TransLink, the provider of transit services throughout Metro Vancouver, has just discovered the guiding principle upon which it is created is not only flawed, it is doomed to failure.
The agency requires funding to operate its various systems, be they SkyTrain, buses or other forms of mass transit. The driving force behind transit is to not only move people efficiently at modest cost to the user, it is also to improve the environment and air quality by getting people out of their cars.
The flaw in TransLink’s business plan, however, is that its funding is based primarily on revenues from taxation on gasoline, consumed by the very cars they want to get off the road. What was not taken into consideration, it appears, is that by getting people out of their vehicles and onto transit, they have seriously eroded their financial bottom line.
What also does not seem to have been considered is that world demand has made, and will continue to make, cars much more efficient and thus consume far less fuel on which taxes are based.
Couple that with considerably cheaper fuel available minutes away just south of the border, and revenue generation and the financial ability to provide service will continue to decline.
Which leaves TransLink with only a few options – reduce service to put people back in cars; change the funding formula to taxation on property; or charge a whack more for riding transit.
The latter is obviously the most appropriate course of action, but to truly make transit a user-pay system would cause it to be so expensive that, again, people would return to their personal transportation.
So, between a rock and hard place on which to base its future, the only method that appears workable for TransLink under its present set-up is a property tax sufficient to continuously operate the system.
But that should only be applied to properties within a transit catchment area, sure to create howls of indignation from those in downtown Vancouver who argue against it because they can either walk to work and shopping or ride their bicycles. And for those who live throughout the rest of Metro, such as Langley and parts of Surrey which are beyond SkyTrain, or never see a bus in their neighbourhood, a similar and justifiable protest will be launched.
Those current and future objections to potential increased property taxes, you can be assured, are a hot topic among civic politicians gathered this week in Victoria for the annual Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention – because there is nothing like possible tax increases to place in jeopardy one’s political future on town and city councils.
So, does TransLink really have a future? Of course, mass transit is the only way to properly address people movement in a congested environment – think London, New York, Tokyo.
However, those cities have populations close to or greater than double the population of all of British Columbia. Add to that the fact that “Vancouver” (a.k.a. the Lower Mainland) has the second-most congested traffic situation in North America, bowing only to Greater Los Angeles which has, by the way, the largest mass transit system in the U.S.
Our problem will be trying to make the system here come close to paying for itself, and with gasoline tax revenues on an irreversible downward trend, that leaves only user pay, increased property taxes, or full subsidy by taxpayers throughout the province.
The latter, I’m loath to say, may be the only viable answer. If you have another, let me know.