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

Archive for September 13th, 2011

The Translink Funding Debate

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The last few days have seen a great deal of media interest in the upcoming decisionthat the Mayor’s have to make on ways to raise more money for Translink.  This has been sparked by press releases from the new Sustainable Transportation Coalition – whose spokespersons are Peter Ladner and (somewhat to my surprise) Gordon Price. They both used to be NPA Vancouver Councillors. Neither of them are particularly ideological but both are firmly on the “progressive”side of the transportation debate.

The Sustainable Transportation Coalition is a non-partisan alliance dedicated to building support for long-term transportation funding solutions to create a more livable and economically vibrant region. Coalition members include BC & the Yukon – Architecture Canada, Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, Modo The Car Co-op, the South Coast Chapter – Planning Institute of BC, South Fraser OnTrax, Third Wave Cycling Group and Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.

That’s from the release that came into my inbox today.

If I may summarize, their main pitch seems to be to push the urgency of doing a deal with the province that would see both a 2c increase in gas tax and a significant rise in property taxes – the latter being something most of the Mayors have been strongly resisting. In fact, the Mayors of this region have been doing that for at least the last twenty years – probably longer. The province has always taken the view that there is room for a property tax increase to pay for transit. The Mayors have always said that there is not only no local tax headroom but that property tax is not a reasonable way to pay for transportation. They would, on the whole prefer that somebody else pay. They point out how much of the total tax bill senior governments take, and they want some of that back.

The Coalition seems to agree in principle but says that right now the province can’t come up with any other source of tax, but is at least willing to look at them. And that if there is an increase now it will be rolled back when the new, more appropriate source is determined. The important thing is to get on with building the Evergreen Line and a list of other worthy causes (“Rapid Bus connecting Langley, Surrey and Burnaby; improved bus service around the region; and funding for roads and cycling”).

Some of the Mayor’s fear voter backlash such as was seen with Translink’s first attempt to get a vehicle levy. Others simply do not trust the current provincial government. They feel the assurance that the property tax increase will be rolled back is not likely to be delivered on, and I must say I think they are right. The province has been consistent – and has had plenty of opportunity to look at sensible ways to tax or price our transportation system but has always declined to move significantly away from current sources – especially property tax which (it being levied by municipalities) is always its preferred option. Indeed that has been the provincial position though governments of both the left and right.

The projects are indeed highly desirable – and have been for a long time. But the Province espoused the crazy Gateway strategy instead i.e. road expansion. And they are now too far gone to roll that back. So anything we now spend on more sensible options will be much less successful since there is going to be a great deal more space for traffic to expand into. Under such circumstances, the probability that we will be able to move the most important indicator – the share of travel in non-SOV modes – is much lower.

The province has also stuck to its “revenue neutral” position on the carbon tax, and has refused to even consider car insurance by distance. And the current Premier is not exactly convincing on this brief – she flip flopped on the 2c gas tax – and seems to change her mind on things like election dates (which is after all in legislation her party pushed through) far too readily.

Basically, in the negotiating positions, it is always the municipal side that has to compromise. The province has hardly budged at all. The technical issues actually have very little to do with what is going on. It is simply a power play – and the province has most of the power, and is not afraid to use it. Indeed, one of the risks the Mayor’s run is what little say they now have in Translink will be also taken away unless they toe the provincial line. Municipal government being a child of the province. Moreover, the decision making process being what it is, there is very little urgency to get transit going. There will be lots more studies and “consultation”  but very little actual expansion any time soon. A token bus lane or bike path here or there maybe, but no significant investment in track or rolling stock until the Gateway’s vacuum cleaner hose has been taken out of the money pile.

If the Mayor’s seriously hold to their views on property tax, they actually do not lose very much. For the province continues to show that it lacks commitment to a significant expansion of transit and other nonSOV modes. And the Evergreen Line has been ready to go for years – and hasn’t. Mostly because the province would not budge on its “need” for a regional contribution. There is no real commitment to any consideration for the need for more operational funding either: it seems to me to be always about capital projects when there is barely enough to keep the system going, let alone be expanded. And, of course, there is also the ludicrous exercise of spending $100m on fare gates to save less than $7m a year in perceived lost revenue.

The great benefit for the province in the Mayors taking that stance is a the excuse that due to such intransigence, nothing can be done at all and indeed Translink’s governance clearly needs to be re-examined.

So, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But at least they know that it will only last for a short while. We now know when the next provincial election will be, and there is the chance that a new government genuinely interested in reducing carbon emissions and improving long term sustainability will get elected. Then the discussion gets really interesting, since much of it will be about how quickly can all this new road space get converted into bus and bike lanes!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm