$100 million for Translink turnstiles, none for U-Pass

[NOTE: a few days after this was posted, the BC Liberals promised to fund U-Pass if re-elected.]

In the six long years since Vancouver’s post-secondary students began their campaign for a single universal pass across the region, Translink has resisted their demand with the claim that it couldn’t afford the cost.

Each student body that joined the program had to pay its own way, with a combination of mandatory student fees and higher ridership, the “revenue neutral” approach that saw UBC students ride for $22 a month, Langara students for $37 and those without the program even more.

As I pointed out last fall, the revenue neutral system means a Vancouver Community College student will pay three times as much as a UBC or SFU student for the same transit access. That adds up to $400 over an eight-month term, a huge sum for students struggling pay tuition and rent.

Of course, the cost of U-Pass expansion would be in the millions of dollars, but the region would benefit by increased transit ridership and students would pay a significant share of the cost with their fees.

Fed up with the stonewalling, students at Emily Carr and Vancouver Community College have filed a complaint with the BC Ombudsman, demanding a review of the patently unfair program. On March 31, they presented Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon with 2,500 cards signed by students seeking a single pass. On April 10, they presented thousands more to Mayor Gregor Robertson as City Council unanimously approved a motion (item 4 here) endorsing their cause.

Just hours before, Premier Gordon Campbell, Falcon and Conservative MP Russ Hiebert announced a $100 million investment in Translink designed to buy turnstiles for the entire system. Ottawa will provide $40 million, Victoria $30 million and Translink the remainder. Translink’s money will go to Smartcard technology, a useful innovation that should help the system.

The turnstiles, however, are a waste, an investment Translink has refused to make because the money recovered in fare evasion will not come close to covering the cost of the new equipment. No matter — Minister Falcon wants them, so he’s paying the shot.

For a fraction of the cost, the Premier and Minister Falcon could have scored a massive political win on the eve of the election by extending U-Pass to all post-secondary students. (BC Transit already provides a single pass for all post-secondary students in Victoria for $60 a semester.) Instead, they have achieved the inconceivable: a $100 million investment in public transit that will not produce one second of additional service.

So why the rush to spend? My guess is the imminent Labour Day opening of the Canada Line. All the payments for this public-private partnership are based on ridership numbers. Without solid numbers, the lawyers will have nothing to argue about.