downtown and thinking about where diagonal crossings might make a reality of Vancouver’s claimed priority for pedestrians.

And while I am thinking about that, will someone please reconsider the idiotic decision to limit the number of entrances and exits at Canada Line stations that are underneath intersections. Since the trains are below the street surface, it should be possible to get directly to the platforms. It should not be necessary to have to cross two busy streets, and then do a labyrinthe of tunnels and staircases. You can see how that is done at Oxford Circus too.

Oxford Circus

Oxford Circus

Written by Stephen Rees

November 2, 2009 at 10:17 am

Posted in cycling, pedestrians

Tagged with ,