Stephen Rees's blog

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

Should Translink be split up?

with 12 comments

Delta Council seems to think so – and the discussion has also been picked up by Paul Hillsdon on Civic Surrey. The argument is not new, and is based on the conviction that Vancouver is at an advantage in any regional arrangement. Politicians like to compare how much is collected in their area and how is spent in the same place. In this case, they have been saying for years that Vancouver gets much more transit than the rest of the region and that less is spent in their municipalities.

Actually it is quite difficult to determine how much is spent in each municipality or even how much goes to the north or the south. Paul Hillsdon states “What we don’t know is how much the SoF communities contribute and how much service they see back for this money.” So I am a bit reluctant to enter that debate at all. It is hard to argue anything when there aren’t any reliable figures – and the ones that are being batted around look like they are carefully picked.

But Hillsdon goes on “However, there are advantages beyond simply service levels. One area that would improve is autonomy.” Now this is where the wheels definitely come off the wagon. There is indeed a lot wrong with the current arrangements. But I find it highly unlikely that a new SoF authority would be directed by their own politicians while the rest of the region would continue with the present set up. I think the argument shouldn’t be about “we want ours” – I find that argument petty. It also does not just apply to South of the Fraser. The North Shore has always felt itself left out. Do we end up with transit agencies for each municipality? Do we need separate agencies in Anmore and Belcarra? Obviously there are regional services. While there is always going to be an argument about where to draw the boundary, the functional economic region is clearly much bigger than any city – they are all interdependent. And while the discussion is limited to transit it is going to be skewed by the province’s preference for building roads rather than transit. South of Fraser is seeing huge sums spent on freeway expansion and the South Fraser Perimeter Road. The replacement of the Albion Ferry was never a very significant issue in the region, but Translink did it just because they were able to fund it from tolls. It was, I think, a very poor decision from a number of perspectives, but shows the mess we get into when we insist that user pay is the only way to assess the value of transportation projects.

Translink does need reform. The province has continued to maintain its iron grip over transit and never really relinquished it, even to the GVTA. Which looks better than what we have now but was not exactly popular at the time. The province is also dominated by concerns for “the heartland”. Rural votes always count for more than urban votes. Everything costs more to build when much greater distances have to be covered – especially when given the difficultly of much of the terrain in BC. And blacktop politics has always been a major force in BC.

We can also see what happens when transit agency boundaries do not much up to “commutersheds”. The long running hostility between  Mississauga and Toronto, for instance. It gets much nastier than just the need to pay an extra fare at the boundary.

In this blog I have often argued that we need better arrangements. We do have to look as transportation as a whole – not just transit. But we also need to be shaping growth not just serving current demands: of course, transit must serve current demand a great deal better than it does now. But we also must put priority on reducing motorized trip making  – reducing the demand for trips as well as switching modes. We must not continue to behave as though transportation and land use are separate: obviously they are not. It is a regional issue, and maybe we need to adjust the boundaries of what I still think of as Greater Vancouver to better reflect current and future realities. Maybe Abbotsford and Squamish were not supposed to become suburbs of Vancouver once – but the province has ignored that in its massive road construction program and we now have to deal with the consequences.

The future we face looks very grim indeed – and much of that is due to our dependence on personal motorised transportation. We need better arrangements that are more responsive to local needs. We need accountability. We need more not less democracy. We need greater involvement in the decision making process. It is simply not enough that we get to chose the name of a new transit smart card, but nothing of any importance. Of course Translink has to be reformed. But breaking it up into smaller fiefdoms to suit local politicians is the wrong direction to go in and spells certain disaster.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

12 Responses

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  1. […] Vancouver lights up the Lunar New Year [Vancouver Sun] Should Translink be split up? [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    February 3, 2011 at 8:39 am

  2. Interesting thought, the new “Oyster” style farecards being introduced to TransLink will make it dead easy to apportion fares between two transit authorities, if indeed TransLink is split.

    D. M. Johnston

    February 3, 2011 at 1:24 pm

  3. How much knowledge of transit systems, and wisdom about it, our locals politicians have?
    Having a whole bunch of separate transit providers is possible, it is the norm in many places*, but at the top there is always either a single transit agency or a very closely knit group.
    What we need is to give more powers to mayors, as in other countries outside North America, but then we go back to my original transit savvy are our local politicians???

    * Berlin VBB is an association of 42 private and public transport companies (trains, subways, trams, buses, ferries).

    In the Kansai region of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe , Nara and many more towns) there is JR West (the former Japan National Railways is now 6 passengers rail companies that look and work like one) plus municipal subway companies in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe plus 5 private rail companies plus municipal buses in the towns above and other towns.

    In Bordeaux (very small compared to the 2 places above) there is the TbC (trams and buses of the urban community) plus the regional branch of the SNCF (National rail company) plus 12 private bus companies.

    In these 3 examples above one transit smart card is all one needs as a commuter.

    Red frog

    February 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  4. If SoF goes it alone, would SoF be able to expand rapid transit within SoF on its own dime? When the time comes for TransLink to build rapid transit SoF, SoF will then have the funding benefits shift (at least with respect to capital projects)from built out areas to SoF.

    If I recall correctly, Evergreen is up first, then the Millennium Line west to Arbutus and Surrey’s extension are on equal footing priority-wise. If Surrey’s extension then becomes dependent on SoF funding, that could delay the construction of that extension since it has a smaller tax base than the whole region – or it could be shelved altogether.

    Toronto doesn;t have a subway extension into Mississauga and the currently under construction Spadina extension is the first subway into the 905 region. To date, those periphery transit system only have rapid bus, although Mississauga is planning an LRT line.


    February 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm

  5. What will happen if TransLink is split on a north/south line, using the Fraser River as a boundary, will be a new economic reality for transit planning. Indeed, there will be scarce funds for metro and planners will have to think cheaper.

    The Rail for the Valley/Leewood Project’s 138 km. “full build” Vancouver/Richmond to Rosedale TramTrain is projected to cost $1 billion, yet the 11 km. Evergreen line is said to cost $1.4 billion+. The vast cost difference between the two has been noticed by politicians in Surrey, Delta, etc.

    Surrey is on record wanting cheaper light rail instead of SkyTrain mini-metro and if there is a split, will be able scope to pursue much cheaper light rail.

    North of the Fraser (including Richmond) will be forced to contend with two metro systems, with no thought of continuing with light-metro due to financial constraints and there will have to be rethink of the light-metro philosophy as happened elsewhere.

    Competition between two transit operation authorities could be good for the region as competing transit planning may provide new, affordable, and practical transit options for the transit customer, instead of the same old, “you are going to get SkyTrain whether you like it or not”..

    D. M. Johnston

    February 3, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  6. How could you have competition between 2 transit systems that would be in 2 different areas and would/might have different sources of funding?
    Region A could build the fanciest yet more economical system in the world yet it wouldn’t help anyone living and working on region B if they never use the region A system.

    While some people here don’t like SkyTrain the fact is there are transit utilities in other countries that are planning and building at the same time new lines of subways, trams, AGT (elevated automated Light rail) and buses, depending on the needs of each area within a metropole.

    BUT, no matter how we look at it, there must be coordination between all the transit authorities as transit customers expect to pay the same fare within a “fare zone” or a given distance, regardless of the transit system used. For ex. in Paris zones 1-2 I expect to pay Euro 1.20(10 tickets for 12 E.) or E. 1.70 cash for a single ride on the RER, the metro, the tram or a bus.

    A better example of competition would be on the Kobe- Osaka corridor where there are 3 parallel rail lines a few hundred yards from one another: Hankyu, JR and Hanshin.
    The fares aren’t quite the same for each and choosing which one to use depends on all sorts of reasons, not just the cheaper fare obviously as they are all very crowded at rush hours. Choice could have to do with the exact daily route one take between the station nearest to one’s home and the one closest to work or school or.. (over there monthly commuter passes are custom made to each user) or it could have to do with rewards points from the Hankyu, Hanshin or Isetan(JR) department stores or…

    Red frog

    February 3, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  7. I would be interested to see what delta council finds.

    the closest situation is slowly progressing in plano, TX as they are considering leaving DART. a vote will come in 2014.

    “DART officials say Plano could not hold an election on leaving the transit agency until 2014. And even if the referendum passes, the city would still be obligated to pay a share of outstanding DART debts for the next 10 to 15 years.
    “Those are simply the facts,” DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said. “They asked us what would happen under statute and what the rules were.”

    “We want to keep all of the cities in,” [DART spokesman] Lyons said. “We think we are a stronger system with all of those connections. There are a lot of cities that are currently not part of DART that want access to the system.””


    February 3, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  8. Interesting last point.
    I could see the consequence of Surrey leaving being the prioritization of the UBC Line and SkyTrain to Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge (once the Evergreen is complete) – and maybe even scaling back of the Expo Line platform extension project.


    February 4, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  9. […] viral last week, hitting CBC Online, The Province, News1130, the Surrey Leader,, Stephen Rees, and the Delta Optimist once again. The response, at least among those willing to post comments […]

  10. If the south of the Fraser municipalities want to go the route of West Vancouver, which owns and funds the Blue Bus fleet that is fully integrated into the Translink fare structure and transit network, then more power to them.

    South of the Fraser municipalities have not received a commensurate amount of transit service per capita as the north of the Fraser municipalities. With that said it is really worth remembering that until recently, arguably the election of Mayor Dianne Watts, there have been no articulated ambitions for the south of the Fraser municipalities to be anything other than suburban bedroom communities with roads and highways and limited local bus service for who need it and hugely subsidized express bus service to downtown.

    If the south of the Fraser municipalities were to go it alone and withdraw from Translink there were be a huge number of challenges but they would not be insurmountable. It would be essential to ensure that the new transit agency integrated their fare system into Translink’s and a funding mechanism would need to be determined to ensure that the new transit entity partially financed BC Rapid Transit Company (SkyTrain) for the portion of service that resides in the new agency’s jurisdiction. If the new transit agency were to adopt the same Translink smart cards it would make all of these fare and co-funding issues much easier.

    The matter of buses strikes me a straight forward. The new agency would be given the number of buses that currently serve the south of Fraser municipalities and the corresponding debt that is born by Translink for these buses would be transferred to the new entity. The new transit agency would need to build its own OMC to maintain and administer its bus fleet and if Translink owns one south of the Fraser (I don’t know if it does) it should be given to the new transit agency and any outstanding debt transferred as well. Coast Mountain Bus Company would still staff the buses south of the Fraser in the interim and perhaps on an ongoing basis if the new agency desired.

    I do not doubt that a transit agency dedicated to serving south of the Fraser municipalities would be welcomed enthusiastically by its citizens but I think there would also be a great deal of disbelief when this new agency would be unable to provide the level of service that people expect. The reality is that the south of the Fraser municipalities are abysmally laid out for transit service. All of the geographic, land use, and built environment issues that have historically led Translink to provide what has been felt as too little service would be unchanged. Without the revenue positive routes north of the Fraser and SkyTrain helping to subsidize the revenue negative routes south of the Fraser, the new transit agency will be hard pressed to deliver even the same level of service based on the current level of property taxes. With its proportional share of Translink’s gas tax transfers, its geographic share of parking and advertising revenue taxes, and its direct fare box revenue, the new transit agency will be unlikely to even contemplate rapid transit for decades. The so-called TramTrain which Malcolm Johnson and Rail for the Valley promotes could be an option for the new transit agency but the issues of ridership and land use, which were deliberately not addressed in Rail for the Valley’s consultant’s report, would remain obstacles.

    The most positive outcome from this new paradigm may well be an acceleration of the south of the Fraser municipalities transition from suburban planning mindset to that of a more urban, pedestrian and transit focused approach. The south of the Fraser municipalities will hear loud and clear from their citizens that you need sidewalks and safe intersections if people are to be able to use the transit system by choice. I sincerely believe that the scale of the blocks and street grid, general lack of pedestrian infrastructure, mall-centric commercial development patterns, and general car-oriented mindset of residents and businesses are all responsible for the poor levels of ridership south of the Fraser per service hour of transit. None of these things will change over night if the south of the Fraser municipalities secede from Translink.

    East Vancouverite

    February 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

  11. Quote: “The so-called TramTrain which Malcolm Johnson and Rail for the Valley promotes could be an option for the new transit agency but the issues of ridership and land use, which were deliberately not addressed in Rail for the Valley’s consultant’s report, would remain obstacles.”

    Actually the full build RftV/Leewood – Vancouver/Richmond – Rosedale would would be very affordable, with operating costs of $10 million to $15 mil. annually. Land use is not a factor as their is plenty of population to support the TramTrain concept. Fact is, light rail is very affordable and can be built into areas that a metro like Skytrain can not.

    Watts’s dilemma is that Surrey’s population will soon exceed that of Vancouver, but there isn’t enough money in the pot to fund a usable metro network in Surrey. The result is that both Vancouver and Surrey/South Fraser municipalities must look at cheaper options for ‘rail’ transit.

    TramTrain is a variation of light rail and has a proven record of being successful. In Europe, transit planners are working hard in reducing the cost of ‘rail’ transit, yet here we keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

    Until we have honest planning and admit that we have overspent on metro projects, we will get little return for our transit dollar, with the South Fraser municipalities receiving much less. it is a formula for civic discontent and TransLink seems oblivious to it, probably because TransLink doesn’t have to or seems incapable of, providing consumer friendly transit.

    D. M. Johnston

    February 12, 2011 at 11:50 am

  12. In my opinion a split along the river in regional transportation management will not occur unless the provincial government says it will, and they’d have to justify such an assinine idea.

    If such a split occurred, then the majority of the population — and transit demand — would be NoF, and the agency that governs it would be larger than the SoF agency, which is more asphalt-oriented. Where the majority population resides, therein goes the money for transit. That is the direct result of land use planning. In SoF the choices will likely be between buses and cars, both on asphalt, not between asphalt and rail.

    Further, would Richmond want to be part of NoF or SoF? My guess is that Richmond council would opt to join the majority (the Vancouver population and employment centres are geographically closer than Surrey’s, and the relationship is very integrated in both directions), therein weakening the SoF ability to get funds from senior governments.


    February 21, 2011 at 4:33 pm

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