Mar 8, 2012

TransLink Funding and Governance (Yet Again)


I always smile when I think of the provincial negotiator Peter Cameron’s comments when we were wrapping up the final details in the transit funding and governance negotiations leading to the creation of Translink. We all thought we had a good agreement. MetroVancouver would be given broad responsibilities to plan and deliver transit services, develop integrated regional road networks, promote car pooling and other methods of reducing transportation requirements, encourage more transportation-friendly land use. And along with this it would be given a wide range of powers to increase funding through transportation-related and other charges, like vehicle levies, parking taxes, and project-specific tolls. Transportation was perhaps the most commonly cited regional concern and the region was finally going to have the responsibility and power to solve it.

As we were congratulating ourselves on getting to this improbable place — a jointly agreed and principled devolution of responsibilities and powers between the province and the region — Peter Cameron presciently said: it is a good agreement — it is just the funding and governance provisions I am worried about. So I am certain it is no surprise to Peter that Translink and the province are still trying to sort out funding and governance of the regional transportation authority.

The problem, and I believe Peter would agree, was not the provisions in themselves. They were based on clear, well-regarded principles — strongly supported in transportation planning circles throughout North America. The problem was that the parties would not honour them. The province, in the end, did not want to give up control. And neither the province nor the region (except for some uniquely courageous politicians like then head of MetroVancouver, George Puil) did not want to take responsibility for raising the funds that would be required to provide the services and infrastructure sorely needed.

So, despite the fact that all parties recognized the implementation of a vehicle levy, ideally based on distance travelled, was going to be the major new source of funds, regional and provincial politicians balked. At least one mayor who was on the negotiating committee arguing in closed meetings for an even larger vehicle levy than what we had planned, led a political charge against it when time came to implement it. And the province, first the NDP and then the Liberals that followed, refused to facilitate the collection or even just the enforcement of a vehicle levy. In the face of anti-tax political winds, they shamelessly abandoned the key component of the funding plan on which the agreement was based. It was easier to pretend other parties could pay for all the service and infrastructure that was needed (the feds being the local favourite) than taking political responsibility for what had to be done.

Also, perhaps not surprisingly, despite the clear intent of the agreement that the region would plan and prioritize what transportation infrastructure and service to provide, the province couldn’t resist imposing their pet projects on what was, without the vehicle levy, a severely underfunded regional authority. The NDP imposed the Millenium rapid transit line because it could be built before the 2001 election. The Liberals imposed the Canada Line because it could be built in time for the Olympics. Neither project was a regional priority, and neither was supported by a convincing business case.

When the governing TransLink board very properly challenged the priority and economics of what was being imposed, the province challenged and changed the governance. They could no longer accept even the facade of the devolution of responsibility to the region.

There were indeed reasons to worry about the funding and governance of Translink, but in retrospect more reason to worry about the politics of their implementation than the provisions themselves. And that is as true about any agreement that may be reached today as what we negotiated over ten years ago.

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