TransLink mired in political standoff – Francis Bula, Globe and Mail

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Ten years on, and TransLink remains stuck on the road to nowhere

Frances Bula

Vancouver

“Premier Gordon Campbell and Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon unveiled a $14-billion public transit plan to be completed by 2020 today. It is a key measure in the province’s greenhouse gas reduction plan, touching every region of the province.”

Those were the opening lines in a government news release distributed to reporters on Jan. 14, 2008, while the Premier stood amid charts and displays demonstrating the utopian future of transit in Metro Vancouver. With maps covered in a web of coloured transit lines, the plan included the Evergreen Line in the northeast sector, a 12-kilometre extension of the Millennium Line to the University of British Columbia, a six-kilometre extension of the Expo Line in Surrey, and herds of new clean-energy buses and SkyTrain cars.

That was then. Eighteen months later, the plan is mired in what has become a familiar standoff in British Columbia: the perpetual tussle between the province and a regional transportation agency.

In the latest chapter, TransLink says it can’t possibly pay for its part of the Premier’s ambitious plan without getting money from some new taps besides beleaguered transit riders, now paying as much as $5 for a single trip, and residential ratepayers, now paying an average of $235 a year for transportation.

The province, channelling its message through rookie Transportation Minister Shirley Bond, is insisting that the agency fulfill the promises the Premier made while balking at TransLink’s suggestions for new revenue sources. They include a vehicle levy of up to $200 a year, a share of the carbon-tax revenue, and road-pricing mechanisms such as tolls, distance charges and fees that would allow single drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

What’s perplexing to almost everyone is why the province and TransLink, which is responsible for transit and roads in the Lower Mainland, have been locked in conflict almost from the day the agency was created by an NDP government in April of 1999. Today it’s the 10-year plan. A couple of years ago it was the province’s dissatisfaction over how TransLink handled approving the Canada Line, which led to a restructuring that took most decision-making power away from local politicians. And back when TransLink first got started, it was the vehicle levy that they parted ways over.

“The problem for TransLink is that while it is an innovative structure and it got the revenue tools, it never got the revenue streams,” says Pat Jacobsen, the former Ontario deputy transportation minister who was TransLink’s CEO for seven of its 10 years. “It’s the only authority I know of that has to fund 100 per cent of its bus capital, 50 to 70 per cent of its rapid-transit capital and all of its operating costs from local sources.”

The bill ends up being paid disproportionately by property taxes. According to a 2007 City of Edmonton study, transit costs account for 7.4 per cent of a Metro Vancouver resident’s tax bill, while just 4.5 per cent of the average Torontonian’s taxes go to fund that city’s system, which serves more than twice as many riders. The numbers are likely even farther apart now, since TransLink pushed through the maximum allowable property-tax increase last year.

That comes partly because provincial politicians of all stripes have been fearful of paying the price for introducing any new taxes.

During this year’s election campaign both the Liberals and the NDP refused to consider letting carbon-tax revenue go to TransLink.

“I get that you cannot ask a politician to go out and commit political suicide,” says former TransLink director Gordon Price, a passionate transit advocate. But with local mayors saying they are willing to take the heat for a vehicle levy, with the public saying it’s willing to pay more for transit, and with the need to do something to stop environmental degradation, Mr. Price says it’s time for the Premier to stand behind his plan.

But that leads to a second political dynamic at work – the fact that TransLink has always been a bit of an unloved child for the B.C. Liberals. They opposed its creation, and even though they essentially took it over two years ago by creating an appointed board, still don’t see the agency as truly theirs.

“I just don’t think Gordon Campbell ever wanted TransLink. And they’re always afraid of Vancouver getting too much,” says George Puil, a veteran former Vancouver city councillor and TransLink’s first chairman.

Mr. Puil has never been known as an NDP supporter or a green freak, but he can’t understand how the province thinks TransLink can come up with the $450-million a year – a 50-per-cent increase over its current budget – needed to fund the Premier’s dream plan if it isn’t given new revenue sources.

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