After the Transit plebisicite: what’s next?

July 3, 2015

extract of the proposed plan, which financing has never been updated

extract of the Mayors plan submitted to vote: financial figures have never been updated with the proposed .5% PST tax

The voters gave a big resounding NO to the Mayor’s Transit plan. This plan was a draft which financial figures had never been finalized, what is against the South Coast British Columbia Transportation authority act, and could not have been approved in that form by the Council of Mayors for this very reason. In fact, even with the 0.5% pst increase, it was still not yet fully financed and was not sustainable in the long run [1]. The lack of business case for some proposed services, starting by the Surrey LRT, could have cost so much tax $ in operating subsidies that not only a sunset clause for the tax was ruled out, but a new funding source could have been required before the end of the plan: The voter voted against that unsustainable path, knowing that anyway, there is always a Plan B, as alluded by the Surrey’s mayor.

Beyond the plan and the question on ballot, is the referendum framing. The referendum was asking to approve a Translink budget: In democracy, a budget vote is a confidence vote in the authority in charge of the said budget. Forget the “No” side leaded by Jordan Bateman and the CTF, it is the region’s mayors which have called for Translink audits, Translink reforms…and fired the Translink CEO in the mist of the campaign, clearly putting translink governance at the heart of the Referendum. On the Translink vote of confidence, the Council of mayors largely echoed the Jordan Bateman‘s message: “Translink is broken”, so ditto!

The stunning “No” side victory makes a Translink reform unavoidable. While, its Governance can certainly be improved, that will not rhyme with a better service. What can be done?

The Zurich precedent

In the 70’s, in Zurich, like in Vancouver, the voters have say “NO” to a grand and expensive Transit plan, and still Zurich has became the posterchild of efficient Transit.

Eventually as Vancouver, a “No” vote was not a No vote to Transit. In fact Zurich said “YES” to measures able to improve Transit efficiency, speed and reliability (“Transit first plan”). A Measures such as bus only lanes and signal priority can go a long way to improve service without breaking the bank, and help to build a solid business case for heavier rail investment.

    As an example, a newly painted bus lane on Seattle’s Battery street, has allowed to increase bus speed by 20%, and reliability by much more, what makes Transit less expensive to operate (bus driver are paid by the hour, not the mileage) which generated 20% additional ridership, hence increasing revenue: all these decrease the tax burden.

    Thanks to the still on-going federal gas tax program, bigger buses, be in the form of bi-articulated buses, like in Zurich, or longer articulated buses like introduced on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Blvd and in countless cities around the world, can also help to address overcrowding while keeping operating cost under control.

All these don’t require as much money as political will from the mayors, whose are responsible for the streets used by buses. Will, which has been sorely missing in the region and especially in the city of Vancouver where bus service is clearly neglected by the current council but where also Translink spend 50% of all its bus budget. That doesn’t need to be.

Translink has also been too nice… for too long. It is time for Translink to be more assertive about its needs to operate efficient transit:

  • Transit optimization need to be much more aggressive by going beyond shuffling bus around:
    • A generalized bus stop consolidation policy needs to be initiated
    • costly detour, like the Champlain Height diversion on the route 49, need to be discontinued… without asking permission to the city of Vancouver
  • City of Vancouver charge organization like car free day, to recover its policing cost…It is time for Translink to do the same and recover the cost of bus disruption involved by street closure from the responsible of those disruptions

We have already exposed many ideas of Transit network optimization on this blog, and we will continue: Those can be a tough sell, but as we have already noticed, period of fiscal constraint are a window of opportunity to introduce network rationalization, and so build a solid fundation toward the expansion of Transit.

In conclusion, the No to the referendum is an opportunity to rationalize our Transit network and to emulate the Zurich model.


See Metro Vancouver: A look at the Mayors’ plan Capital investment, January 26, 2015

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6 Responses to “After the Transit plebisicite: what’s next?”

  1. Rico Says:

    Some good thoughts.

  2. Thomas Beyer Says:

    After this “no to a PST increase” vote, other funding mechanisms have to be found by MetroVan mayors to unlock the 2/3 by the feds and province. New leadership is required too for TransLink.

    There are quite a few funding options at the disposal of the mayors:

    a) increase parking fees, especially on residential roads which are clogged with cars that pay nothing, or next to nothing to park 23-24h/day on a public road. How about $200/month or $50 in rural areas where land is cheaper ? 400,000+ cars times $1000/year = $400M

    b) increase user fees. Is $1.75 for (often wealthy) seniors not too low for a ride from S-Surrey to N-Van ? Is $2.10 for a single daytime ride not too low ?

    c) increase property taxes

    d) increase development levies

    e) moderate wages & benefit increases for the 10’s of thousands of MetroVan and municipal employees as most are extremely well paid, often well above private sector equivalents with less hours worked and better benefits, especially pensions

    f) other efficiencies, such as outsourcing. We honestly need city employees to clean parks or operate a host of services at double the going outsourced rate ?

    g) borrow more money for these investments

    Best would be to work with the province to introduce

    i) road tolls, as only increased car use costs will make people use the car less once alternatives exist, as with e-cars and ever more efficient cars such a hybrids or smaller cars gasoline taxes alone do not adequately cover road use costs in urban areas. As such choke points have to be tolled, such as: airport entry, Granville @ Broadway, any bridge, any major E-W or N-S 4 lane road. That would bring hundreds of millions into the city or provincial coffers to fund RAPID transit that car users will actually use, too ! [ Example: I live at UBC. Usually I drive to the airport to pick up guests, along Marine Drive. If the city tolled me $10 to enter the airport by car and I had a subway option to Cambie from UBC, then Canada Line, I’d use the subway. However, today the road is free, the hybrid I drive is fuel efficient, and the wobbly bus is crowded and takes twice as long. I do what is rational behavior today, but would switch with better options. Ditto with many car users in N-Van, W-Van, Surrey, Langley ..]

    ii) increased car registration fees, tiered by size or engine size

    iii) increased gasoline taxes, earmarked for transit

    Plan B, C, D and E exists .. and a solution can be found.

  3. Brendan Dawe Says:

    You know, transit isn’t everything.

    Season-long closures on a key block like Robson Square are one thing, but the people of Commercial Drive shouldn’t have to pay Translink if they want to use their own main street for a day. It’s bad enough that the City taxes community events to pay for a basic public service, we don’t need Translink suppressing community events for petty pecuniary reasons as well.

    There are a lot of reasonable ideas in your post, but chasing down neighborhoods for inconveniencing Translink for a day is not among them.

    • Voony Says:

      I don’t disagree with your view…and effectively I had Robson square more in mind.

      However, the general idea is to have Translink to put a price tag on the diversions, what Jarret Walker words as “to clearly describe the transit consequences of those decisions [to close certain street]” to the city and more generally the general public

      At the end, it is still possible for Translink to provide a subsidy “in kind” to the different local festival, especially the one promoting sustainable transportation mode.


  4. […] Voony on his blog talks about how Zurich is a good example of how things can turn around. […]


  5. […] a transit plebiscite post-morten post, we were asserting that Translink needs to be much more aggressive in the optimization of its […]


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