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Metro Vancouver is facing a critical choice this spring. From March 16 to May 29, 2015 residents of the region will have the chance to decide on future investments in public transit with the Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite.

The referendum is a direct result of changes in transportation governance. In June 2014, there were changes to regional transportation authority TransLink’s governance model. Two groups now govern TransLink: the Mayors’ Council and the TransLink Board of Directors.

  • The Mayors’ Council is made up of representatives from the 21 municipalities in the transit service region, Electoral Area A (UBC campus and Musqueam lands), and the Tsawwassen First Nation. The Council appoints the majority of members on the Board of Directors and approves long-term transportation strategies (≥ 30 years), 10-year transportation investment plans, first-time short-term fares and short-term fare increases, changes in customer satisfaction survey processes, changes in customer complaint processes, TransLink’s Executive Compensation Plan and director compensation levels, and oversees sale of major facilities and assets.
  • The Board of Directors includes nine members appointed by the Mayors’ Council and up to two members appointed by the Province, selected on their skills and expertise. The Board appoints the TransLink Chair, Vice Chair, and CEO, supervises the management of the affairs of TransLink, submits long-term transportation strategies and 10-year transportation investment plans to the Mayors’ Council for approval, approves TransLink’s annual operating budgets, proposes to Mayors’ Council changes to customer satisfaction survey processes and conducts surveys annually, proposes to Mayors’ Council changes to customer complaint processes and implements approved processes, publishes annual reports, holds public annual general meetings, and establishes subsidiaries and appoints their Board Chair and members.

The “new and improved” Mayors’ Council represents a fundamental shift in the way regional transportation planning decisions are made, returning a voice to the public through their elected representatives, who have a vested interest in building a collaborative vision and plan for transportation and transit (TransLink’s mandate includes roads, bridges, and public transit). In 2007, Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon said that there was too much in-fighting among the municipalities and little agreement on regional goals. He introduced governance changes that weakened the ability of the Mayors’ Council to determine the regional transportation vision. But a 2013 governance review criticized the lack of accountability to local residents. The 2014 governance changes eliminated the Regional Commissioner of Transportation and the ability of the provincial government to set the regional transportation vision.

As many of my readers know, municipal/regional transportation authorities have an uneasy relationship with their provincial ministries at the best of times–the Province of BC’s decision to prioritize of the Canada Line over the Broadway Line and Falcon’s 2007 governance changes soon afterwards highlighted this power struggle. In Ontario I once overhead a longtime provincial policy analyst say that he “didn’t think the province would ever let go” of its legislative authority over municipalities. The governance issue relates back to the British North America Act, which granted authority to the federal and provincial governments, omitting municipal governments because Canada was largely a rural nation in 1867. Today municipalities, and local/regional bodies such as transit agencies, struggle to fund their services because they lack revenue streams that the upper levels of government have (e.g. the Goods and Services and Provincial Sales Taxes) in a country where over 8% of the population now lives in urban areas.

So it transpired that in February 2014, the BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure asked the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council to confirm its transportation vision and to clarify the costs, priorities and phasing for investments and actions. The Mayors’ Council established a Subcommittee on Transportation Investment, which worked with TransLink, Metro Vancouver and municipalities to define their vision, establish spending priorities, and recommend new funding mechanisms. For those of my readers in other cities and countries, this kind of collaboration towards a common vision is typical of the Vancouver region, where the first regional plan was articulated over forty years ago. Liberal Premier Christy Clark asked for a referendum on the Mayors’ Council plan.

The actual wording of the ballot is:

The Mayors’ Council has developed a transportation and transit plan called Regional Transportation Investments – A Vision for Metro Vancouver. The plan will:

  • add bus service and new B-Line rapid bus routes
  • increase service on SkyTrain, Canada Line, Seabus, and West Coast Express
  • maintain and upgrade the region’s major roads
  • build a new Patullo bridge
  • build rapid transit connecting Surrey Centre with Guildford, Newton, and Langley
  • build rapid transit along Broadway in Vancouver
  • extend the region’s cycling and pedestrian walkway networks.

A new Metro Vancouver Congestion tax would be applied as a 0.5% sales tax on the majority of goods and services that are subject to the Provincial Sales Tax and are sold or delivered in the region. Revenues would be dedicated to the Mayors’ Council transportation and transit plan. Revenues and expenditures would be subject to annual independent audits and public reporting.

Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Council transportation and transit plan?

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You can get more details on the Mayors’ Council, and their plan, on their website (www.mayorscouncil.ca). If you live in Metro Vancouver, and are a registered voter, you can vote by mail between March 16 and May 29th. If you’re not registered, and you are 18 or over, a Canadian citizen, a resident of Metro Vancouver and a BC resident for at least 6 months, click here to go to Election BC’s website.

I’m also supporting Moving In a Livable Region, a consortium of businesses, organizations, local governments, and transportation leaders working together to create a long-term sustainable funding regime for transportation in the Metro Vancouver region, in their efforts to get information out to the public. Click here to read my guest post. Transportation referendums are exceedingly rare in Canada, so don’t miss your chance to have your say!

Robson Square, redesigned and reopened for the Olympics

Spectators arriving at Aberdeen station, preparing for a 20-minute walk to the Richmond Olympic Oval

After all the media hype and local anti-Olympic sentiment, Vancouver is enjoying a rare opportunity during the 2010 Games. Not only does the city get to experience a real urban vibe as tens of thousands of tourists have flooded the streets, but it’s also experiencing another rare phenomenon: very little car traffic and extra service on transit routes. These changes have created a very different feeling as the city celebrates Canadian and international achievements in sport.

TransLink staff, as well as City of Vancouver staff and the folks at Metro Vancouver have been busy planning transportation alternatives for tourists, spectators, media and athletes for many years, all in preparation for the 16-day Olympic and 10-day Paralympic Games. Some of the big-ticket items are well-known: the Canada Line from downtown to the airport and the Bombardier demonstration streetcar linking Granville Island and the Olympic Village.

Olympic line streetcar at Granville Island

The Canada Line, which was saw ridership of 100,000 per day before the Games, saw 200,000 riders last Sunday. TransLink’s overall ridership has already reached 1.5 million per day: not bad for a region that normally has 1.8 million residents.

But there are also lots of lesser-known initiatives that have gone a long way towards making this a very sustainable Games: increased transit service on routes serving the venues, no parking at most venues, and bike sharing at some venues like the Richmond Olympic Oval.

Free bikes provided by Heineken Holland House at Aberdeen Station

Streets adjacent to most venues were closed to all vehicular traffic, including Wesbrook Mall on the UBC campus, which is hosting women’s hockey at Thunderbird Arena.

Spectators leaving Thunderbird Arena walking two blocks to the bus loop. No parking was provided at the venue.

There are special “Olympic lanes” on city streets dedicated to transit and vehicles transporting athletes, media, and officials. Robson Street was initially closed between Howe and Granville, but this was extended to Bute and Beatty Streets; Granville Street is closed between Smithe and Cordova Streets. The energy of the crowds in these main downtown streets is amazing, and there is a lot of added pedestrian interest, including a lantern display on Granville Street. The number of cars entering the downtown peninsula has dropped 30% since the beginning of the Games on February 12th, while over 4,000 cyclists per day cross the Cambie, Burrard and Granville Bridges into downtown.

In addition to this, Cultural Olympiad concerts and events have been happening all over the region, from Our Lady Peace playing a free concert at Richmond’s O-Zone to a 24-hour outdoor art gallery at the Surrey 2010 Celebration Site. These events were planned to begin in January until the end of the Paralympic Games on March 21, 2010. Because there’s so much going on in each municipality, local residents can actually get involved in the Olympics and its related events without making the trek downtown.

Richmond City Hall, with exhibits and big-screen coverage of the events, at the entrance to the O-Zone

Richmond City Hall at the entrance to the O-Zone, with exhibits and big-screen coverage of the events

Many Vancouverites, anticipating intense crowds and traffic, actually left the city during the Games. This likely means that there are more non-residents than residents in the City of Vancouver at the moment. In addition to this, some workplaces are closed, and UBC and SFU both have a two-week Reading Week to cover the Games period. The absence of this regular commuting traffic has likely contributed to higher transit ridership and much faster travel times. I took the #44 express bus from UBC to downtown on Friday at rush hour, and was at Robson Square in 15 minutes, a trip that normally takes half an hour.

The question is, why can’t we do this year-round? Keep the Olympic lanes as transit-only lanes; decrease parking in the downtown core, along our main streets and at key destinations; and increase transit service. Most locals would love to see pedestrianized zones on Robson and Granville in the core area of downtown. Of course, the vast number of tourists in the city and the energy that comes along with such a major sporting event will not persist past February 28th (Olympics) and March 21, 2010 (Paralympics). It’s been a fantastic 16-day party, truly a defining moment for Vancouver and for Canada.

Robson Street nightlife during the Olympics


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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.

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.