Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stabbing, then Stealing from Peter to Pay Paul: The Provincial Audit of TransLink

A month ago TransLink released its base plan for how it plans to operate transit in the region. I wrote a post on the proposed base plan titled “Stealing from Peter to Pay Paul”. Yesterday, the Province of BC released its performance audit review of TransLink which should be titled “Stabbing, then stealing from Peter to Pay Paul.” The Province, in the review, recommends “enhancing” TransLink’s Base Plan by offering up more service cuts, more labour changes and even tighter budgeting.

It is not very often that the public service is commended for a culture of customer service, yet TransLink is actually criticized in the review for being too customer services focused.

Throughout the review, the Steering Committee observed an overarching emphasis by TransLink in its business decisions and culture to focus on customer service. While this is a critical area of focus for any business, for those that are publically funded and to respect the taxpayer contribution, a balance must also be sought between service for users and efficiency of operations.

The first cost savings measure recommended in the review is to reduce the frequency of SkyTrain outside of peak periods. The second cost saving measure identified in the review is to cancel service on low productivity bus routes. The review doesn’t actually spell out which routes they would be, but it is likely that the majority of these routes are outside of the City of Vancouver. I’m actually going to put in a Freedom of Information request to find out which routes the Province thinks should be on the chopping block.

Low productivity routes should be reviewed and adjusted, but the main issue is that many of these routes don’t run frequently enough to attract riders. In the South of Fraser, we need to provision more frequent transit service that will become more productive over time, not cut service. The challenge now is that both TransLink’s Base Plan and the Provincial review propose to increase service in areas with already good transit service at the expense of areas were service needs a chance to grow. It’s a good thing that the Province is building billions of dollars’ worth of freeways in our sustainable region as many people won't have a reasonable alternative to driving.

The Province’s review of TransLink isn’t all bad news though. It does point out that rail base transit is far more efficient than bus service. On the topic of bus service, the Province is critical of Coast Mountain Bus Company’s (TransLink’s bus operating company) labour practices and I hope that saving can be found by implementing the recommendations without effecting service. The Province also recommends replacing the diesel bus fleet with compressed natural gas buses which is no surprise given the Province is currently plugging natural gas. When it comes to TransLink’s police forces, the Province recommends that its staffing be reduced to pre-Olympic levels.

While tweaking TransLink’s staffing practices and cutting service could yield $6.3 million in additional savings per year, the biggest area of “savings” is found in how TransLink budgets. The Province noted that TransLink has budgeted too conservatively over the years and has “extra” money that could be realized if it adopted a more aggressive budget. This means that TransLink would have less or no wiggle room if there were revenue or expenditure issues. Changing how TransLink budgets could yield $33 million in additional savings per years.

In the 2011 and 2012 TransLink identified $98 million annually in efficiencies. The Provincial review of TransLink has identified an additional $41 million in efficiencies which represents about 3% of TransLink's operating budget; hardly a windfall.

At the end of the day we are still left with a transit agency that is critically under-funded with no money to build rapid transit to UBC or in the South of Fraser. We are also left with a transit agency that can’t expand service in the South of Fraser where it is needed the most. With this review complete, I don’t think we are any closer to building a sustainable region and feel that we might actually be taking a few steps backwards. TransLink still needs a new funding source if we want to build a sustainable region and give people transportation choice. Let's not forget that TransLink has been seeing record ridership over the last few years.

I certainly hope that TransLink and the Mayors think very carefully before cutting transit service in one part of the region to pay for service in another part as it would only yield up to $3.7 million in savings and will impact people that need transit the most.

1 comment:

Norm Farrell said...

One real saving possibility is elimination of worthless "audits" that are conducted entirely for political purposes.

If TransLink reduces its budget by $30 million but does not reduce actual spending, how is that a saving?

If you eliminate $3 million a year transferred into sinking funds for future debt repayment, how is that a saving? TransLink still has to repay the related debt?

Of what Mary Polak's October 16 press release calls "$98 million in savings" previously identified, $52 million are revenue increases. Revenue increases are "savings?"