Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Vehicle Levy

TransLink proposes tolls on all Metro bridges, new vehicle levy

with 9 comments

Vancouver Sun

I am only going to look at what is new in this announcement – not go over again all the arguments about who pays for what.

The vehicle levy has long been an option – but road pricing was regarded as an alternative, not in addition to a levy, mainly because a levy can be put in place quite quickly, but installing tolling technology takes much longer. Since the vehicle levy is at best a coarse tool – one that impacts everyone no matter how far, when and what they drive – it could be replaced by one that varies by type of vehicle, time of day (and day of week) and distance driven, which obviously has much better effect on travel patterns. The suggestion that all bridges get tolled has always stumbled on the fairly obvious – which bridges – and the fact that if there is to a set of “cordons” at which the toll is levied, presumably based on distance from Vancouver in concentric arcs, there are a lot of people along the Burrard Peninsula who escape. A drive from north east Coquitlam to UBC would be toll free, while Ladner to downtown crosses three water bodies. (The story does not say “tunnels” but I would bet the Massey would get tolled but not the Cassiar.) Obviously some places like Richmond get hit much harder than Burnaby – which has a much greater range of destinations available without a bridge on the way. The devil, as they say, is in the details and this announcement seems remarkably light on detail.

Road pricing is one of those things that makes obvious sense to economists (The Economist newspaper endorsed it many years ago) but is very hard for motorists to accept. First there’s the use of the word like “freeway” (which actually refers to the flow of traffic not the cost) and ideas like the freedom to travel where and when you like that is part of the illusion sold by the car industry. And the fact that we pay for roads through our taxes already – even though the taxes directly levied on fuel and vehicles are well below the cost to society of road use. This is also the problem with the levy – motorists in the region will feel even more put upon, especially when compared to those who can register their vehicles outside the region. But secondly, and more importantly, road space is a highly perishable commodity – like seats on planes. For many hours of the day it has very little value – but at peak periods its value soars. That ought to be reflected in road pricing but so far this element seems to be greatly neglected. It is not just the use of the road that causes the problems, but the use of the road when everybody else wants to use it. Without a price system to ration demand, we resort to queues. Just as they did in the Soviet Union for almost everything. Or how they allocate seats at Bard on the Beach.

Without new revenue, TransLink is projected to go into deficit by 2011, as it subsidizes the private operators of the Canada Line and the Golden Ears Bridge for four to five years until they reach projected ridership figures. [emphasis added]

Now that is news. I have been tracking both these projects for a while – and the general discussion about how wonderful P3s are supposed to be and I have not heard of these requirements before. If you know differently than I expect you to provide a citation and a link to the evidence. My understanding of the P3 case was that it removed the need for public sector funding and that the private sector would take on the risk, which obviously includes low revenue in the early years in return for a bigger share of the fat years at the end of the deal. I have always been critical of the way that these two projects have sucked up Translink’s resources since neither should have been such a high priority in a region that is starved of basic bus service.

And that is the second bit of news – that all of this appears to be implemented ahead of transit improvements for most of the region. This is just stupid. In London, when the congestion charge was introduced, bus services – and bus priority measures – were significantly increased when the new charge was imposed. Obviously people have to have some alternative – in London’s case much of that could be satisfied simply by diverting since many car trips through the centre did not need to go that way at all. There were already other, better routes available. Imposing new fees and charges now and promising better service later will not do at all. Because the whole point is to change behaviour at the same time as raising revenue. This is why this plan will once again be characterised as a cash grab. Because there is no alternative but to pay more, becuase there is simply no bus to get on.

Translink has been put into an invidious position – partly by the province’s unreasonable demands and policies but also by its own decisions to press ahead with expensive capital projects and then noticing too late that it dod not have enough to fund even existing operations let alone new ones.

It is also the case that the province has always stuck to the policy that tolls can only be applied to new infrastructure – which was why the Golden Ears got built and the ferry was not replaced because only the bridge could be tolled. So all of this simply puts Translink at loggerheads with long established provincial “principles”.  Nothing new there then.


TransLink must look for in-house savings before passing on transportation costs to taxpayers said Premier Gordon Campbell at a press conference today.

“I think that before people start talking about tax increases, they should start talking about savings in their own organization,” said Campbell.

This just in on the Sun webpage. In other words even before the review he commissioned has started, he has determined what the outcome will be.  Of course he does not just talk about tax increases – he has just brought in a big one under the guise of “harmonisation” – and pretends that will reduce costs. Which it will for the province and some businesses but will cost taxpayers plenty. I don’t see him rushing to pay big chunks of his own compensation either – something Maggie Thatcher liked to boast about (without mentioning the wealth of her husband of course).

He also said the transit authority overstepped their boundaries in planning tax increases.

“What I’ve heard of the report is that it is outside the framework of their legislation. …and I think everyone’s disappointed they haven’t acted within their legislation and they have a responsibility to do that,” Campbell said.

This is called being disingenuous. If they act “within their legislation” and also try to implement his “$14bn transit plan” the books don’t balance. In fact they don’t balance if they just keep on going as they are. Pretending this can all be sorted out by cutting Board members compensation and a few mythical savings is assinine. As is the provincial requirement to install faregates on SkyTrain which will be a huge money losing proposition.

Campbell can find $3bn for Highway #1 widening  but he can’t find any money to keep the buses running. And this is called ” a balanced plan”.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2009 at 9:18 am

Buses and trains and levies

with 16 comments

I spent yesterday afternoon in Surrey. Actually it gave me a bit of a flashback as the first night I started work at what was then known as BC Transit they put me in the same hotel that Harry Bains and the CAW used for their transit forum. And really the problems we were talking about were no that much different to twelve years earlier – the scale is a bit bigger that’s all.

Transit mode share in Surrey is 4% – compared to the regional average of something less than 12% (it gets rounded up by Translink boosterism). And of course everyone blames Surrey for that – not that they have much say over transit provision then or now. It is, of course, the fastest growing city in the region. Peter Holt had all the stats on a Powerpoint, which saved the rest of us having to remember figures. The facts are stark – and quite simply Surrey has been neglected. The villain of the piece was identified by all as the Province of BC – whoever was in power at the time. Because transit spending priority has always been to build SkyTrain and most of it has gone to serve Vancouver and Burnaby. Not that when local mayors had any say they espoused these values. Usually the objective studies that were conducted favoured light rail as cheaper, better value for money and greater geographic coverage. CAW – the bus drivers’ union – is now conducting a campaign for more buses. And bus rapid transit transit – although they say they have nothing against trains.

It was pionted out to me by a regular reader that Pete McMartin had a good column recently on the levy- and it covers the recent history of Translink. Why it is no longer democratically controlled and why it is in such a financial pickle. The burden of the Canada Line is acting the way that the debt burden of SkyTrain has acted since it opened. That cost eats up the available revenue so there is not enough left over for bus expansion. And for everywhere else in the region except Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster buses provide the transit service. In Surrey – and soon in Richmond too – there is a short length of track with inadaequate service that has to be fed by buses to be useful, but does not match the trip pattern. Becuase we no longer mostly commute to downtown Vancouver.

Trip patterns changed becuase development patterns changed. Vancouver lost its industry and most of its “centre of regional employment” function as land was redeveloped for highrise condos. The employmnet did not go to the region’s  town centres because develkopers were allowed to build cheaper office and industrial parks out by the freeway ramps.This shift in employment pattern was not anticipated by the LRSP. Now more people live in downtown Vancouver and work elsewhere than the other way around. And they work in places mostly poorly served by transit. Microsoft (of course) run their own bus service.

In the South of the Fraser the main commuting trip pattern is east-west – but the bus service runs north-south. Because it always has done. Well not always – becuase in 1970 there was no transit servcie in Surrey (I did not know that).  While North of the Fraser developed earlier around streetcars and trolleys most of the development South of the Fraser occurred after the closure of the interrurban. Of course its resusictation would help the historic communities along its route – becuase they grew up around the stations. But the real issue is how do we get transit oriented development everywhere else where there is no transit? Becuase that is the only kind of development that is going to work in a world where oil is scarce and alternative fuels simply fail to make any inroads into the automotive fleet.

And it is not that we were unaware of any of this before. As I said, twelve years ago there was a shortage of buses in the region – so much so that BC Transit bought some second hand from Seattle (they were clapped out and useless) and Everett (small but beautifully looked after). The system was just as cash strapped and just a much a toy of the provincial politicians as it is now. I do not know of anywhere else where that level of government insists that is is the only level that can make important decisions. The vast majority of major cites in the world are responsible for their own transit.

I must also mention Councillor Marvin Hunt who has been in power in Surrey and at Translink for years but somehow manages to avoid any blame for the on going mess. He also believes the spin – that Translink is highly regarded by other cities around the world and that they send people here to study it. He may also boast about the winning of the APTA “system of the year award”  – but he did not do that yesterday. He also has a way with figures which I can only describe as imaginative. Every pronouncement he made was followed by hastily scribbled notes being passed backwards and forwards between panel members. He did vote for trolleybuses but he still believes in natural gas – becuase that does require faith, not reason.

The province now has a “$14 billion” transit plan – but of course that includes the $3bn spent on the Canada Line. And of the rest the province is only willing to pay 1/3 and neother the region nor the feds have committed to thier shares. The region becuase it has no revenue – remember that? That is why they need the levy! And not because of much needed capital expansion but they cannot afford to run the syetm they have now with existuing revenue resources. Which is exactly the situation that Kevin Falcon has created.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 15, 2009 at 8:43 am

Posted in politics, transit

Tagged with ,

Drivers face tax of up to $100 to fund transit, roads

with 13 comments


I am not sure there is anything more to say about this story. Translink started off with a very long list of fund raising ideas but has come back to the one that has haunted it since its creation – the vehicle levy. And I really do not see that anything has changed that will make that idea more popular now than in the past. Except of course for the daft notion of a “value proposition” – a universal transit pass.

Is there no-one at Translink now who can do simple math? Or are they as usual just ignored by the communications people?

Universal transit passes only work where there is spare capacity. If you have already paid for your transit system and there are lots of buses and trains running mostly empty, then almost any wheeze to put bums on seats is worth trying. But it assumes that for little or no additional revenue there is also no real increase in costs – just much better load factors. That is not the case here – and has not been for a long time. It was not the case when UBC and SFU students were given UPass far too cheaply. The result was overcrowding, pass ups and a stiff increase in operating cost.

If every driver in the region gets a transit pass in return for their new license plate sticker (or whatever the levy uses to indicate payment) who is going to pay full fare? Twelve three zone passes now cost $1,632. But some bright spark thinks that should be given away for $100 – and that, we are supposed to believe, will result in an increase in revenue. “Yes we make a loss on every unit but we make it up in volume.” Does anybody believe this?

Fares cover around 50% of operating cost – or perhaps a bit more these days. I am sure someone will leap in to nitpick this figure. The rest has to come from somewhere else. Because we have been bamboozled into thinking that public services have to paid for by user fees, and not general revenues, we get ourselves into a neat box which confines our thinking. It was not always thus – but that is how so called “lower taxes” have been finagled – to make sure the rich pay less and the poor pay more. You can see a great object lesson just to the south of us how far this neo-conservative thinking gets you. The richest nation in the world is now bankrupt. It did not work there and will not work here. Both socialism and capitalism have  demonstrably failed. So we need some thinking that comes up with new solutions, not old ones warmed over.

In this region we have recently been told that we will have to pay for a massive road building programme twice – through user fees and taxes. No one thought before this announcement was made that there should be any public consultation. Any more than the roads themselves were actually subject to much analysis – the consultation was cursory and did not allow for a “no” answer, the so called “environmental assessment” was known to be sham before it started. Somehow the provincial government can load us up with another $3bn of debt and we are expected to take that on without a murmur. But the transit system – which has not been anything like adequate for at least twenty years – and probably more – is starved of funds and forced to jump through hoops on a regular basis with threats of fare increases and service cuts as background music. And what money is devoted to it is steadily eroded by loading up the regional body with collapsing bridges and road maintenance bills.

It is time to say “enough” and come up with a better way of running things – and funding them. One over which we have some control. If we are expected to pay for it, then we ought to have some say in how it is spent. And the method for which the gap between fares and costs is covered should be tied to ability to pay. A progressive taxation system.  Or a method which starts a process by which we see a shift  from car use – user fees that have a direct link to use of roads by time of day so that congestion actually gets dealt with. That will not of itself be enough for ever – for the simple reason that if it works then people will drive less and revenue will fall. A bit like the way the gas tax produces less revenue the better the transit system wins new riders. So in this case we need to ensure that the cost to people who drive rises steadily.  Either way we see positive outcomes – progressive taxes produce a fairer society. Road user charges reduce congestion and fund alternatives to driving. I think the latter might also be saleable since it is car use that contributes so much to the other huge problem which we are so good at ignoring. Our cars and the urban sprawl they create have produced our huge greenhouse gas emission issue – and while we seem to be in denial about that too, the realisation is gradually dawning on most people that we cannot keep on heating up this planet.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 13, 2009 at 9:32 am