Say "no" to TransLink and Metro's Hong Kong model for funding transit

By Elizabeth Murphy

The B.C. government is using transit to gain provincial control of municipal land-use policy.

Two long-term plans affecting land-use policy across the Lower Mainland are in consultation processes: “Metro Vancouver 2040” and “Transport 2040”.

Metro Vancouver is replacing its “Livable Region Strategic Plan” with a new plan, the "Metro Vancouver 2040—Regional Growth Strategy" (Metro 2040).

At the same time, TransLink is seeking funding for a 30-year transportation plan, comprising 10-year rolling plans, called "Transport 2040: A Transportation Strategy for Metro Vancouver, Now and in the Future" (Transport 2040).

The document states: “TransLink’s Transport 2040 and Metro Vancouver’s updated Regional Growth Strategy have been drafted in parallel, with the two strategies closely tied together and mutually reinforcing.”

Transport 2040 also contains the following flow chart:

The flow chart’s arrows are never explained, but would suggest that ultimate authority and direction will come from the province. The province has effectively given TransLink authority over land-use policy plans at the regional and municipal levels.

This authority is noted in a Metro Vancouver staff report dated June 30, 2009, which states: “While TransLink is only required to consult Metro Vancouver on their 10-year plan, TransLink is considered an 'affected local government' for the purposes of ratification of the Regional Growth Strategy and have the authority to accept or not accept the Regional Growth Strategy. If there is no acceptance, then the Local Government Act provides a dispute resolution process.”

TransLink proposes to fund transit using real-estate development based on Hong Kong as the model, according to TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast. And the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy is the mechanism for this to be implemented, reinforced by provincial legislation.

There are three main areas of concern. The first is the undemocratic nature of TransLink and how the province has empowered TransLink to implement its Transport 2040 transportation plan that overrides regional and municipal plans.

The second is the Transport 2040 proposal to fund transit using real-estate development with Hong Kong as the model.

The third is the Metro Vancouver 2040 proposal that implements Transport 2040’s Hong Kong model of development-funded transit.

There are other alternative options that need to be considered under a polluter-pay system of funding. The whole notion of using development to fund transit should be taken off the table—with the enabling legislation withdrawn—before any further funding to TransLink is approved.

Real-estate development should be wholly controlled by municipalities under local community-based democratic planning processes with regional involvement only to enforce containment boundaries to prevent sprawl.

1.0 THE CONCERNS

1.1 The Undemocratic Nature of TransLink and Its Transportation Plan

TransLink has an unelected provincially-appointed board. Provincial legislation, enacted without a public consultation process, has given TransLink the power to fund transit by the use of real estate development.

The province is also proposing to grant TransLink a regulatory role through the Metro 2040 Regional Growth Strategy that effectively gives it authority over municipal official community plans.

TransLink’s public consultation on the next Transport 2040’s 10-year rolling plan was completely inadequate. There was only one public consultation meeting held in Vancouver.

TransLink’s presentation did not explain the profound implications for land-use policies throughout the Lower Mainland. Of all the funding choices proposed at these public consultations, the use of development to fund transit was a given that was not offered as an option, and was not open for discussion.

Consultation opportunities have been limited and timelines have been too tight.

1.2 The Proposal to use the Hong Kong Model of Funding Transit through Real Estate Development is Problematic

Real-estate development is an unreliable source of funding for transit. TransLink is now looking for additional sources of funding, probably because of the economic downturn. The financial crisis has made real-estate development less viable as a funding mechanism at this time than it was during boom times.

For instance, to raise only $15 million toward funding one SkyTrain station in Richmond at Capstan Way, 16 towers were proposed. That project has since fallen through because of the economy and the financial crisis.

When a property is upzoned for development, it creates the increased value of “land lift”. Land lift from rezoning is a municipal asset that is used to provide amenities such as community centres, parks, and facilities.

TransLink should not be allowed to use this municipal asset of land lift to pay for transit, which is primarily a provincial responsibility. Otherwise, this is a form of downloading.

There have been some suggestions that rapid transit increases land values, so the profit from development should go toward paying for transit. In fact, land immediately surrounding rapid transit usually decreases in value because of increased crime, traffic, and noise.

It is the municipal asset of land lift from rezoning that increases land value, not the provision of transit. TransLink’s funding model of using real estate to fund transit is problematic in and of itself. But additionally, allowing this unelected appointed Board of Directors effective control of municipal official community plans creates a systemic conflict of interest.

When I raised this issue of systemic conflict of interest in a question to TransLink’s CEO, Tom Prendergast, at the only public consultation meeting held in Vancouver, Prendergast said, “While I believe there are opportunities for abuses, there are ways to mitigate (them)”, without suggesting how that would be done.

However, TransLink should not be in either role of real-estate developer or land-use regulator, far less both, and conflict of interest would be unavoidable.

Further, why would we want to use Hong Kong as the model of land use and development for Vancouver? Vancouver is now considered by the Economist magazine as the most livable city in the world. Hong Kong was rated as 69th.

Hong Kong is not a model of sustainability either. It has a reputation for being polluted, corrupt, and lacking social safety nets that produces more extremes of wealth and poverty.

The Economist even rated Hong Kong much lower than Vancouver for its infrastructure.

1.3 Metro Vancouver’s 2040 Regional Growth Strategy Proposal Implements TransLink’s Hong Kong Model of Development-Funded Transit

Metro Vancouver’s 2040 Regional Growth Strategy was “drafted in parallel” with TransLink’s Transport 2040 so that TransLink could implement the proposed real-estate development funded Hong Kong model without municipalities getting in its way.

Provincial legislation gives TransLink authority to use development to fund transit but it requires municipal development approval. Metro 2040 delivers the required municipal approval in advance by giving TransLink authority over official community plans of every municipality throughout the Lower Mainland and including Metro’s Regional Growth Strategy itself.

Metro 2040 is a substantial change in governance of land use policy that effectively shifts authority from the municipal level to the province, region, and TransLink.

This would make officials less accountable and effectively eliminates public involvement in community planning.

Metro 2040 defines "Urban Centres" and "Frequent Transit Development Corridors" for medium- and high-density development and proposes to blanket the City of Vancouver with them.

Frequent Transit Development Corridors are proposed in the Regional Growth Strategy as 400 to 800 metres either side of transit, even bus routes, which in Vancouver, would result in mass upzoning of practically the entire city.

Metro Vancouver, like TransLink, has been undertaking public consultation processes where timelines have been too tight, and poorly advertised.

The general public has not been adequately involved. Metro 2040 presentations did not explain the substantial overall change in governance.

2.0 THE OTHER OPTIONS

2.1 Land-based transit funding options should be avoided

TransLink should not use land lift from rezoning or property taxes, which are the few ways municipalities can raise funds for civic purposes. The HST should also not be added to real estate, as it is another provincial tax grab on new development

2.2 The polluter-pay principle

Transit should be sufficiently funded to support the maintenance and expansion of the public transit system based on a polluter-pay principle rather than user-pay-based or development-based.

If polluter-pay based funding was to fund transit, then the stations and transit could be built with stable independent funding. Polluters should be taxed as a penalty to help change behaviour, and transit fares reduced to encourage transit use.

2.3 Use the carbon tax to fund transit rather than development

The carbon tax should not be revenue-neutral. The carbon tax is a stable source of funding (unlike real estate) that is expected to collect $546 million this fiscal year and $2.27 billion over the next three years combined.

TransLink is asking for $450 million for its highest level of transportation investment, so if the carbon tax is used for transit, there would be stable funding without having to use real estate development, property taxes or increased fares at all.

2.4 Use a vehicle levy to encourage low emission vehicles

Another example of polluter-pay sources could be a vehicle levy that is variable based on fuel efficiency.

2.5 TransLink should be limited to authority for transportation only

TransLink’s expertise is in providing transportation systems, not in developing communities.

Its mandate should be restricted to designing and building transportation only, not to controlling density and development to suit transportation funding targets, which is a conflict of interest.

Communities have a broad range of issues other than transit that must be considered, such as amenities, district energy, affordable housing, rentals, neighbourhood character, heritage, schools, parks, community centres, libraries, theatres, and the arts, which are outside TransLink’s areas of expertise.

Community development should be under the sole jurisdiction of communities and their directly elected municipal representatives, rather than under regional control.

2.6 The appropriate role for the region is to restrict and contain growth from sprawling

A balance of policies is needed in order to create a sustainable region. Policies are needed that address restrictions to contain growth, which should be controlled at the regional/provincial level; policies are also needed that encourage new development to increase density close to transit and services, which should be wholly under municipal jurisdiction.

Municipalities have an economic incentive to broaden their tax base through development, so there needs to be regional oversight to contain growth from sprawling into green zones and industrial areas.

But the region should not have authority over development policy regulation that increases density within municipal boundaries--only in the enforcement of restrictive containment policies.

However, the Metro 2040 Regional Growth Strategy does not adequately protect green zones, and also provides too much regional control over municipal official community plans.

Provincial and regional control should be limited to protective policies for the absolute protection of green zones and qualified protection of industrial areas from non-industrial uses.

Under the Metro 2040 proposal, green zones would be more easily removed from protection. Exemptions from green zones should require unanimous support of the Metro Board, not just  two-thirds support as proposed.

Also, the Urban Containment areas include some green zones, which allow them to be developed. So the Urban Containment boundaries should be adjusted to exclude all green zones from development,  for example, in the UBC Endowment Lands and in West Vancouver.

2.7 Municipalities should manage real estate development and growth

The Metro 2040 plan should generally prescribe transit-oriented development to be close to transit or urban centres, rather than the proposed requirements of specific regional controls.

How and where transit-oriented development is implemented within municipal boundaries should be based on detailed community planning under the sole jurisdiction of the municipality.

Any increases in density rezoning should be done through accountable, local community processes that have municipal approval, independent of the province, region or TransLink.

Municipalities should not be held hostage to the proposed unsustainable, provincially controlled development-funded transit system based on a Hong Kong model.

Elizabeth Murphy has a background in development and urban land economics and has worked in the private sector, for the City of Vancouver, and for the Province of B.C.

Comments

5 Comments

Eric Chris

Aug 19, 2009 at 10:00pm

Living along the 99 B-Line route, I agree that transit does not add value to my residence as countless people have moved out of my building due to the noise and pollution from the 99 B-Line diesel bus rapid transit service. TransLink has no business meddling in the Livable Region Strategic Plan.

TransLink transit planners are under the delusion that commuting 30 km to and from work is desirable, livable and sustainable. Occasionally, taking a leisurely trip on transit is fine but being trapped in a lifestyle where you rely on transit to get around doesn’t seem all that livable.

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Evil Eye

Aug 19, 2009 at 10:03pm

Ha, what TransLink forgot to mention is that those property deals were with land owned by Hong Kong's MTR and that some of the profit from those land deals was to keep HK's transit fares low.

This is the ultimate end of the false notion that transit is to create high density nodes in city centres, which in turn make windfall profits for land owners and land developers. Because SkyTrain is metro, built on routes that did not have the ridership to support metro, land was assembled and density increased to try to increase ridership on SkyTrain. Thus the density issue became part and parcel of transit planning.

What has been forgotten is that transit is to move people, not increase property values and why TransLink's mode share for regional transit has remained at about 11% for almost two decades.

Giving TransLink the ability to make land deals is like giving a drug addict drugs, they are one and the same, irresponsible.

When idiots run the show, don't be surprised at the results!

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So my lifestyle isn't livable?

Aug 20, 2009 at 12:53pm

Eric stated
"Occasionally, taking a leisurely trip on transit is fine but being trapped in a lifestyle where you rely on transit to get around doesn’t seem all that livable."

I rely on transit, and my life is just fine thank you. I don't have a driver's license, not does my spouse. We live in New West, I work in Surrey, and she up to last month worked Downtown. We rely on the bus and skytrain system every day, not just for work, but shopping, visiting friends and family and everything else.

My issue with Translink is that they are always behind where they need to be. If in order for Metro Vancouver to progress for the future and for our transit and infrastructure requires Translink to take a larger step in those directions I have no problem with it, as long as the work gets done. I couldn't care less that the board isn't elected as the current political climate in this province shows it doesn't matter whose in power as we all get screwed anyways, and I would rather take it from a board that might actually do something that helps me, than an elected official that doesn't care about anything but staying in power, or making them and their friends rich. (NO TO HST!)

Thank you Eric, for telling me that the lifestyle i have chosen isn't a livable one because I use our public systems, I'll remember that every time my commute to metrotown or downtown (at least once a week) takes me less time than it does for friends driving shorter distances. Have fun being trapped in traffic.

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NDL

Aug 23, 2009 at 9:16am

Very interesting topic and some really good points, but one of the most repetitive articles I've ever read.

Concerned Kitsilano Resident

Oct 8, 2009 at 1:18pm

Funding transit through a polluter -pay system rather than using real estate development, property taxes or user fees would be much preferred. This article highlights many areas for concern, and I agree with all its basic ideas. Unfortunately many decisions that affect our everyday lives have complicated underpinnings, and are made in back rooms without the public really being aware of their long-term consequences. The ideas that TransLink (read basically the Provincial Cabinet) should have any control over community planning, that development should fund transit, and that transit planning should lead all community planning factors raises many concerns, such as lack of balance of community needs (what about community centres, sewer lines, heritage, parks etc.), potential for conflict of interest, centralized power at the provincial level, even more lack of a feedback mechanism or local government decisions than exists today, etc., etc. The potential for conflict of interest should be enough on its own to prevent this transit funding from going forward. Imagine decisions to rezone and build towers around a major intersection in Vancouver being made at the provincial level, without adequate community input, and TransLink purchasing the land, then the province announcing the change in land use. Who gets to invest in the properties nearby in advance, what input does the municipality or affected community members have? Then the vagaries of the market, the economy and real estate development come into play, all using public money. This is not the way we should fund our sustainable transit strategies, based on a model from a relatively unsustainable city, which has different objectives than the City of Vancouver, and other communities in BC.

In my community work, staff in the Planning Department of the City has expressed grave concerns to me regarding TransLink/Province having control over municipal planning, this is a major disruption of the balance of power. Our experience with TransLink in our community is that they do not understand the community consultation process at all. They are very used to having their own way. The City's Planning Department is not perfect, but at least they are more inclusive of the community's concerns than TransLink.

There are examples everywhere of government bodies trying to profit for "the public good" from real estate transactions; for example, the Olympic Village and the losses of municipal tax monies from the City trying to work in the real estate game, as well as the failed TransLink project in Richmond mentioned in the article.

Again, I agree with the spirit and the details of this article, and I would suggest that we all should be.