Friday, March 09, 2007

Province to radically reshape TransLink - Vancouver Sun

Province to radically reshape TransLink

Miro Cernetig and Bill Boei
Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

VICTORIA — The provincial government will radically alter the management of public transit and roadways in the Lower Mainland by scrapping the current TransLink transportation authority that it has called “dysfunctional.”

In the next few weeks B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon will introduce sweeping legislation that will create a “Council of Mayors”, who will be asked to oversee all transit decisions. The government will tell the mayors to come up with a 10-year, integrated plan for an area stretching from Pemberton to Chilliwack.

In a news conference Thursday, Falcon will also say that to make sure that bold plan actually happens, the government will also create a 11-member, full-time “Professional Board” with the expertise in law, accounting, finance and transit planning to oversee the system’s management on a day-to-day basis.

A report commissioned by a panel appointed by the government has found that under the current situation, TransLink would chalk up a $200-million deficit annually by 2013. The new government plan would end that sea of red ink by giving the TransLink authority new revenue streams. It is also contemplating allowing the authority to develop land around rail stations and major transit hubs, not unlike private transit companies in Hong Kong, to cash in on the lucrative spike in real estate that usually happens when transit is developed.

To keep TransLink from being too ambitious in the costs it passes along to the public, however, the government will set up an “Independent Commissioner” to review such things as fare hikes and make sure that local land-use plans are followed.

The TransLink board that now exists will stay in place until the new legislation takes effect, in the autumn.

The government’s move follows years of tension between the province and local governments, who are often at odds about how, where and when to build up transportation infrastructure.

Set up by the New Democratic Party in 1999, theoretically to give local government more say and independence on the planning of transportation and mass transit, TransLink has always been conflicted, caught between local politics and the demands of the province.

The NDP government, for example, had to overrule TranslLnk's attempts to impose a vehicle levy -that is tolls - as a source off revenue for the new projects it was supposed to build. The Liberals have similarly intervened, such as when Falcon scuttled TransLink’s suggestion of tolls on existing infrastructure as a way to pay for new projects.

But that leaves TransLink in a bind.

How can it raise money for projects, such as the $970 million Evergreen light rail line from Burnaby to Coquitlam, without major new revenue streams?

TransLink, for example, was more than $400 million short for the Evergreen line but the provincial government would not pump in more money, suggesting that a private-public partnership — the so-called P3s — was the way to raise the needed funds.

TransLink -- officially, the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority -- manages the transit stem, some provincial highways and bridges as well as major municipal roads that carry traffic across municipal boundaries.

It had a major long-term expansion strategy including a major bus fleet expansion, several new rapid transit lines and a lot of regional road improvements.

Operations were to be funded from fares, the share of property taxes that used to go to hospitals, a share of provincial fuel taxes, a small levy on Hydro bills and -- potentially -- a few other things like parking taxes.

Major expansion was to be paid for from a new vehicle levy - about $70 a year - on every motor vehicle in the region. But the vehicle levy was political dynamite and a lot of local politicians, especially in Surrey, fought against it.

It never got implemented.

The province dithered for a time, then the NDP government backed away from the issue in the run-up to the 2001 election. That forced TransLink into drastic cutbacks on an expansion program it had already begun, and led directly to a long transit strike in 2001.

That cost George Puil, TransLink's founding chairman, his seat on Vancouver council the next municipal election when public anger over the strike was directed at him.

Nothing has ever surfaced to replace the vehicle levy.

Consequently TransLink is far behind on plans to expand the bus fleet, build more rapid transit, and carry out more maintenance work.

TransLink maintains it has done well under difficult circumstances.

But Falcon, who believes that TransLink is parochial and poorly run, has expressed little patience. Here’s what he said in a recent Vancouver Sun Interview:

"With the current fiscal plan that TransLink has in place today and the current projects they have in the pipeline, they are going to start significant deficits in '09, and they will essentially be bankrupt by 2012.

So the whole organization is not financially sustainable.

“They can't go forward like this,” he added. “They're lurching forward, adding new projects without putting the financing mechanisms into place, and they run off and do things like parking stall taxes etc., and it's a combination . . . that is filling the public with a deep sense of unease and lack of confidence in their ability to carry these things forward."

But the province, which prefers not to be directly linked to the thorny issues of solving gridlock and fixing eroding infrastructure, has also never really engaged fully with TransLink.

There are supposed to be three provincial representatives on the TransLink board. Yet those seats have never been filled, likely because all the local directors would have looked to the provincial appointees for policy direction and funding for projects. One of TransLink's arguments is that if the province had appointed its three directors, they would have been able to swing all the controversial, close decisions that Falcon was so frustrated with in the province's preferred directions.
I have always been a fan of Vancouver's transit system, so I'll be watching these reforms closely. I hope the Ontario Government is watching closely as well. Please note the passage that I've highlighted. It's not specific to Vancouver - it's universal.

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