Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bright Past, Bleak Future: TransLink Commissioner Report

Since TransLink took over transit delivery in Metro Vancouver in 1999, it has lurched forward from one funding crisis to the next because the province never fully funding the organization. TransLink was always meant to have a vehicle levy to fully fund the organization. The vehicle levy is permitted in TransLink’s legislation, but both the NDP and BC Liberal have refused to allow ICBC to implement the levy. TransLink has also endured multiply rounds of structural changes and efficiency reviews by the province, creating uncertainly.

Even as a crippled organization, TransLink has built a world leading transit system. In 2001, 11.5% of people choice to take transit to/from work, 16.5% in 2006, and 19.7% in 2011. By all accounting this is a success that should be celebrated!

The transit system was meeting both the Provincial Transit Plan and Metro Vancouver’s goal of creating a livable region.

Sadly TransLink still had a structural revenue problem, but instead of helping, the province put the brakes on public transit in Metro Vancouver. It called for a referendum on transit funding. Unfortunately neither the province nor regional politicians have championed winning the referendum. This lack of leadership scares me.

The region is not blameless either. Metro Vancouver’s board is thinking about taking away the federal gas tax that TransLink uses to fund capital programs like bus replacement. With this revenue gone, TransLink would be in even worse shape. Last Friday, the independent TransLink Commissioner release his outlook of TransLink and transit in Metro Vancouver; the future is bleak.

According to the report, ridership will flat line and transit service levels will return to 2004 level. This means more congested buses and trains, and no improvement to service for growing places like Langley and Surrey. It also means more congested roads as people will not have transportation options. To make matters worse, TransLink has been forced to pull a BC Hydro by selling property and getting into debt to reduce the likelihood of service cuts. In fact TransLink’s debt will “rise from its current level of $2.8 billion to within $46 million of its approved $3.5 billion by the end of 2023.”

The Commission again points out that the sale of assets to support operations is not prudent fiscal policy, while recognizing that the only other recourse for TransLink would be fare increases or service reductions in the absence of additional funding sources.

The commissioner note that on its current course, TransLink will not meet the goals of the Regional Growth Strategy which seeks to expand rapid transit, the frequent bus network, lower the share of single-occupancy vehicle usage, and reduce pollution. TransLink will also not be able to meet the Provincial Transit Plan goals of building UBC and Surrey/Langley rapid transit lines.

With this sobering news from the commissioner, the province and Metro Vancouver need to get their collective acts together if they want to ensure a bright future for our region.

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