Charlie Smith continues to be Vancouver’s leading reporter on local and regional transit issues. Simply, he actually does research on the subject, unlike reporters in Vancouver’s mainstream media who have been reduced to printing well crafted TransLink and/or The Provincial Ministry of Transportation mews releases as facts. When it comes to a good analysis of transit issues, Smith and the Straight can be regarded as one of the best sources of transit and transportation information one can get!
The issue of TransLink financial dilemma was predictable and has been for a long time. Thirty years ago, when SkyTrain was forced upon the region, transit experts warned that this was leading the Vancouver region into a very expensive era. Local politicians and transportation engineers ignored those warnings and continued to plan for unaffordable metro and even more unaffordable subway. Well the chickens have come home to roost, TransLink is mired in a financial quicksand of a horribly expensive transit system that needs an ever growing tax base to support it. With every new metro line that opens, on transit routes that do not have the ridership to support it, the deeper TransLink sinks into a financial abyss, yet because the monies to support TransLink is considered free cash (all taxpayers money is considered free cash), bureaucrats continue to plan for the same, leading TransLink on an ever steeper downward path to financial bankruptcy.
By turning off the money taps, will TransLink be forced to deal with the realities of providing an affordable and efficient transit service that puts the transit customer first; the question is and always has been, what politicians are not afraid to bell the TransLink cat.
TransLink hunts for money
By Charlie Smith
More than five years ago, TransLink brought forward a three-year strategy and 10-year outlook. The document included $4-billion worth of capital projects that were to be built by 2013.
On February 27, 2004, the Metro Vancouver board of directors narrowly approved the plan. TransLink documents showed that after spending this money, the percentage of rush-hour trips taken by transit was expected to increase from 11 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013. At the time, some COPE councillors criticized the plan for not substantially increasing transit ridership in the region.
The three-year strategy and 10-year outlook explicitly acknowledged that spending vast sums of money wasn’t going to get many more people out of their cars and on the transit system. Large sums of money were directed toward road and bridge construction and the Canada Line. A previous TransLink plan had called for 1,800 buses by 2006. The 2004 three-year strategy and 10-year outlook scaled that back to 1,600 buses by 2013.
In 2009, according to TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie, there are 1,694 buses, not counting HandyDart vehicles. Between 11 and 12 percent of trips in the region are taken by transit, which means that little has changed five years later. The number of service hours on the transit system has increased from 5.2 million in 2004 to 6.2 million in 2008, according to TransLink’s annual report, but ridership as a percentage of trips taken during rush hour has remained stable.
Regional transportation commissioner Martin Crilly identified some of the reasons for this in his August 31 report on TransLink’s 2010 10-year plan. He wrote that over the last several years, TransLink “expanded service and invested in capital projects that it knew to be unaffordable under its existing funding constraints”.
“These investments were made with the hope and expectation that senior governments would agree to bear a large portion of the operating costs, which they have not done,” Crilly wrote. “This expansion of service has reduced the productivity of the bus network, with each increment of service costing more and carrying fewer riders, while fares increase. There is now available capacity—that is empty seats—on much, but not all, of the bus network which can accommodate future growth in ridership.”
He noted that the Expo Line is being constrained by capacity, and called for upgrades to the existing system to take priority over new investments, such as the proposed Evergreen Line to Coquitlam. Crilly allowed TransLink to raise short-term fares by 3 to 3.5 percent per year over a three-year period starting April 1, 2010.
“TransLink’s view, judged realistic, is that the slow process of urban densification will not lift ridership much by 2019,” he wrote.
The 2010 10-year plan includes three options, with an overall goal, according to Crilly, of increasing the supply of transit service “at a rapidly escalating incremental (and less affordable) cost for each extra rider”. The base plan is called “Drastic Cuts”. It would only be implemented if the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation doesn’t approve a supplement, and would result in a 40-percent reduction in bus service, no new rapid-transit expansion, and sharp reductions to road-maintenance funding and cycling programs.
A second option, called the “Funding Stabilization” supplement, would generate an additional $130 million per year by increasing the fuel tax by three cents a litre, tripling the parking sales tax to 21 percent, and raising transit fares beyond the inflation rate. It assumes that property taxes would rise by three percent per year.
The third option, called the “On Track to a Sustainable Region” supplement, would require an additional $450 million per year by 2013 and it would fund the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam. Under the category of “demand-side management”—which refers to measures to discourage people from driving—the plan states: “TransLink will undertake research and technical studies on road pricing, a broad concept in which motorists pay directly for using a road, bridge or tunnel, or for driving in a defined part of a city.”
The mayors’ council includes representatives from each of the region’s 21 municipalities as well as the Tsawwassen First Nation. It’s facing an October 31 deadline to respond to TransLink’s three funding scenarios.
Who has the fairest fares of them all?
> Adult and child cash fares in Calgary: $2.50/$1.75
> Adult and child cash fares in Montreal: $2.75/$1.75
> Adult and child cash fares in Toronto: $2.75/70 cents
> Adult and child cash fares in Vancouver: $3.75/$2.50 (two zone)
> Adult and child cash fares in Vancouver: $2.50/$1.75 (one zone)
> Day and monthly passes in Calgary: $7.50/$83
> Day and monthly passes in Montreal: $9/$68.50
> Day and monthly passes in Toronto: $9/$109
> Day and monthly passes in Vancouver: $9/$99 (two zone)
> Day and monthly passes in Vancouver: $9/$73 (one zone)
Sources: Calgary Transit, Société de transport de Montréal, Toronto Transit Commission, TransLink