Can the transit plebiscite debate be viewed from balanced perspective? Thoughts on fairness, disconnect, Translink effectiveness, taxes (Peter van der Velden)

Translink file photo of train

Translink file photo of train

Can the debate be viewed from balanced perspective?

(Opinion piece contributed by Peter van der Velden, a facilities management consultant living in Tsawwassen.)

What is the “Yes” vote all about?

Essentially this is the referendum: An attempt at updating public transport with a seemingly moderate .5% sales tax increase. The real question is where will it stop? What will we be asked to pay for next, hospitals and schools? Historically public transport and infrastructure are paid through income tax because it is the fairest form of taxation.

Is it fair?

Here is a government that has just presented us with a “balanced budget”. Sadly the government will interpret the vote any way they want. And continue to give us balanced budgets while leaving our schools unsafe, our medical waits the longest in Canada and off-loading as many bridges, etc. as possible. I guess the Victoria consensus is that most people are buying the balanced budget part and accepting of the rest.

Certainly, government by referendum is less than satisfactory. Having said that, I believe that if this is the ‘Public Consultation’ that Translink is supposed to undertake our various governments  and Translink have a lot to learn. The largest problem with Translink is the hands-on, hands-off policy Victoria seems to be obsessed with. When you say Translink I think Victoria. If the two aren’t joined at the hip why would the board fire the CEO while the ink is still wet on his bonus cheque?

Why the disconnect between the Mayors?

It is disconcerting to me that various municipalities are spending public money on pushing this (Victoria) agenda because it happens to serve their municipality. At the same time, other Mayors are abstaining or voting “No” outright.  The latter group is obviously concerned that the plan does not serve their community. We are told that it is good for the economy and the environment and the “Yes” vote has bought into that. Really? This is just spin, these are not the issues, these are by-products. The real issue is not ‘more transit’, but more effective transit. If we are talking about the economics, we should be talking about the economics of our transit. And in this case that means Translink.

Is Translink effective?

There has been a lot of discussion about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Translink. The following links give some interesting statistics for Translink:

The first document shows that Translink debt tripled from 2005 to 2009 while ridership went down. Administrative costs rose 100% from 2002-2008 while ridership costs rose 40%. Administration costs are the second highest of its Canadian peers. The second document states that Coast MountainBC costs are higher than most Canadian peers. Certainly operating costs are substantially higher than systems in Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Toronto. According to data from CUTA (Canadian urban transit association) cost efficiency is second lowest for this peer group and cost effectiveness the lowest. In terms of revenue passengers per kilometer Translink is the lowest in the group. All of this and the average fare costs are the highest of the group. Do these numbers speak of an efficient system?

The saddest statistic is that Translink attracts fewer riders per unit of service than any other system. How is it possible that this is not a threshold point for any CEO bonus? If Translink cannot improve that portion of its income it will keep coming back for more money.

Another statistic is that 14 sick days were taken by Translink employee per year. This not only show the weakness of Translink management and management/union relations: it shows why the public discord is not just for Translink management.

So how will you vote?

The dialogue has slipped into little more than a yelling match. It is interesting that people see this as an American phenomenon. Having lived in 5 provinces I find that Victoria has perfected this standard ‘divide and conquer’ approach. Give the people something to get polarized around and you can justify any decision.

The reason I will be voting ‘no’ is NOT because South Delta service is decreasing with the increase in taxes. It will be because I have no faith in an organization that mixes operating costs with capital costs and gets away with it. We are, essentially, stock holders of Translink. Translink needs to be able to show the public a lean organization. An organization that is not saddled with money losing bridges. Is it reasonable for the public to pay to build a bridge and again to cross it? Is it reasonable to ask us to pay additional taxes for the debt incurred by political decision like the choosing of the Canada line?

Until these issues are settled I have no desire to throw good money after bad. The scare mongering tactic of telling us this is the “last kick at the can” is just that; a tactic. Let our elected politicians show some leadership and offer us something more than this parochial diatribe. Our urban development needs to be planned by a body that is not ruled by either the Mayors council or Victoria; people that have no political agenda or affiliation. Only that level of planning can actually move the Greater Vancouver District into the future. Unless I can be shown that this is the case I am not convinced that this ‘coming back to the trough’ by Translink won’t be an endless drain on the middleclass.

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6 Responses to Can the transit plebiscite debate be viewed from balanced perspective? Thoughts on fairness, disconnect, Translink effectiveness, taxes (Peter van der Velden)

  1. northvancityvoices says:

    Reblogged this on North Van City Voices.

  2. I enjoyed the objectivity in this article right up until it was no longer objective. This where suddenly all of Translink’s supposed ills were listed out, with none of its successes. Here are a few:
    •A mode shift – out of cars into transit, walking and cycling – that is unmatched in North America. The number of trips by transit is up 80% since 2000.
    •By far the highest per capita transit use among other cities our size in North America – three times more than Portland, the next highest city.
    •The third-highest per capita transit use in North America, after only New York and Toronto.
    •The lowest-operating-cost light rail network in the world, more than covering operating expenses from fare box revenues.
    •The Canada Line built on time and on budget and beating revenue targets – projected to have 100,000 daily riders by 2013 but hitting 120,000 by 2011.
    •An overall 7.4 out of 10 customer satisfaction rating in the last quarter.

    Further you make Translink out as inefficient…so here are numbers that say the opposite.
    Quoting from Vancity Buzz: “There have been multiple reviews of TransLink’s expenses in recent years, including an independent study commissioned by the TransLink commissioner and another study by the B.C. government’s Ministry of Finance. These 2012 reviews led TransLink to trim its budget by $26 million in the subsequent fiscal year. TransLink has already identified its efficiencies, and there is simply not much else that can be trimmed.” Further, TransLink is the most cost-efficient public transit operation for a Canadian metropolitan area. For every $1 million in TransLink’s annual operating budget for transit, we get 7117 transit service hours. The next most efficient agency is Edmonton’s with 7089 hours. (see link: https://darylvsworld.wordpress…)

    Lastly you suggest more than 2 mayors have opted out of supporting the referendum by not putting a number on it. There are two: Derek Corrigan and Michael Smith. Michael Smith does not believe his community is getting a fair deal, but Corrigan opted out because he believes the process will fail and is too decisive. Its true. But what choice do we have?

    In general, the truth is always somewhere likely in the middle. I was hoping to see more truth in your blog. Thank you for calling out Victoria’s guilty role in all this. It should not be forgotten, especially when we can expect the costs of future transit expansion should the referendum fail to be rolled in to property taxes like this:

    • Peter van der Velden says:

      You make some good comments. I would question your statistics about efficiency and suggest you go to the second link above to see why (page 25 on). However, as you state, the truth probably lies somewhere between. Several points I am concerned about. Mayor Jackson from Delta has withheld her support from the yes campaign as well. Also, the numbers for the Canada line are inflated for a number of reasons. One is that people from outlying areas are forced to take a bus to Richmond and transfer to the skytrain. I understand there are valid reasons for this but it doesn’t give you an honest reading of the ridership. Worse than that it makes the system less effective and people are less likely to use it as a result. I would argue that we do have a choice. It is not unreasonable to ask for a better and less political plan if we are to pay for it. In terms of funding I would question that the planned 7 billion would cover the Broadway corridor as well as the other parts of the plan. That makes me question the next step in this process. Where is the funding coming from and who is doing the planning? Surely a city like Vancouver deserves better.

  3. Jean Wightman says:

    I agree with van ver Velden’s points and, along with him and others in Tsawwassen, I will be voting no. The only so called improvement for my area is an updated South Delta Exchange. Why? his. The current parking lot at the Rec Centre suffices and is free. Will an ‘improved’ exchange bring parking fees? Since this community has seen a reduction in services over the years I hardly believe that this Plan is going to provide us with 15 minute service (unless there is something in the works with the TFN t service the thousands who are anticipated to visit the two proposed mega malls as well as work and live in that area. The current community bus is rather useless with a ridership of perhaps 3 – 5 people at any given time (That’s another story and funds I see as being wasted). Oh, I forgot about the proposal for a Rapid Bus Exchange somewhere near 17A and Highway 99 – really? When asked for details about this and why it would be built, no definitive answer could be received from TransLink. Wo is going to park there and would such an exchange be built on agricultural land?

    Yes, the Canada Line is successful! Why, because those from Surrey & Delta are forced to use it with the loss of direct bus service (something many of us used). This has meant more cars in the already congest tunnel as people either drive all the way to their destination, or park at the Casino and ride Canada Line. With all of the mega developments being built and proposed on the Cambie corridor soon this Line service will be inadequate.
    With so much foreign ownership of multi million dollar homes in Vancouver (and being empty) perhaps some kind of excess transit levy could come from speculators. This could improve transit in Vancouver and/or Surrey, the two areas which stand to gain from any improvements.
    Finally will the .5% tax even cover the cost of administering this plan? How long will it be imposed and how many times would it be increased over the coming years? would it cover bonuses for those at TransLink? Who knows?

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