Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Translink Funding Debate

with 12 comments

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

12 Responses

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  1. IMO I do not see a 2 per litre gas tax and a raise in property taxes as particularly onerous.
    So as a blogger on transit issues would you rather decline supporting the Sustainable Transportation Coalition and wait for something better?

    When a new administration gets formed in Victoria 2 years from now? And expect that they will be more immune to competing interests/provincial meddling/regionalism in transit funding?

    Neither of them are particularly ideological but both are firmly on the “progressive”side of the transportation debate.

    And which side would you be on, Mr. Rees?


    September 14, 2011 at 12:00 am

  2. Well Mr Mezz if, after reading my blog for all this time, you do not know which side of the debate I am on, either I am very bad at arguing my case, or ….

    To put it slightly differently: this debate is not about transportation, or transit, or regional government. It is about politics. It is people who see themselves as moderates urging compromise. But you should not compromise with a bully – because that just invites more bullying. The Coalition is urging – ‘take this deal, its the best you can get’. But, as usual, when the BC Liberals make a promise they have their fingers crossed behind their back – or whatever little device they think exempts them from keeping promises. Like the promise not to sell BC Rail.

    Not only do I not trust the current provincial government, I think that senior governments in general have known for a long time that the way we govern our major metropolitan regions is seriously flawed and based on a nineteenth century understanding of what local and regional governments need to do. Whatever party is in power nationally or provincially they have always ruled in favour of the status quo – or made it worse.

    I also have long argued against the so called “Balanced Transportation Policy”, because it is simply spin on building more roads and not spending nearly enough on transit or bicycles or pedestrians. The current pattern is heavily tilted in the favour of the road lobby – and to get real “balance” means taking road space and road funding away and using it on better means of getting around. And building the sort of place that does not require car ownership. The current deal on the table does not get us anywhere near that, and therefore should be rejected on the grounds of insufficiency. It is not a compromise – it is not half a loaf. It is a few crumbs – and also, a swindle. From people who have shown they cannot be trusted. I do not think that Messrs Price and Ladner are naive – but I do think they are mistaken. And, coming from their side of the political spectrum I can understand that. It is not enough to be progressive – we need a revolution.

    Stephen Rees

    September 14, 2011 at 9:10 am

  3. The provincial government has already shown they can’t be trusted on this very issue. Last year they promised they’d look into funding alternatives this year. This year they’re promising they’ll look into funding alternatives next year. Who in their right mind would believe them?

    The only leverage the mayors have is to withhold their support for this until the province does something concrete rather than offer yet more tired old promises that aren’t kept.


    September 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

  4. @ Stephen (comments): ” It is not enough to be progressive – we need a revolution.”

    A very apropos statement.

    In a sense I think Canadians are hooped in the absense of a national transportation plan linked with a national security plan revolving around energy and food.

    I would add, though, the politics with these issues has evolved into the full spectrum now that economists and geologists like Jeff Rubin and Dave Hughes speak to a wider audience, and the many professionals that pepper the intelligent comments on The Oil Drum express increasing dismay at the lack of political leadership.

    I beleive the people are way ahead of partisan politicians and get it when it comes to making our cities more efficient and humane through transit initiatives. Though one grinds one’s teeth with the partisan commentary by politicians like Derreck Corrigan, how can one disagree with his logic when he fingers the conceit of a federal government that returns only eight cents for every dollar it pulls out of Lower Mainland gas taxes?


    September 15, 2011 at 10:07 am

  5. I wish I could say I believe you MB about the people being ahead of the politicians, but there’s a world of difference between saying you’d like to see more transit and sustainable development and being willing to pay for it either with dollars or reduced road capacity. Lots of people talk big about OTHER people taking transit, never about themselves. Look at the bike lane situation. Bike lanes do what many say they want: they get other people out of their cars and reduce vehicle traffic. But when the bike lane takes over part of the road previously devoted to other people’s cars the complaining can be heard as far away as Newfoundland!

    The current federal government is led by climate change deniers who are ideologically opposed to providing public services. They believe that people should have the right to drive everywhere. They make token gestures toward public transit in order to keep on the good side of senior citizens. If you look at the conditions on federal transit money it’s obvious that they only fund projects that are big enough provide a lasting “monument” and, perhaps more importantly, don’t take 1cm of space away from the almighty driver in his BMW.


    September 15, 2011 at 11:35 am

  6. For anyone who thinks that the “people” are out ahead of our politicians on these issues I have two words for you:

    Rob Ford

    And don’t believe that “it can’t happen here.” Someone like Rob Ford can happen anywhere in this country and urbanists need to acknowledge this reality and adjust our strategy based on this. I take some comfort in the fact that he seems to be in a slow motion crash and burn, with the attendant drop in approval ratings, but that won’t fix the damage that’s been done: A ridiculous subway LRT and a lot of wasted time on a mythical private sector subway that will never happen. It’s a shame the lessons of the Canada Line don’t seem to have penetrated much outside of Metro Vancouver.

    There’s a frequent poster on the Infrastructurist blog that I read regularly, D.P. Lubic, who points out the generation gap in the United States on these issues, how most of the opposition to new transit, to a return to the cities, in the U.S. is from baby boomers who have never known any other kind of life but car dependent suburbia. They don’t want to lose it as they age, and they view the shift away as a rejection of them and their values.

    In Canada, we experience something different. Something worse: this same cohort is humouring us.

    I think most of the mass of suburban, middle class boomers while not hostile to urbanism take attitudes of: “Better transit? That’ll be great for my elderly mom.” or “I’m worried about Global Warming, but I don’t want to change, so I’ll vote to help others change so that I have a clear conscience.” or “Bike lanes? That sounds nice for my son living downtown with his girlfriend until they get serious and buy a house and car.” or “Mixed use? Oh, so they’ll be more lovely little shops when I drive down to Kits every other month.”

    It’s fine for governments (at all levels) to worry about stuff like this when times are good but the moment that changes, this same cohort of voters sweeps aside these issues. Building bike lanes and improving walkability on streets and small increases in property taxes is all well and good when the economy is growing and unemployment is 5%.

    Economy goes south? The adults are taking over and we know what works best: tax cuts, budget cuts!

    And politicians, they have a tendency to go whichever way the wind is blowing for those that vote. And are likely to vote for them.

    Right now, that’s still mainly this cohort (although that may be changing) and I think that urban activists need to keep that in mind. The next provincial election may offer a chance for this “revolution” but that will only happen if people can be genuinely convinced of the need for it, that not changing represents a huge economic risk and that this change will improve their lives.

    We have to move past being humoured by the dominant cohort or get enough new voters to negate them or else we’re going to wind up in the same situation, some projects inching forward, a bone thrown here or there, but still a power structure that views the world through the same old paradigm, regardless of which party is in power.

    Jack Hope

    September 15, 2011 at 1:30 pm

  7. David and Jack, Gasoline at $2.50+++ a litre will do more to inspire even the most conservative suburbanite to become a transit advocate, even though they’ll find being forced to adapt to Smart Growth a bitter pill to swallow. It will also affect everything related to economic activity … which is just about everything short of religion.

    In a perverse way, some urbanists are rooting for shortages in petroleum because that will force the decision-makers to have a spinal transplant and become real leaders on cities and energy for a change.

    The international price of oil is not in the least way controllable by people like Rob Ford, Stephen Harper or the premier of oil-soaked Alberta, whoever that may be after the next leadership contest.

    If the politicians currently prevent us from having compact, energy efficient transit-oriented cities (and secure local food) because of their obdurate and myopic world view, then economic upheaval will inevitably undermine the oil and car-dependant infrastructure and undermine the foundations many cities but especially the suburbs were build on.

    There’s lots of stuff on the web about peak oil, but there’s an interesting recent post in The Oil Drum by Charles Eisenstein entitled ‘Peak Oil, Peak Debt, and the Concentration of Power’.

    A quote: “Both the energy system and the money system are based on accumulation and the concentration of power.”

    And another: “In all these realms though, the trend toward increasing concentration is nearing its peak, or has peaked already. The peak manifests in many different ways. In some areas it reflects resource depletion; in others, demand saturation; in others, it is due to technology.”

    Here’s the link:


    September 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm

  8. MB, I don’t disagree with you at all regarding what will happen and the inevitable price shocks that are going to hit all of us. But right now, with gas at still $1.40/L we’re having a tough time selling the vision of a more compact and robust living arrangement based around reducing our fossil fuel usage. You’re absolutely right that $2.50/L is going to force us to change dramatically. That change will be a hell of a lot easier though if we get buy in ahead of time.

    The election of Rob Ford and Stephen Harper clearly demonstrates that among the voting public they haven’t been convinced.

    Isn’t it better to convince the public beforehand and do as much as we can before things get that bad? Waiting until gas has hit $2.50/L strikes me as the definition of a bad idea. The pressure will be enormous, costs through the roof and nothing will be able to happen really fast. It’s either going to be a horrible depression or everyone’s going to be working because there will be so much happening. Either way, it’s the kind of disruption that’s going to leave aftershocks for decades.

    I’m going to quote my favourite television show here: “I believe people vote their hopes not their fears.”. That’s from Battlestar Galactica but regardless of the source, I think it’s true more often then it’s not. Whether it’s fair or not, the current perception on these transportation and livability issues are still one of selling fear and very intangible fears at that. People are noticing the weather is changing, yes, but it’s still at the level of anomaly or slight inconvenience. The reality of it hasn’t hit yet. Neither have rising energy costs or any number of the warning signs because it’s still to easy to ignore and carry on as before.

    This isn’t just a question of getting tone deaf governments to listen to us. We have to get a critical mass of people who want to move in this direction. Yes, fuel price shocks will do that quite effectively, but waiting until we hit that point just makes it all the harder. Especially when there are encouraging trends that favour urban advocates.

    We can do more before these price shocks hit but only if we reconsider our tactics and that starts with acknowledging where our viewpoint stands with the general public and adjusting accordingly.

    Jack Hope

    September 15, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  9. Rob Ford… We all need to be thankful for him because he showed us what can happen here if we’re not careful. The number one take-home lesson from his debacle is this: resist amalgamation of Metro Vancouver at all costs! I’m in agreement with Jack Hope’s comments – the if the suburbanites ever get voting control over the City of Vancouver then we’re doomed. And my tongue is only partly in my cheek when I say this.

    Regarding the price of fuel: I agree that we’re in for a very rude awakening as the price of oil continues to rise. One of the reasons I’m in favour of using gas taxes to subsidize transit is that helps to get people conditioned to higher prices before we’re forced into it. Anything that might help to smooth out the inevitable price shock will help.


    September 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm

  10. Before anyone start talking about the Europeans and their compact cities with pedestrian areas, great transit etc. the truth is that in the 1960s, when the WWII damages had been finally repaired, freeways (or rather tolled divided motorways) started to creep all over.
    They allowed many families to live in smaller/ cheaper towns yet work in the big town (the toll booths are usually a good 40 km away from a major town and, by taking small roads just before the booths, one can live 70-100 km away from work without paying a toll).

    By the 1970s the suburbs of many towns were starting to spread far and wide and are now bigger-in land size and population— that the old town in their center..

    Neither the price of gas nor the price of a monthly train commuter pass (Euros 105 for 60 km from Bordeaux, 262 Euros for 200 km away, PLUS 40 euros for the monthly urban transit pass) hasn’t deterred people from living farther and farther away, if only because the dream for many is still of a single family house with a bit of land around.

    Ironically it is the middle-class families (doctors, lawyers, notaries, business owners) that are willing to live in a downtown apartment. At least during the week..But then when these apartments are 2500 sq ft. or bigger and the family also own a country house for the weekend, this isn’t much of a hardship.

    Red frog

    September 16, 2011 at 12:14 am

  11. For the most part voters only care about one thing, money. Whoever voters believe will put/leave the most money in their wallets gets the vote. The poor and marginalized benefit the most from social programs and thus vote for tax and spend politicians. Almost everyone else votes for low taxes in the belief that this will make their lives best.

    I don’t see how $2.50/L gasoline will change anything. Prices for food, clothing, shelter and everything else will go up making the middle class even more desperate to hang onto as much of their income as possible. That means they will cling to low tax politicians for dear life. The fear of higher taxes leading to less money in people’s pockets is what made people vote for Stephen Harper. The next generation of right wingers will lay out similar economic arguments to win even larger majorities.


    September 17, 2011 at 10:20 pm

  12. @Jack Hope: “Isn’t it better to convince the public beforehand and do as much as we can before things get that bad? Waiting until gas has hit $2.50/L strikes me as the definition of a bad idea.”

    and: “This isn’t just a question of getting tone deaf governments to listen to us. We have to get a critical mass of people who want to move in this direction. Yes, fuel price shocks will do that quite effectively, but waiting until we hit that point just makes it all the harder. Especially when there are encouraging trends that favour urban advocates.”

    I should email you all the letters I have written to governments at all levels over the last decade on peak oil and climate change. I believe the people are ahead of politicians on these topics, but they need leaders and policy platforms they can support. There is currently a vacuum. I am a lot more cynical than I was at the beginning of this decade because most politicians – irrespective of party affiliation (with the exception of the Green Party) – are soaked in the strategies of the political cycle or steeped in incompatible policies to care about the economy and physical world of tomorrow.

    Moreover, there is a profound and well-financed effort by special interests to influence government policy, even in the face of a critical mass against them. The oil industry, for example, is a primary supporter of the Conservative Party (direct contributions and indirectly through the funding of private and very influential so-called think tanks), and the Harper government has therein gone the extra mile to silence climate scientists and subsidize the oil barons. I have concluded, like you it seems, that encouraging politicians then waiting for them to act is not a productive use of time. I agree that a critical mass of the people must become convinced of the worthiness of doing something about these issues because they will have a profound effect on society, and if the message sounds negative that’s because it is.

    Now I believe that the message needs to be tweaked to emphasize the positive attributes of more efficient cities and lowering emissions rather than beating the Doomer drums, but the change required to achieve that will hurt the vested interests of a lot of powerful corporations and people. Thus, the message should also be changed from blasting them to tailoring it to foster encouragement that change is possible where many 21st Century economic opportunities are to be had, albeit in a smaller stable state and debt-ridden world economy.

    Oil companies call themselves “energy” companies. If they were to live up to that moniker then they’d diversify into areas like deep geothermal power which has far more potential than all of the world’s petroleum resources combined and multiplied several times. They have deep financial resources, so to speak, and the expertise in drilling to great depths. Why not harness their influence to tap clean, abundant and relatively cheap energy to displace carbon?


    September 21, 2011 at 11:27 am

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