TransLink is on a track to financial disaster

Vancouver Sun

B.C.’s comptroller-general turned up few surprises in her investigation into the operation of TransLink and BC Ferries.

TransLink  is on a track to financial disaster. It has a $130-million deficit and a dysfunctional management structure that was little improved by the reorganization imposed by the provincial government two years ago.

Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland’s appraisal of TransLink closely mirrors many of the findings of Martin Crilly, who in his guise as regional transportation commissioner also urged major changes.

The comptroller-general found that the board in place before TransLink was reorganized knew of the impending structural deficits, but continued to invest in expanding the fleet.

Under the new management structure, not much has changed.

As Crilly pointed out, the if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy hasn’t worked.

Ridership has increased sharply over the past several years, but not enough to keep up with increasing expenses.

TransLink’s debt has tripled since 2005, so more revenue is being sidetracked for interest payments, leaving less money for operating expenses.

The comptroller-general said too little has been done to cut those expenses to bring them in line with revenues.

While that much has been obvious to anyone who has been following TranLink’s financial performance, Wenezenki-Yolland’s unequivocal and damning assessment puts the spotlight on the provincial government to act.

Although it is managed by municipal politicians, lately through the Mayor’s Council that advises the board of directors, TransLink is a creation of the provincial government.

It was set up a decade ago to give local elected politicians control and responsibility over transit in the region.

But almost from the beginning, a succession of premiers and transportation ministers have been unable to resist an often destructive role as a backseat driver. The province has interfered in the setting of priorities and at least twice thrown up roadblocks to proposed new levies needed to cover costs of expanding the system.

Both of those decisions — a vehicle levy quashed by the New Democrats while they were still in power, and the proposed parking stall tax killed by the Liberals — met with popular approval.

But they also supported the misconception that we can build and operate a major metropolitan transit system without creating a huge hole in taxpayers’ pockets. And by many accounts, it seems that Lower Mainlanders are reluctant to pay more and more for transit as they fork over more and more in property taxes and higher utility bills from Metro Vancouver.

The management structure of TransLink does need fixing, as the comptroller-general suggests. We need a system that won’t get so bogged down in regional squabbling over priorities. We may also be able to reduce administration costs. But those changes alone won’t address the major challenge facing TransLink, the need for more general revenue.

That means looking for funding from senior levels of government. If that’s not forthcoming, it means looking at some measures that won’t be popular — raising fares, higher fuel taxes, more tolls or congestion levies. One surprising finding in the comptroller-general’s report is that the transit portion of property and utility taxes collected in Vancouver is the lowest of any of Canada’s major cities. But that’s counter-balanced by the fact that homeowners in Metro Vancouver carry huge mortgage payments because of high real estate costs.

So the implication — which again won’t be popular — is who is going to pay for expanding transit?

As importantly, which brave politician is going to propose a tax hike under these economic conditions?

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