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Archive for May 2nd, 2010

Bond shies away from major TransLink reforms

with 34 comments

BC Local News

There was a lot of huffing and puffing from the Minister of Transportation – but in the end she backed down. I think this is a significant story – but if the other media noticed it, I didn’t until tonight. Flicking idly through our local paper in Richmond this evening. Aldergrove had this two days earlier.

The idea surfaced with the Comptroller General back in November last year – along with a similar populist attack on BC Ferries. The common theme for both was that the senior management was overpaid and over populated. BC Ferries did not cut the pay of their Board – though they say they will hold back a bit in future. The new CEO of Translink, Ian Jarvis, has been more ready to cut staff and has also got rid of senior people. But the big costs were the recently completed major capital expansions – and the impact they have on operating and maintenance. The great big question has been the Evergreen Line: the province says it will be built, and the region will have to pay its share but Translink cannot afford to run the system it has now. And the Mayors were not going to approve an increase in property tax region wide for an expansion to rapid transit that benefits only the north east sector. Everyone wants more transit, the region wanted to be able to determine its own priorities for that but the province, as usual, stepped in and moved the Canada Line on to the list, saying it was needed for the Olympics, even though it was not included in the Olympic budget.  The Mayors’ Council was brought into existence, and Translink “reformed” by previous Minster Kevin Falcon – pretty much in a fit of pique of the Mayors’ display of independence questioning the need for the Canada Line. Then after the arguments over who pays for the Evergreen Line got testy, the CG suggested cutting the Mayors’ Council in half and adding provincial representatives. That was actually an old idea – the previous GVTA had room for three MLAs on its board, but they never took their seats.

The idea has now been dropped. Instead

TransLink’s 10-year expansion plan will no longer need to be fully funded – instead it will only have to budget for spending in the first three years.

This reflects reality a bit better – but changes nothing. The province told Translink that both the Canada and Evergreen Lines would be built – one was the other wasn’t and is still short of money. So she still talks about a “new funding formula” and she still is not saying “if she will grant TransLink new powers to tax or raise revenues”. So other than dropping the threat to the Mayor’s Council, nothing much has actually changed on that score.

Translink was praised by the Minister for “adjusting routes”. That actually means service cuts. Fares have gone up to. Service was reduced significantly after the Olympics – even though the higher service levels showed a remarkable success for this region. Combined with road and lane closures, increased transit service had been very popular and traffic was significantly reduced, while the much increased demand for travel during the two week sports festival was pretty well met. But like nearly every other system in North America, the transit system in this region cannot meet its bills, and is looking for ways to cut costs and increase revenue. Just to “stand still”. In Translink’s case the significant new burdens imposed by its recent major capital projects  – the Canada Line and the Golden Ears Bridge – mean that it cannot proceed with any of the other planned expansions. Raising fares and cutting service will also mean loss of ridership. Instead of the spiral of improvement that expansion brings – more service, more riders, more revenue – we now face what other systems face – the spiral of decline. That is not what a growing region needs, nor what we need to be doing to cut vehicle emissions – most importantly of greenhouse gases. In Greater Vancouver the lack of heavy industry means that transport is responsible a much higher share of ghg than other major city regions. And, of course, the province is pressing ahead with major highway expansions that its own data show will increase ghg emissions. They do, of course, ignore the inevitable longer term impact on land use and the consequent locking of the outer parts of the region into continued automobile dependency.

Meanwhile, Translink continues to consult about the need for more rapid transit such as the province’s stated preference for a tube train out to UBC versus trams on Broadway and maybe other routes too. Not that they have any money for either.

I think the Mayors can be pleased. But I still do not see any resolution to the conundrum that the province has created. They said – and continue to say – that they will build the Evergreen Line. It will be Skytrain – and that costs more than the province and the feds have committed. And the region has no ability to come up with more new funds. And now that the HST is through the provincial legislature, talk of even more new taxes is not going buy this already highly unpopular government any more votes.

But changing the need to have funding in place for a ten year plan that is on hold is nit actually significant at all. Minister Bond looks as though she is out of ideas and is probably lucky that attention is elsewhere right now. But that won’t last long, and this problem is not going to solve itself. Road pricing? Regional tolls? I don’t think so somehow. Yes they are needed, but they are politically unfeasible. And that was true before the BC Liberals flip flopped on HST. The easiest way out is to postpone the Evergreen Line yet again – even if that does lose the federal funding. After all. Minister Bond has shown she can break commitments quite easily if she has to.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 2, 2010 at 10:11 pm