The red herring review arrives – what next?

Paul Hillsdon

Lo and behold, the day after TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast packs his bags to return to New York, Minister of Transportation Shirley Bond (seriously, I preferred Falcon) released the Comptroller General’s review of the transit authority – a report that was scheduled to be released over a month ago.

Earlier this year, Bond hopped behind an outraged recessionary public that demanded wage cuts for public executives, rather than tax hikes. The review turned into a red herring that not only diverted attention from the real debate (how to pay for transit expansion), but also lied to an uneducated public that “efficiencies” in TransLink’s operations would be found and that such money could pay for the Evergreen Line – excusing Joe Blow from paying another 3 cents per litre.

Bond was, and is, nothing more than a swindler, encouraging people to play into their emotions – the only world in which you can get something for nothing.

Executive pay

Unsurprisingly, few efficiencies were found. It was determined that TransLink executives are paid a reasonable wage, within the context of the size of the organization. However, due to multiple subsidiary companies, TransLink actually has 28 executive members on payroll – a general Canadian range is 8 to 10.

The problem is, without restructuring the whole operational system that is TransLink, it’s rather hard to fire the CEOs that run SkyTrain, Coast Mountain Bus, or West Coast Express.

Board members’ compensation, despite a huge increase over what the former semi-elected public board made, was also deemed to be within reasonable expectations for a public organization.

I guess the money for Evergreen wasn’t hiding here after all.

The real deficit maker

The main culprit for the looming deficit is the large bus expansion program that has been underway the past three years (an expansion that was initially scheduled to occur at TransLink’s inception in 1999, but was halted due to a lack of revenues).

Growth in operational expenses has recently surpassed ridership growth. This is primarily due to new routes in the suburbs which are not attracting the average ridership levels, and thus requiring major subsidization – money of which TransLink does not have.

Between 2004 and 2008, regular service hours increased 12%, while average ridership of the expanded service declined 3.6%. TransLink’s cost-per-passenger has increased 20.6% while the average fare per rider has only increased 8.9%

The governance structure

It is suggested in the report that the Mayor’s Council did not have a clearly defined role. The Comptroller General proposes that the Council become the “shareholder” role in the governance structure, with the ability to hire and fire Board members, and establish the Board’s compensation rate. It also proposes that 20% of the new Council be made up of provincial representatives to encourage more collaboration between the region and the province.

The Council is currently made up of 21 Mayors from around the region. They appoint Board Members from a selection panel, and vote on annual transportation plans.

Ironically enough, it’s a case of back to the future. The original governance structure from 1999, which had been negotiated between the GVRD and the Province, consisted of 13 elected officials from the region and 2 provincial MLAs. However, the Province eschewed that responsibility, leaving the MLAs’ seats empty at Board meetings.

Furthermore, one could make the argument that, with the power to hire, fire, and set Board members wages, why even have both a Board and Council? There’s no reasonable separation of roles, and the situation could easily become political if need be. Frankly, with such powers, it would again be almost no different from the original Board of 1999 that was filled with 13 locally elected officials. Might as well have 13 people do the same job that the Comptroller General is suggesting over 30 undertake.

The real problem

What I love about this report and about Minister Bond is that they both completely ignore the real problem – a lack of sustainable funding sources for TransLink!

It is the only major problem that has faced this innovative organization and instead of reshuffling governance structures, cutting suburban bus routes, or delaying the Evergreen Line for another decade, why don’t we actually solve the true problem at hand here?!

Enough with the red herrings. Give TransLink more money.



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