A root cause of TransLink’s financial and administrative problems, in the view of many, is the convoluted governance structure outlined in the authority’s Governance Manual and 2012 Base Plan. This structure leaves the region’s mayors taking political heat but having little control. Public and media blame the TransLink Mayors’ Council for the system’s failings, but the council lacks even a dedicated staff person at the transit corporation’s offices. Annual operating plans are devised by a Board, which is appointed by a revolving Panel. The mayors “review and provide input.”
The mayors are frustrated. They want a different model of governance. They showed their frustration last week by exercising the one power they do have: they killed a supplementary funding and service plan they approved in late 2011, including promised new bus transit in Surrey.
An overhaul of the governance model would need changes to provincial legislation. We already seem to be entering the pre-election period provincially, a time when institutional reorganization is likely to get a low priority. This gives the mayors time to develop something like a consensus on what kind of change they want. Perhaps they can present draft legislation, with rationale, to a transportation minister in the fall of 2013, along with evidence of widespread support.
We can assume they want genuine autonomy for the regional transportation authority, and an end to provincial micro-managing. They have to build in some protection for smaller municipalities in the decision-making process. They’ll need to think hard about what levels of transparency and consultation are needed to earn and maintain public trust.
My one free tip for the mayors: start now. If you can’t get respect inside TransLink, go outside TransLink. Recruit a cubicle from one of the city governments or Simon Fraser University. Find someone with clean hands to start drafting a strategy. Set up a rough-and-ready web page to receive public input. Talk to transit-friendly groups. Talk to taxpayers. Refine the strategy. “Bring the public along,” as B.C. transportation minister Blair Lekstrom put it recently in a letter to the mayors. The “public,” in this case, doesn’t have to be everybody; it’s whatever set of people is sufficient to persuade a provincial government to budge. The issues at hand are clear: what does the next model of transportation governance look like. Who should be in charge, and how are they accountable?