Paul R. Landry: The TransLink tax merry-go-round

The Straight

By Paul R. Landry

Newly minted Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Shirley Bond was quick to rebuff a $450-million ask from the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation to support TransLink’s latest incarnation of its 10-year transportation plan. Her “no” was made more significant by the fact that the mayors were being supported by business, labour, and environment leaders.

So, it won’t be long before the residents and businesses of Metro Vancouver will be asked to pony up as much as $340 million a year in higher taxes, fees, and fares to fund TransLink’s mandate as our local transportation authority. That’s a whopping 35 percent increase from today’s funding levels—a hike of up to $150 per man, woman, and child in the region.

Taxes and fees are required to fund important public services such as health care, education, law enforcement, and transportation. Normally we all benefit when we pay because these services contribute to a high quality of life in the community. But taxpayers tend to lose faith when there is a disconnect between those taxes and fees and the quality and quantity of the public services provided. In other words, people are less likely to complain about taxes if their problems are being solved. That may be the proverbial fly in TransLink’s soup.

Among other things, TransLink is proposing to increase fuel taxes by three cents per litre, a higher-than-inflation property tax increase, and a new vehicle levy of up to $200 per vehicle. Many households will see their TransLink-related taxes and fees rise by $500 or more annually. Much of the burden will be borne by the 70-percent-plus residents who are road users, many of whom have no option but to use their car. Indeed, up to 80 percent of increased taxes may come from fuel taxes, the new vehicle levy, and much higher parking taxes.

So, what will we get for our money? Well, although TransLink purports to be a transportation authority, it is clear that the 10-year plan is almost exclusively about transit. There is plenty of information in the plan about TransLink’s shopping list for transit equipment, but references to improvements to the regional road and bridge system are scant and vague. There is very little to indicate that the over 35 percent of TransLink funding likely to be collected from road users will result in any change from the historic average of four to five percent invested in roads and bridges.

The plan is also heavy in platitudes but comes up light in terms of performance measures that would tell us why we would be better off. There are a few useful benchmarks such as increased transit hours per capita, access to transit service, and transit modal share. While TransLink’s targets for these measures seem reasonable enough, no insight is offered as to how this is going to improve overall transportation of people and goods in the Metro Vancouver region. How will heavy investments in transit, in combination with modest road and bridge improvements, improve mobility, reduce road congestion, or aid freight movements? Will the benefits of the plan be proportional to the dramatically rising financial burden?

Similarly, TransLink has made no attempt to establish or explain any principles such as fairness, equity, and value-for-money governing imposition of proposed taxes and fees. Beyond the implied simplistic notion that transit is good and cars are bad, no effort is made to establish a nexus between taxes proposed or collected to benefits conferred on the payers of those very taxes. Is TransLink’s assertion that buses take cars off the road justification enough for TransLink to rely almost exclusively on transit as the solution?

Importantly, the plan does not include strategies to reduce operating costs by, for example, involving the private sector in transit operations or maintenance. Nor does it propose to make better use of existing infrastructure by prohibiting parking on key commuter or truck routes during peak traffic periods or developing responses for quickly dealing with vehicular crashes or breakdowns that plug the system. There is either no appetite for or capacity to assess how traffic flow can be reduced through reductions in ongoing systemic friction. Perhaps increased congestion is an unstated part of the plan.

In summary, TransLink’s plan does little to vary strategies and approaches that have failed us over the past 10 years. Since the plan is essentially more of the same, why would future results be any different from past results? Without substantial and fundamental re-thinking of delivery and financing of transit and roads programs in a balanced and fair way, very little will change. Taxes, debt, and congestion will increase and, notwithstanding higher investments, transit ridership will not likely rise to the point that it makes an appreciable difference to the residents and taxpayers in the region.

Paul R. Landry is the president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association, the voice of the provincial motor carrier industry, representing over 800 truck and bus fleets and over 250 suppliers to the industry.

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