– No light at end of TransLink funding tunnel

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North Shore News

Elizabeth James

“Public accountability means the obligation of authorities to explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how they are carrying out responsibilities that affect the public in important ways.”

Henry E. McCandless, former principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada

By Oct. 30, the regional mayors’ council must decide if it will approve TransLink plans to raise $450 million annually in new funding.

In casting his vote as the North Shore’s representative, city councillor Craig Keating is on the horns of a dilemma.

Keating usually supports green initiatives, and public transit fits the bill. This time, however, he might decide to proceed with caution.

TransLink’s insatiable appetite for regional dollars poses a serious threat to Metro municipalities who need to raise taxes for all of the other services in their mandate. Furthermore, taxpayers sense that if they agree to half a billion this year, it’s only a matter of time before TransLink comes back for more.

Unacceptable. And the community shouts grow louder: What is happening to the B.C. millions we send to Ottawa in gasoline taxes? If green is green, why has Gordon Campbell refused to earmark the carbon tax for transit? What happens to the levies we pay on vehicle-related products and services?

Most of all, taxpayers ask: Over the past 10 years, we have paid billions in taxes, so how in blazes did TransLink end up where it is today — up to its ears in debt?

Well now . . .

Ever since Bill 36 the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act was proclaimed in 1998, TransLink has suffered from two life-threatening flaws — underfunding and political interference from Victoria. Together, those flaws guaranteed the agency could never come close to the McCandless bar for public accountability.

Successive provincial governments have interfered in the decision-making process to such an extent as to suggest that TransLink was established to buffer public complaints, vote on multi-billion-dollar projects until it got the answer right, and otherwise to be what Surrey Mayor Diane Watts recently called a “toothless tiger.”

Elected or appointed, boards have lacked a clean, transparent process. Constrained by pressures from Victoria, regional decisions on billion-dollar transit projects have been dictated by political expediency, rather than financial acuity and appropriateness of the technology.

As taxpayers now know, Campbell’s privatized board has hit the wall of fiscal reality, forced to admit that 11 years of dysfunctional operation have driven the agency into near bankruptcy.

The 1998 legislation laid out a formula for constitution of the original board. Twelve members were to be nominated from an annual roster of mayors and councillors from the 21 municipalities.

Most importantly, Section 8(4) of the act stated that “The Lieutenant Governor in Council must appoint three of the members of the board . . . each of whom must be an MLA who represents a constituency located in the region . . . or a minister with responsibility for municipal affairs or transportation. . . .”

To this day, no provincial representative has ever been appointed. Conveniently, this means no MLA or minister can be held publicly accountable for decisions made at the TransLink table — specifically, the decisions about ongoing funding for transit capital projects and services.

In the three-year run-up to the makeover of TransLink, systems and route analyses had been ongoing between BC Transit, the GVRD and the Glen Clark government, about an expansion of regional rapid transit.

Clark’s preference at that time was for an affordable light-rail system — LRT.

Suddenly, however, amid rampant rumours that a deal had been struck behind closed doors, Clark and then minister of finance Joy MacPhail announced that Rapid Transit Project 2000 — the Millennium Line — would be built using gold-plated, proprietary, Bombardier SkyTrain.

At the time, Delta’s Malcolm Johnston of the Light-Rail Transit Association, said, “If the province insists on building SkyTrain in this region, instead of the internationally popular and far less expensive light-rail, TransLink will be bankrupt in 10 years.” He is now convinced that the capital, operating and debt-servicing costs of SkyTrain have led the TransLink budget to where it sits today.

Although Johnston has been studiously ignored by the powers that be for over a decade, his was not the only voice in the wilderness. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has been consistent in his demand for a more transparent and accountable process.

Also concerned about the lack of a supportable (or for that matter any) business plan for the Millennium project was former West Vancouver councillor and past B.C. attorney-general Allan Williams, who publicly berated TransLink CEO Ken Dobell in council chambers: “You began this project without having a clue where the money was coming from; you still don’t.”

Perhaps the most damning of all, however, were comments contained in an April 1999 confidential report by Alan Greer of the Crown Corporations Secretariat.

Addressed to Deputy Minister Don Avison, Greer reiterated his earlier concerns about the project, “The main conclusion of (my) review is that the most relevant information advanced in support of the SkyTrain option was misleading, incomplete or unsubstantiated.”

“Specifically,” the report continued, “the review found:

cost comparisons appear to have been contrived to favour SkyTrain over LRT;

no ridership (demand) analysis was reported to justify the high-capacity system;

air quality and transportation benefits are unsubstantiated;

accelerated construction advantages of SkyTrain were clearly unrealistic; and

risks associated with the SkyTrain manufacture have not been assessed.”

So there it is in a nutshell: secret meetings; absent financials; confidential reports that were ignored; over-built expensive technology; accelerated construction schedules, and unsubstantiated ridership claims. It would appear all those and more were repeated on the Canada Line.

At the September meeting of the mayors’ council, however, there were encouraging signs that things may be about to change. With Watts in the chair, the council began to push back.

Keating, Corrigan and Langley Township Mayor Rick Green were vociferous in their demand for change. Most promising of all, complaints about provincial downloading of under-funded decisions, and about politically-appointed boards having more control than “rubber stamp” elected mayors and councillors were loud and clear.

In direct response to TransLink’s claim that it cannot afford the oft-promised Evergreen Line, Port Moody council has voted to suspend growth initiatives in that community “until available transit catches up with demand.”

Hopefully, Keating took a like-minded stance as a result of the non-appearance of the third SeaBus.

When push comes to shove, however, will council members stand firm behind the line they drew in the September sand?

Will they demand that TransLink and the provincial government “explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how they intend to carry out responsibilities that affect the public?”

Or will they do as a decade of their predecessors have done, cave in to provincial pressure and march blindly forward without, in Williams’ words, having a clue where the money will come from?

rimco@shaw.ca

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Explore posts in the same categories: Canada Line, City Council, Evergreen Line, funding, Land use, Light Rail Transit, News, North Shore, Provincial government, skyTrain, Translink

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