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

Archive for September 8th, 2014

Federal NDP promises 15-year national transit strategy

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The Georgia Straight covers an NDP announcement today

Fin Donnelly, the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, told reporters that if New Democrats form the government after the 2015 federal election, they will bring in a national transit strategy…

“What we’re committing to is a 15-to-20-year window of predictable, accountable funding that municipalities, provinces, and First Nations can access, so that they can do the planning they need in their cities, in the provinces, in the territories to make the certainty of moving goods and people in their region,” Donnelly said today (September 8) during the news conference in Vancouver.

Which is certainly an improvement over the present arrangements. But it is not nearly enough.

First of all, what is needed is a permanent commitment. This is not a temporary problem that is going to be solved in a fifteen or twenty year time frame. Given the present imbalance between roads and transit, and the fact that federal funding has only been available for – usually major – capital investments (i.e ribbon cutting opportunities for politicians of the ruling party) a different approach needs to be established that provides certainty not just for now but into the future. And which has to support transit operations as well as expansion.

Secondly the assistance is to be tied to the gas tax, which is a dreadful policy. Predicated taxation ought to be anathema to elected officials. While it may buy political support from the right wing, which distrusts most government spending and wants to hog tie future government as much as possible, representative and responsible government must be able to look at all spending and revenue needs equally and make continual adjustments between them. A consolidated fund is the only way to do that, and is why budget debates and votes ought to be the centre of the democratic process. The federal Conservatives have, of course, been utterly and openly contemptuous of the parliamentary process with their sneaky omnibus bills.

The tax on cigarettes helps fund healthcare, but its revenues are not dedicated solely to the treatment of lung cancer or coronary artery disease. Nor should they be. The tax on alcohol is not regulated to being just enough to generate the revenue to treat alcoholism.

The gas tax is not a good and reliable source of revenue into the future.  As driving miles fell and engine efficiencies improved in recent years, so gas tax revenues fell at the same time as the need for transit spending increased.

Transit ought not to be regarded as a free standing object. It has to be considered as part of a wider strategy to deal with growing urbanism and its impact on the environment in general. It has to be part of making the places we live happier, healthier and more efficient. Reducing the need for vehicular movement has to be part of this process. There is no point at all in funding only those rapid transit projects that promote ever more urban sprawl, which was well under way long before the first automobiles appeared on the scene.

(Added as an afterword – Jeff Speck tweeted “Why good transit isn’t enough” citing Arlington VA, a suburb of Washington BC which has good transit but is a sad and soulless place. The author of that piece could be writing about much of the urbanized Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver. )  

It is not going to be just about “getting people out of their cars” either. If those cars are much better utilized, carry more people, require less parking space, produce much less or no pollution – all of which can be achieved by technologies now appearing in the marketplace – then we have to recognize that in suburban areas (which will continue to have their current form long into the future) where conventional transit has so much difficulty penetrating, cars are going to be part of the solution. They will probably be electric, self driving and shared. And they will be just as important as bike share programs and improved pedestrian accessibility and greater decentralisation of service provision of both public and private services. One way to reduce the need for HandyDART is to decentralise healthcare services. Some people will need door to door service, others will be happy with better services that they can reach by walking or cycling. Most will be even happier if there is a shorter journey involved. Location of workplaces and post secondary education both need to be revised significantly. If the university is not at the top of a mountain or the end of a peninsula – or includes affordable on campus student accommodation –  then much of the recent increase in transit demand stimulated by UPass would evaporate.

This a good announcement from the perspective of a party getting ready to fight a federal election next year. It is not nearly Good Enough as a formal policy statement tackling some of our most pressing problems and needs. But it is better than anything we are likely to hear from the Conservatives.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm