Victoria wrests TransLink from cities' control

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      A transit expert has denounced the findings of the TransLink Governance Review Panel as a power grab by B.C. transportation minister Kevin Falcon.

      Prof. Patrick Condon, who holds the UBC James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments, told the Georgia Straight he was "disappointed" by the outcome of the review, which was unveiled by Falcon and panel chair (and former Langley City mayor and TransLink director) Marlene Grinnell during a news conference at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel on March 9.

      "I think the critics, correctly, have said they think it is clear the province intends to be back determining transportation strategy for the Lower Mainland," he said. "It has been unfortunate to see the regional government be accused [by Falcon] of inefficiencies and 'parochialism' when their present problems, as far as I can tell, have been foisted on them by the provincial activities [of the B.C. NDP and Liberals] in both removing funding sources and forcing the Millennium Line and the Canada Line against the reservations of regional officials who saw that the funding sources for it really were not there."

      Condon is not alone in his withering assessment of the much-awaited 52-page document. Burnaby mayor and former TransLink director Derek Corrigan was visiting Burnaby's sister city, Mesa, Arizona, last week, but read the panel findings by e-mail.

      "This is not about parochialism and it's not about partisan politics," Corrigan, who's also a former chair of B.C. Transit, told the Straight. "It's something that will probably go across the board with municipal politicians as a power grab by the provincial government and the provincial government, deciding to exercise its authority to take over the functions of TransLink and to leave us there simply as the taxing authority for them. That's clearly what the whole design is meant to do."

      Falcon endorsed most of the 43 recommendations, including a plan to expand the scope of the transportation authority beyond the GVRD and have it represent municipalities "from Pemberton to Hope".

      "As part of the global community, the government of British Columbia wants to be a world leader in dealing with the environmental challenges facing all of us," Falcon said. "That means we have to do things differently. It is vital that TransLink be well positioned in responding to these challenges going forward. The panel in its report is seriously concerned that TransLink, as it is currently structured, will not be positioned to [deal with] these challenges and capitalize on these opportunities. The current board structure does not support long-term planning."

      NDP transportation critic David Chudnovsky told the Straight that this means "bye-bye for regional control".

      Falcon told media that the current TransLink board structure will be replaced by three key elements. A 31-member "council of mayors" will leverage their local taxing authorities and oversee the appointment of a commissioner—the second component—to look into fare increases and other issues. A separate 11-member board, "made up of professionals" from sectors that include "finance, engineering, law, and human resources", will take over the day-to-day operations.

      "This will allow politicians to do what they do best—determine the strategic vision, approve long-term strategic plans, and set future directions," Falcon said. "There will be no confusion about who's making decisions on their [constituents'] behalf."

      According to Corrigan, the region now has no control over transit decisions but still must ask residents to fork over tax dollars.

      "There is a certain attractiveness to it [for Falcon], in the sense that the mayors' council that they've proposed would simply be there to raise money for the board and the TransLink staff to utilize," Corrigan said. "Then the provincial government would appoint that [11-member] board to operate that system. We would have no oversight or scrutiny of it. It would simply be us giving them the money and them deciding what to do with it. That would mean that the provincial government could keep all their public-private partnership dealings secret, which is what they really want, and we [municipalities] would be out of the picture."

      Kevin Washbrook, a former SFU graduate student in resource and environmental management, told the Straight this will have a "huge impact" on greenhouse-gas emissions and transit ridership and give Victoria greater control.

      "The Gateway Project and the RAV [Canada] line—and, to an extent, the Sea-to-Sky Highway—are all priorities out of Victoria that don't meet local needs," he said. "TransLink has been hobbled by a lack of funding for years. When TransLink was first created, the first [strategic transportation] plan, I thought, was good and far-reaching, including saying that buses would continue to be the backbone of the system. And they were also still adhering to the [GVRD] Livable Region Strategic Plan in terms of extending rapid transit out to the existing high-density suburbs."

      Washbrook said that when the province (under the NDP) established the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (TransLink), "the enabling legislation specifically prohibited the authority from introducing tolling for any purpose other than cost recovery on new facilities. It sounds like the new organization Minister Falcon is proposing will have the same constraints."

      Falcon has pledged to remove the parking-stall tax and Hydro-bill levy and also wants to let the region's mayors pump an additional three cents per litre of fuel tax, which will be balanced with boosted property taxes; other needed revenue will come from property development near rapid-transit stations and transit-fare increases. Falcon has also given the green light for greater provincial control over municipal zoning and permitting.

      Having just published a paper on road-pricing (user-pay) in the GVRD, Washbrook said he is disappointed this option is not being entertained as a way to get more people out of their cars and using transit.

      "Why should property owners pay more?" he said. "Why shouldn't the users pay more? It seems like a clear-cut thing to me. What about the case of captive bus riders? These are people that are forced to take the bus because they don't have cars and will complain [over fare hikes] but won't have a choice."

      Washbrook said the Canada Line is an expensive "provincial vanity project tied to 2010" that crippled the region's ability to make transportation planning decisions.

      "It diverted all the funding that TransLink would have put into extending the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam and in terms of buying new buses and keeping buses on the road."

      While the province drafts the legislation to come before the MLAs, Corrigan said, municipalities like his will "take some time to analyze what exactly has happened here and what the government's recommendations are".

      The governance review put together by Grinnell—along with Dan Doyle and Wayne Duzita—calls for an interim board of three members, to be "appointed by legislation", to oversee a transition to a new board structure. This interim board will then pick the new board. Falcon promised that "it will be free from political interference" and that "the province will not be making these appointments."