Stephen Rees's blog

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

How to fix Translink’s broken governance

with 12 comments

The need for this article, right now, is almost purely academic. The ruling BC Liberals seem immune to widespread obloquy over not one but a series of scandals any one of which might have brought other kinds of government down. Yes Translink is a problem for those of us living in the region  – and that is, numerically at least, the majority of the BC population. But that is not the way politics works here, and Christy Clark seems able to serve out the rest of her term. And anyway there are plenty of other issues where she is at odds with most of the people who live here, but can survive at least until the next election.

The reason I decided to start writing was a piece in BC Business entitled  “How TransLink might fix its broken business model” which is nearly a month old now but its author, Frances Bula chose to tweet it again to-day, which caught my  attention. Basically the article looks at the turn around in Atlanta, and speculates about a similar approach here.

My comment is under the article, and this post is designed to enlarge upon it. Quoting myself

The problem in Vancouver is not management. It is governance. The present model is unaccountable and unrepresentative. It was imposed by a provincial government that has clearly demonstrated that it has absolutely no interest in seeing it work.

The province has always had a policy that transit is different to other types of public service, and needs a unique approach. It interferes continually but, at the same time, refuses to fund transit properly while spending far too much on road expansion. A referendum is required for any new funding mechanism, but is never required for any highway project – or indeed any other type of provincial spending/funding decisions.

And Jordan Bateman will always be only too happy to torpedo any proposals that might actually work to improve the situation as that would rob this one trick pony of his audience.

A new CEO is not going to be able to change the governance. Only the province has the ability to do that. This government never admits to any of its mistakes. Only a change in Victoria as complete as the one just seen in Ottawa is going to make any difference.

So one day there will be a different provincial government that decides that it is time to reform Translink. Here is what they will need to think about:

The current arrangement has been cobbled together to suit the BC Liberals of the day. It makes no sense now to continue with it, and the easiest point to start might be to unpick what they did by simply repealing their legislation, and go back to the former GVTA. Except that was not exactly popular either, and for very good reason. In its first iteration it was a new body run by some but, not all, of the Mayors with some acknowledgement of the varying sizes of the municipalities. This method of indirect representation is similar to that of Metro Vancouver, responsible for waste disposal and water delivery, regional parks and planning, but there all the Mayors get a seat at the table but with weighted votes.

Translink was supposed to have been a transportation agency – with responsibility for some bridges and the Major Road Network (MRN), but this was really only provincial downloading of responsibilities that would have happened anyway. One of the worst decisions, in terms of its financial impact on Translink, was to replace the Albion Ferry with the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, which has created a huge drain on the agency’s revenues as traffic has never come up to expectations, and revenue risk was not transferred to the P3 – which pretty much vitiates the reason for using that method of funding. Apart from that the MRN seems to have worked well except for one long running argument over a bridge between New Westminster and Coquitlam. On the other hand the ill conceived North Fraser Perimeter Road was soundly defeated and has yet to re-emerge. Though it almost certainly will if the Ministry engineers get their way – as they usually do in the Long Run.

I have long argued that indirect elections are a recipe for discontent. Mayors are not elected on regional issues, and tend to adopt a stance that is defensive of their turf before any regional consideration. But no matter how much you might dislike what your Mayor says over regional issues, they are not the deciding factor come election day. We need representative and responsible government and you do not get that by holding infrequent, contentious non binding plebiscites.

The governing body has to be an advocate of better transit, because this region has historically been underserved for most of its existence, and is the only feasible way for a region of this size to function effectively. Transit is not only vital to the economy, it is also essential to tackle our most pressing environmental and social issues – and those include affordable housing. Where you chose to live determines how much you travel and the concept of affordability has to include costs of housing AND transportation if it is to be meaningful.

And while the province will never make any concessions over the needs of longer distance travel and transport, nor will the federal government in terms of ports and airports. Both levels of government have effectively abandoned their responsibilities with respect to housing but that is not sustainable and will inevitably have to change. And while technological changes may well have some dramatic impacts on how we use the transportation system they are unlikely to reduce demand for movement of people and goods overall.

It is also obvious that you should not plan just for transport as though it was not intimately enmeshed with land use. Sadly, we continue to behave as though the two subjects were unrelated – even if we give the idea of integration at least lip service if not substantive commitment. By and large, when new transit lines are planned it would be much better to get them up and running before the people arrive, if you do not want them to get used to driving everywhere first, which is what has been happening.

So, given that Metro Vancouver seems to work acceptably, why would you not just put Translink under its command? I think that is a temptingly straightforward solution but not one that satisfies the need to improve accountability. Much better I think to reform both at the same time and hold direct elections for regional government – with a Mayor for Metro. This is the solution that was adopted in London. Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, but then balked at privatising and deregulating London Transport. It was the proverbial dog’s breakfast and did not last for long after she was deposed. The Greater London Authority and its directly elected Mayor now runs Transport for London – and some related issues that have been downloaded including taxis (which used to be run by the Home Office). Much of the transit service is contracted out, but there is a single integrated fare system, and some of the local train services have been transferred from the national rail system to the Overground.

The huge issue that I have not so far dealt with is the need for much more investment in transit as well as increasing need for revenue support – if only because the use of gas tax revenues has been a victim of the system’s very success at getting people out of their cars. Property tax is not going to be accepted, and the province needs to become much more responsive to the needs of people to get around without a car. This applies as much outside Vancouver as within it. It is absolutely baffling why the province refuses to set up a transit service along Highway 16 (“The Highway of Tears“) between Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert. That has to be part of the solution to terrible loss of life due to aboriginal women being forced to hitchhike as the only way to get to essential services. Victoria’s need for rail based transit could not be more obvious, nor so long obviously ignored. Restoring trains on the E&N is only a start.

So yes there is going to have to be more provincial money for transit, and the roads budget is the place to start. We simply cannot afford more freeways and gigantic bridges. We also need to raise money fairly and equitably. Income tax and corporation tax are the obvious places to start, and the odious fees and charges levied without reference to ability to pay have to be abolished. So much less reliance on BC Hydro, ICBC as revenue sources, no more MSP and a thoroughgoing reform of BC Ferries to make it once again a public service and not a pretend corporation. The wealthy can readily afford to pay more tax. There has to be an end to all the corporate welfare, especially subsidies and outright give-aways of natural resources. There will still need to be fossil fuels, but levying reasonable royalties (cf Norway) has to be central to public finance. Carbon tax has worked, to some extent, but the “revenue neutral” mantra has to be abandoned.  We have to switch away to renewable energy sources at a much faster rate, and a lot of carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. At the same time, we have to recognize that far too many people are currently living a hand to mouth existence, and cannot absorb more levies fees and tax increases. We have to be more socially responsible, but this also will often mean better ways of doing things. It is cheaper to house people than it is to cope with the costs of homelessness. The war on drugs is unwinnable, but recreational substance use can be a useful source of revenue – and self medication.

The idea that we can reform Translink by tinkering with its PR and “business model” (whatever that means) is delusional. And like any interdependent ecosystem, we cannot just pull on one or two strings and expect the web to stay intact.  But we can also readily identify where the current policies have not worked and cannot be made to work better just by getting tougher. Most of the knee jerk right wing responses are ill informed and unsupported by any credible data. Better policies are in place elsewhere and we can find better examples than the one we have been so blindly following. And none of this is a stand alone issue. It is long past time for some joined up thinking.


From the Globe and Mail Friday November 20

One change Mr. Fassbender said he’s not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what’s really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink’s CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. “It’s important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system.”


Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

12 Responses

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  1. An all-encompassing piece, Stephen. Thank you for your analysis.

    I, too, think that it’s time for a full-scale regional government but am at a loss as to how the BC Liberals will allow it. They would be terrified of the threat, and once granted it would be impossible to take away the empowerment of Metro voters if some of the backward policies imposed by the province on the Metro are thwarted through local democracy. Moreover, there would have to be plans in place to avoid a Rob Ford scenario, or to deal with it effectively if that scenario did develop.

    It is obvious an elected regional government will not happen under the Liberals. I am uncertain as to the NDP’s urban policies, but they are the party that created our current model of regional governance, and it stands to reason they could carry it a couple more steps to fruition if they are elected. I am encouraged to read of their newfound love for renewable energy, so I suppose there is room for change in some political minds.

    I also agree about regional rail service and have developed an interest in the development of a renewed commuter rail service on the E&N Railway corridor on the Island. You cannot approach that issue, however, without addressing the injustice perpetrated on Island First Nations by the establishment of the historic E&N land grant. More on that another time.


    November 19, 2015 at 4:29 pm

  2. You are right. The BC Liberals won’t admit to their mistakes, nor will they do anything to relinquish their current control of Translink.

    As for the “Rob Ford” scenario, I am afraid that has to be the price we pay for democracy. Just as the right to free speech allows right wing demagogues to spew utter nonsense, so too the right to a secret ballot means people get to vote for whoever they want. Even Christy Clark managed to get elected eventually!

    Stephen Rees

    November 19, 2015 at 4:57 pm

  3. I think the NDP would also be hesitant to implement a Metro Vancouver government as such an entity would represent 52% of B.C.’s population – a true rival to Victoria’s power (Metro Toronto only represents 20% of Ontario’s population).


    November 20, 2015 at 8:59 am

  4. “TransLink also builds key roads and bridges to keep the region moving, expanding its capital budget from $600 million in 1999 to about $5 billion in 2008. ”

    I thought the NDP set up TransLink and NDP ex-Premier Harcourt assisted TransLink in its board selection in 2008. Back then the massive expansion and new taxation powers of TransLink were heralded by NDPers as the greatest transit thing in the world.

    The budget exploded and the powers of taxation did too. One of their previous board chairs’ said that many on the board had no business training and didn’t understand financing. Yup! They really only have themselves to blame for the massive waste and failures.

    I’d love to hear MB’s methodology on how to, “… deal with it effectively …”, should a, “Rob Ford scenario” develop in an expanded administration. Revealing such clarity of ideology and determination of action should democracy not go his way is shocking.


    December 6, 2015 at 1:02 pm

  5. What “massive waste”? There were multiple audits, conducted by highly reputable accountants. They failed to find anything significant. Of course this does not stop the sort of people who adopt the Donald Trump methodology of repeating lies as truth no matter how often they are shown to be lies.

    The single biggest issue is the one that I have never seen Jordan Bateman acknowledge. The Golden Ears Bridge – which he heartily endorsed when a Langley Councillor – has been a financial drain because the province insisted it be built as a P3 but no revenue risk be transferred to the private sector. If you want to talk about massive waste and failure …

    Stephen Rees

    December 6, 2015 at 3:20 pm

  6. Do they really need over 500 staff earning over $100,00.00 a year each?
    Do they really need 2 CEO’s at once, Ian Jarvis & Doug Allen?
    Are the Fare Gates ever going to be in service, or have they now been superseded with newer technology?
    Why have we traveled on subways in Tokyo, Seoul, Inchon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Athens, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, Toronto, (I’m tiring), etc., yet Vancouver cannot plug their Fare Gates in?
    Why is it when I get on a bus in San Francisco I see everyone waving their card across a beeping sensor, yet Vancouver cannot get theirs to work for years?

    In 2008 ex-NDP Premier Mike Harcourt said this about the Golden Ears Bridge: “Projects include the new Golden Ears Bridge opening in 2009, connecting Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows to Surrey and Langley. The bridge ties directly into the road upgrades of the province’s Gateway Program, improving regional traffic flows immensely. …”

    In 2008 TransLink was quite happy with the bridge and told us so:

    “In 2006, TransLink’s Golden Ears Bridge project collected three awards:
    Finance International Magazine’s North American Deal of the Year.
    North American PPP Deal of the Year from Project Finance (Euromoney).
    The Gold Award for Project Financing, a national award for innovation and excellence from the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships.
    The new bridge, due to open in 2009, will stimulate the economy by reducing congestion and opening
    up access to employment, services, and recreational opportunities. It will also provide additional travel options for transit users, cyclists and pedestrians.

    They were very happy.

    “TransLink’s Golden Ears Bridge Project was recognized by Infrastructure Journal in the United Kingdom as the prestigious Global Deal of the Year in 2007. This award considers projects in all sectors— not just transportation— throughout the world.”

    When considered, the $800 million cost can only be properly assessed after a few decades. Yet, when considering the cost of the Champlain and Jacques Cartier bridges in Montreal it was deal. The Champlain is over $4 billion and the Jacques Cartier is another $3 billion.

    P3s are always a gamble, for some. Most of the Metro mayors didn’t want to go ahead with the RAV/Canada Line. It took three tries and promises from the Liberal government that any shortfalls would be covered by the province. Many commenters and perpetual naysayers said nobody would lug their luggage on a train. Now it’s too small and overflowing with passengers. Just wait until Marine Gateway fills up.

    No wonder the Canada Line P3 is partly owned by the investment vehicle of the Government of Quebec, these guys manage over $200 billion, they are not fools.


    December 6, 2015 at 5:08 pm

  7. We need jitneys. If we have food trucks then we should have jitneys. We should have Uber too. If we have taxis cruising around all day, sometimes doing nothing, then we should have Uber drivers coming out when the demand is there.

    Why not? Is it because of political financing or ideology?

    I’m sure you, Stephen, remember the fear in London over minicabs. Eventually they showed up, the sky did not fall.


    December 6, 2015 at 5:22 pm

  8. @ Eric:

    I’d love to hear MB’s methodology on how to, “… deal with it effectively …”, should a, “Rob Ford scenario” develop in an expanded administration. Revealing such clarity of ideology and determination of action should democracy not go his way is shocking.

    Simple. The mayor must not be a criminal, or if found guilty of a crime after getting elected (e.g. doing illegal drugs), have a bylaw in place that requires him/her to resign. Other than that, the mayor can be as much of a lout and bombastic prick as s/he wishes because they are not elected for life.


    December 9, 2015 at 3:56 pm

  9. The Canada Line is not a success story because it happens to be a P3. In fact, the P3 imposes a cost over three decades to guarantee the private operator’s revenue and profit. Most egregiously, it imposes a financial and operations management penalty on TransLink (i.e. transit users and taxpayers) to increase the frequency of trains during rush hours beyond the company’s pre-set contract. Neither of these penalities would exist in a completely public project. This is why SkyTrain at Burrard Station roars in at 75-second intervals in both directions at 3:30 p.m. on a workday, but the Canada Line rarely varies from one train every 3 minutes at the same time. The predictable overcrowding on CL platforms and trains is the result of the frequency-limiting constrictions of the P3.

    Further, the project financing costs would have been a lot lower with a public agency instead of a private consortium that can’t get the same preferred rates. Therefore, the project suffers from inadequate design that originated with the ideological mindset that cheapens the front-loaded capital costs at the expense of life-span operating costs irrepsective of demand.

    The Canada Line is a success story only because it offers a relatively good, predictable transit service (hello grade separation) where there was a pre-existing demand, and a further induced demand once it was up and running. It also offers a cheap and reliable alternative to expensive downtown parking.


    December 9, 2015 at 4:23 pm

  10. Do they really need over 500 staff earning over $100,00.00 a year each?

    The answer is closer to 427, but I digress.

    During the plebiscite, one local “No” blogger liked to make hay over the fact Translink had double the number of staff earning $200k than did the MTA of NY. Of course when you boiled that down to a ratio vs. total staff, it was 1.8/1000 (TL) vs.0.8/1000 (MTA).

    Nor did this blogger mention that when you compared staff earning $100k between the two agencies, the picture swapped dramatically. For Translink, it was 63/1000. For MTA it was 145/1000.

    6.3% of Translink staff earn $100k. Is that an appropriate ratio compared to other organizations of that size, budget and complexity? That’s a comparison the Jordan Bateman’s never seem to want to delve into.

    Why have we traveled on subways in Tokyo, Seoul, Inchon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Athens, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, Toronto, (I’m tiring), etc., yet Vancouver cannot plug their Fare Gates in?

    Besides the fact that it’s the contractor on the hook for the delays and not Translink, almost all of these examples had lengthy & phased implementations. Ex. The Clipper Card in San Francisco was first proposed in 1993 and only became operational in 2009.


    December 10, 2015 at 9:06 am

  11. It took quite a few years for the London’s Oyster, Paris’ Navigo and Seattle’ Orca, to work. Read about their history on Wikipedia…

    As for the governance of TransLink…..Transit authorities in the numerous towns where I have used transit have municipal and regional politicians on their board…
    This is true in Toronto, Montreal…

    Sound Transit is a good example as their transit system is a bit like ours size wise..different technologies, but no heavy-duty subways with many lines etc.
    The interesting point about Sound Transit is that the counties executives on its board are also on the board of the transit authority in their own county..Their internet site is quite informative, their meetings are open to the public etc.

    The board of STIF (The transit authority of the Greater Paris Region..Ile de France in French) has various politicians plus representatives of businesses and others. Same thing in Lyon and other French cities, with local variations etc.
    The actual running of the public transit in French towns big enough to have a transit system with more than a few buses is done by transport operators contracted for 5 years in general.

    In Milan ATM manages public transit, on behalf of the city,

    Red frog

    December 19, 2015 at 11:50 pm

  12. @MB

    The predictable overcrowding on CL platforms and trains is the result of the frequency-limiting constrictions of the P3.

    I think it’s worth noting that the platform overcrowding is not just the result of poor frequency–it’s also the result of them having built a ridiculously undersized system. As you imply, they completely cheaped out on the upfront costs and as a result, we get stations whose platforms are tiny even in comparison to Expo and Millennium Line stations, whose platforms, while substantially smaller than “full subway” like in Toronto or New York, are still–what? 50% longer than those of the Canada Line? Some very significant degree of longer, anyway.

    This kind of extreme shortsightedness will become even more apparent when all the faregates are closed in the next month or so and people realize that, on the Canada Line, there just isn’t enough physical room based on the small station size for there to be enough faregates to properly handle the number of people entering and exiting. Broadway–City Hall and Waterfront are going to be the epicentre of this painful realization: there are only 5 gates total at each main entry point. (Broadway–City Hall literally has only 5 gates, whereas at least at Waterfront there are two entrances to the Canada Line station, although the main entrance that connects with the Expo Line and West Coast Express has, that’s right, just 5 faregates.)

    I will never forget my complete shock the first time I walked into Broadway–City Hall and down to the platform: I looked left and right and thought, “What the hell–where’s the other half?!”


    January 9, 2016 at 11:23 pm

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