Evergreen’s future is in the hands of the province

Vancouver Sun

TransLink’s broke, so Victoria must come up with new ways of funding the rapid transit line

By Craig McInnes

The bountiful harvest of headline news out of Martin Crilly’s report on TransLink this week obscured an observation that might be labelled an inconvenient truth if that title weren’t already taken by Al Gore.

Crilly is the regional transportation commissioner, a post created by the province two years ago when it remade TransLink into what it hoped would be a more effective — or compliant — organization, depending on how one interprets the motivation of then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon.

Crilly, who is also the BC Ferries commissioner, confirmed what TransLink has been asserting for the past couple of months; that it can’t afford its share of building and operating the proposed Evergreen rapid transit line, despite promises of provincial and federal funding.

That poses a problem for the province, which has promised it will be built and, with a $2.8-billion budget deficit of its own, doesn’t have a lot of spare cash sitting around right now.

But there is an even larger political problem for the province in what Crilly sees in a fundamental flaw in how TransLink operates.

Right now the system is based on what is best described as an if-you-build-it-they-will-come operating philosophy. It’s the approach preferred by transit proponents, who argue that demand for transit can’t be generated without attractive facilities, that commuters won’t be persuaded to leave their cars at home until there are trains to catch instead.

The problem with that approach, Crilly says, it that it is financially ruinous. For TransLink, it has meant the more trains they add, the more buses they put on the road and the more routes they open, the more it is costing on a per-kilometre basis because of excess capacity in the system. Ridership is increasing, but at too high a cost.

Rather than more carrots in the form of expanded service, what’s needed instead, he says, are incentives to drive demand to fill the trains and buses we have now. The way to drive demand is to use the stick of making driving more expensive.

So let’s take a quick poll here. Hands up, those of you who think you should be paying more for the right to drive a car in Metro Vancouver.

Therein lies the political problem Crilly has posed for the province.

TransLink as it now operates is broken. It cannot continue to deliver its current level of service, much less expand the system, without more revenue.

Crilly argues that dropping the unsuccessful carrot approach and instead concentrating on driving demand has two advantages.

First, it serves the environmental goal of unclogging the roads by getting people out of their cars and on to public transit.

More crucially in the short term, however, it also generates the revenue that TransLink desperately needs to operate.

The idea of raising money through initiatives that also encourage transit use is not new. In fact, it is already at play in fuel taxes that flow to TransLink and the carbon taxes that are now being ramped up by the provincial government.

But provincial governments of both political stripes have stymied attempts by TransLink to bring in other similar measures, including a proposed vehicle levy, which was killed by the NDP, a parking stall tax and a proposal for tolling existing bridges, both of which were squelched by the Liberals.

The Liberals have created a new challenge for TransLink with the switch to the HST, since it eliminates a provincial sales tax on paid parking that currently contributes $18 million a year and that was to have been tripled as part of TransLink’s 10-year plan.

The province says it is looking at how to replace that revenue, but Crilly suggests that an important element to driving demand for transit is to put a price on the majority of parking in the region, which is now free.

The parking stall tax killed by the Liberal government would have done just that.

Crilly suggests looking at another measure that has not been discussed that he describes as “win-win,” which is to charge vehicle levies, car licence and insurance premiums based on the annual distance driven.

Such a scheme would be relatively easy to administer through ICBC. It could raise money for transit while allowing drivers to directly reduce their costs by driving less, much in the same way gas taxes do now.

The province could shelve Crilly’s report, of course, and continue to insist that TransLink’s money woes are primarily a management problem. Indeed, Crilly also says that cost increases that exceed the level of inflation suggest there is room for improvement.

But that won’t get the Evergreen Line built, and Crilly’s report makes it clear that without changes only the province can make, that will be a promise that won’t be kept.

cmcinnes@vancouversun.com

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