With too many questions unanswered, Metro transport committee declines “support” for Translink base plan

Members of the Metro Vancouver Transportation Committee declined a staff recommendation to “support” Translink’s 2014 Base Plan yesterday, declaring that the plan raised more questions than it answered.

At the centre of many committee members’ concerns was the sudden decision to allocate $299 million to remediate the failing Patullo Bridge, which Translink vice-president Bob Paddon warned could face lane closures or even closure if safety issues aren’t addressed. The money would keep the Patullo going while a decision is made on a full upgrade or replacement in the next few years. (The Mayors link this issue to Victoria’s decision to undertake a $3 billion bridge crossing to replace the Massey Tunnel.)

Nothing turns on the Metro decision because Translink is simply required to communicate the plan to Metro, which has no requirement or authority to approve it. (A “supplement,” which raises extra funds, requires Mayor’s Council approval.) In effect, Metro simply received the plan for information.

But the committee, chaired by Surrey Mayor Diane Watts, had such wide-ranging concerns that an endorsement seemed wrong-headed:

  • Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie questioned the fiscal soundness of a plan that suddenly proposes $299 million in remediation costs to a bridge that is schedule for a complete overhaul or total replacement;
  • Richmond Mayor Wayne Wright had similar frustrations, reminding Translink that the bridge replacement debate is already at least 20 years old;
  • Mayor Diane Watts questioned what commitments the province had made to cost-share replacement when it downloaded the bridge to Translink in 1999 — Paddon said the documentary record is not complete, so he’s not able to say;
  • Mayor Derek Corrigan challenged the allocation of federal gas tax money, a vital source of capital for expansion, to bus fleet replacement;
  • several committee members deplored the $40 million in annual losses expected on the Golden Ears Bridge, a financial expenditure that could leverage major capital expansion if it wasn’t required to subsidize the bridge; and
  • Mayor Richard Walton questioned how the sale of capital assets, such as the old Oakridge depot in Vancouver, could be used for operations.

I agreed with all those concerns and had one of my own: the calculation by Metro staff that the share of Translink overhead borne by transit riders (i.e. fares) will rise to 39 percent in the next 10 years from 35 percent today. Yet service hours per capita are declining in the face of the funding crunch.

If fares rise too far, too fast, ridership will decline. Although the Base Plan’s fare schedule suggests Compass Card fares will be more affordable, many believe Translink fares are already at that tipping point.

Add to that the continued “service optimization,” which is cannibalizing low-ridership routes to increase service on busier ones, and you have a recipe for chronic low ridership in suburban Metro. I can’t support that.

This much is clear: the Base Plan’s suggestion that it marks a “starting point” for the referendum debate is true, and a sign of how much of an overhaul is required to put Translink on a firm footing for the future.