Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Translink funding

Transportation Funding in Metro Vancouver: Mayor Richard Walton today’s Carbon Talk at SFU

with 4 comments

I suppose I could have sat at home and watched the live webcast, but as I had just finished this morning’s post I saw a tweet about the talk, and decided to go. I need to get out more, and I should not let a little thing like a Pineapple Express deter me. I am pleased to report that people were following the webcast and tweeting in questions (you can follow Carbon Talks too). And if this report seems inadequate, or you want to check its reliability, the whole thing is now available on video.

In May last year the Mayor’s Council approved a set of 13 Guiding Principles for Funding of Regional Transportation and these were printed and distributed around the lecture theatre.   My eye was caught by no 4

“Revenue sources should provide pricing signals to link desired user behaviour to overall transportation objectives.”

It seems to me that sets the tone of the discussion since it clearly puts defenders of more property taxes on the back foot. However, as Mayor Walton acknowledged, you do not want to be too successful at this since of you deter people from driving by raising the gas tax (or imposing a carbon tax) you increase demand for transit at the same time as reducing its funding.

He opened by observing that Translink runs “one of the best systems in the world”. He acknowledged “it’s got a little edgy lately, since all power lies in Victoria. ”  He put up slides showing the present Governance Structure – which is complex but pointed out “We [the Mayors Council] appoint the Board”. It is at the policy level that accountability is unclear since the Board, Mayors Council. Commissioner and province are all involved – but are all “in separate boxes”. The current review of the structure notes that the following attributes are all required Accountability, Advocacy, Transparency, Responsiveness, Clarity and Productive Relationships. They are all supposed to mesh – but in some respects Translink does not match up well to the four cities Ken Cameron and Clive Rock decided to compare us to – Brisbane, Stockholm, Vienna and London.

The funding context is that Metro Vancouver is still experiencing growth in both population and its economy but demand for transportation is growing faster than either, and the current portfolio of funding sources is not keeping pace (6% growth in population, 17% growth in transit use). Both the gas tax and property tax were said to be “maxed out” and had a declining share of the total. Fares now account for 40% of revenue [compared to over 50% in 2004] Direct user fees that are proportionate to transportation use (fares, gas tax, parking tax) account for 72% of revenue, indirect beneficiary fees (like property tax) 28%.

The province has stated that its priorities for new revenue sources are affordability for families, regionally based, support for the provincial economy and benefit capture. Mayor Walton stated his position that “the rest of the province should not have to support Translink”.

Looking at potential new sources was, he said, not so much looking for a silver bullet as silver buckshot. There has already been an evaluation which puts at high status on the carbon tax, fuel taxes, the parking sales tax (which though small is very unpopular with impacted businesses) The vehicle levy would join them except that the province has three times already “shot down” proposals to implement what is now in the Translink legislation. The idea of a regional sales tax got added at the last discussion as even a small increase would collect such a large amount of money: an extra 0.1% on existing sales tax would collect $50m in Metro. Sales taxes are widely used to fund transit in the United States. (He said “North America” but I think this term I use is more accurate.)  He also speculated about a conversion of HOV lanes to HOV/Toll lanes (single occupant vehicles permitted for a fee by distance). He spoke warmly about road pricing as the closest to a silver bullet but said it would be a 3 to 4 year “voyage” to get that established – which does not fit provincial election timetables. He also said that land value capture  could only be applied to SkyTrain as it has much more impact on density and land value than, for instance, increasing bus service frequency. Gordon Price demurred thinking that BRT might qualify.

“Germany leads the world in transit governance” because all the stakeholders get a seat at the table rather than occupy silos as ours do.

Q&A

Eric Doherty made the point that the funds apparently available for the Massey Tunnel replacement would be more than enough to build the transit system we need.

In a discussion of the development levy, I pointed to the experience of the TTC and the Sheppard subway (developer fees were abandoned, when the developers said they would simply move their projects beyond the TTC’s territory). Gordon Price agreed that this had been the experience in Surrey where development cost charges in Surrey City Centre after the last Expo line extension saw development go elsewhere. Jeff Megs observed that they do work in Hong Kong, but only because the transit agency is the developer, and the density increases are huge. He did not think that similar density increases would be accepted here, and besides the City already captures much benefit for other things such as community centres and day cares. He  observed a “personal income tax increase is also not going to happen” [up until then, no-one else had mentioned them.]

The province is convinced there is room for an increase in property tax [because other cities pay more] but Mayor Walton said this is contrary to the affordability for families principle. And in any event local government in general only gets 8% of all taxes collected but delivers a wide range of services. Their only other source is fees “and it is political death to raise user fees” about which voters feel even more strongly than property tax increases. Jeff Megs stated that the Translink legislation caps the contribution made by property tax, but said that Adrian Dix has gone on record as willing to consider using the carbon tax to pay for transit.

One questioner suggested that people would support charges that clearly benefitted their area. If the fees collected were earmarked for projects in their community, they would support them. Mayor Jackson of Delta has consistently reiterated that Delta pays for more for Translink than it gets in transit service.

In response to another question Walton identified the central problem for governance as a lack of trust. “I don’t  understand where these perceptions [in Victoria] come from.” There is, he noted, a hesitancy to come to the table – and emphasized that this was not partisan it was equally shared by NDP and Liberal governments alike. “I think if you fix the governance trust issue, the funds will flow.”

Gordon Price observed that there were two different standards for transit and road funding. The freight industry just goes straight to the top and gets what it wants with debate. Road building – the new Port Mann and the replacement for the Massey Tunnel proceed simply due to measurements of delay. The projects are said to be justified by time savings – but transit is said to be inefficient, and costs must be saved by increasing delay to users through lower service levels. He said the Translink Board had similar priorities when the Patullo Bridge project did not get cut when bus service was.

Nancy Oweiler responded that “the Patullo Bridge is not a done deal. We have no way to fund it. But we do have to be concerned about some very basic public safety issues.” The recent audits had all said that Translink was doing well but there is always room for increased efficiency. She said – humorously I think – that it would be a good thing is Translink could impose “secret fees” like the airport does.

It was confirmed that no-one from the province was actually in the room.

REACTION

I pointed out to Nacy Oweiler that the Airport Improvement Fee was not a secret when first imposed – and is propelling airport users to seek cheaper flights south of the border. I also tackled Jeff Meggs who reacted “Why so angry, Stephen?”

The answer is that I was appalled that the NDP appears to have abandoned the idea of a progressive taxation system. He said that personal income tax already pays “for many good things” and thus  could not be diverted to transit. He continued that the NDP has no intention of removing the MSP as it collects such huge amounts of money. I retorted that was one of the main reasons for replacing it. It now collects more than Corporate Income Tax but like all flat fees was desperately unfair to those on lower incomes. The rich really do not care very much about flat fees as they have such a limited impact on them.

It seems to me that the NDP is indeed committing the same errors of New Labour in Britain – so anxious to get elected that it has moved to the right, and in this case needlessly. The present government will fall as it has demonstrated how hopelessly incompetent and compromised it is. The “ethnic vote” scandal merely being the latest of a series of blunders. The voters want a different government, and would hardly be deterred even if the NDP was in fact still socialist. Instead Adrian Dix is doing his best to be reasonable. I am sure Jeff misspoke when he said they would cut corporate taxes – I am sure he meant restore to the levels before the last round of cuts – but such a thing is not inconceivable. The NDP appears to be as enamoured of LNG as the Liberals.

I believe that Richard Walton is indeed sincere when he says that he is non-partisan. I also believe he is fundamentally wrong in his understanding that there is no benefit to the rest of BC to have a decent transit system in Vancouver. National tax revenues support transit systems in the major cities of every other nation on the face of the earth. I am absolutely certain that you would never hear a Mayor of a Parisian suburb stating that the people of Perpignan should not have to pay towards the RATP/STIF. Actually, a lot of their funds come from a regional employment tax, but we didn’t talk about that either.

I wish I could feel happier about the outcome of the current governance review. Three of the four cities chosen seem fair comparisons – but London? Really? The scale alone is different. And it is the national capital of a major power – albeit one in steep decline.

The present system is a mess – and I think a lot more needs to be done than tinkering with current structures. But then I also cannot possibly endorse the sentiment that Translink runs “one of the best systems in the world”. Words fail me – but I wouldn’t mind betting the regulars will have some figures to show how laughable that statement is.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

The Mayors vs The Minister

with 14 comments

Modified and corrected March 5, 2013

Thanks to Frances Bula we can read the letter the Mayor’s Council sent to Minister Mary Polak. You will recall no doubt that this issue got covered at length here recently.

I thinks it is worth quoting the very long title that Frances uses.

Frustrated mayors make plans to roll back planned property-tax increase of next two years, which will remove $30 million a year from the system

That actually is not in the letter itself. I had to read it several times. The reference is on page 2 under the heading The Funding and points out that the $30m a year was a temporary increase conditional upon a new funding source being made available. They had only approved property tax increases for 2013 and 2014 on the understanding that the province would be implementing the new funding source. It would take time to get the new funding in place: they had expected the new funding source to be identified and agreed before the 2013 property tax increase was applied. The province has clearly failed to implement its side of the bargain. The $30m was only ever going to be collected in 2103 and 2014 because, had the province lived up to its own commitments, new funding ought to have been in place for 2015.

extract

updated material is indented below

In a “just-released notice from TransLink” (which I got from Price Tags)

The Mayors’ Council has requested  the removal of the time-limited property tax from the 2013 Base Plan

Translink is now preparing a Supplemental Plan for the Mayors’ approval before May 1

What the Mayors are doing is in their letter to the Minister is what the Minister’s civil servants ought to have been doing – and probably were. The letter sets out an accurate account of the present arrangements – all of which have been put into place by the Ministry of Transportation. Except for the one thing the Mayors are allowed to do – approve funding from property tax. So they did that but only in a very limited fashion. Someone should have been telling Mary Polak – before she made her recent pronouncements – of the inevitable consequences of her inaction. She either wasn’t listening or did not care. Which is pretty much the conclusion I reached last time I wrote about this.

What has changed is that the Mayors are no longer “playing along”. The ball is firmly in the other court – because that is the way the province set up the rules in the first place.   They can’t do the things she is telling them that they must do because they do not have the legal authority or resources to do so. What they have done is tell Translink to prepare a “Supplemental Plan” for their approval, to remove the temporary funding.

The incoming government is either going to have to scramble something together to make the current arrangements work or announce yet another temporary arrangement while new ones are put in place. But in a government that is trying to sign long term deals with all sorts of people to tie the hands of future administrations there is the distinct possibility of an even sillier announcement – and, on current precedents, maybe Christy herself will be stepping in. The frankly incompetent performance of the current Minister would seem to require that. Unfortunately it is more likely that all that will happen is yet more bluster from a government that is in deep trouble.  And for whom Translink funding is the least of their worries.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 1, 2013 at 10:01 am

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: http://www.th.gov.bc.ca/publications/reports_and_studies/Review_of_TransLink.pdf

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

It’s Time to Get on Board

from the Youtube web page

Tired of being passed up? On an average day, there are hundreds of thousands of trips daily on Metro Vancouver’s public transit system. Whether you take the Expo Line from King George to Waterfront, the 99 B-Line from Commercial to UBC, the SeaBus from Lonsdale Quay to Downtown Vancouver, ride a bike down 41st Avenue, or drive your vehicle over the Port Mann Bridge every morning, you use Vancouver’s extensive transportation network.

However, the current public transit system lacks three key things: the ability to handle current capacity, lack of service options to rural and suburban areas, and sustainable funding to provide for future growth.

Get OnBoard BC believes in a better future for Metro Vancouver’s public transit system. We believe that the key to improving and expanding public transit is in developing a sustainable and fair funding formula.

Our documentary takes a look at the current fiscal and political issues facing Metro Vancouver’s public transit system, and why Metro Vancouver needs sustainable regional transit funding in order to grow our region’s economy, promote ecological and social sustainability, and provide for a growing region.

Will you get OnBoard?

Get OnBoard Get OnBoard BC!
Website: http://getonboardbc.ca/
Facebook: http://facebook.com/getonboardbc
Twitter: @getonboardbc

Directed by: Chris Fernandez

Sign the petition

Written by Stephen Rees

September 25, 2012 at 4:10 pm

“Major Translink Reform Needed” Part 2

with 4 comments

This post is intended to be a more thorough analysis of the Comptroller General’s recent report on Translink.   I know that she also looked at BC Ferries but that is not going to be part of this post, although I think it is interesting to note that the two corporations are treated rather differently. (Anyway The Tyee has already done a good piece on that.) My first go round was an admitted fast response.

The report has something very important to say about governance, and it is not complimentary to the provincial government. After all, it is only eighteen months since the new structure was imposed on what had been a regionally controlled body. That reorganisation was not well thought out and was based more on political spite than the public interest, and what we are seeing now are those chickens coming home to roost.

The key intentions of the revised legislation were to improve the governance, support TransLink in its purpose, and as discussed later in the report, improve planning, funding capabilities, financial sustainability, and accountability and transparency.

The terms of reference for our review indicate that the Province considers other intentions important.

So either we have a flip-flop – having brought in a new structure to do one thing, they now want to do something else – or incompetence. Having rammed through a change largely because the Mayors were nor sufficiently compliant, but continued to think that they were on the Board to represent the people who mostly pay for Translink, they now have a structure which does not seem to work very well.

This obsession with reorganisation is common with governments and bureaucracies. It is especially common when there is political interference in the provision of public services. Private sector companies are held up as “more efficient” but that is because they do not have to satisfy anyone but the shareholders, and the metric for that is simple to organise. Public sector enterprises typically have multiple objectives, some of which may be contradictory, or at least very difficult to measure in a satisfactory manner. Or, in the case of Translink and its predecessors, are not measured at all.

We attempted to determine levels of ridership or route capacity to identify other possibilities for cost containment and efficiency while balancing service level needs, but we found the available data of limited value. TransLink informed us they do not cost by route, but rather over the entire transit system using cost per service hour and cost per kilometre as the key drivers. As a result, TransLink has useful broad system-wide information, but, to manage their costs and conduct service rationalizations they require more specific information.

There are two reasons for this state of affairs. As part of a cost cutting exercise when still under the aegis of BC Transit, the staff who collected bus ridership data were reduced in number. Since that time, detailed ridership data has been grossly inadequate, but very little has been achieved to correct that. The electronic farebox was supposed to help, but operational and planning staff refused to develop a model that would convert the data on cash and swiped tickets to ridership, using survey data on flash passes. Automatic passenger counters (common on other systems) have yet to be widely installed. Moreover, transportation planning for the region inherited from the GVRD has never been supported with adequate data collection for anything but broad brush analysis. The GTA travel survey covers 4% of trips: ours covers 0.4%.

But the second reason, and one I think is most important for this review and its consequences, is the understanding that individual bus routes or segments of bus routes do not stand-alone as cost recovery units but serve as feeders to the system as a whole. Ms Wenezenki-Yolland seems to be suffering from the same professional purblindness that afflicted Dr Beeching. He took an axe to the branchlines of British Railways, cutting off much of the feeder traffic and creating access problems which are now having to be solved by reopening some of the routes he “rationalised”. The last decision the Mayors’ Council made was to avoid this kind of surgery by adopting a funding strategy that would avoid major reductions in service delivery. I suspect that this report will now revive the demands to cut low ridership bus routes as an “efficiency” measure. What this will achieve is the start of the declining spiral again: falling ridership, falling revenue, more cuts.

If the only objective of running Translink was to avoid tax increases and keep the shareholder happy this might make some sense. But the transit system is much more important than the traditional, mistaken view taken by business types. Transit is subsidized because its major competitor is also subsidized. The car also imposes significant social and environmental costs  that increasing transit use may help to mitigate.   I just did a search of the document for the phrase “mode share”. I found nothing. There is much of course about ridership, but absolutely no discussion of the extent to which this may or may not have been successful in attracting new transit users from trips that would otherwise be made by car. We do know that across the US, rising gas prices and a declining economy have combined to reduce car use and increase transit use. Again, this report does not seem to address these issues either. But we also know that if we are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this region, reducing car use is critical. Provincial policy of course is to encourage a considerable increase in car use to an extent that will of itself exceed any effect seen from the carbon tax. (And of course the increased exploitation of the province’s fossil fuel reserves and the new pipelines to deliver Alberta’s tar sand output to Asia will significantly compound the problem. The forestry sector is also now a net producer of ghg and is no longer a carbon store.) The report makes no mention of the topic of greenhouse gas. Presumably this reflects the fact that our Premier is much less interested in global warming now that he has been re-elected.

But even if we ignore greenhouse gases, the benefits of adopting policies that reduce car dependency are manifold, and places – most but not all outside of North America – that have not just good transit systems but also encourage walking and cycling have reaped the rewards of that. Part of the reason being that other governments at all levels recognize that transportation policies that focus on keeping cars moving and reducing funding for alternatives are self-defeating. Congestion in cities seems to remain at a constant level: there is a sort of equilibrium where users put up with a lot of delay, and society suffers greatly, but nothing much changes. Cities that were gutted by the interstate freeways, of course, saw significant decline and flight to the suburbs which is only now being arrested and in some places reversed as the viaducts are pulled down and the streetcars return.

Transportation, density of development and urban planning are all intimately intertwined. Most people seem to understand that. Not, apparently at least one CMA.

But let us now return to the vexed question of “governance”. I have used quotation marks because the choice of the word is in itself significant. It came into vogue a few years back when discussing what was going wrong with North Americas businesses. There has been very legitimate concern over the ability of company executives to use corporations as a sort of personal piggy bank. A few spectacular crashes, and a much smaller number of successful criminal prosecutions are but the tip of the iceberg. CMAs will probably tell you that these cases were the result of a few bad apples and that enough has been done to ensure that the rot does not spread. I disagree. I think what we have seen has been the deification of Gordon Gecko. At one time, some of the most successful companies were those that took good care of their workers and their customers. I am not talking about the robber barons who became philanthropists after they made more money than they knew how to spend on themselves. I refer to people like the quakers who ran chocolate businesses, to give their coreligionists an alternative to alcohol, but were also pioneers in urban planning and especially housing provision.  Even Henry Ford recognised that paying the men on his assembly lines enough that they could afford to buy his products made good business sense. British retailer Simon Marks (of Marks and Spencer) introduced all kinds of in-house services for the shop assistants he employed to keep them happy and healthy. This kind of approach is now seen as quixotic. Work is shipped overseas, to the cheapest labour and lowest environmental standards possible. Wal-Mart grows wealthy by destroying the economy of small towns. And Microsoft – well, you get the point.

These excesses have concerned shareholders – but so also has been the vexed question of how much to reward the people manage the company. I would say that the current business model – which now includes huge amounts of government support to keep going the businesses “too big to fail” – is flawed. Yet that is the model that is being cited in this report as the one we should follow for transit. Even though in this case there is little evidence of the excess rewards for executives, and 80% of the operating costs are labour costs. Although that figure I just quoted is now out of date, since it comes from five years ago and my memory. Increasing debt service being another whole issue.

the cost of operating the Canada Line (net of bus fleet operating efficiencies) is expected to exceed the additional system revenue it generates until 2025, with costs exceeding incremental revenues by $14 million to $21 million for most years until then.

The big issue, you will recall, between the Mayors on the Board of the GVTA and Kevin Falcon was the cost of the Canada Line. That was one of the reasons why they voted it down twice.

We were advised that while TransLink had both the Evergreen and Canada Lines in their long term plans, the region‟s and TransLink‟s priority was the Evergreen line. The provincial priority was to participate in the Canada Line, in part because they felt it had a stronger business case and because of the desire to have the line available for the Olympics. Given the provincial and federal funding availability, TransLink proceeded with the Canada Line.

Not quite. The Mayors were also told that the Evergreen Line would be built – and it has not been. Moreover, there is no provincial or federal funding in place to support the increase in operating cost. Senior governments will provide capital that brings them ribbon cutting opportunities in key constituencies, but they are much less interested in keeping the system going. Except, in the case of Kevin Falcon and his strange obsession with fare gates, which will never recover their cost and will also raise operating costs significantly. With almost no perceptible change in “security” and  no impact at all on fare evasion.

The report also fails to note the impact of U Pass – on revenues, costs and ridership. Like Martin Crilly, she notes the effects of suburban bus expansions and the apparent spare capacity of low ridership routes but says nothing about the number of pass ups on routes serving post secondary institutions that have UPass – most of which is borne by the bus system.  She does notice Community Shuttles. But what she does not remark is that these are now simply lower cost ways of operating regular bus routes and no longer seek to increase the penetration of subdivisions to improve transit access and thus encourage a shift in mode share. A shuttle is now just a cost cutting measure that provides inadequate space at peak periods for some key demographics who we ought to be encouraging to change their perception of transit. But again, this is a subtlety beyond the comprehension of the accountant.

clarification and reinforcement of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities and improved strategic alignment and communication amongst respective government parties is required.

The one significant change that I would say is needed is not that the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure needs to be included in the model. As she herself notes

The Act does not identify the ministry’s role or responsibilities in the governance structure

That means it does not have any. It does, of course get consulted. But it has no expertise in transit at all. It exists to build roads. (The function of maintaining those roads has been privatised.)

What is really needed is for the Province to back off and allow the region to determine for itself what kinds of transportation system it needs to support its regional growth strategy. Indeed at one time there was just such an agreement (“Transport 2021“), crafted under the direction of the then Mayor of Vancouver and Chair of the GVRD – Gordon Campbell. I do not expect a Comptroller General to say anything of the sort. But that agreement, on the face of it, would have been a good start – if the province of BC had actually lived up to its commitments instead of seeking to undermine it at every opportunity. And that applies to governments of both persuasions, who behaved equally badly.

The new arrangements that Kevin Falcon’s Act brought about were the insertion of two extra layers of administration. The new professional Board and the Transit Commissioner. If anyone is responsible for raising the costs of administration and creating the “uncertainty” and the need for more accountability and transparency it is he. Not the Board, or the Mayors, who are trying their best to sort out the dog’s breakfast they have been served. And who are thwarted by the province’s interventions at every turn.

It actually does not matter very much what changes are put in place as a consequence of this report. The current government has demonstrated that it has absolutely no intentions of adhering to the principles that this report endorses. Transparency and accountability cannot be said to be strong suits of the BC Liberals. Their expertise lies in spin and obfuscation – and even, when necessary, downright lies. The Premier and his Minister continue to peddle the notion that the Gateway will reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reducing congestion, when even their own, flawed, documents supplied to the EA contradict them. They do not adhere to any principles other than their own survival – and whatever bee Campbell happens to have in his bonnet at the moment. Whatever structure is put in place will have to bend to his will if he decides to change direction – as he almost certainly will. He runs his cabinet as a dictator, and it is a shame that the voters of this province have allowed him to get away with such a shoddy performance. His record contains far worse than a deck and a pocket knife. The Convention Centre alone cost more than the fast ferries – and at least they were able to be sold. We will be stuck with the Gateway and its consequences for many years – and quite likely his Olympics too.

The current fuss about too many executives and not enough transparency is a classic blind. It is a diversion to conceal the short comings of the present administration, that imposed its will and then found it got results that it had not anticipated and seeks to shift the blame elsewhere.  We now hear very little about the $14bn Transit Plan for the region. The one that Translink was trying to incorporate into its own planning cycle. There is a lot in the CG’s report about how cumbersome that process is as well. And again, derived from the same badly drafted bit of legislation.

Careful reading the CG’s report shows that the responsibility for the current mess cannot be fairly laid at the feet of local politicians, or the unfortunates who are trying to do their best working for Translink. I do not blame Tom Prendergast one bit for deciding to return to New York. That won’t be a bed of roses either, but at least Mayor Bloomberg can set a direction and expect to see it followed. No local politician in BC can do that.

The Minister in her remarks on Friday was careful to be non-committal about the report’s recommendations. They are not, of course, binding. And they do not require anyone to admit that the SoCoBriCTA mess is their fault. But equally, none of the recommendations will produce what the region desperately needs; which is a much expanded transit system, properly funded, and integrated into a sustainable land use plan. Instead we will have freeways, urban sprawl, poor transit service for most of the region and continuing high car usage. Frankly I find it hard to get excited about the concerns of the Comptroller. She seems to me to be filling the role of the purser on the Titanic, worrying about the audit of the bar receipts, as the ship continues at full steam ahead towards disaster.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Mayors likely to okay extra $130 million for TransLink

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Jeff Nagel in BC Local News does a good job of keeping track of the unfolding Translink funding saga. I do not usually indulge in trying to foretell the future but in this case it is pretty easy to see that the Mayors really have no other option. If they refuse to pass the fare and tax increases they will not, as Mayor Corrigan suggests, look like heroes fighting the wicked provincial government. They will be the [insert rude word for the plural of a body orifice here] who brought about transit service cuts – which are even less popular than fare increases. The “consultation” exercise really boiled down to the the simple question, ‘Given that you do not want service cuts, would you rather see a fare increase or a property tax increase?’ The Minister of Transport must have been aware at the recent meeting with the Mayors that they simply cannot  put their own positions so clearly on the line that an increase in property taxes would mean. The public are likely to accept that the Mayor did his or her best over this decision – but an increase in property tax is simply asking to be kicked in the ballot.

Corrigan can of course enjoy his maverick path because he can be confident that the other Mayors will not follow him. This gives him the opportunity to grab the spotlight and say all kinds of stuff, but with no fear of consequences. He is wrong about the timing of course, because a revolt now would have no impact on the Olympics. Those arrangements are already made, and  Campbell has made it clear that although lots of other things can and are being cut (though he does back off a bit when the noise gets to him) the Olympics are untouchable fiscally. He is committed to make the Olympics work and nothing the Mayors might do is going to get in the way of that.

The timing of the Provincial review is also interesting. It is not yet available. Of course. So if the Mayors do vote for service cuts, Campbell – or more likely Shirley Bond – can trot out the “they did not look for economies” nonsense.  So the choice for the Mayors is, as usual Hobson’s choice – no choice at all. Expansion has been taken off the table by Martin Crilly. Property tax increases taken off by the Mayors. Anything else is outside the legislative straight jacket fitted onto Translink by the province. This makes predictions reasonably easy. But note he said “likely” and not “certain” – for nothing is certain. But it is a very slim chance that they will opt for cuts.

UPDATE It was approved on Friday October 23

Written by Stephen Rees

October 21, 2009 at 8:33 am

Posted in transit

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