Of Transit, Funding, TramTrain, and a Sustainable Future.


Zwei first met Brendan Read in 1986, while traveling to Abbotsford on the BR Pacer unit that ran three return service to New Westminster each day during the Expo 86 Worlds Fair. It was during this trip that the idea of the “return of the interurban” was conceived. It was all there, track, vehicle(s), and popular support. Though some efforts were made to continue the Pacer service, it was not to be and the idea of a Fraser Valley interurban remained a quiet dream until John Buker founder of Rail for the Valley and VALTAC took up the cause.

We are at a crossroads with transit planning for the region. Either we continue with building hugely expensive metro lines that take about a decade to plan and build, higher fares and subsidies, or go the light rail route with cheaper construction and operating costs and the ability to service areas deemed “not to have the density” to warrant SkyTrain construction. The looming ‘global warming’ fiasco, combined with peak oil, means we should be building as much alternative transit as possible, but we are not, as planners and politicians still twiddle their thumbs waiting for the economy to return as in happier days.

Talk of $4 billion UBC subways and the Evergreen Line fog the real issues including can the taxpayer afford to keep building hugely expensive metro lines on routes that do not have the ridership to sustain them. We live in a finite world and a finite economy and its high time politicians invest in sustainable and affordable public transit and be adult enough to abandon any thought of building any more politically prestigious metro projects in the region.

It’s time we start building with 21st century transit to cope with 21st century problems.

From Mass Transit

A Funding Crisis of Olympic Proportions

 Posted by Brendan B. Read

On Thursday Jan.21, two Bombardier Flexity Outlook streetcars, borrowed from STIB, the Brussels transit agency, started rolling on the Olympic Line, a demonstrator addition to Vancouver, B.C., Canada’s transit system built for the 2010 Winter Olympics that begins Feb.12. The two ‘trams’ will operate free of charge until March 21 from the Olympic Village Canada Line rapid transit station 1.1 miles to the popular (and traffic-congested) shopping and entertainment hub of Granville Island, on the south shore of False Creek near the city’s downtown.

Bombardier’s participation in the project has already been paying off. Company officials report that Seattle streetcar representatives have already visited the line. The city of Seattle with Sound Transit, is building a $132 million streetcar route from the International District to First Hill and Capitol Hill in conjunction with the Link light rail extension to the University of Washington. The key selling point is the Flexity’s 100 percent low-floor layout, unlike the partial low-floor Skoda/Inekon streetcars in service on the city’s South Lake Union line.

Whether the Olympic Line continues service after March 21 and is extended beyond its present endpoints — the city of Vancouver is envisioning a network linking the downtown core, Stanley Park and the north shore of False Creek — depends on funding. With federal and provincial government representatives politely smiling on the same stand, Mayor Gregor Robertson made the pitch for money at the event. In the audience was former TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast who had flown in for the opening.

Vancouver’s transit has been facing the milder but still impacting version of an Olympic-sized funding crisis that has gripped transit agencies continent-wide. Prendergast left TransLink amidst financing disputes between local governments and the province that put the long-promised Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension to the northeast plus new bus routes to the growing but atrociously underserved areas in the southeast on hold, with fare hikes on the way. He became president of MTA New York City Transit just as the agency is planning service cuts as well as eliminating fare discounts and slicing administration costs to close a $383 million budget gap.

New York City is in the same rattling subway car as Chicago, Cleveland, San Diego and Salt Lake City to list just a few names on the growing list of transit agencies facing making cuts and as a last alternative raising fares — even as many of them receive ARRA money to buy equipment, renovate stations and maintenance facilities, and build new lines.

If it sounds strange that service is being chopped and fares are being hiked while new buses and railcars are being bought and bus and rail rapid transit projects are being constructed it is. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with American transit financing. There is no linkage between capital (federal) and operating (state/local) cost coverage.

Where the rubber literally meets the road is maintenance, which has been a local responsibility. Yet the billions in federal money invested on infrastructure and equipment risks going to waste if there is no money allocated to keep the assets in a state of good repair. The ARRA has some money for it but nowhere is it enough to meet transit agency needs.

The federal government has to step up to the plate here because the states and cities have boxed themselves in by relying on downturn-vulnerable sales taxes; it is next to impossible at this point for them to shift to more stable property taxes, which Canadian systems rely on, and which have dampened though not eliminated cuts and hikes there.

Washington should start financing transit system maintenance costs. In turn it should require applicant agencies and states to develop more stable operating support financing plans, including real estate transfer taxes where new transit services have boosted property values, plus have proven land-use policies that limit transit-killing and environment-damaging sprawl.

This last measure is being advocated in Canada in efforts to get transit-dedicated revenue from the federal gas tax. While the Canadian government streams money from it to local governments they have the discretion to spend the cash as they wish, which means in smaller communities, transit, outweighed by the road interests, gets little if anything and sometimes nothing.

Resolving today’s transit financing crisis will take an effort akin to competing in the Olympics. Yet the needs and the outcomes: increased greener, energy-secure mobility, healthier cities and towns, and a stronger economy, merits the toil and the dollars.

Brendan Read is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver.



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