Tuesday, January 7, 2014

TransLink, Metro Vancouver, and the Federal Gas Tax Fund

Starting in 2005, the federal government introduced the Gas Tax Fund which deliveries about $2 billion annually to municipalities in Canada for capital projects. In our region, Metro Vancouver decided to commit 100% of this federal funding to TransLink.

Since 2005, $676.9 million has been used to expand the bus, SeaBus, and SkyTrain fleets. The funds have also been used for the Compass Card program. Besides expanding the fleet, the funding has also been used to keep our transit system in a state of good repair. Funding has been used to replace buses at the end of their service life and also for keeping the SkyTrain system in a state of good repair with projects such as retrofitting the old SkyTrain vehicles, replacing the power system on the SkyTrain network, and upgrading SkyTrain’s communication and control system, which has not been upgraded since the 1980s. Funding has also been used to upgrade bus maintenance and operations centres.

In late 2013, there was grumbling by some in Metro Vancouver that TransLink wasn’t using the money to expand the transit system, and even suggested taking away the federal funding from TransLink. The loss of approximately $120 million dollars a year, or 8% of TransLink’s revenue, would further degrade transit service in Metro Vancouver.

As you likely know, TransLink is unable to expand the transit system as there is currently not enough revenue; the province and mayors are playing a game of chicken over a new source of taxation, and the independent TransLink Commissioner wouldn't allow a fare increase beyond inflation. This means that if TransLink was to use the money to expand the SkyTrain or bus fleet, there would be no money to have people operate the new vehicles or maintain them. When there is no new funding for operations, it really doesn’t make sense to buy vehicles to expand service.

Of course even if there was funding to expand the transit network, money would still need to be spent to keep the existing system in a state of good repair. One of the big mistakes made in the US is to spend money on expanding transportation systems, but not maintaining the current systems. This is why bridges are failing into rivers in the US, for instance. Also, “deferred maintenance” of transit systems in the US means that hundreds of billions are needed to keep existing service operational, as many systems have been run into the ground. So with or without an expansion of the transit network, TransLink must keep our transit system in a state of good repair. I believe this is a good use of the Gas Tax Fund.

The Union of British Columbia Municipalities has a document which show how money from the fund has been invested in transit in Metro Vancouver since the start of the program.

While maintaining the existing system isn’t sexy, it is something that is critical for the reliability of transit in our region. Once long-term funding for transit expansion is approved, the new long-term funding can be used to 100% fun new service as the Gas Tax Fund revenue has been used to make sure that the current system is in a state of good repair.

The only other thing that I can imagine the Gas Tax Fund could be used for is to build capital projects such as new busways for BLine service, or to put more funding into the cycling capital program. Maybe these are things that could be considered after routine repair projects are completed.

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