Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Translink funding

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

Transit Funding Plebiscite FAQs

with 6 comments

Maria Harris is the Director Metro Vancouver Electoral Area A and thus a Member of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation. She wrote to me to tell of her creation of a list of Frequently Asked Questions – and of course – the answers. These are very thorough and objective. They are currently available as PDF File and will be available as a web page shortly.

She writes “I intend to update the FAQs if there are more questions that should be answered or if any of the answers need to be modified based on feedback I receive.” As you can probably tell, I have not yet sent any feedback but when I do it will be very brief. I am very impressed, and reading through her answers there was nothing that caused any surprise or instant urge to suggest a correction. Which is something of an unusual experience in general and especially in connection with the current plebiscite.

I wish I felt that people have generally open minds on this issue, and are seriously seeking out advice. I find it somewhat distressing to see reports of ballots being discarded in the recycling bin of apartment buildings, though these may simply be a reflection of the mobility of the population and their refusal to pay Canada Post to forward their mail. The least likely to look at the FAQs as a source of information are those who have already made their minds up based on the propaganda of the No side, who seem to be utterly impervious to either reason or good quality data. However if you know one of these rare people who actually do need one of these questions answered – or can suggest one that needs to be added – please click that link in the first paragraph.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 24, 2015 at 7:37 am

Our way out of this mess

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Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2015 at 11:58 am

FACT CHECK: “No” to Transit side is misleading voters with mythical math

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A Mayors’ Council press release

A “Yes” to Transit vote would cost average households $125 a year


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                         February 6, 2015

Vancouver, BC – The “No” side’s baseless claims, mythical math and random calculations demonstrates they are not producing facts to back their arguments. In this latest claim, they have no idea how households really spend their money and how the PST is applied to goods and services.

The Mayors’ 10-year plan to improve transit and transportation as the region grows by one million more people will cost the average household $125 a year. That’s about 35 cents a day. The mayors’ calculation considers how much money households make and how much they spend on PST-eligible items. They also looked at how much of the tax would be paid by households, businesses and visitors, to come up with a realistic cost for an average household.

In fact, households making less than $100,000 per year – about 70% of Metro Vancouver’s households – will pay between $53 and $116 per year for more buses, better roads and more transit options.

Our Plan “No” to Transit
·         Classified six income categories.

·         Used Statistics Canada Survey of Household Spending by income to:

  • generate a reliable picture of PST-eligible spending by income category
  • understand the impact of a 0.5% increase in sales tax by category
Household Income Average annual cost of 0.5% increase in sales tax % of Households
<$25,000 $53 8%
$25,000-50,000 $70 21%
$50,000-75,000 $100 22%
$75,000-100,000 $116 19%
$100,000-150,000 $166 18%
>$150,000 $266 12%

Determined the annual cost per average household

  • Multiply annual cost per average household by the % of households in that income category
Divided $250 million (total funding required) by 967,948 (total number of households).
=  $125 per household = $258 per household

The “No” to transit side wants us to do nothing. This will cost the region untold millions in economic costs as traffic gets worse, and mean you are stuck in traffic and on transit longer.

The Mayors’ Council will continue to share information and updates on activities at

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2015 at 10:59 am

Transit Ridership has NOT been “flat”

with 15 comments

Better Transit

One of the frequently used speaking points of the no side has been the claim that costs have soared while ridership remains flat. Not true. You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts. Metro Vancouver has recently “upgraded” its website. You can find this table there but for reasons I cannot understand the link in my browser address bar doesn’t translate to a usable link for you. And just searching Translink’s website is, as usual, frustrating  but here is the data as a pdf


And here is the best analysis I have seen yet of the motivation of the NO side

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2015 at 10:44 am

Plebiscite Posters

with 3 comments

UPDATED January 28

These five posters were created by frequent commenter Meredith Botta who says

I thought I would do my bit for the Yes side and created three posters for the cause.  I am making them available at no cost for posting, distribution, copying, etc.

I have made small screenshot png versions for display purposes, but there are links below the images to his large pdf files for you to downloadScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.19.52 PM

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.23.15 PM

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.24.52 PM

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.23.16 AM Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 11.23.51 AM

transit plebiscite – yes
transit plebiscite – yes 2
transit plebiscite – yes 3

transit plebiscite – yes 4

transit plebiscite – yes 5

And here is another from James Gemmill

Concept-1 Concept-1

Written by Stephen Rees

January 23, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Transportation Referendum: Lessons Learned from the Front Line

with 11 comments

First of the 2015 Rethinking Transportation: New Voices, New Ideas series of lectures sponsored by Translink at the SFU downtown City Program. This talk was also live webcast and is  available on youtube. I have also created a Storify from the tweets that carried the #movingthefuture hashtag.

Carl Guardino is the president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade association that represents more than 385 of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies.

He also serves as the chair of the California Transportation Commission, an independent public agency responsible for programming and allocating of funds for the construction of highway, passenger rail and transit improvements throughout California.

The sub headings are his own. He spoke without visual aids.

1 “Confessions”

He opened by talking about how much he loved Canada, having visited Vancouver “five or six times …and it never rained”. He said he was a political scientist (“the only real science”) a “public policy geek” and concerned not just with transportation but placemaking. Transportation is the skeleton on which we build the body of our communities. He was proud the innovative housing trust fund the SVLG had set up using a $20m fund to leverage $200m of investment. They had intended to house 4,800 individuals and families who could not afford housing in Silicon Valley’s expensive real estate market. Since 1999  they have now housed 20,000 families and individuals. He recalled the first city meeting he had to attend where he spoke last after a large number of opponents to the plan. He he was thinking to himself “One man, armed with the truth, is a majority.” He managed to persuade the city to proceed despite the opposition, and when the first project opened, the opponents came up to him at the ceremony and said: if we had known what affordable housing looked like, and what the people who need affordable housing looked like, we would not have opposed the proposal. The trust seeks to house three groups, and divides its tenants into roughly equal thirds: the homeless, those who need affordable housing (i.e. low income) and first time buyers. Out of 250 proposals they have only lost 12.

2 Context

SVLG was founded by David Packard (of Hewlett Packard fame) who called together 38 CEOs of companies in the valley many of whom were competitors. He stressed they shared common ground in the well being of their community. They now represent 390  employers with annual revenues of $6 trillion, all concerned with making their region a better place. They have taken part in five transportation funding measures, each of which became a magnet for regional, state and federal funding. “We were the first” – just as the Vancouver region is the first to have a funding ballot for a regional sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.

In 1984  the first measure was a ten year, half cent sales tax increase for specified improvements which raised $1.4bn in local funding. Each of the improvements was delivered on time and on budget “except those which were delivered early and under budget…. Promises made, promises kept.”

3 Common Ground 

The proposal included annual audits of the funds raised and spent, which were kept segregated from other funds. A watchdog committee was appointed to ensure accountability. The same structure was used for the 1996 campaign which looked a lot like the set of projects in Translink’s plan. There were 19 projects over nine years spread over all transportation modes – roads, transit, cycling and walking.

He has been impressed by the broad base of the coalition he had been speaking to that day. (This was the fourth discussion he had had – each different. And delivered on Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the US.) He stressed that opposition is important to a functioning democracy. “I hate taxes. I hate traffic more.” It was important to “wisely invest in the future”. The opposition continues but over time “build that trust, keep your word”. More California counties have followed suit until 80% of the state is covered by these voter supported initiatives accounting for 50c on every dollar invested in California transportation.

4 Commitment

“We can sit back and be enraged or stand up and be engaged.” There are now 55 days until the ballot starts and 75 days of voting to speak to the electorate. One million more people are coming here in the next 25 years which means there will another 600,000 additional weekday trips on an already congested system. Business CEOs have to “get into the game and move the ball forward” not just shout encouragement from the sidelines. They need to mount in house information campaigns – not telling people how to vote. It was important that people hear from their peers – students talking to students, for example

In the most recent campaign they had budgeted for a $1.6m fund: campaigns demand “time, treasure and talent”

5 Courage

A campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. You are running an Iron Man. I have immense respect for you: you care enough to work for it or are concerned enough about to want to learn more. We have won nine of ten campaigns. I am always asked what I learned from the loss. I hate losing. We worked as hard on the campaign we lost as those we won. Win this campaign, build a better Vancouver then invite me back. You are building for your future and that takes time. You are in it for the long haul.

Q & A

Q  Why doesn’t transit run 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

He politely declined to answer the question as it is outside his knowledge. He did point out that we are similar in size and population to Silicon Valley, but we have a higher percentage of trips on transit/walk/bike – and the climate in California is better.

Q  What guarantees are there that the projects will be built? You spoke of a skeleton which suggests that we have to build on what we have. Would courtesy transit be viable?

Silicon Valley is a lot more sprawled than the Metro Vancouver region. We do not provide free transit as the farebox helps pay for the service. Roads are subsidized too. We all benefit from their improvement.

Q about the campaign

Silicon Valley is comparable in size: the campaigns we are talking about did not apply to the whole of California. We chose to take command of our future as the federal and state governments were not getting the job done [applause]

Another Q about this campaign

There was a football game this weekend. I doubt the team coaches exchanged play books before the game started. This meeting is open to all and being webcast so I am not going to share what we discussed at the meetings earlier today. It is essential that everyone be engaged, but we all care about different aspects – cyclists care more about bike routes than buses. Employers are more concerned about how their employees can get to work in reasonable time and cost which plays heavily into employee retention. We must speak to the concerns of the community but I will not address strategy or tactics here. We started much earlier than you did, but we also had to deal with a skeptical media. The annual audits, sticking to the declared schedule and not co-mingling funds brought about a greater degree of trust. Our tax expired when the projects were done and all the commitments were met.

“I have never yet seen a government that everyone thought was great.”

Q We did not make the choice [to have a referendum]. It was forced on us. Is there a term on our sales tax?

See the language on your ballot. We had sunsets but Los Angeles, which faces far bigger problems, had an open ended approach

Q Disputed the statement that there is not enough transit. The questioner used it regularly without issues. He also felt that the No campaign was being under reported

This morning’s Vancouver Sun story was 90% unflattering. The coverage in general seems to be even handed.

Q related to Urban Farming

“You have me stumped”

Q The voice of youth has been under represented. The No campaign speaks for older voters, who are more concerned with no tax increase than better transit service. How do we bring in students into the campaign?

Students do not vote as often as they could. First get them registered to vote, so they get a ballot, then make sure they fill out and post the ballot.

We started two years before the vote – and before the recession hit. Once that happened the question “Can I afford it?” became more important to the voters than “Is it worth it?” We also had to get a 2/3 majority.

Q Issue for small businesses – included a remark that the opening of the Canada Line helped the questioner’s business

Often our approach has to be one of balance. Yes the cost goes up but the benefits are real and measurable. Neither the state nor federal governments were investing in transportation at a time when there was increasing demand and there was a clear cost due to the resulting congestion – and that is a real cost we all pay. We do a lot of polling and we have to be hypersensitive to what people are willing to pay. We found that a small sales tax increase was much more acceptable than larger (but revenue equivalent) increases to gas taxes or tolls.

Q There is no accountability here: the Compass card was cited as an example as well as underperforming bridge tolls

Q About specialised services for People with Disabilities

These were included in all four transit packages

Q Does your state still build roads without ballots?

California is at present adopting a band aid approach. They are not spending enough to meet growth nor local priorities. They are constraining spending to be barely enough to maintain the system.

Q Turnout? What about misinformation from the opposition? We tried to inform students recently “not many stopped at our table”. “We haven’t got enough detail about how the proposals will impact our students.

If they didn’t stop at your table maybe you should make your table more attractive – free chocolates? Or get out from behind the table and go talk to people.

Most of the campaign should be about your message. When someone posts misinformation, set the record straight. But if they are posting to Twitter and only have three followers, it may not be worth getting into an argument.

Q Does your experience with a series of successful ballots mean you are now locked in to doing this forever? Higher levels of government are probably quite content for you to take all the heat and pressure off them.

Washington DC is dysfunctional. Our measures do matter a hoot to them. The dysfunction is widespread and affects most programs not just transportation. We have found that when we had funds in hand and approached them for matching amounts we got a better response than we we simply asked for them to do something for us. We have formed a Self Help Counties Coalition to build on success and the federal government now often builds in a local match requirement in many programs. “Yes, they should do more, but  I can’t change their mind on that.”

“What’s in it for me?” is always top of mind

Pavement maintenance and rehabilitation spending now requires that local government maintains its previous levels of spending for the prior three years. This ensures that funds raised by the initiatives do not supplant existing funding but supplement it. The Pavement Condition Index must equal at least 75% to qualify for funds, and cities that are at 90% can use the funds for improvements on other things.

Q A planner asked how the campaign included planning

We bring them to a safe space and get them to talk to us as professionals. They have a huge say in what we do. Their local knowledge is essential to our regional challenge.

Q How do we make the shots they take work for us

“Come let us reason together” is the ideal. Stay factual, provide data and if you don’t know the answer, admit it. I have never yet seen a 100% vote in favour of anything in a true democracy.



I was really impressed by the style and clarity of the presentation, and the politeness with which all questions were dealt with – even when it was quite obvious that the questions were being directed at the wrong person. He was universally polite and good humoured throughout. The people who brought him here on a holiday weekend and exploited him so relentlessly owe him big time.

Despite all the similarities in the situation, BC is not California. That is the place where voter initiatives and “direct democracy” took root – mainly as a taxpayer revolt. This of course is as popular as the Boston Tea Party. Which was not actually so much about taxes as the lack of representation of colonists back in Westminster. But the idea that people hate taxes is a very old one, but not nearly as universal as might be supposed. Peace, order and good government is a collection of desiderata that at least implies a willingness to pay for the support services that provide that. We do not have the same deeply held and misguided faith in the value of personal responsibility as Americans. Remember that the US is the only advanced country on the planet that does not have universal healthcare. Proposition 13 was the start of the tax reduction movement which required a shift away to much lower service standards and a much greater reliance on fees and charges. Right wing governments at both provincial and national levels here seem eager to follow the example, but what was as equally clear after Proposition 13 was the collapse of civil society, the abandonment of many valuable programs and the continuing shift towards ever greater inequality.

Most of the people who spoke against the sales tax increase stressed its regressive impact on the poorest people in our community. The sales tax increase is not the best idea, merely the best of a bunch of poor alternatives. We have to improve our transportation system and the Massey Tunnel replacement is not regionally a high priority. It is obvious that most people here would not vote to increase their taxes to pay for a new bridge – or a new interchange in North Vancouver. We are also not being consulted on our willingness to help pay for transit in Kelowna – or another lake crossing there. People in Greater Vancouver already pay taxes to support transit in every other place in BC that has it, and we cannot understand why there is not reciprocity. The value of Greater Vancouver to the economy of BC is not in any doubt, yet fails to get mentioned whenever essential service improvements are needed here.

The province of BC continually pleads poverty, yet has no problem at all in funding freeway improvements. There is always money for tax reductions for the wealthy and for highly profitable corporations, who appear to be able to dictate terms to the province whenever they want to exploit our raw materials and natural resources, and never take any responsibility for the damage they cause.

The referendum must not be viewed as a popularity poll for Translink or the provincial government. Voting no on principle will hurt all of us. Voting no on the grounds that “Translink cannot be trusted” is simply falling for the three card trick that Jordan Bateman thinks he is so clever at. But he knows that the savings he claims are available are nowhere near enough to meet the necessary expansion. He also knows that “value capture” (building permits and development cost contributions) are already spoken for and the Mayors have made clear that yet another hike in property taxes to pay for transit is not acceptable.

The advice provided by the gentleman from Silicon Valley is critical to win the plebiscite. But we must not let our province become another California, nor our country a pale imitation of the US. We must win this one, then get on with the essential task of removing Stephen Harper and Christy Clark from office.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 20, 2015 at 4:42 pm