Make drivers pay up: transit report

Globe & Mail

Frances Bula and Justine Hunter

Road tolls, higher vehicle fees and even increases to insurance are among commissioner’s recommendations

British Columbia needs to drive up the cost of driving to push people onto public transit in the Lower Mainland, says the first review from the provincially appointed transit commissioner.

Options in the report include road tolls, higher vehicle fees and even increases to insurance – measures that the provincial government has previously rejected.

However, TransLink cannot continue to count on a build-it-and-riders-will-come strategy, commissioner Martin Crilly writes in his critique of the transit agency’s 10-year plan. That review, issued yesterday, zeroes in on TransLink’s operating costs, which have escalated far beyond the rate of inflation in the past several years.

In an interview, Mr. Crilly said he has yet to see a satisfactory explanation for why costs are rising so much. He said those high costs can’t be explained just by the expense of the new Canada Line or Metro Vancouver’s problems in building transit in a low-density, far-flung region. “Even the bus system has rising costs.”

He said he is not willing to support fare increases for the system past the first one planned for 2010 until he understands better why the costs have risen so much.

And he said that one of the three proposed TransLink options for the next 10 years – the one requiring a spending boost of $450-million a year – is not actually a legal option that the mayors can choose by their deadline Oct. 31, because TransLink has no way of paying for it unless the province provides additional money-raising tools.

That means the Evergreen Line planned for the region’s northeast sector cannot be built because TransLink has said its first priority – if a lower-budget 10-year plan is approved – would be simply doing a good job of servicing the existing system.

Mr. Crilly’s report, issued Thursday, prompted both sides in Vancouver’s continuing wrangle over transit funding to claim victory.

Transportation Minister Shirley Bond said the commissioner’s findings confirm her suspicions that TransLink is not running a cost-effective service.

“We are convinced there are some efficiencies that need to be looked at in terms of TransLink,” she told reporters in Victoria.

Ms. Bond ordered her own financial review of TransLink’s operations in July. A report is due by the end of this month from comptroller-general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland.

But the chair of the TransLink board and the head of the TransLink mayors’ council say the report validates their argument that the agency needs to have other tools available to shape transportation demand – tools that would also bring in more money, such as road pricing and vehicle fees.

“There is no doubt the demand side has to be addressed,” said board chairman Dale Parker.

Mayors’ council chairwoman Dianne Watts said the report “basically says the same thing that the board, the council and TransLink management are saying, that we need demand-management strategies.”

Both he and Ms. Watts agreed TransLink’s costs have been rising – more than 15 per cent over inflation in the past five years, the commission report said – but Mr. Parker said they are still lower than costs in Toronto or Montreal and there are reasons for the increase.

“The technology of the fleet is much more complex now than it used to be,” said Mr. Parker, noting that the 600 new buses acquired in the last 31/2 years take much more maintenance than they used to. He noted Vancouver pays $4.94 for each kilometre a bus, SkyTrain car or SeaBus travels, while Toronto’s rate is 4 per cent higher to run its vehicles and Montreal’s is 8 per cent.

But Vancouver has lower overall use of its system than those cities, so revenue from riders doesn’t cover as much of the operating cost – one reason the Vancouver system has to be subsidized so heavily by taxes.

Mr. Crilly stressed in his report that TransLink has focused too much on building capacity to attract riders, hoping that will pay for the system.

“It aims, in effect, to buy ridership with both taxpayers’ and fare payers’ money, and at a rapidly escalating incremental [and less affordable] cost for each rider.”

Mr. Crilly says TransLink hasn’t focused enough on demand management: road pricing, more restrictions on parking-lot use, and differential fees for motorists that reward them for driving less. But those tools must be provided by the municipalities or the province.

Ms. Bond said there is no chance the province will come forward with more funding.

“There is no intent to contemplate bailing out TransLink at this point,” she said. “In fact the taxpayers of British Columbia today already provide almost half of billion dollars in resources to the TransLink organization and the rest of British Columbia wants to make sure those dollars are spent wisely.”

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