As half a million people continue to get left behind by full buses every year just on Broadway alone, we find ourselves in a major transportation crisis. Currently, Metro Vancouver’s transit ridership is growing faster than ever; at 17 percent, it’s faster than our six percent population growth. This means for every newcomer to the region, there are approximately three new riders jumping onboard our buses and trains for the daily commute.
On the other hand, the number of car users continues to fall, and it simply isn’t the transportation choice of the new generation. Considering the benefits of public transportation (including solving congestion, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and preventing sprawl), this is certainly a good sign. But this also presents a huge challenge to transportation funding: how do we pay for transit improvements when TransLink keeps facing $30-million shortfalls?
Mayor Richard Walton of the District of North Vancouver conjured up a discussion on this topic last month at Carbon Talks, a public forum. With input from Nancy Olewiler, chair of TransLink’s board; Gordon Price, director of the City Program at SFU; Geoff Meggs, Vancouver city councillor; and Patrick Condon, senior researcher at the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability, the most important consensus during the discussion was that without the provincial government’s engagement, the mayors’ council of TransLink and the municipal governments really can’t accomplish much in transportation planning. Public transportation and land-use planning go hand-in-hand. They require long-term planning together to ensure a healthy transportation system.
However, we live in an anomaly where municipal governments are in charge of land-use planning, but the provincial government dictates the development of transportation infrastructure. Fifty-seven percent of the Canada Line and 72 percent of the Evergreen Line relied on funding from the provincial and federal governments. Rather than working with municipalities and planners to ensure solutions are fair and effective, the provincial government has been dictating transit lines here and there, providing investment on an ad hoc basis. Mayor Walton recalls that on former TransLink boards, the seats reserved for the province were either unfilled or the officials never showed up. Although there is no perfect governance model, I hope that in the future we can have a provincial government that not only participates, but also acts as a leader in the regional planning process, in order to start a balanced conversation about transit with the municipal councils, academics, and planning experts.
Over the past five years, with taxpayers’ money, the provincial government has invested five times more on highways and bridges than on public transportation. Additionally, many costs are hidden from motorists and subsidized in other ways. Parking is offered at a fraction of the fair real-estate value of the land it occupies. Social and environmental costs also include health-care costs due to accident rates, several kinds of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental risks from oil dependence. These costs are hidden to uphold the fallacy that driving freely on a road is actually “free”. All of this is done without reflection at a time when people are driving less, and transit users still have to cover 40 percent of transit operations with out-of-pocket fares.
So why not put the proposed $3-billion Massey Tunnel replacement on hold, and invest that money in transit? With the ever-rising price of oil, I wonder how much longer the province of B.C. can go on without a dedicated fund for public transportation.