Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Who took a cut of your property tax in 2014

Municipalities in BC not only collect property tax for their own use, but also collect property tax for other organizations. In Metro Vancouver, municipalities collect property tax for themselves, school districts, Metro Vancouver, TransLink, the BC Assessment Authority, and the Municipal Finance Authority. The BC Assessment Authority determines the value of your property while the Municipal Finance Authority provides loans and investment options for local government.

Percentage of Revenue from Property Tax
35% Surrey
42% Township of Langley
54% City of Langley
56% Corporation of Delta
58% City of White Rock

Besides property tax, municipalities also collect user fees for things such as water, sewer, and garbage collection services. Other user fees include parking, business licensing, and facility usage. If a municipality hosts a casino, they also get a portion of casino revenue.

One of the other big revenue sources for rapidly growing communities like Surrey and the Township of Langley are fees from developers. This is why Surrey and the Township of Langley have a smaller percentage of their revenue coming from property tax.

The following charts show where your property tax goes. These charts are from the 2014 annual reports of municipalities which were released in the past month or so.

Distribution of property tax in 2014 for land owners in Delta. Source: Delta 2015 Annual Report

Distribution of property tax in 2014 for land owners in Surrey. Source: Surrey 2014 Annual Report

Distribution of property tax in 2014 for land owners in the Township of Langley. Source: May 25, 2015 Afternoon Council Meeting

Distribution of property tax in 2014 for land owners in the City of Langley. Source: June 29, 2015 Council Meeting

Distribution of property tax in 2014 for land owners in White Rock. Source: White Rock 2014 Annual Report

Municipal governments and school districts get about 90% of your property tax. TransLink gets about 6-7% of your property tax. All the other agencies gets what’s left over. One of the interesting things to note is growing community like Surrey and the Township of Langley have a lower percentage of property tax flowing to their top line. This is because they rely more heavily on developer fees and contributions to balance the books.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Proposed Bow Banning Bylaw May Miss Mark

The City of Langley has over 20 bylaws that can result in a fine from between $25 if your dog is not wearing a license, $100 for failing to remove snow from a sidewalk, all the way up to $1,000 if a dangerous dog chases, injures or bites a person.

Apparently the City of Langley has been getting complaints over the past year about people using bows and crossbows on residential properties in the municipality. In response, the City is looking at banning the use of bows.

The proposed bylaw simply states that “no person shall discharge a firearm or bow within the City.” Certain government officials are exempt from the proposed bylaw like police, animal control, and conservation officers. Discharging a firearm or bow is also allowed within the Agricultural Land Reserve under certain circumstances.

One of the interesting things about this bylaw is that is has a section about paintball guns being allows in “a licensed and insured facility designed for organized paintball games.”

Archery is also a sport, and under the City’s proposed bylaw, using a bow in an indoor or outdoor range would violate the proposed bylaw and result in a fine of $100 per day.

I did a quick search and found a CBC news story title “Penticton archer wants draw bows removed from firearms bylaw.

He and his son would like to grow that sport in that City. With the BC Winter Games coming to Penticton in 2016, if the City doesn’t update their bylaw, the BC Winter Games will run afoul of the Penticton bylaw.

One of the things that I’ve been noticing lately is that the City of Langley has being passing bylaws with overly broad prohibitions. For example, earlier this year I posted about how everyone who doesn’t wear a shirt in the sports box at Douglas Park, or swims in Al Anderson Pool, could be fined for break a City bylaw.

While using a bow is dangerous, further exemptions should be put into the bylaw, similar to the paintball exemption, to allow the use of a bow in a safe environment which would allow people to participate in the sport.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Who's been complaining about what TransLink service

To finish off this week of looking at some of the key indicators of TransLink’s performance, today I look at the customer complaints received about the transit system. This information is from TransLink’s Statutory Annual Reports.

Complaints per 1 million board passenger about TransLink's transit service from 2010 to 2014. Select graph to enlarge.

Even though the SkyTrain system has been in the news a lot since last summer's service disruptions, there are actually very few complaints that TransLink receives about the system. In fact, SkyTrain service has the least amount of complaints per 1 million boarded passengers of any of the transit services that TransLink provides.

Now there has been an uptick in the amount of complaints about the Expo and Millennium lines. This is due to track and train noise disturbing residents between Main Street-Science World Station and Stadium-Chinatown Station. TransLink has improved this section of track to reduce the noise issues. The other major cause of complaints was due to service reliability. This makes sense considering that reliability has decreased in the last several years.

Complaints about the West Coast Express increased sharply in 2013, but was down in 2014. This increase was due to people getting upset when TransLink optimized the service by reducing the amount of seats available on one train to increase the amount of seats available on another train. People were also upset because TransLink ended the discounted Employee Pass Program at the end 2013. 40% of West Coast Express customers had the discounted pass which was about 20% cheaper than a normal pass over a 12 month period.

Complaints about bus service has remained stable with the majority of complaints focused around staff. The second largest group of complaints was about the delivery of bus service, such as buses not showing up at their scheduled time.

While HandyDART service doesn’t receive the same amount of media attention, it is the service that appears to need the most amount of attention. It has more customer complaints per 1 million board passengers than any other transit service. This is no surprise as HandyDART service is chronically underfunded, and service hours have been slashed in recent years. I posted about this in more detail last summer. There is also an excellent report by Eric Doherty called “Metro Vancouver’s Aging Population and the Need for Improved HandyDART Service” which goes deeper into the issues around HandyDART service.

While much of the public’s attention has been around SkyTrain service, the real focus should be on improving HandyDART service.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Golden Ears Bridge hemorrhaging cash from TransLink

Throughout this week, I have been looking at various figures from TransLink’s 2014 Statutory Annual Report which was released last week. Today, I want to highlight the Golden Ears Bridge.

While old-time transportation planners and out-of-touch politicians will tell you that bigger roads and massive bridges are needed to reduce congestion, there are three inconvenient truths about building these highway mega projects.

The first truth is that you can’t build your way out of congestion. When you build a toll-free road or bridge, it will quickly fill up. I forget who said it, but it was “show me the amount of highways you have in your region, and I’ll tell you the amount of congestion you have.”

The second truth about trying to build your way out of congestion is that it will cost a ton of money. The provincial government spent $3.3 billion on the Port Mann/Highway 1 project, and TransLink spent $808 million on the Golden Ears Bridge project. Because these projects are so costly, tolls are used to help pay for the costs.

The third truth is that tolls cause people to drive less. Unfortunately, the traffic models used to build the business cases for massive highway projects routinely over-estimate the projected traffic levels as they don’t accurately capture the congestion-reducing ability of tolling.

The only cost effective way to reduce congestion is to introduce tolling (or road pricing), using that revenue to pay for keeping roads and bridges in a state of good repair. Though that is a topic for a different post.

Because of these failed traffic models, the Port Mann Bridge is hemorrhaging money from the provincial government while the Golden Ears Bridge is hemorrhaging money from TransLink.

How much money is the Golden Ears Bridge costing TransLink? How much did they over-predict traffic volumes and revenue?

The following table looks at not only information from the 2014 Statuary Annual Report, but also the Golden Ears Bridge Reference Case Report which was released in 2005. The predicted values have been inflation adjusted.

Golden Ears Bridge predicted revenue, actual revenue, and expenses from 2010 to 2014. Select graph to enlarge.

Two things become clear. First, the Golden Ears Bridge would have been a money loser even if TransLink’s original predictions were correct. Second, TransLink predicted that there would be linear revenue growth. The reality is that while expenditures have been growing linearly, revenue has essentially flat-lined.

The second graph shows cost recovery. This is the percentage of the Golden Ears Bridge and transit service expenses that are pay for by direct users fees like tolls and fares. While the Golden Ears Bridge has become increasingly more subsidized by taxpayers, transit has become less reliant on taxpayer subsidy. This is backwards if we are trying to promote healthy travel options.

Comparing transit and Golden Ear Bridge cost recovery from 2010 to 2014. Select graph to enlarge.

The provincial government is going to spend billions of dollars on a new Massey Tunnel replacement while TransLink is looking a replacing the Pattullo Bridge. Both of these crossings will likely be tolled. The high cost of the Golden Ears Bridge should be a cautionary tale for both TransLink and the provincial government.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Focusing on TransLink's corporate and policing expenses

This week, I'm focusing on information found in TransLink 2014 Statutory Annual Report.

In 2014, TransLink had $1.3 billion in recurring expenses. The vast majority of these expenses are to deliver on-the-ground transit service, maintain the transportation network in the region, and pay for the major road network and bridges.

Even though billions of dollars go to fund these items, it is TransLink’s corporate and policing expenses that seem to always be under the microscope.

TransLink corporate costs include the board, mayors’ council, and executive. It also includes IT, HR, finance, and transportation planning. Starting in 2010, TransLink began the process of centralizing IT away from its operating companies like Coast Mountain Bus and BC Rapid Transit Company (BCRTC). In 2014, TransLink moved a further five IT positions from BCRTC to corporate. Other increases in corporate costs are due to the introduction of the Compass Card.

The increased cost of policing is mainly due to labour costs including a collective agreement signed in 2011 which includes annual 3% wage increases as well as increases for years worked.

The follow graph shows how TransLink’s corporate and policing costs relate to overall expenses. I’ve shown the costs in dollars and as a percentage.

TransLink's corporate and policing costs as it relates to overall expenses from 2010 to 2014. Select graph to enlarge.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TransLink Rail On-Time Performance

Last week TransLink released its 2014 Statutory Annual Report. This reports contains a wealth of information on the transportation agency. Over the next week, I’ll be posting some charts and graphs that highlight long-term performance trends.

The on-time performance on the Expo Line and Millennium Line SkyTrain has been top of mind recently due to several high-profile service disruptions last year.

Between 2005 and 2012, SkyTrain on-time performance steadily improved. During 2013 and 2014, on-time performance started to drop. It will be interesting to see if this trend will continue, or if it is just a result of last summer’s two major disruptions.

On-time performance of the West Coast Express, between 2005 and 2014, has been slowly improving. You can see the on-time performance for both West Coast Express and the Expo Line and Millennium SkyTrain lines in the graph below.

On-Time Performance of West Coast Express and Expo/Millennium SkyTrain Lines. Select graph to enlarge.

A SkyTrain is considered on-time if it arrives at its stops within +/- 2 minutes of its scheduled time. For the West Coast Express, the metric is within +/-5 minutes.

You can download historical Statutory Reports on the TransLink website. The Canada Line is not included as TransLink does not provide on-time performance metrics. The Canada Line is a public/private partnership.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Transforming the Edge City - Surrey, BC

The Royal Architecture Institute of Canada has a web-based documentary series called In-Context. This series explores what role urban design plays in addressing issues in Canada’s cities.

One of the video that has been making the round on social media recently is about the transformation of Whalley/Downtown Surrey.


Architect Bing Thom talks about the important role that the Surrey Central Library branch played in transforming Whalley. Not only was the branch a catalyst for transforming Whalley from a community on the decline, to an up and coming place to be, but the library also became the hub of the community. Libraries are really one of the only free, safe, and public indoor spaces where people can go.

As I mentioned earlier this week, local government can play an active role in transforming a community by investing in its future. This is what Surrey did when it invested in building its central library branch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

City of Langley's Sidewalk Inspection Policy: There shall be no sidewalk inspections

When I first moved to Langley City close to a decade ago, the streets were swept weekly and the sidewalks were regularly inspected. Due to rising costs in other areas of the municipal budget, including policing, the City looked at ways to reduce costs in other areas of the budget. Street sweeping frequency was drastically reduced, as was regular sidewalk inspections.

At Monday night’s Council meeting, an updated policy for sidewalk inspection and maintenance was introduced. Policy CO-52 clarifies the City’s policy to ensure that our sidewalks are in a state of good repair.

In short, the City no longer has a policy to regularly inspect sidewalks in the community. They will repair a sidewalk if the general public or a staff member happens to notice an issue, and reports that issue to City. Once the City receives notice of an issue, it will then only repair a sidewalk if it has a crack greater than, or is uplifted from another section of sidewalk, by 2.5cm. 2.5cm is pretty big, and I’ve tripped on sidewalks with much smaller “technical issues”.

When I ran for Langley City Council, one of the things that I heard was that people wanted safer streets. This included having sidewalks that were safe for all users. Waiting until someone reports a problem with a sidewalk means that our sidewalks will slowly deteriorate as not all defects will get reported.

While turning a blind eye to the state of repair of our sidewalks might save money in the short-term, in the long-term it will result in an increasing pool of sidewalks that will need to be repaired or replaced. This is simply deferring maintenance to future years where the cost of the repairs will be greater, and when there will be more sidewalks to repair.

While I’m happy that the City's recently adopted transportation plan includes expanding the sidewalk network, the City needs to actively maintain our current sidewalk infrastructure. In the long-term, it will actually end up saving the City money. It is always less money to correct an issue when it is smaller.

Right now it feels that Council's recent actions have placed a higher emphases on driving than walking. This is interesting considering, on paper, Council is committed to building a walkable community.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Timms Community Centre and investing in Downtown Langley

In my post yesterday, I mentioned that investing in the public realm is one way to effect positive change in a community. When the City of Surrey decided to move its City Hall from the geographic centre of the city (which was actually the middle of nowhere) to Whalley, it sent a signal that Surrey was serious about investing in Whalley's future. The City's actions showed that it wanted to positively change that community.

The City of Surrey didn’t build a City Hall that was inward focused with no public spaces. The design of the facility contributed to making a better community by design. The civic plaza, welcoming entrances, child care facility, plus a cafĂ©, all contributed to creating an attractive public realm.

On a smaller scale, the City of Langley also invested in the future of Downtown Langley when it rebuilt City Hall at the corner of 204th Street and Douglas Crescent around a decade ago. The City of Langley is also investing in the future of Downtown Langley by spending $14.3 million on a new Timms Community Centre.

Construction is coming along nicely on this project. On the weekend, I snapped of a few picture of the progress.

Timms Community Centre under construction. Select image to enlarge.

Timms Community Centre, looking from Douglas Crescent. Select image to enlarge.

This project will create a strong street front along Douglas Crescent; the community centre will enhance the neighbourhood.

One of the challenges of this redevelopment is that surface parking abuts 56 Avenue and Fraser Highway, creating a dead space along the main street of Downtown Langley. In order for the new TImms Community Centre to fully contribute to creating a better public realm in Downtown Langley, the City will need to exam its short to medium-term plans for the surface parking lot.

Whether a public plaza, park, or new street-oriented, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use building, something needs to be done to fully integrate the $14.3 million Timms with Fraser Highway. This investment will send the same kind of message that Surrey did when it built its new City Hall and civic plaza in Whalley.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Regulating away the bad: pharmacies and Downtown Langley

Over the past several years, the amount of pharmacies in Downtown Langley has skyrocketed. The Downtown Langley Business Association sent a letter to City of Langley Council last summer about this proliferation. I posted about this last summer.

According to the Downtown Langley BIA:

Many downtown businesses have witnessed the dispensing of methadone in some of these pharmacies, and we believe this is one of the main reasons for this increase. While we acknowledge the need for methadone maintenance treatment services offered in the community, the concentration of these pharmacies in the downtown present several concerns to us including:

-Becoming a hub for methadone treatment from other communities
-Increased loitering and impact on neighboring business
-Increased homeless population and illegal drug activity

Back in 2012, I posted how the City of Langley was on a moral crusade, and prohibited a whole range of business types. Existing businesses could continue to operate, but new prohibited businesses are not allowed. One of the business types banned was:

The use of any premises, other than facilities operated by or under the supervision of the Fraser Health Authority, for the dispensing of methadone or heroin for use on the premises.

It appears that the City of Langley may have overstepped its legal authority as at tonight’s council meeting, Council is voting to change that section of the zoning bylaw to potentially read:

The use of any premises for the dispensing of heroin for use on the premises, and the use of any premises other than a licensed pharmacy for the dispensing of methadone for use on the premises.

Methadone can only be dispensed from a licensed pharmacy, and selling heroin would be illegal under federal legislation, so I’m not sure what this section of the City of Langley zoning bylaw will accomplish.

This City is also proposing the following changes to its business license bylaw for pharmacies:

-Require Applicant Identification and professional registration with the College of Pharmacists of British Columbia
-Restrict home delivery of methadone to persons for whom home delivery has been prescribed by a physician
-Require waiting area and seating for at least 3 patrons ingesting methadone on premises
-Require a pharmacy to indicate the hours and days it is open to the public and must be open to customers by unlocked doors specified.

In addition, the City of Langley is also looking into a bylaw that would prevent a new pharmacy from opening within 400 metres of an existing pharmacy.

Assuming that it is legal to enact the 400 metre rule, and the City does approve such a bylaws, there will still be a concentration of pharmacies in Downtown Langley today.

One of the challenges of regulating “undesirable” businesses is that a municipality is playing a never ending game of whack-a-mole. One “undesirable” business replaces a former.

The long-term solution is to invest in Downtown Langley. This means investing in the public realm. It also means partnering with private business and the development community to build projects that will transform Downtown Langley. A local example is the City of Vancouver’s partnership with private business to redevelop the Woodward's Building in the Downtown East Side. This investment triggered positive change in that community.

As an area becomes more desirable, the “undesirable” businesses, which are normal financially marginal anyways, get replaced.

It is much better, though much harder, to encourage and foster positive changes for a community than trying to regulate away the bad. Because in the end, regulation will not be as successful.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

SkyTrain, stop apologizing for the inconvenience

One of the things that has been getting on my nerves lately is during a service disruption on the SkyTrain system, SkyTrain Control gets on the PA system and “apologizes for the inconvenience.” While, I’m sure everyone who works for SkyTrain wants the system to run at its best, that comment at the end of every announcement comes across as insincere.

Why are SkyTrain staff even apologizing in the first place? Is it really the fault of SkyTrain staff that a bird decided to lay a nest on the tracks, or that a piece of old equipment gave up? Certainly, there is maintenance that needs to be done to renewing aging equipment, but funding is limited. A more accurate apology might be “we apologizes that the provincial government continues to play games with transit in Metro Vancouver, and these games have resulted in the degradation of transit service in our region.” Though that apology is for the provincial government alone.

There is also that word inconvenience. To me an inconvenience is when I go to a Starbucks to find out that they are out of Spinach Feta Wraps. Being late for work, missing an appointment, or not getting home until 8pm, when I’m normally home at 6pm, because of an issue with transit is a major disruptions to my live. It’s also a disruption to employers and Metro Vancouver’s economy.

Another thing that bugs me is “apologizing for the inconvenience” doesn’t equate to action. Back to that Starbucks example, Starbucks employees can apologize all they want for the lack of Spinach Feta Wraps, but that will not make any more wraps magically appear. Ordering more wraps is the solution.

Words are very important, and influence people’s perceptions of how events are handled. When there is a service disruption on the SkyTrain, the announcement should say:

“Attention all passengers, attention all passenger this is SkyTrain Control. SkyTrain is experiencing a disruption of service.” If they are feeling inclined, they could also provide some details about what is causing the disruption. If it is going to be a long disruption, the announcement should tell people where to wait for a bus bridge, and that the bus bridge will be extremely full. Further, the announcement should tell people to visit the TransLink website for more information on alternative transportation options.

At the end, the announcement should say “SkyTrain staff are actively working to restore service as fast as possible. We will update you again in 5 minutes.”

This sort of message would assure that SkyTrain is “on it”, and it way better than simply apologizing for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

SkyTrain’s 1980s infrastructure showing its age

SkyTrain Real-Time Information at the Operation Centre

UPDATED: Angry birds and power technicians pulling the plug at the SkyTrain Operations Centre aside, the performance of TransLink’s SkyTrain system has deteriorated in the last few years.

Yesterday’s service disruption was a result of an induction motor failing on one of the SkyTrain cars. This failure, combined with people breaking out of SkyTrain cars, resulted in the section of the SkyTrain network between Waterfront and Edmonds Station needing to be powered down for safety, then restarted when people were off the tracks. The SkyTrain system is split into three sections of control. These sections are operated by three different clusters of redundant computers. Edmonds Station to Waterfront Station is controlled by one cluster, the rest of the network is managed by another cluster. The SkyTrain Operations Centre yard is managed by a third system.

The BC Rapid Transit Company Ltd. 2015 Business Plan was obtained by Bob Mackin. The is the operating subsidiary of TransLink that runs the SkyTrain network. That plans states “In 2013, SkyTrain’s infrastructure began to show its age leading to an increase in the frequency of service disruptions. By the third quarter of 2014, on-time-performance dropped from a historical five year average of 95.2% to 92.8%, after hitting a lower of 89.3% in July 2014 when two unprecedented outages shut down the Expo and Millennium Lines.”

While last month’s freak bird malfunction and one of the two major meltdowns last summer were not caused by aging infrastructure, I have noticed an increase in the frequency of control and SkyTrain car problems. Control and SkyTrain car problems are related to the system's age.

Beside yesterday’s disruption, a control system failure at one of the track switches on May 20th, two days before the bird fire, shutdown Expo Line service for Surrey riders in the AM peak period. There has been an increase in the amount of control system failures in recent years. This is just one example, there have been several so far this year.

There are also other “disabled trains” which cause system delays. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these trains are from the original 1980s fleet.

TransLink was going to buy new cars to replace the aging fleeting, but in an effort to save cash as mandated by the provincial government, decided to refurbish the old cars. Unfortunately these refurbished cars won’t have air conditioning. When a breakdown occurs in the summer, unlucky passengers in those refurbish cars will be stuck in sweltering heat. This leads to people doing unsafe things like breaking out of the SkyTrain cars.

Now it’s not like TransLink isn’t aware that the Expo Line is in need of major upgrades. According to that same business plan service disruptions “will continue into 2015 and without proper attention to the renewal programs currently on/around SkyTrain, customer could be negatively impacted.”

On the tech side, BCRTC is working on a plan to migrate line of business applications to a modern platform. Many of the applications are using software that is no longer support by the software vendor.

$71 million in funding is needed to perform critical upgrades as outlined in an independent review of SkyTrain operations by McNeil Management Services. Also, the Mayors’ Plan includes $765 million to make sure the Expo and Millennium Line can meet the needs of the region going forward.

One of the critical upgrades to the system would allow the SkyTrain system to restart faster after a system power-down.

We will know in the next few weeks, when the results of the plebiscite are made public, if we can look forward to a renewed SkyTrian system, or SkyTrain breakdowns becoming a routine occurrence.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who really owns the Metro Vancouver transit system?

Did you know that the Millennium Line is actually owned by the provincial government? All the tracks, guideway, bridges, stations, land, and even 40 SkyTrain cars was owned by Rapid Transit Project 2000 Ltd, a provincial crown corporation. Similarly, the Expo Line assets which include the tracks, guideway, bridges, stations, tunnels, and the SkyTrain operations and maintenance centre was owned by BC Transit. Even parts of the West Coast Express was owned by the province. TransLink actually leases these assets from the province.

As of May 21, these assets were transferred to the BC Transportation Financing Authority (BCTFA). This is a shadow crown corporation which is essentially the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. Portions of the Evergreen Line will also be owned by the provincial government though BCTFA.

This is all very esoteric details about our transit system in Metro Vancouver, so why am I bringing this up? When TransLink was setup, the province could have transferred all assets to the new agency, but it did not. The province will tell you that they did this to make sure that the new TransLink didn’t have the pay for the debt servicing costs of these assets. There are ways around this. The BC government removed debt from BC Ferries, adding it to the provincial debt back when BC Ferries was a crown corporation.

If you look at all the fixed transit infrastructure in Metro Vancouver, the province has always mucked around to get what it wants. The Canada Line was a P3 and prioritized over the now Evergreen Line, all because of the province. Even the Evergreen Line was transformed from light rail to SkyTrain with a unilateral decision by the province which also decided to then build it.

TransLink was created as a way for the province to not have to spend money on operating transit in Metro Vancouver. In order to transfer this cost onto local government, the province agreed to allow our region to control the transit system on paper.

Unfortunately what really happens is that the province still controls major parts of the transit system in Metro Vancouver, and uses TransLink as a whipping boy when anything controversial comes up. This is why we just had a referendum on whether to fund transit improvements in Metro Vancouver.

If the transit referendum does fail, and it likely will, I hope more people will question how our transit system is setup. The provincial government says that Metro Vancouver has control over its transit system, but really TransLink is a puppet while the provincial government is the puppet master. If the province wants to control transit in Metro Vancouver, it should be honest about it and change TransLink to a provincial crown corporation.

If you want to see more information about the recent changes in transit asset ownership in Metro Vancouver, check out the most recent GVRD Board of Directors Agenda. Metro Vancouver produced a report that stated that the provincial government would have to pay local government back all the federal gas tax funds used by TransLink to improve provincial transit assets if the province decided to not renew it leases with TransLink. The leases between TransLink and the province expire in 2017 and 2018. It is extremely likely that they will be renewed.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Rethinking how TransLink property tax is assessed

Because of the Agricultural Land Reserve and Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, there are very rural places in the region with no access to transit service due to their low densities.

Like Metro Vancouver, Halifax Regional Municipality has urban and very rural areas. Up until 2009, it didn’t matter where you lived, you paid the same property tax for transit service in Halifax.

In 2009, recognizing the inequality of charging property tax to property owners without transit service, Halifax changed how transit service property tax was charged. Halifax introduced two transit taxes rate: a regional tax rate, and a local tax rate.

Halifax Local Transit Area Rate. Select map to enlarge.

The regional tax rate is applied to the majority of the municipality. This pays for regional transit service like express buses and ferry service. The local tax rate is also applied to properties within 1km of a bus route. For the 2014/15 tax year, the regional transportation rate was 5.1¢ per $100 of taxable assessment value. The local transit area rate was 10.5¢ per $100 of taxable assessment value.

In Langley, Gloucester Industrial Estates (a business park surrounded by farmland) and Salmon River/Uplands are two examples of areas which pay property tax to TransLink, but receive no local transit service. This has been a sore spot in the community for many years.

Now in Metro Vancouver, TransLink funds the major road network, major (non-provincial) bridges, cycling infrastructure, and transit service.

TransLink receives taxation revenue from fuel tax, property tax, parking tax, and a BC Hydro levy. In 2013, 42.6% of TransLink’s taxation revenue came from property tax.

57.4% of TransLink's taxation revenue isn’t property tax, this could be considered the regional taxation component used to help pay for the road network, bridges, cycling infrastructure, HandyDART, and major transit service like the West Coast Express, SkyTrain, and SeaBus.

Property tax could be thought of as the local transit area component. The South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Act, which governs TransLink, allows the creation of zones in the region where different tax rates could be applied based on “proximity to a transportation station, or to another major transportation facility.”

If the Mayors Council and TransLink Board agreed, they could follow the Halifax model. Property tax could be assessed on all land within 1km of a bus stop. Land outside this 1km zone could be assessed a tax rate of 0.

The goal of this process would be to create a fairer system, not to low property tax revenue. Property tax in areas with transit services would go up slightly.

If transit service coverage increases in the future, TransLink would gain access to new property tax revenue. At the same time, it would resolve many of the equality issues that come up in places like Langley. This change would create a win-win situation.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Calgary's new cycle track network a good example for Langley City to follow

One of the things that I’ve been advocating for in Langley City is the creation of a cycling track network through my community. Building a community where people can safely get around by walking and cycling just makes sense to me.

Supporting active transportation options is cost effective, good for business, improves the environment, and creates positive health outcomes. Cycling is also an affordable, accessible transportation option. In a community like Langley City, this is important.

I know there is a demand for cycling in Langley, but there isn’t a safe network for people to use. Most people will only cycling on off-street trails, and on bike lanes that are separated from moving autos. Of course these trails and separated lanes actually have to go to places where people want to travel, and be a complete network. The current piecemeal approach to building cycling infrastructure will not encourage more cycling.

When I lived in Calgary back in the early 2000s, cycling infrastructure was nominal in Calgary’s downtown core. Last year when I was in Calgary, I noticed that they installed one separated bike lane along one of their downtown streets. I’m back in Calgary this week, and noticed they’ve built a complete separated bike lane network seemingly overnight!

Cycling is a cost effective way for both government and individuals to get around. In a presentation about deploying a pilot cycling track (separated bike lane) network in Calgary’s downtown core, it is noted that spending $10 million could build a 330 stall parkade which would serve about 435 people per day. That same $10 million could build around 8 kilometres of cycling track which would serve 2,700 people per day.

Based on the experience of that first separated bike lane, Calgary is now investing $9.38 million to build a 7.3km cycling track network in its downtown core. They expect to see a 2 to 3 times increase in cycle ridership in the first year of the network being in service, with 20% growth in ridership in subsequent years.

New cycling track network in green. Select map to enlarge.

I decided to take some pictures of the new cycle track network. These pictures show the various ways you can configure cycling lanes which makes people feel safer.

Two-way cycle track. Select image to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Detailed information on health outcomes and built environment released

Earlier this year, I posted about My Health My Community. This is a comprehensive research project between Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, Fraser Health Authority, and the eHealth Strategy Office at UBC. The research looks at built environment, lifestyle choices, poverty, and health status. This research shows links between how we live, where we live, and how that influences health outcomes.

The My Health My Community project just released community level statistics for Metro Vancouver.

For example, in the City of Vancouver only 32.7% of the population commutes by car to work or school, and 38.1% walks or cycles when running errands. 15.2% of the population is obese.

In the Township of Langley 80.7% of the population commutes to work or school by car, and only 6.6% of the population walks or cycles when running errands. 29% of the population in the Township is obese.

The community statistics include other lifestyle indicators as well. In the City of Langley 15.1% of the population binge drinks at least monthly, and 18.3% of the population smokes. In Surrey, excluding South Surrey, 17.2% of the population binge drinks, and 11.2% of the population smokes.

The My Health My Community website also has infographics on the results of the study at the regional and community level.

 Infographic on Built Environment in Surrey. Select graph to enlarge.

Infographic on Health Behaviours in Metro Vancouver. Select graphic to enlarge.

There is a lot of great information on the My Health My Community website. Hopefully it will help community leaders understand the health implications of the design of communities, and access to services within our communities in Metro Vancouver.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too

In late April, I posted about a “leaked” memo from the Township of Langley’s Transportation Engineering department. The memo writer expressed some concerns about light rail in the South of Fraser. The short of it is that there is a belief that light rail would not meet performance targets because it is not built up in the sky, or buried underground.

While not explicitly in the Township’s Transportation Engineering memo, I know some have expressed concerns about the safety of light rail. Because light rail will run parallel to Fraser Highway, some believe it will create unsafe intersections and slow down cars.

This week I’m in Calgary. Calgary Transit has been operating light rail for the past 34 years. Calgary’s system has the highest light rail ridership in Canada and the US. The Calgary light rail network runs in grade separated right-of-ways and at-grade. The busiest section of Calgary’s light rail network runs at-grade with surface crossings.

Calgary light rail system provides consistent travel times. In Downtown Calgary, signals are timed to allow the smooth flow for light rail riders, cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists. Along 36 St NE, light rail traffic is prioritized at intersections.

Yes, there are occasional collisions between light rail vehicles and autos, but they are so few and far between, it is front page news when it happens.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. I snapped some pictures of Calgary's CTrain network around Downtown Calgary, and in the inner neighbourhood of Kensington, to show how light rail interacts at various at-grade intersections. I also snapped a picture showing how light rail stations can blend into the context of any sized neighbourhood.

CTrain about to cross 5 Ave SW in Downtown Calgary. Track Parallels 9 St SW. Note crossing barrier.

7 Ave SW and 2 St SW Intersection in Downtown Calgary.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The problem with the Compass Card and other systems like it

During the Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, the top reason that I heard why people were voting no was because they didn’t trust TransLink. While three recent massive SkyTrain shutdowns, and the CEO snafu earlier this year didn’t help built confidence in the agency, it is the delayed launch of the Compass Card system that really seems to have gotten under people’s skin.

The irony of this whole mess is that the provincial government actually forced TransLink to install faregates and the Compass Card system. It was also the provincial government that required the plebiscite. So if we end up with a No outcome, the province is at least partially responsible for that outcome.

Most transit smartcard systems throughout North America had a rough start fraught with delays, cost over-runs, and contractual challenges.

Transit agencies in North America with smartcard systems deployed on buses require people to tap a reader when they board a bus. TransLink added a twist by requesting a system that could be used by people to tap a reader when they board a bus, and tap it again when they get off a bus.

This system was designed to allow automatic calculation of zones travel. The design would also allow TransLink to move to a distance-based fare system in the future. By having a tap-on/tap-off system, TransLink would also get more detailed information about transit service utilization.

The biggest mistake that TransLink made when deploying the Compass Card system was thinking that they would be different than other North American transit agency; somehow being able to have a smooth and fast smartcard system roll out. This considering the added tap-off complexity.

TransLink recently announced that they are restarting the roll out of Compass Card to transit users. U-Pass holders will be using Compass Card this month. West Coast Express customers can get the Compass Card starting this month. TransLink indicated that it may be moving to a tap-on only system for buses as it rolls out the system to more users. Problems with tapping-off on buses was delaying the launch.

Last year, I posted about Calgary Transit’s CONNECT smartcard system. Like the Compass Card, the project started back in 2009.

The Calgary Transit CONNECT smartcard project was supposed to have been launching in the summer of 2012. This didn’t happen. At the same time, the project went over budget. Things got so bad that Calgary Transit ripped out all of the smartcard readers from its buses and the CTrain system, and cancelled the project.

Things started up again in late 2013 when Calgary and its smartcard vendor agreed to a new contract. The system was reinstalled, and was scheduled to be in-service sometime in late 2014.

This week I’m back in Calgary, and I see that the CONNECT smartcard system is still not in service.

According to a March 2015 article in the Calgary Herald, Calgary Transit is taking its time to get the roll out right.

“We are being diligent with our testing,” Collins said Tuesday. “We want to ensure the electronic fare collection system works well for our customers before we launch it.”

The Calgary Transit website states that “a launch date will be announced once the system has passed testing. We want to ensure we are providing customers with a reliable, easy-to-use and convenient system.”

A little further away in Toronto, the Presto Card smartcard project was started back in 2007. The Toronto Transit Commission is expecting the system to be fully rolled out on its network in 2016.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that smartcard payment systems are highly-complex, and can take close to a decade to fully implement. Promising a system that will function in a shorter time frame will only lead to frustration and upset customers.

It will be interesting to see who will be first to roll out their smartcard system to most transit users, Calgary Transit or TransLink. So far, TransLink is winning.