TransLink’s service levels are increasing rapidly, and a new funding plan should allow continued expansion — for a while.
The Metro Vancouver transit authority’s latest performance report, published on June 21, shows that with added service, boardings across the system — bus, SeaBus, and SkyTrain — increased by 5.7 per cent through 2017 to a record 407 million. This was the biggest jump in ridership among major urban areas in North America (see the chart at the bottom of this post.)
Transit service has reached into new areas, and people are responding, especially with the opening of the Evergreen extension of the Millennium line to central Coquitlam. There was a 5% increase in Metro Vancouver bus service hours in 2017, and a 17 per cent increase in SkyTrain service hours.
And after a 10-week delay following approval in principle, the council of transit mayors voted on June 28 to fund further improvements to bus service, upgrades to transit stations, and new rapid transit construction. As I wrote here in April 2018, the money is to come from fare increases, property taxes and development cost charges, and increased revenue from higher transit ridership.
The structure, however, is fragile. The Government of B.C. announced on June 28 that it will fund its share of transit through a 1.5-cent increase in the regional fuel tax. This is a politically risky move. Metro Vancouver already has the highest fuel taxes in Canada [sez Wikipedia] at 45 cents per litre. 17 cents of that is dedicated to transit, but the people who drive the furthest — those in the deep suburbs — are least likely to have access to frequent transit.
Suburban voters in Ontario recently elected a provincial party that promises to cut fuel taxes by 10 cents. The next B.C. government — which could land on us in 2019 — may decide to reduce fuel taxes and transit funding in a populist appeal to motorists.
The funding trend in the United States is certainly clear. CityLab reports that transit ridership declined in 31 out of 35 US urban areas in 2017 primarily because public agencies are cutting service and there are fewer buses to ride.
CityLab holds up Seattle as “America’s bus-lovingest town,” where the public transit budget is actually increasing. Seattle added 700,000 new bus trips to its total from 2016 to 2017. TransLink added something like four million additional bus trips over the same period (TransLink’s reporting, it should be said, is often difficult to read.)
In Toronto, meanwhile, transit system revenues are forecast to drop slightly in 2018. Combined rapid transit and bus ridership has been flat in that region since 2014.
Even in a position of leadership, however, TransLink faces continued criticism from passengers and politicians who want even more service.
In the City of Vancouver and the inner suburbs, bus overcrowding is an ongoing problem. Route 99 from Broadway to UBC is overcrowded more than 30 per cent of the time. The 25 and the 49, also linked to UBC, are overcrowded almost 20 per cent of the time. Bus route 100, which runs along Marine Way from New West to the Arthur Laing Bridge, is as bad as the 49.
Some of the cash that could be used to relieve that overcrowding is going to support lightly used routes in the deep suburbs. In Maple Ridge, for example, Mayor Nicole Read has often complained that her community is poorly served, and voted against the June 28 funding package. As it happens, three of the eight most inefficient bus routes in the region serve Maple Ridge. Route 99 to UBC carried passengers in 2017 at a cost of $0.79 per head; the 741, which serves Mayor Read’s neighbourhood, came in at $11.58 per head.
The 2017 winners in the Metro Vancouver inefficiency contest, by the way, were the 259, bringing occasional passengers from affluent Lions Bay to an exchange in Horseshoe Bay at a cost of $17.44 per head; and the 609, a shuttle running from the Tsawwassen First Nation to a nearby bus exchange at a cost of $21.92 per head.
This is the cost of operating a big system in a politically fragmented region. Negativism aside, we can look forward to some interesting developments in 2018-19, including the start of express bus service from — well, well — Maple Ridge, as well as accelerated progress on rapid transit in Surrey and Vancouver. Let’s spend until the money runs out.