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Transportation planning in Metro Vancouver

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.


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