CanU WP1 Suburban Nation 2006-2011 Text and Atlas comp.pdf - Adobe Acrobat ProA new report by David Gordon and Isaac Shirokoff at Queen’s University School of Urban and Regional Planning has found that the majority of population growth in recent years has been in suburban neighbourhoods–even in our largest cities where condo starts greatly outnumber those for detached houses. This research implies major challenges for environmental sustainability, public health, and infrastructure investments.

In Suburban Nation? Population Growth in Canadian Suburbs, 2006-2011, released as a Council for Canadian Urbanism Working Paper, the authors use Census data from 2006 and 2011 and suburban classifications “active core”, “transit suburb”, “auto suburb” and “exurban”:

  • Exurbs were defined as very low density rural areas (<150 people/sq km) where more than half the workers commute to the central core and commuters live in low-density estate subdivisions or houses scattered along rural roads
  • Auto suburbs were defined as the “classic suburban neighbourhoods” where almost everyone commutes by car (density >150 people/sq km)
  • Transit suburbs were defined as neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people commute by transit (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and >50% of the national average for transit use, <150% of the metro average for active transit )
  • Active cores were neighbourhoods where a higher proportion of people use active transportation to get to work (>150% of the metro average for the journey to work and greater than 50% of the national average for active transit)

The classifications were developed by testing scores for different suburb definitions using Google Earth and Street Views, and a structured sample of Census Agglomerations.

Overall, 90% of population growth in Canada’s 33 Census Metropolitan Areas from 2006-2011 was in auto suburbs (80.1%) and exurbs (9.5%), with only 10% of growth in active cores (5.6%) and transit suburbs (4.3%). In 2011, 8% lived in exurbs, 69% lived in auto suburbs, 11% lived in transit suburbs, and 12% lived in active cores. About half of the metro areas had slight declines in their inner city populations as the new apartment construction failed to keep up with declining household sizes in central cities. Overall, 67% of the Canadian population in the 33 CMAs lives in suburban areas.

The authors suggest a “multi-pronged planning approach” to the problem including economic incentives that discourage sprawl and encourage compact development, better intensification in existing urban areas (e.g. secondary suites, laneway housing), redevelopment of formal industrial areas and brownfields on the edges of inner cities, waterfront redevelopment, military base and inner city airport redevelopment, TOD, street corridor redevelopment plans, retrofitting exiting suburbs, greyfield redevelopment of suburban shopping centres, and better design of new suburban development. The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and built on an earlier examination of 1996 and 2006 data.

This trend, and the aging population in many suburban areas of the country with transit services ranging from none to 30-minute frequency, makes me wonder whether we need a massive rethink of the types of transit that can work in suburban environments. At least in exurban and auto suburbs, where the densities are often too low to support traditional bus service at a 30-minute frequency. New York City’s “dollar vans”, informal services that often fill in gaps in the municipal provision of transit, are an example of this. Many immigrant workers find the services travel to parts of the city where they work, or operate during off-peak hours when municipal services stop running early. In countries such as the Philippines, jeepneys (informal vans or jeeps) and tricyles (small vehicles holding two passengers plus the driver) run even in suburban and exurban communities, are often operated by neighbourhood residents. In both cases, the services run so frequently that planning trips is unnecessary, and operators often speak local languages.

It’s clear that most Canadians are still choosing suburban lifestyles, including commuting by car, but there is still the 10%–and that is often enough to catalyze change.

 

We’ve all read or heard about crumbling overpasses in Montreal, overburdened water treatment plants in Vancouver, and aging highways in Toronto. Inevitably, the physical components of our cities will face a new challenge in the coming decades: climate change adaptation.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities will release a set of recommendations today, asking the federal government for long-term investment in municipal infrastructure. FCM is part of the Municipal Infrastructure Forum launched earlier this year, which includes governments like the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa, and business leaders such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Insurance Board of Canada. Members of the Forum announced principles for a new federal long-term infrastructure plan in Toronto on November 8, 2012. FCM conducted a study of 123 municipalities in 2009-2010 and reported on them in the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card. A major focus then was the declining quality of wastewater infrastructure, with over 40% of wastewater plants, pumping stations and storage tanks in “fair” to “very poor” conditions. Half of the roads surveyed fell below the rating of “good”. The report also found that many municipalities lack the capacity to assess the state of their infrastructure: they have limited data on their wastewater treatment plants or on buried infrastructure such as distribution pipes, some don’t have regular condition-assessment programs for their roads or a capacity/demand assessment process. They are also limited by financial and staffing constraints. But climate change is already beginning to take its toll: today, the forum notes that one in four wastewater plants needs major upgrades to meet federal regulations, storm events that used to occur every 100 years now happen every 20 years, and the insurance industry pays out more than $1 billion per year in sewage back-up claims. Stable, long-term funding will be more cost effective than replacement and will contribute to cities’ resiliency as the climate becomes more unstable.

FCM is encouraging municipalities to engage in the discussion on municipal infrastructure: a growing list of communities has already passed resolutions endorsing Target 2014, calling on the federal government to ensure that a new infrastructure plan is in place before the current federal programs (worth two billion dollars per year) expire in 2014.

I wrote recently about the fight to save Transit City, a proposal to extend LRT lines throughout Toronto’s inner suburban neighbourhoods. A while back, I had written about transportation governance in Metro Vancouver and its effects on public transit provision, and noted that Toronto was heading the same way. Well, it has: since 2009, the Metrolinx board has been completely divorced from public process.

Members of the Metrolinx board are appointed by the Minster of Transportation; they are not public officials elected by their municipalities. The current board, like the TransLink board in Metro Vancouver, is made up of mostly private sector business people who may or may not have conflicts of interest in transportation matters (ie. businesses that are located on a street with a proposed LRT line). Knowledge of transportation planning or experience taking public transit are not prerequisites; but to be fair, they never were, even when the board was made up of public officials. The Board can decide whether to hold meetings in public and how often to meet. There is no opportunity for the public to speak at meetings, even if they are allowed to attend, so there’s really no accountability for Metrolinx’ actions. The only recourse the public has is to complain to their MPP. But even if an MPP belongs to the party in power, they likely have no influence over who the Premier appoints as Minister of Transportation and who the Minister appoints to the Metrolinx Board.

It is bizarre that in Canada’s two largest cities, very small appointed boards decide the future of public transportation (11 sit on the TransLink board, and 15 on the Metrolinx board). It’s also a bit of an anachronism; we live in the area of downloaded responsibilities. The federal government offloads responsibility for housing and health care to the provinces; provinces download housing to the municipalities. Why would the province want such a tight grip on public transit provision? What is to be gained? Granted, these two boards are very short-lived so it’s hard to tell what their influence will be (Vancouver’s Canada Line notwithstanding). But like most transit advocates, I remain cynical about the whole issue of private-sector appointed boards making decisions about public spending, even if by some miracle they were actually public transit specialists. We need better governance in place for cities, especially on crucial issues like transportation and housing. Otherwise transportation board decisions will continue to be made as one-offs and there will be a lack of continuity in infrastructure projects and funding.

I’m getting pretty tired of writing about great policies and projects that we’ve proposed in Canada, only to have to write later that the government has decided not to fund them. Toronto’s Transit City project, an ambitious attempt to link the suburban parts of the region to reliable rapid transit through the construction of eight LRT lines, is under threat. Despite being approved by the federal and provincial governments, the province is threatening to cut Transit City funding by half, decreasing the viability of the project considerably.

A map showing the proposed LRTs

I’ve written before about how complex governance is when it comes to public transit in our municipalities. Vancouver’s struggles to build the UBC rapid transit line and many Canadian municipalities’ policies to better link transit and housing are detailed in several other posts. Even when projects are approved, it’s no guarantee they will be built because we have no stable source of funding for public transit and no consistent governance structure that enables the transfer of federal or provincial funds to municipalities. Transit City originally proposed eight lines: Sheppard (14 km), Finch West (17 km), Eglington Crosstown (33km), Scarborough, Don Mills, Jane, Scarborough Malvern, and Waterfront West. The province agreed to fund the first four back in 2007: of these, three are new lines (Sheppard, Finch West, and Eglinton) and the fourth is a retrofit of the existing Scarborough RT with four new stations. The province’s proposal to cut funding in half will put the Eglinton LRT, Scarborough RT, and Finch LRT at risk: the Sheppard line is already under construction while Eglington and Finch were to break ground this year and Scarborough in 2012.

As U of T Social Work professor David Hulchanski illustrated a couple of years ago, increased incomes in the areas around the existing two subway lines make it all but impossible for lower- and middle-income people to live close to rapid transit.

Hulchanski's map showing the need for rapid transit

Hulchanski’s most recent map shows the areas which have decreased in income in the past forty years against the proposed lines: the new LRT lines would be making transit much more accessible to the rapidly-growing areas of the region (read his plea for action on ttcriders.ca). My own work with immigrants in Toronto shows that they are willing to travel long distances on infrequent public transit buses only for a short time; eventually they succumb to buying one, two, and three cars. They live further and further out because that’s where affordable housing is…little realizing their transportation costs will eat away considerably at their savings.

Last week mayor David Miller recorded a public service announcement on the subway PA system telling people to call the Premier’s office and their MPPs to oppose the Transit City cuts. Many of the local mayors are also urging their citizens to do the same. All sorts of organizations, from Toronto Environmental Alliance to the Public Transit Coalition have links to the appropriate politicians, and there is a Save Transit City site. I urge you all to call, email, write the MPPs and Premier McGuinty and if you’re in the Toronto area, pack the Council chambers this Wednesday April 21st.

In the past ten days, US policymakers seem to have achieved the impossible. On March 11, 2010, US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood pronounced the end of favouring motorized transportation over non-motorized transportation. And on March 21, 2010, the US finally passed its health care legislation. Aren’t these the first signs of the apocalypse?

Lahood, at this year’s National Bike Summit, announced his new Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations. Key recommendations for state DOTs and communities include treating walking and cycling as equal transportation modes, ensuring convenient accessibility for all ages and abilities, going beyond minimum design standards, collecting data on walking and cycling trips, setting a mode share target for walking and cycling, protecting sidewalks and paths in the same way roads are protected, and improving non-motorized facilities during maintenance projects. At this point of course, it’s a Policy Statement; it’s not law. But it marks the profound shift that is occurring in North America away from car-dominated discourse and policy.

On the health care front, the health care bill passed in the House December 24, 2009 served as the basis for HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. HR 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009, as I reported in an earlier post. Its main measures, taking effect six months after its passage, prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, prevents increased rates for children with pre-existing conditions, forces insurance policies to cover preventative care without co-pays, allows children to remain on parents’ plans until the age of 26, and bans lifetime monetary caps on insurance policies. In the future (by 2014), it will prevent insurers from charging higher rates for those with pre-existing conditions, expand Medicaid eligibility, offer tax credits to small businesses (fewer than 25 employees) who offer insurance, impose tax penalties on businesses with over 50 employees who do not offer insurance, impose a fine on individuals who do not have insurance, give tax credits to individuals who have heath insurance, and offer a state-controlled insurance option. However, it differed significantly from the bill passed in the House, HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, particularly in terms of financing and subsidies. Because they were so different, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the reconciliation bill. HR4872 was passed in the House of Representatives March 21, 2010, in a close 219-212 vote (216 votes were need to pass the bill). Not a single Republican supported its passage, but it doesn’t matter: the bill will be signed into law by the president as early as tomorrow.

Canada has also had a few firsts lately, although they are small potatoes compared to these major American policy shifts. One was the announcement that woonerfs are coming to Toronto. A West Donlands neighbourhood, currently under development, would include these Dutch streets, narrow, mixed-use affairs without curbs, which are thought to encourage pedestrian and cyclists while discouraging cars. Dutch woonerfs include traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and planter “bump-outs,” and the streets are more like outdoor urban social spaces than thoroughfares. The other was the announcement that Canada had opened the first school to ever require students to use non-motorized transportation to get to school. The Halton Public School Board just opened a new school, P.L. Robertson Elementary in Milton, where the students who live within 1.6 km (1 mile) of the school are required to get there on their own two feet, and parents are forbidden from driving their kids. 98% of the 700 students walk, bike, skateboard or ride scooters to school, while the remainder, who live more than 1.6km away, are bused. The school board is running the pilot project for one year, and hope to expand it to other schools soon. If it is a success, project manager Jennifer Jenkins knows that other schools will rapidly jump on board; the wealth of research on this topic shows how much is at stake with increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

All I can say is where is our national policy on transportation? Where is our Ray Lahood? And more importantly, where is our Obama?

In the last few months we’ve seen the birth of another useless media term related to urban planning: “shovel readiness”. Now, I’d be the first to agree that words like “stimulus”, “funding”, and “proposal” are not exciting. But frankly, “shovel readiness” is not riveting either (for one thing, it needs to be explained). Apparently we need something to make these urban planning stories exciting to regular people. That’s too bad, because the stories already have the right stuff: drama, political intrigue, intense competition. Infrastructure funding is a huge problem in both the US and Canada, although the Americans generally believe in spending when times are tough: witness the 1950s interstate system project, the largest public works project in history. Canadians believe in hoarding, giving tax breaks to the rich, and whining about how little money we have, apparently.

About 300 proposals have been submitted to the Obama administration for $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the federal stimulus. This article from National Public Radio (NPR) shows how projects in advanced planning stages (“shovel ready”) with state or private funding already committed will probably be the winners in the competition for funds. These include high-speed links from Orlando to Tampa FL and Vancouver BC to Portland OR, while southern states face legislative or social barriers to high-speed rail. Alabama’s 1901 constitution, for example, forbids the state Department of Transportation from investing in alternative transportation, including rail. NPR suggests that a multi-modal approach is necessary, with a variety of transportation agencies collaborating to create multimodal hubs, otherwise high-speed rail riders will find themselves stranded in car-dependent areas surrounding railway stations. This approach may also help the proposals win federal stimulus funding.

In Toronto, the city managed to raise two-thirds of the funds needed to buy 204 replacement streetcars, including $1.2 billion from the City and $416 million from the Province of Ontario. Mayor David Miller had applied for federal stimulus funding, saying the streetcars would generate jobs in Thunder Bay (where 25% of the new streetcars would be built), Quebec, Manitoba, and the Greater Toronto Area. Bombardier’s report on the proposal said it would generate 5,000 direct jobs and 14,000 indirect jobs. Infrastructure Minister John Baird hinted earlier that the federal government would not fund the streetcar replacement project because it does not meet federal stimulus requirements: it doesn’t meet the 25% Canadian content requirement, does not generate jobs in the Toronto area within a two-year period and will not be completed by March 31, 2011 (and they actually used the term “not shovel ready”).

The federal government did announce $200 million in infrastructure funding for Toronto to help fund 500 infrastructure projects, including upgrades to the transit system and water mains. The City had pledged $400 million itself for these projects, which include repairing the Coxwell Sanitary Trunk Sewer, upgrading transit stations with better security, resurfacing roads, and parks and recreation projects. But no streetcar funding.

Toronto City Council held an emergency meeting on September 11, 2009 and decided to pony up the additional $417 million themselves by deferring some other capital projects. Kudos to them, and Miller, for believing the streetcar purchase was critical for the GTA.

See? Drama. Intrigue. Political positioning. And a last-minute decision to to ahead with “what’s right”, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put it. Who needs made-up words?


canada-line2

Some photos of the new Canada Line on Sunday August 23rd, on the first weekend after its opening:

1. The City Hall Station at Cambie and Broadway 2. New multi-use building across from the station.

3. Airport check-in terminal 4. One of the new trains 5. Very crowded on this first weekend

6. The train nearing Marine Drive Station 7. Marine Drive Station

8 and 9. Walking across the bridge from Marine Drive to Bridgeport. 10. Looking back at Marine Drive Station

11 ad 12. The bike/pedestrian bridge running across Fraser River between Marine Drive and Bridgeport.

13. Bridgeport Station platform 14. Bridge support

It will be really interesting how the land use changes over time. Cambie/Broadway corner (top left) has changed remarkably over the last two years with construction of the Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Whole Foods and Crossroads Centre mixed-use development. But a lot of the line goes through industrial/warehousing land like around Marine Drive and Bridgeport Stations. Their waterfront locations probably mean luxury condo development is on the way, while industrial and agricultural land uses will fall by the wayside. The train is remarkably well integrated with commercial interests, such as the seamless integration of the Bridgeport station platform into River Rock Casino.

In many cities, highway infrastructure is a reminder of one of the lowest points in the history of planning: highways divided cities in half, destroyed working class neighbourhoods, and cut cities off from their waterfronts. Instead of helping to keep downtowns alive by allowing suburbanites quicker access to shops and services, they allowed drivers to bypass these areas, often generating more traffic and acting as a conduit for further suburban sprawl.

Within the past decade, we’ve begun to see a remarkable development in transportation. In cities around the world, the ubiquitous highway infrastructure that characterized the postwar era has been replaced or removed. Cities and regions have tried to devise methods to deal with decaying structures; in the US, most were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, while in Canadian cities they did not begin until the 1970s. The most controversial of these highway rehabilitations is the complete removal of the highways. In many cases this seems to be the most cost-effective way to cope with crumbling infrastructure; in other cases, solutions had to be found for highways that had been significantly damaged in earthquakes (Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct and San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway come to mind). Some cities, wanting a more seamless network of streets, cycling trails, and walking paths, have decided to replace their highways with underground traffic arteries.

Cities from Oklahoma City to Toronto have been discussing plans to remove aging highways. Oklahoma City, whose 4.5-mile Crosstown Expressway will be demolished by 2012, is merely moving the highway five blocks over to an old railroad line and burying it underground. At grade, the highway will be replaced by a tree-lined boulevard that is hoped to revitalize an 80-block area from downtown to the Oklahoma River. The City of Toronto has been considering the removal of the aging Gardiner Expressway for years.  The Congress for New Urganism even published a top ten list of highways they’d like to see removed to promote urban revitalization: Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct was number 1, the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway a close second. These schemes are seen as catalysts for urban regeneration. Are they an indication of the type of multi-modal, pedestrian and cyclist-friendly planning that has been gaining momentum for a couple of decades?

Boston’s Big Dig project may give some municipalities reason to pause: the Central Artery (I-93) was rerouted underground at a cost of $22 million, making it the most expensive highway project in the US. Rerouting the highway underground was only one part of the Big Dig: the other components included the construction of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and the Ted Williams Tunnel. The complex megaproject, initially proposed in 1971 and plagued by engineering and funding complications, was finally completed in 2006. The original construction of the Central Artery (1949-1954) displaced 573 businesses and hundreds of families in the working-class Italian North End of the city. It was chronically congested with east-west and north-south traffic, in part because citizens were so infuriated by it that they managed to stop the construction of further highways linked to the Central Artery in the 1970s, but not before another 4,000 families were displaced.

Designed for a capacity of 70,00, Boston’s Central Artery carried about 190,000 cars per day bin the 1990s. After its redesign underground, travel time across downtown went from 20 minutes down to three. A 62 percent drop in hours spent on the road has resulted in a savings of $200 million annually in time and fuel. The greenway designed at grade level is still not complete, but shows promise in rejoining the city neighbourhoods to their waterfront. Commercial properties adjacent to the Artery have made major gains in property value, and neighbourhoods like the North End have begun to regenerate.

The Infrastructurist recently reviewed four cases of highway removal: Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Highway, Portland’s Harbor Drive, San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Central Freeways. You have likely seen the remarkable before and after photos of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Highway and the river that was restored in its place. The project was completed in 2005, largely at the urging of mayor Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak, and at a staggering cost of 1.2 trillion won (about $281 billion US). The gorgeous 1000-acre park along the restored river isn’t the only benefit of the highway removal: the road carried 160,000 cars per day and these drivers have in many cases switched to alternative transportation. The number of cars entering downtown has decreased by 2.3%, while the number of bus users and subway users has increased (by 1.4% and 4.3% respectively). Air temperatures are lower. And even more astounding, Lee Myung-bak won the Presidency of South Korea in 2007.

Portland was an early highway removal advocate, replacing Harbor Drive with a greenway in 1978. Harbor Drive, a four-lane freeway built in 1950, carried 24,000 cars a day by the 1970s. It also eliminated pedestrian access to the river. When the state Department of Transportation proposed widening Harbor Drive, the City of Portland resisted. In fact, many called for an elimination of the freeway was a way to replace what had been lost: between 1940 and 1970, the number of housing units downtown dropped by 56 percent, as homes were demolished to build an urban renewal project and the Stadium Freeway (I-405). Retail business had declined significantly. With the help of Governor Tom McCall, Harbor Drive was eliminated in 1974. It was to be a turning point in the planning history of Portland. That same year, the City of Portland voted against the Mount Hood Freeway, the first of several highways proposed by Robert Moses. The federal funding for the freeway was instead used to build the downtown transit mall, eastside light rail, and other transit projects. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, built on the Harbor Drive site, opened in 1978.

San Francisco replaced the Embarcadero Freeway with a tree-lined boulevard, bike trails, squares and plazas. The freeway, built in 1958 amid considerable public resistance, was a double-decker structure that connected drivers to the Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936. The Bay Bridge was also double-decker, originally with a rail line on one level. But when the traffic levels on the bridge reached peak levels in only a few years, the rail line was converted to freeway. Originally the Embarcadero Freeway was supposed to connect the Bay bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, but after the first section of the Embarcadero was built the city’s Board of Supervisors vetoed any further expressway infrastructure. Although the Board of Supervisors proposed tearing the freeway down in 1985, the motion was defeated; it carried 70,000 cars per day at its busiest point. In 1989, when the freeway was severely damaged in an earthquake, there was a debate over its fate. It was eventually decided that the freeway would be taken down in 1991. Streetcar lines, which had served the busy port area in the pre-Bay Bridge era when it was bustling with ferry traffic, were rerouted along the new boulevard. The freeway’s removal also spurred a resurgence in residential living. Traffic has been absorbed by the adjacent streets, and BART ridership has increased by 15%, all at a cost of less than $50 million.

The removal of the Embarcadero Freeway may have also inspired the removal of San Francisco’s Central Freeway, which was also damaged in the 1989 earthquake and subsequently closed. Like the Embarcadero, it was a spur highway built as part of the larger unbuilt freeway plan. Despite this, the debate over its removal was fierce. It was finally taken down in 1992 and replaced by Octavia Boulevard, which handles a smaller traffic volume and protects cyclists and pedestrians from car traffic. In addition to this, a short section of the freeway was replaced.

These highway replacement and removal projects can be seen as an effort to reclaim inner city neighbourhoods, but they are also part of a larger movement that acknowledges the importance of many different transportation modes. The rehabilitation of these highways has in most cases been fraught with political tension. In some cases compromises were reached, and replacement instead of complete removal was the end solution. In the cases where highways were removed, the dire predictions of cities overrun by traffic have been proven to be false. The Portland and San Francisco cases remind us that the highways were originally constructed amid public opposition, and that in some ways they represent a turning point in the history of urban planning. The construction of these “gateway” highways inspired public resistance to further highway infrastructure, preventing entire city centers from being destroyed by the octopus-like arms of high-speed concrete. Public support for highway replacement and removal has been critical in each case, but the political sway of individual politicians and city administrations has also been instrumental. These cities have proven that traffic engineers’ predictions of traffic volumes (wait for it) don’t seem that accurate after all.

TransLink’s recent decision to delay construction of the Evergreen Line yet again illustrates the difficulty the regional agency has in funding projects. As I documented in a previous post, TransLink is a regional body created by the Province of British Columbia, which means it legally has only the powers given to it by the province. Their funding comes from fuel taxes, property taxes, transit fares and advertising.

In the case of large infrastructure projects such as the recently-built Canada Line, the Province and the Federal Government kick in some money. The feds are particularly swayed if the project is of national significance, hence the funding for the 19-km Canada Line during the same year Vancouver is set to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. The original SkyTrain line was constructed for Expo ’86. Usually, the balance of funding is made up through public-private partnerships. The Canada Line had the usual regional, provincial, and federal funding sources, as well as the Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA), the City of Vancouver, and private sector partner, InTransitBC, who was selected through a competitive bidding process. The total cost of the Canada Line is $1.9 billion ($2003), with the federal government contributing $419 million, the province $235, the VAA $245 million, TransLink $321 million, the City $27 million, and InTransitBC $65.3 million. TransLink will own the finished line and set fares, while InTransit BC designed the line and will operate and maintain the line for 35 years.

Like many municipalities, as a regional body TransLink has lots of legal responsibility with few fundraising abilities. Legally, the provincial and federal governments have more taxation ability, hence the Goods and Services Tax and BC’s new Carbon Tax. Yet they have been decreasing their responsibilities each year by transferring them to municipalities. The Evergreen Line had $410 million in provincial funding and $417 million in federal funding, in addition to TransLink’s $400 million. Still, the project fell $173 million short, money that TransLink expected to raise through public-private partnerships and transit-oriented development. TransLink’s proposed funding schemes, such as a parking tax and a vehicle levy, have been met with considerable public resistance.

TransLink, which regularly conducts surveys on ridership and potential ridership, has long been in favour of the 11-km Evergreen line linking Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Port Moody. While Burnaby already has the Millenium and Expo Skytrain lines, Coquitlam and Port Moody are among the fastest-growing municipalities in the GVRD and like most of the region, has no rapid transit options. The Evergreen Line was first proposed 20 years ago, and the Province has been promising its construction for five years.

TransLink also has a history of tenuous relationships with the province, as I wrote in a post about their organizational structure. Disagreements between Kevin Falcon, formerly the Provincial Minister of Transportation (2004-2009), resulted in TransLink dropping the Evergreen and UBC lines in favour of the Canada Line proposal, which the TransLink board had voted down repeatedly. Falcon also dissolved the TransLink board, made up of municipal representatives, and replaced it with a provincially-appointed board with no public accountability. It is not surprising that now that TransLink has built the Canada Line, provincial support has returned to its previous dismal level. And as usual, TransLink takes the blame for funding shortfalls (witness the CBC article entitled “TransLink to yank Evergreen Line funding.”) when the real “bad guy” in this scenario is the lack of any comprehensive federal transportation plan that acknowledges municipalities’ role in public transit provision.

TransLink, the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority, is responsible for roads, bridges, public transit, and cycling in the Vancouver region. TransLink’s revenues come from transit fares and advertising, property taxes and fuel taxes. The regional transportation authority regularly consults with the public on transportation planning issues including financing, rapid transit, bus, and cycling options. Their online Transit Advisory Board, launched a few years ago, allows Metro residents to have a say in all sorts of decision making. Their current survey deals with their 10-Year Transportation and Financial Plan, a step towards Transport 2040, their 30-year plan. The survey presents three scenarios: spending $460 million more annually to expand transit, road, and cycling capacity, spending $260 annually to maintain the current situation, or cutting back service drastically.

As they have been in existence for just a decade, TransLink also published a list of accomplishments from 1999-2008. Among these are a 37% increase in transit hours, 38% increase in bus fleet size, 99% increase in annual funding for transit operations, and a whopping 283% increase in capital investments. While those who use TransLink on a daily basis complain about it regularly, and Metro Vancouver doesn’t have nearly the transit service it needs to service almost 2 million people, these are some impressive results over a ten-year period.

TransLink is an excellent example of how complicated it is for municipalities and regions to fund, plan, and provide transit services. Power struggles between all three levels of government are played out every time budgetary consultations are due. While TransLink is unique in providing services and capital improvements for roads, bridges, transit, and cycling, this balanced approach frequently puts the provincially-created body at odds with its creator. The transit strike in 2001, the struggle over funding for the Canada Line, and increased pressure on the UBC line are all potent examples of biting the hand that feeds transit in Metro Vancouver. An effort in 2001 to add a vehicle levy to funding sources was rejected by the Province, which put a stop to service expansion, fuelled service decreases and led to a four-month-long transit strike. One of the other funding challenges is that the income from fuel taxes (about 30% of TransLink’s funding) fluctuates with gas prices.

These struggles occur because often the upper levels of government are at odds with the municipalities; it is one area that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has fought to reconcile. Municipalities know what works best at the local level: in this case, more funding for public transit, cycling, and walking. Funds can be raised through taxes on less sustainable transportation modes. But the Province of BC has long fought this approach, like other Provincial governments, sticking to the postwar status quo: fund road and highway infrastructure to cut down on traffic and make goods movement easier and cheaper. An excellent example is the Gateway proposal, a $4.5 billion dollar road and highway expansion project bitterly fought by Vancouver and Burnaby councils and decried by environmentalists, will now be funded entirely by the Province. BC Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon’s spearheading of the Gateway proposal, against the recommendations of cost benefit and environmental analyses, made lifelong enemies of many GVRD transportation advocates. Falcon was replaced as Minister of Transportation by Shirley Bond when Gordon Campbell was recently re-elected as Premier on May 12, 2009. It isn’t known yet how much Bond will support public transit, cycling, and walking in the Province; it may not matter, considering Campbell’s support of the proposal. A glance at the Provincial Ministry of Transportation website indicates its primary interests in goods movement and airport management; public transit is clearly low on its list of priorities. The Province of BC released a Transit Plan in 2008 that contradicts TransLink’s long-term plan. Clearly, these power struggles indicate that transportation, at the level of public transit and commuter services, is an area that should be wholly given over to Canadian municipalities. There is considerable dissention in the ranks, because without funding from the upper levels of government, municipalities would face the same challenges in transportation that they do in housing: responsibilty with out much-needed cash.

But despite these struggles, TransLink has accomplished a lot in a city that is rapidly growing and needs transportation alternatives. As I write this, the new 19-km Canada Line is being tested for its Labour Day opening, a new SeaBus glides across Burrard Inlet, and the 24-km Central Valley Greenway has just opened. These victories, in addition to the gains in capital investment, and sheer numbers of passengers using the system, are worthy of celebration.