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

Archive for March 22nd, 2013

Restore elected control of TransLink

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Jeff Nagel in the Surrey Leader has produced a very good summary of the consultants’ report commissioned by the Mayors’ Council on the governance of Translink. He also provides the complete report itself (but without its appendices), and I would urge anyone interested to read the whole thing. It is only 21 pages long, “has been prepared for discussion purposes and does not make recommendations”.

I think it is useful, and will be considered when there is a new provincial government. I think that would have to happen even in the now extremely unlikely eventuality of another BC Liberal government. I think it is also somewhat unlikely to be given high priority in that event: my bet would be that their instincts are still tied more to ensuring a replacement for the Massey Tunnel than sorting out transit in this region. In part that is because the Ministry of Transportation is in fact if not name a Ministry of Highways – and the advice the Minister gets is nearly always going to be based on continuing to do what it has always done. There is never anything new or different – no matter who is in charge at the Ministry or who has the Minister’s office. The plans are the ones that they have always intended to pursue – and any set back is simply regarded as a temporary one. You can never quite kill a highway plan: it will always re-emerge.

While there may not be recommendations, it is clear that its authors have identified the need for more local accountability. They also point out that while Metro has been a good regional service deliverer, it has been less successful as a regional planning body – and has not managed to deliver on its regional strategy, or come up with an economic plan for the region.

It is perhaps not surprising given that the signatories of the report cover letter – Clark Lim and Ken Cameron – both worked for the GVRD, and both had responsibilities in that body’s transportation planning efforts. They both have first hand  experience of the grinding conflict between the province and the region – and that between the municipalities. They do not mention one of the major stumbling blocks: that the City of Vancouver regards itself as a different kind of government since it has a Charter – and is therefore different from all other municipalities in the region. The huge disparity in size and power of the various municipal governments is reflected in the cumbersome voting arrangements for decisions – since there are no direct elections at the regional level. It is supposed to be conducted at the level of consensus, but that is not always the case. The consultants were not, of course, expected to review regional governance as a whole – just the bit that looks after transportation. But they could not ignore the critical linkages between transportation and land use. They mention economy in passing and I looked in vain for some reference to the environment.

Actually, nothing about the report is surprising. The odd thing is that it is thought necessary. Kevin Falcon made a quite extraordinary decision when he set about “reforming” Translink. He had already got his way – by lying about the provincial readiness to proceed with the Evergreen Line and the Canada Line simultaneously. He did not really need to have a tame board to get his own way. And he had already wrecked the Livable Region idea by deciding to widen the freeway (Highway 1) and build the SFPR though the ALR. As long as capital spending on road expansion exceeded that of transit expansion by several orders of magnitude, the notion that transportation choice would be increased was laughable.

I have had direct experience of a similar decision. Margaret Thatcher became extremely tetchy over the ability of Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council to demonstrate that there was indeed a viable alternative to her policies. She had actually become known as “Tina” for her frequent recitation of the formula “There Is No Alternative”. She not only abolished the the GLC but the entire level of Metropolitan government in Britain. And for good measure then got rid of property tax (“the rates”) by replacing it with a Council tax based on population (“Poll Tax”) – now widely recognized as disastrous.  At the time of its abolition I was working for the GLC producing reports on governance rather like this one. The difference is she had a secure parliamentary majority – unlike the present provincial government. In any event, it did not mater how respectable the research (we even put out reports by such well known revolutionaries as Coopers & Lybrand and the LSE)  the vote in the House was all that counted. Once Tina was gone, a new Greater London Authority with an American style executive Mayor was set up – a very remarkable innovation in British local government.

I hope that when the new BC Government considers this issue it takes the view that it is simply not enough just to restore accountability to Translink by having an indirectly elected Board again. I have made this recommendation before, and do not apologize for repeating it now. Greater Vancouver needs a directly elected regional government that has control of transportation and planning – which has to encompass not just land use but also the environment and the economy. It has to have not just a vision (like the LRSP) but also the means to deliver on it. Given that it is very unlikely that we will see transit funded by the feds any time soon, the new authority must have sufficient fiscal resources to bring about fundamental change. It is going to be a huge task but if it is not tackled with both speed and determination we will continue to flounder in business as usual, while the world collapses around us. Climate change is real – and really bad. Much worse than was predicted even on worst case scenarios. It is also now inevitable. The carbon that is causing sea level rises, temperature increases and severe weather events has already been released. What we have seen so far is mild by comparison to what we will see.

Gestures and spin will no longer suffice – not that they ever did but that is all we have had up to now. And the governance of Translink is going to look trivial by comparison to the challenges we are going to face. So lets get this out of the way, so we really can start to make a difference to our future.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm