Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘translink audit

TransLink audit complete

with 30 comments

Instead of giving you a link to one of the mainstream media stories this one takes you to the BC Government “Newsroom”. This both avoids the problems of media paywalls and the idea that the media are responsible for the “spin” in news coverage. This press release and its supporting “backgrounders” have all the spin.

For those of you who are new to this (is there anyone who fits that description?) Translink, the Region’s Mayors and the province  have been arguing about how to pay for much needed transit expansion in the region. In fact this discussion has been going on for many years – at least the last 20 years, probably longer. Vancouver and its suburbs constitutes the only major metropolitan area in BC. There really is no other major city. Its needs are therefore different to places like Kelowna or Kamloops. It is not just a matter of scale, its a different kind of place, with a different kind of economy and quite different patterns of movement. The growth of population alone poses a challenge – but at the same time most of the region is the typical large North America suburban agglomeration. “Zurich surrounded by Phoenix”.

A day after I wrote this post the Georgia Straight posted this video. It shows “one weekday (from 4am to 4am) of transit activity in Metro Vancouver, based on the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data made available by Translink”.

See what a good system there is in Vancouver – and how thinly stretched it gets south of the Fraser. I have inserted it since it nicely complements the point made above.

There is a unique arrangement to run and pay for transit here. Half of the non fare revenues are supposed to come from a provincially collected regional gas tax – but changing travel patterns (in part due to higher gas prices) have not only increased transit use but also reduced transportation fuel sales. Oddly enough, there is plenty of federal government supplied gas tax revenue – but that can only be spent on capital projects and has to be matched by both province and region, so much remains unspent. At the same time, a fare concession to post secondary students has boosted demand and thus increased operating cost – which turned out be more important than the “revenue neutral” formula its price is based on.

Translink has thus had to put much of its agreed long term plan on hold. It has cut service in order to shift resources around the system to the parts that are overcrowded. At the behest of the province and provincially appointed Commissioner it has sought – and found “savings” all over the place. Meanwhile the region’s Mayors and the provincial Minister of Transport have argued about new sources of funding. The province has always maintained that property tax could be increased – because that is what the Mayors control.  The Mayors say, quite reasonably, that property tax has little relationship to transit spending and that they only get 8% of all taxes levied on households – but voters in municipal elections hate property tax increases. And anyway Translink has had other potential sources of revenue provided for in provincial legislation – like a vehicle levy – which the province refuses to collect. While the previous Minister promised to consider another funding source, this was conditional on a “temporary” property tax increase while it could be formulated, consulted on and then implemented. Then the prvince reneged on that agreement and the Mayors threatened to rescind the property tax increase. If they do that, Translink will have to cut service even further.

So the present Minister has been saying that she cannot even discuss a new funding source until an audit has been conducted – ignoring all the previous audits and studies. Now that audit has been completed – and it turns out that she has already been sharing its results with Translink, and many of its proposals have already been implemented. So despite the claim that “significant savings” have been found they only amount to  $41m – compared to the $98m already identified. And anyway are nowhere near enough – “still not enough to meet the future transit expansion needs of Metro Vancouver.” So basically the point of the audit was to delay and prevaricate. And the “next steps” are to delay and prevaricate some more.

Once the long-term regional vision has been developed, the mayors and TransLink will be in a position to go back to the public to discuss cost and how to pay for it.

The only word I can use for this is “chutzpah” . There has been a long term regional vision for as long as I have been here. The province simply decided to override it. There was going to be a compact urban area, with complete communities which protected the green zone and increased transportation choice. Instead of that a series major highway expansions is increasing sprawl, destroying the green zone and ensuring continued car dependence for the majority of the region. “Transportation choice” for three quarters of the population is Hobson’s choice.

Government needs a clear sense of the regional vision and priorities over the coming decades, what kind of transportation system will be needed in the future and how much residents are prepared to pay for it.

A practical discussion can then be held about possible funding tools.

In other words, we can put this off until after the election which has to be held in May 2013, which we are almost certainly going to lose, and then its someone else’s problem. In the meantime, the staff at Translink and the Mayors will take the heat for the increasing inconvenience and disruption on a transit system that is unable to meet the demands placed on it.

The TransLink audit is available on the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure website:

One of the reasons this blog post did not appear yesterday is I then took all this seriously and actually read it. It is a complete waste of time. The only “savings” are further service cuts.

There is also this highly misleading graphic

The province has always wanted more property tax for transit in Vancouver. That is the reason why I wrote those paragraphs of introduction. What this graphic does is pretend that somehow residents of Greater Vancouver pay less in taxes for their transit  than they do in Toronto, Montreal or even Victoria. Of course there is no mention of the Translink gas tax – that is only collected in Greater Vancouver (by the province, as I pointed out). Nor the hydro levy, come to that. And the fact that “roads and bridges” were all downloaded onto the municipalities – and the gas tax was originally offered as a way of putting pressure on to them to sign up to Translink. They were going to get them downloaded anyway – so they might as well get on board with the provincial government’s proposed regional transportation authority if they want some new funds to help pay for that.

If the Mayor’s refuse to implement the property tax increase, then some of the province’s preferred schemes cannot proceed – such as the (much reduced) rapid bus over the new Port Mann Bridge.

None of this performance is anything to do with “long term vision”. It is all about short term, political expediency. There always was enough for the plans that the region agreed to. It was just that the province
chose to spend on highway expansions instead. We are stuck with the widened Highway #1, the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the widened Sea to Sky Highway. All of these are already contributing to an ever wider spread of suburban sprawl. “Expertise in land-use planning” has never been in short supply. We have had lots of regional plans and all our Official Community Plans have been crafted to fit into that framework – and much good has it done us (that’s irony, by the way). Port Moody, for instance, built a whole city centre around the idea of Transit Oriented Development. The Evergreen Line will now be built, many years after that development was halted, due to lack of transit service. Surrey has been asking for light rapid transit for years – and it might see a truncated BRT, if the other Mayors swallow their indignation at being treated so shabbily.

I also wonder about the timing of the release. After all, there was another event last night that was guaranteed to fill up the front pages and keep the political pundits occupied. Maybe they thought no-one would notice.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2012 at 7:57 am

Auditing Translink

with 8 comments

There seems to be a consensus that somehow the authority that is responsible for our transit system (among other things) is somehow out of control, a bloated behemoth that flings money around in wild abandon. That all it needs is an accountant with a sharper pencil and somehow all will be well again. It is of course largely nonsense – and politically motivated nonsense at that. Transit in BC – actually in North America in general – has for long been a whipping boy, a favourite target of right wing pundits who see expenditures on public services as wasteful and unnecessary. The discussion is always about “taxpayer’s money” and how it is being wasted on unnecessary things.

A very unpopular right wing government has decided to deflect some of the animosity it is feeling against a popular target – in the hopes that by NOT making a decision it will be relieved of responsibility. The Minister of Transport has told the Mayors that they cannot have any new source of revenue until they find one that is popular and not until after the ministry’s bean counters have trolled through the books. As a sop to their self esteem he throws them the bone of a couple of seats on Tanslink’s board. That announcement comes on the same day that Martin Crilly (the Translink Commissioner) announces that he is not going to approve the fare increase – or at least not that part of it that he can say no to, which means there will be some fare increase, just not as much as Translink asked for. And to back that up he produces a report written by Shirocca Consultants in the last three months that seems to have identified significant savings in the way Translink does things.

This all came out this morning – and already people are pronouncing upon it. Councillor Geoff Megs was first out of the gate, with predictions of service cuts and possible labour strife. Translink has its response ready, of course, saying that it does not have to cut service (for now) and that it thinks the report says it is a well run organization and at least as good as the others it was compared to. Indeed it seems to welcome the criticism from Crilly’s consultants as the sort of thing it was looking at already. No turmoil here!

The consultants report is long and very detailed – but you can get the entire 104 page pdf file to read yourself. Who are Shirocca Consulting? I must admit that name was new to me, but its principal wasn’t: Teresa Watts – her name appears on the later Memo on Cost Savings. She was a former employee of BC Transit and its predecessors – and worked for various consultants, mostly notably on the Millennium Line project. She is also married to Glen Leicester, former VP of Planning at Translink – (just in case you might think I have an axe to grind) my last boss at Translink. He also turns up in Google searches speaking to other agencies who have employed Shirocca. Although his name is not on the “Efficiency Review” his fingerprints are all over it. In one sense it does make sense for Crilly to employ people who know their way around Translink and the somewhat arcane field of comparative transit statistics. Because much of the report relies on the data (performance indicators) that CUTA collects (and Leicester himself used to provide) from transit agencies in order that their performance may be compared. The bulk of the report is built around these statistical comparisons – and the reasons why Vancouver might be somewhat different to other agencies.

There are some things that I found quite notable. But the most obvious are the things that are not examined. Translink is an agency with an unusually broad reach – but there is hardly anything said about the Major Road Network. The Golden Ears Bridge and its disappointing record of toll revenues being the exception. But even here it is dismissed as “beyond the agency’s control”. No other transit agency in Canada has such responsibilities – and in the case of GEB arose from a decision by the province to download the Albion free ferry. Translink decided that it should replace the ferry with a toll bridge – mostly because it could. It was supposed to have been financed privately and would therefore not require taxpayer support, or approval since it was a new facility and thus fitted within the very limited straight jacket of provincial policy. Except the revenue risk was not transferred to the builder/operator. Nor was it on the other notable P3 – the Canada Line. While bus operations are the largest element of transit expenditures (~$600m) rail accounts for about a third of that (~$200m) [Table 3-1] yet the report is silent on SkyTrain, the Canada Line and West Coast Express. Most of the attention is directed at CMBC, though it must also be said that HandyDART comes in for some stinging rebukes.

The major restructuring of TransLink’s custom transit program in 2008 has resulted in cost increases (70.4%) far in excess of the rate of service expansion (14.3%) and inflation.

The restructuring and consolidation of custom transit into a single regional operator in 2009 has not yet resulted in expected cost efficiencies or improvements in service effectiveness. Instead, slippage has occurred. The public subsidy per passenger carried in 2010 exceeded $30.00.

HandyDART is one of the few components of the bus service that is contracted out. The other was supposed to be Community Shuttle

No new contacted operators have entered the field since 2002 and virtually all new service has gone to CMBC on a first right of refusal basis. If the role of the private sector was to keep growth in costs at the public providers in check, this has had mixed success.

You may recall that the right to contract out service was the casus belli of the last transit strike. Translink won – it has the ability to contract out in its legislation – yet has decided on the whole not to use that, possibly as a way to preserve peace with the bus operators’ union.

Given all of that, it is a bit surprising to read in the conclusions

The transit industry is inherently expensive and complex. It is both labour and capital intensive as well as highly unionized. In much of the western world, it operates within a government financed environment, generally absent of market forces that compel efficiency and productivity for economic survival, where the only external pressure is the availability of funding.

But the bits that were supposed to be exposed to market forces – the competitive tendering process for the Canada Line, The Golden Ears Bridge, HandyDART and even the odd Community Shuttle – seem to perform worse than the rest. Indeed the experience in the “western world” with transit privatization has been generally negative, and quite contrary to what its proposers originally claimed as its benefits.

The Review does of course follow the restrictions that were imposed on it by the Commissioner. He knew what he wanted, and that did not include diatribes on issues that were beyond recall. He wasn’t going to be able to open up the Canada Line contracts, for instance. Not much point rehashing why West Coast Express is expensive (which actually got as far as a parliamentary bill which died with the last federal Liberal government). So the conclusion might well have been written before the analysis

Compared to Canadian peers, TransLink exhibits an abundance of equipment and staffing levels that help to explain its generally higher costs and lower cost efficiency and effectiveness than most of the peers, even after taking into account the challenges of its large service area. Internal trends reflect increasing costs and declining productivity in both labour and equipment utilization as well as high overhead. Internal change in how service is delivered has not kept pace with external changes in customer demand and rail system expansion as well as technological advances in vehicles and equipment.

Given these trends, it is important that TransLink ensures that every dollar spent gets maximum value. To do so, it should tighten budgets to encourage fiscal tension and discipline in how it delivers its services. It needs to become more cost focused by placing higher priority on frugality and productivity in its decision-making criteria.

So the analysis is not so much what Translink does, as how its performance indicators look against those of some other Canadian systems. That also means that the consultant did not have to identify what Translink needs to do exactly. It simply highlights the differences in the cost and efficiency measures to other systems as a way of identifying where savings could be found. By the way, one of the reasons for the “abundance of equipment” is the failure to find funding for its operation. These new buses could have been on the road relieving overcrowding or even opening up new routes south of the Fraser, but for the impasse on sources of operating money.

Given the length of the report, it is only possible at present to pick out one or two recommendations for cost savings for comment. There will probably be more later. The one that Geof Meggs saw as problematic is on page 87 under what can be done to improve efficiency of bus service in the longer term

Restrictive and costly work rules, allowances and premiums that drive up costs should be reviewed with the goal of improving productivity. Some of these need to be modernized to better reflect the markets served by the bus system.

The one the report uses as an example is the premium on wages for working on Sunday. The rule book for the bus service is one of the largest documents I ever came across at Translink. It is one of the most difficult to understand, for an outsider, and has been steadily getting more complex over the years. In part this is due to the seniority system, which allows operators to chose their own work schedules, with first dibs going to those with the most service. A small group of very senior operators are on the “spare board” which means they have much paid time at the operating centre with very little to do. They also tend to be the people who get elected to union positions, and so spend much time discussing work rules. Over the years, a management that has been largely conciliatory in its approach to labour relations has resulted in a rule book that is not just hard to comprehend but nearly impossible to change in the direction that Crilly is pointing to.

In the developing parts of the region, where conventional bus service is less efficient and effective but demands for new and expanded service are the greatest, TransLink may need to consider changing how it organizes and/or delivers bus services.

Well that is a lot easier said than done. “May need to consider” avoids the need to come up with explicit proposals as to what such services might look like. I think they probably mean more contracting out – but like I said above, the record there has been pretty dismal – and not just in the Vancouver region.

When it comes to HandyDART the first short term recommendation is possibly the weakest

TransLink makes the lowest use of non-dedicated vehicles amongst the peer comparison group. Increasing the use of non-dedicated vehicles, such as taxis, could be done relatively quickly and would offer cost savings. While it is acknowledged there maybe concerns over service quality, these can be managed.

Taxis cannot actually be introduced quickly or cheaply. That is because of a provincial regulatory system that has been completely taken over by the taxi industry. The Vancouver region – like the rest of BC -is severely underserved by taxis. Every review that has been done has pointed to the lack of taxis here compared to almost everywhere else. The value of a taxi license (which is not what the City charges for them) is astronomical because of the artificially maintained shortage. The rewards for taxi drivers are very low indeed as all the benefits of the shortage of licences accrue to those who currently hold them. Wages and conditions are abysmal, and thus the training and customer service provided is low. People with disabilities who often have to rely on taxis have grave reservations about using the system as it is. But even a small increase in demand transferred from shared dial a ride to taxis would create pressure for more licence which are very unlikely to be issued, under the present system. “Concerns over service quality” are far too easily dismissed. For instance, if you are blind and rely on a guide dog, how do you feel when left standing at the curb by cab drivers who have a cultural aversion to dogs as “dirty”?

Given that Leicester and Watts both have a lot of familiarity with this territory, I rather think that this “Review of Efficiency” produced within three months is going to be be more thorough and understands the system better than an audit by civil servants from Victoria – who may well have to fit in this audit with other demands. I do not share the enthusiasm for audits, if only because so many successful fraudsters once caught show that they were able to get through many audits unscathed. It is not that there is a great crime hidden at Translink to be found anyway. Merely the accretion of a long run of decisions, often forced upon the organization by an unsympathetic and poorly understanding set of political masters who change with bewildering frequency and are never around to be held accountable for the results of their actions.

We know now that things will continue as they are – with very little change – until after the next provincial election. Which is the only horizon the Minister and Premier have in view. And after that it will be someone else’s problem.

POSTSCRIPT Well worth looking at what Gordon Price has been saying on this issue

I wonder whether Martin Crilly, the TransLink Commissioner, really understood what he was doing when he turned down the fare request on which the ‘Moving Forward’ supplement was based.  It’s not just that he killed the momentum for transit expansion in the fastest-growing parts of Metro.  What with the opening of massive new highway projects and the Port Mann Bridge, those municipalities to the south and east will be forced to lock themselves further into car dependence, having little hope that growth will be accompanied by other transportation options.

That’s not just sad.  That’s tragic.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Posted in transit

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