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

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      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.



      Eric Chris

      Jul 13, 2009 at 10:56pm

      Is it any coincidence that TransLink is in a panic for more cash just as the RAV Line is scheduled to come on stream? I think, not! TransLink grossly inflated the number of riders by up to 10 times on the RAV Line to push it through. Don’t give TransLink another penny, and let TransLink sweat it out. We’re not doing ourselves any favours by rewarding incompetence with more hand-outs to TransLink.

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      Jul 14, 2009 at 9:21am

      Except that "involving the private sector in transit operations or maintenance" has very rarely reduced operating costs. Far from it. Private sector not only has the costs involved with the operation, but they need to make a profit on top of that. One look at the public-private hospital fiasco is all that's needed to show that private involvement in public infrastructure does NOT reduce costs, it just diverts public funds into private pockets.

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      Evil Eye

      Jul 14, 2009 at 1:02pm

      TransLink is bankrupt, both in revenue and in thinking. It is a monstrous bureaucracy that has done little to provide a transit service that would alleviate gridlock and pollution. SkyTrain is a good example of its blinkered thinking: SkyTrain costing up to 10 times to build for about the same capacity of light rail (from the TTC) is an orphaned transit system long rejected by transit planners around the world, yet TransLink still plans for more.

      RAV is a cheaper SkyTrain clone (because SkyTrain itself, was too expensive) will operate on a transit route that will be lucky in achieving 60,000 passengers a day. Sad fact is, if LRT were to have been built instead, we could have had a larger network (even servicing the Olympic skating Oval) for one third the cost. But no, TransLink wanted an expensive subway to appease Gordo and his pals.

      TransLink operates many bus services that carry less than 20 passengers a day, yet on routes that cater to high ridership such as Broadway, not enough buses operate! This is not just sheer incompetence, it is sheer lunacy.

      We have a TransLink board of Gordo puppets, who know little about transit and alot about who pays their stipend, making decisions that are both foolhardy and expensive. The public are ignored, except of course forced to pay more for a dysfunctional Transclunk.

      TransLink is like the Titanic after hitting a financial iceberg, the captain and crew fully believe that a rescue will come in-time, while at the same time the passengers are drowning in red ink. Let us hope that this TransLink 'Titanic' sinks with captain crew, never to be heard from again.

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