Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Transit Referendum, or Be Careful What You Wish For…

We all have our stories about things we wished for so much, and then once we got them found out it was a burden, not a gift.  Translink would do well to remember this as they seek new governance and more money from the province. 

All of the mayoral complaints boil down to the same thing: “the big bad Province won’t give us what we want.”  What do they want? 
  1. A blank cheque
  2. Complete authority to decide where to spend it

Where does the province fit into this?  They provide item 1.  Then go away. 

The province, rightfully, said hold on, we gave you that authority and changed the funding structure so you could own it 15 years ago.  But all you did was bicker for the first 10 years, fight with us when we offered to pay for major improvements, and blow every gas tax increase we gave you.  So we took control back, but still left you with oversight and final authority.  You want us to go back to the old way and give you more money?

The Mayors should be grateful the province didn’t spit in their face.  To their credit, the province is willing to discuss governance reform and is willing to commit 1/3 of costs to new rapid transit systems as well as the Pattullo replacement as a starting point. 

As for other money the province said
  1. It needs to come from your region (you can’t tax the provinces stuff)
  2. Your people need to agree (hold a referendum)

This is seen as an offence by those who consider the province the rich benefactor.  Those of us who lived here prior to 2007 think it’s not a bad check on their power.  Translink is dysfunctional now?   I remember when the cities were in charge…

A major strike that ended in back to work legislation.  Planning and building systems on funding not yet committed, let alone in place (federal gas tax, vehicle levy), the blaming everyone else when they have to make ‘cuts.’  Every time the province has come with funding for a major system, the board or equivalent fought with the province pushing for their own agenda instead of working with the province. Despite that, they have managed to find and gain significant funding from a variety of sources such as
  • Increased fares, fuel and property taxes ($80 million / year)
  • Increase parking sales tax from 7% to 21%
  •  Expand parking taxes to cover all off street parking $18 million / year (later replaced with more property tax)
  • New Deal for Cities ($60 million / year)
  • Additional 3 cent gas tax
  • Regular property tax and fare increases

As well, Translink did pass the vehicle levy in an attempt to generate additional funding.  But the NDP pulled the rug out from this. 

I think it speaks volumes that all rapid transit in Metro Vancouver has been driven by the province.  Expo Line?  Mid-80’s, transit was fully provincial.  Millenium Line?  Put together by the province just as Translink was being created.  Canada Line?  Shoved down Translink’s throat by the province.  Evergreen Line?  Finally going with the provincially appointed Board of Director’s.  Curiously, most of those were done under Liberal/Socred governments.  All this in a period when the federal government was practically shoving money out the door for infrastructure improvement. 

In short: the region wanted control over transit funding and operations and the province to butt out.  They got it and then some, trading provincial funding for municipal taxes and control over those taxes and operation.   But, surprise surprise, 22 municipalities couldn’t agree on what to do or how to do it.  To their credit, after 10 years the province recognized this and put an end to it.  Enter cries of ‘undemocratic’ etc.

The province is doing what it needs to do. It is responsible for inter-municpal transport, and can’t let the region or province wither while the Mayors bicker.  This is a ‘crisis’ of the Mayor’s own creation.  First by insisting on control, then by failing to manage it, and finally by whining when taken to task for it. 

If anything, this demonstrates why these major transit initiatives and inter-municipal transport should remain with the province.  Translink and the municipalities have shown them incapable of managing it to date. The first step to getting back on track would be to take this referendum as an opportunity.  Stop whining about it.  Todd Stone’s letter calls for the Mayors to define a vision with priorities and costs.  The vision thing is good – we've done that a dozen times by now.  What we need are for the Mayors to hammer out priorities and costs. 

So Mayors - we all want better transit for the region, and I believe most of us are willing to pay for it. I certainly am. But before we cut you the cheque, show us that you can work together as a region.  Show us what you’re going to buy with our money, when we’re going to get it, and how it will improve things for us.  If it’s reasonable, we’ll give you the money.  But if you’re not willing to do that, then you don’t deserve it, and we all will suffer for your pride. 

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