TransLink and the Evergreen Line: Let’s make a deal

TransLink, aka the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority, moves about 600,000 transit passengers on the average day in Metro Vancouver.  Forgiving the occasional breakdown, the corporation seems to have most of its technical issues sorted out.

But on the softer side – politics and financing – the outlook is uncertain.  TransLink’s operates as a unified agency in a fractured region.  Its funding requests are subject to approval by a council of 21 municipal mayors – and yes, this includes Anmore, Belcarra, Bowen Island and Lions Bay – plus a first nations chief.  If the mayors happen to agree on something, their decision is subject to further approval by the provincial government. 

The proposed Burquitlam station, North Road

At the present moment, we are looking at the possible cancellation of the $1.4 billion Evergreen rapid transit line unless the mayors and the province can deliver a funding commitment in the next three months.  This would kiss good-bye to more than $800 million in federal and provincial capital funding.  In a lunchtime presentation in Maple Ridge yesterday, TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis was admirably restrained in describing the urgency of the situation.  At an evening public meeting in Surrey, TransLink officials were more explicit: James Moore, a senior federal cabinet minister whose riding takes in much of the Evergreen Line, has warned that $417 million in promised federal support will disappear if local politicians don’t stop dithering.  The federal money was first promised in 2009; Ottawa has been patient, but there other places in Canada that would gladly accept the cash.

Service expansion in TransLink has been on hold since 2009.  Staff has proposed a package of  improvements designed to benefit the entire region in order to get a $70 million lift in annual funding.  This would ensure the launch of Evergreen construction, significant bus service improvements south of the Fraser, and other items.  The requirement is that the mayors agree to a funding strategy within the next month, and the Province enacts new legislation soon after.   The current scenario is that the politicians should agree to $40 million in local fuel tax increases and $30 million in property tax increases, subject to change if they can agree on a fairer way of raising money before 2013.

But guess what?  It’s campaign season, with municipal elections in November.  The mayors don’t like the idea of increasing property taxes to benefit a regional agency.  The provincial government has just lost a referendum on sales taxes, and the Premier has said she doesn’t like the idea of hiking fuel taxes.

Local and provincial politicians have actually been procrastinating on how to fund TransLink expansion since the corporation was formed in 1998.  The NDP government of the day rejected a proposed per-vehicle levy because it wasn’t fair.  Fuel taxes aren’t fair, tolling bridges isn’t fair, property taxes aren’t fair.  CEO Jarvis says officials are looking at a future road pricing system that would capture payments across the regional system varying with time of day and type of vehicle.  No doubt there are many members of the public, including those calling for transit improvements, who would say that this type of ubertolling would be unfair.

We will never achieve a public consensus on how to raise public revenues.  As a property owner and motorist who will get dinged either way, I would support whatever formula the mayors choose to support.  Let’s make a deal.  There is widespread demand for new transit services and the relief of overcrowding on existing lines.  And as Jarvis pointed out yesterday, this demand will grow as the population ages, fuel costs rise and people look for ways to reduce private vehicle use.

Final note: passenger fares account for 52 per cent of TransLink revenues, and fares are rising with the rate of inflation.  There is limited scope for increasing fares without discouraging ridership, although TransLink will be exploring the options after the introduction of its digital Compass Cards.

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