Cancelled fare hike will force cancellation of service increases, throws Translink into turmoil

Transit riders watching full buses pound by them on many Metro routes may be cheered by today’s cancellation of Translink’s proposed 2013 fare increase, but let’s wait to see what service improvements are cancelled as a result.

The fare hike rejection is just one of three bombs dropped on Translink in 24 hours. The other two:

  • a letter from Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom rejecting the Translink’s Mayor’s Council bid to bring in a vehicle levy, regional tolling or a change in the carbon tax to fund transit expansion, effectively forcing a property tax increase to fund some transit improvements; and
  • Translink Commissioner Martin Crilly’s  efficiency review, which “challenges” Translink to find between $400 and $500 million in additional efficiencies during the next 10 years through a host of measures that could include major changes to collective agreements.

Crilly blew a $15 million hole in Translink’s budget this morning when he rejected all but the inflationary aspect of Translink’s proposed increase, which had been approved by regional mayors in the 2009 Funding Stabilization plan that ended that year’s crisis over transit funding.

He’s now proposing that Translink absorb that loss of revenue and maintain services at the same time.

Some conclusions and questions, from the perspective of people who rely on Translink to get from A to B:

  • Lekstrom’s latest missive (missile?) effectively tears up the deal he cut with Metro Mayors to facilitate new funding sources to avert property tax increases. Are the mayors bound to increase the taxes anyway? Many don’t think so. Crilly’s cancellation of the fare increase puts a hole in Translink’s base budget which may require another funding supplement, which may require the mayor’s approval. Look for a confrontation over current funding and possible cancellation of pending projects south of the Fraser, as well as reduction or elimination of incremental bus service hours proposed for next year.
  • Former Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon’s massive overhaul of Translink governance has been exposed as a total flop, as former Translink chairs Malcolm Brodie, mayor of Richmond, and Derek Corrigan, mayor of Burnaby, had predicted. They hail from very different parts of the political spectrum. Look for even more acrimonious provincial-municipal relations over transit until after the election at the earliest.
  • Many of the “efficiencies” proposed by Crilly’s consultants require changes in the collective agreement, especially around staffing provisions and scheduling. The consultants’ memo proposes finding nearly half of the savings through changes in service, as well as measures to “modernize work rules, contract out, etc.” This is an excellent way to have a transit strike if handled improperly.

The efficiency review, released this morning, contains harsh criticism of Translink, despite Crilly’s acknowledgement that Translink’s fares are in line with other North American systems and its services are comparable or better.

Rising cost pressures, where they exist, may be driven as much by Metro’s geography as they are by mismanagement. In many cases, strategies proposed by Crilly’s consultants are already being implemented by beleaguered Translink managers, who have now been reviewed by the Comptroller General and Crilly and face another audit by the finance ministry.

We’ve seen this movie before. In 2001, the New Democrats under Ujjal Dosanjh rejected a vehicle levy. Translink cut services. There was a strike. It took about five years to get transit services back on track.