RAV Line Faces Huge Hurdle

The Straight

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has said that he thinks a sufficient number of TransLink directors will vote on Friday to kill a proposed $1.5-billion to $1.7-billion rapid-transit project.

“The politics are hot and heavy on it as the pressure is being put on from every possible avenue in order to get directors to vote for the project,” Corrigan told the Georgia Straight.

The proposed Richmond/Airport/Vancouver Rapid Transit project would be completed in November 2009, just in time for the 2010 Winter Games.

Business groups have argued it would be foolish to cancel the RAV line and turn down $900 million in funding from the airport authority and the federal and provincial governments.

The B.C. Federation of Labour and various unions have opposed the public-private-partnership aspect of the RAV line. However, union leaders have steadfastly refused to condemn the entire project.

Various grassroots groups, such as the ReThink RAV Coalition, have warned that TransLink will be financially liable for cost overruns for a transit tunnel underneath the downtown core and Cambie Street.

They argue that these cost overruns, as well as ridership shortfalls on the RAV line, will jeopardize TransLink finances, inevitably leading to sharply higher property taxes, reduced bus service, and higher transit fares.

On Friday (May 7) at Burnaby City Hall, the 12-member TransLink board will vote on a staff recommendation to go to the next stage: approving a “Best and Final Offer” from the two remaining bidders on a RAV public-private partnership. The RAVxpress consortium, which includes the sole supplier of SkyTrain technology, Bombardier Inc., is pitted against the SNC­Lavalin/Serco consortium.

If there is a tie vote at the TransLink board at the so-called BAFO stage, the motion will be defeated. This could doom the costliest capital project in the history of the Lower Mainland.

Corrigan said he could only name five TransLink directors–Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, Langley City Mayor Marlene Grinnell, and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie–whom he believes are strongly in favour of proceeding to a public-private partnership.

All five were part of an 8-4 majority that voted last year against a motion at the TransLink board to reject a public-private partnership for the RAV line.

The provincial government has insisted on a public-private partnership as a condition for contributing $300 million to the project. The winning consortium will design, build, partially finance, and operate the line on a 30-year contract.

Corrigan, an adamant opponent of RAV, said the remaining seven TransLink directors–himself, Coquitlam Mayor Jon Kingsbury, Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean, New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright, North Vancouver City Mayor Barbara Sharp, and Vancouver Coalition of Progressive Electors councillors David Cadman and Raymond Louie–might all vote against a public-private partnership.

He suggested that this could kill the entire project.

“I think there is enough votes,” Corrigan said. “It is going to be absolutely key where Mayor MacLean, Mayor Kingsbury, and Mayor Sharp go on this.”

Louie, who often votes with Mayor Larry Campbell, could have doomed the RAV project last year at Vancouver city council. Unlike Cadman, however, Louie chose instead to cast a decisive vote giving TransLink plenty of latitude to proceed with the RAV tunnel proposal. This permitted the project’s proponents to claim they had the support of the City of Vancouver, which enabled them to obtain funding from senior levels of government.

Mayor Campbell’s executive assistant, Geoff Meggs, told the Straight that the mayor will meet with Louie and Cadman to discuss this issue prior to the Friday vote.

Louie, Cadman, and Wright did not return calls from the Straight to explain how they will vote on Friday.

Last year, Pitt Meadows’ MacLean voted in favour of inviting requests for proposals from the private sector to design, build, operate, and partially finance the RAV line. However, on April 30 MacLean told the Straight that he now has serious concerns about the financing of the project.

MacLean, former chair of TransLink’s finance and audit committee, said he might not be convinced to support the RAV line even if the federal government added another $150 million and there was additional funding from the province and Vancouver International Airport Authority.

“Is it right because we have the money or should it be right because it’s affordable?” MacLean asked. Later in the conversation, he added: “If we didn’t pass RAV and we had the 98-B [bus] line, would the world end?”

Kingsbury told the Straight that the RAV project is a “strong consideration” to him, even though Coquitlam residents are clamouring for rapid transit to the region’s northeast sector.

“You pretty well have to go to the request for proposals–the BAFO stage–to find out what the realistic numbers are,” Kingsbury said.

Sharp, like MacLean, voted last year in favour of seeking bids for a RAV public-private partnership. On April 30, she told the Straight she is “undecided” about her vote on Friday.

Sharp later sent an e-mail to the Straight clarifying how she will make her decision. “As a Director of TransLink, I have a fiduciary responsibility to look at the big picture of transportation as a whole in the region and not my specific issues in isolation,” she wrote.

As the sole North Shore member on the TransLink board, Sharp represents five different councils. She stated in her e-mail that a large majority of the members attending “5-council” meetings were in favour of RAV.

“Interesting enough, they feel since I am party to the most intimate information, I have the best idea of what should happen,” Sharp wrote. “Easy for them to say. Friday’s decision will not be easy no matter what.”

MacLean and Sharp are also trustees of the Municipal Finance Authority of British Columbia. Last month, a major credit-rating agency, Standard & Poor’s Canada, issued a report retaining the MFABC’s triple-A credit rating but lowering the outlook from “stable” to “negative”.

“The outlook reflects the expectation that the rapidly rising debt burden of the MFABC’s largest loan obligor, the GVRD, will contribute to increases in the MFABC’s debt burden in coming years,” the report said.

According to a chart in the report, TransLink will be responsible for $2.4 billion of the $4.2 billion in new future borrowing by MFABC between 2004 and 2010.

MacLean said that Standard & Poor’s sent a message about TransLink’s “aggressive” capital spending in this report. “And we can’t shoot the messenger here,” he said.

Sharp, meanwhile, stated in her e-mail that the Standard & Poor’s rating will have “very little direct impact on my singular decision about RAV”.

Last month, six TransLink directors–MacLean, Corrigan, Campbell, Louie, Cadman, and Wright–voted to defer voting on the motion to proceed to the BAFO stage. This is why it will come up again on Friday. Sharp and Hunt were absent.

Under the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act, the provincial government may appoint three MLAs as TransLink directors. These positions have been vacant since the B.C. Liberal government was elected in 2001.

The B.C. Liberal government could stack the board with three RAV­friendly MLAs to ensure the project proceeds. In addition, the provincial government could declare the RAV line a “significant project” under the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, which could take it out of the control of municipal politicians.

TransLink has stated that it will contribute $370 million to the RAV project over the next decade. This expenditure was approved in TransLink’s three-year strategy and 10-year outlook, which includes $4-billion worth of capital projects to be built by 2013.

TransLink expects to finance these expenditures, which include several road projects, through higher property taxes, higher transit fares, a new parking tax, and, beginning in 2008, a portion of federal fuel taxes.

Corrigan described the proposed RAV line as an “ugly” project not worthy of serious consideration. He said it would be “almost laughable” if it didn’t involve $1.7 billion in public money.

“There are serious impacts on the taxpayers of the Lower Mainland for decades into the future,” he said.

However, Corrigan alleged that the project’s directors and staff at RAVCo, a TransLink subsidiary, are promoting the RAV public-private partnership because it will keep them employed for the next six years. Corrigan also described TransLink CEO Pat Jacobsen as the RAV project’s biggest advocate.

“You get no calm, objective point of view from the TransLink management,” Corrigan said. “As I said at a board meeting, it is a little like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. The people that you’re going to ask advice [from] are on the same side as the people you’re worried about.”

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