Transit funding and election speculation

Focus on Surrey: the B.C. government’s $2.2 billion transit announcement, March 31, 2017. Transit minister Peter Fassbender, MLA for Surrey Fleetwood, is flanked by Marvin Hunt, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, first elected to Surrey City Council in 1988; and by technology minister Amrik Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, formerly a prominent RCMP officer in Surrey. The photo by Arlen Redekop is clipped from the Vancouver Sun.

British Columbia’s Liberal government took a surprising step late last week with a rapid transit announcement that exceeded most expectations.

The Province will match the federal government’s $2.2 billion pledge toward Phase 2 of the 10-year transportation plan put forward in 2016 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors Council. This phase includes construction of a Clark Street to Arbutus SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and the Newton-Guildford light rail line in Surrey.

Fassbender and the government had previously suggested they would pay less than Ottawa and impose conditions on the regional transportation authority, but the conditions appear to have been forgotten.

The announcement took place in the city of Surrey, and came just six weeks before a scheduled provincial election. It triggered scornful comment on the news chat threads and from the political opposition. Light rail will transform Surrey, but this was overlooked in the media. The Vancouver Sun‘s Vaughn Palmer, perhaps the most astute political journalist in B.C., suggested that the government’s thinking is much more short-term, pointing out that the nine provincial seats in Surrey may decide the election. He speculated that the Liberals’ dramatic turnabout on transit may indicate that they’re running scared.

Do the Liberals face defeat, after 16 years in office? Coming up to the 2013 vote, B.C. was awash in polling results that promised a big win for the provincial New Democratic party. The NDP lost, of course, and since then we have seen other and more significant embarrassments for the polling profession with Brexit and then Donald Trump. Most polling firms are shying away from the publication of voter-preference polls in B.C., with the bold exception of Mainstreet Research*, and their numbers offer no clear trend, except for the rise of the Green Party in parts of Vancouver Island. Students of the political occult can check out “Too Close to Call”, which presents elaborate hunches built on available polling information. As we write this, “Too Close” gives the NDP a 61.5 per cent chance of winning B.C., and the Liberals a 38.5 per cent chance.

The transit announcement was nearly the last of a long series of funding announcements from the Liberal government — funding for hospitals and highways, seniors’ services and apprentices and much more, in all regions of the province. The common theme through all this was that the government has money to spend, thanks to their management of the public treasury — unlike governments in most other provinces which, for various reasons, are broke.

We will see on May 9 whether the Liberals’s many funding decisions will keep them in office. As of today, April 5, the election campaign has officially turned negative. Surrogate organizations on both sides have been running attack ads for several weeks while the political parties stood clear. But from here on, the New Democrats will spend millions to spread the message that the Liberals are “working for there rich donors.” The Liberals will recall the NDP time in government in the 1990s, when thousands of people left B.C. to look for work elsewhere.

The provincial transit commitment is a good thing, and I don’t care about the motive. As for predicting the election result, political culture in B.C. is fragmented by region, and increasingly divided by language and culture, and by the countless echo chambers on the internet; whichever party wins, it may be difficult to explain why it happened.

*Mainstreet Research is unrelated to Main Street Communications Ltd., which is our consulting firm based in suburban Vancouver. 

Surrey LRT – the vision. Graphic from the City of Surrey.

TransLink mayors speak with one voice, mostly

Lougheed at Madison croppedAbout a month ago, Metro Vancouver’s mayors broke with previous form and achieved near-consensus on a 10-year plan for transit investment.

Media coverage of this event has been limited, focusing on the projected cost of the plan rather than the promised improvements. The region’s trains and buses carry more than 800,000 passengers per day, and this should be enough to sustain a conversation on transit funding; but the transportation authority’s governance structure is convoluted, and its financial woes never-ending. Public interest, for now, remains at its normal lukewarm level. Continue reading

Public transit and politics in Metro Vancouver

The Premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, has expressed her intention to audit Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority and reduce operating costs.

Regional mayors went out on a limb last year with apparent provincial support, approving a $70 million supplementary transit plan with a $30 million revenue shortfall.  New revenues were to be identified in 2012, but the process has become  messy.  The Premier’s statement, offered without backup documentation, can be seen as a poke at the mayors and TransLink staff.   She is clearly banking on the belief that public opinion is on her side. Continue reading

Should Metro taxpayers pay for Vancouver streetcars?

The proposed downtown Vancouver streetcar network

A streetcar plan recently revived by City of Vancouver mayoralty candidate Suzanne Anton is definitely kool.  Anton’s September 21, 2011 announcement is based on a 2005 consultant’s report putting the capital cost of a Granville-Island-to-Waterfront streetcar line at $100 million (in 2005 dollars.)  Annual operating costs are estimated at $3.6 million, with a ridership on the order of 5 million people per year by 2021.

Anton’s funding strategy, vaguely outlined, would see the City joined with private partners to fund the line.  Vision Vancouver Geoff Meggs responded that the streetcar system is not a priority; but if it is to be funded, it should be paid for by taxpayers across Metro Vancouver through TransLink.

A rendering of the future streetcar in Gastown.

A weekend streetcar service ran on part of this line until 2009, staffed by volunteers and making use of antique cars.  I lived a hundred metres from the track and enjoyed riding to Granville Island on Saturday afternoon.  The new service would be more modern and attractive, but to a large extent it would fulfill the same touristic and local lifestyle function as the old line.  I would love to see a modern streetcar in operation, but it is not an essential component for the regional transportation system.

TransLink: fuel taxes and revenue

As noted in my September 15 post, Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority is looking for ways to scare up an additional $70 million per year for service expansion.

In the current proposal, a 2 cent lift in the regional fuel tax is supposed to cover $40 million of this.  But in a presentation in Maple Ridge, TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis cautioned that the motor fuel tax may not be the reliable cash cow it used to be; and in the foreseeable future, fuel tax revenues may drop.   Continue reading

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.  Continue reading