Leap Ahead: A parting gift to our readers

Would you pay $0.35 a day if you got:

  • UBC SkyTrain
  • Two Light Rail lines in Surrey
  • 7 new B-Lines
  • Burnaby Mountain Gondola
  • Doubled capacity on the Expo Line

That’s the gist of Leap Ahead, a transit funding proposal that was released today. Based on over a year’s worth of research by myself and Nathan Pachal, the proposal pitches a 0.5% regional sales tax to cover the region’s share of the $6.5 billion cost of the infrastructure package. If approved, Leap Ahead would unlock $15 billion in economic returns and support 230,000 jobs, 4 times the number of jobs from the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

Leap Ahead is a vision of a possible future. We all know what we need to build, the question was always ‘how’. Our research determined that a regional sales tax was the fairest, most affordable, and most realistic option for this region to move forward.

You can read the whole report, with a ton more stats and a plethora of maps, at leapaheadyvr.com

Consider Leap Ahead a parting gift to my readers and to fellow transit advocates across the region. I have been hired as a planner for the Province of Saskatchewan and will be shutting down Metro604 with this post. I will keep the site online as there is a valuable archive of over 500 posts spanning 5 years but there will not be any new articles forthcoming.

As I leave my home in Metro Vancouver, one year before a pivotal referendum on transit, it is my hope that Leap Ahead provides advocates with a viable pitch to win this battle. The referendum will determine the livability of this region for a generation. It is up to those of you who I leave behind to use the best parts of Leap Ahead, form coalitions with broader interest groups, and broker a deal that is winnable. Good luck.

Posted in Site Info, Transport | 8 Comments

Bike Funding Solution – Share the Wealth

Richmond is flat. It’s a fact. Everybody knows this, and as a result everybody says it’s a perfect city for cycling. The City’s cycling facilities work well, for the most part, but are limited. We have the well-known dyke trail which is great, but unpaved. Shell Trail, also unpaved, can take you from just north of Alderbridge Way down to the south arm of the Fraser River. We also have some painted lanes on certain roads which aren’t perfect, but are better than nothing. Unfortunately, the bike lanes on No 3 Rd are uneven, incomplete, and kind of embarrassing.

Cycling is increasing in popularity, and facilities are expanding, although one city city councillor confusingly thinks we’ve done enough.The most exciting piece, the 4 km Railway Ave Greenway, is under construction on a former rail line and will link the middle and south arms of the Fraser. Lansdowne Rd will eventually see a 10 m linear park along its length with a bidirectional bike path on its northern side. Sexsmith Rd will get separated lanes, as will River Rd from Hollybridge Way to Cambie Rd as it is redirected over time, also on a former rail bed.

This is exciting stuff, but other than Railway (with funding from TransLink) they are all dependent on new development and developer contributions. If the market crashed tomorrow, so would our bicycle dreams. Any other cycling improvements get their money from a tiny budget that doesn’t have enough to complete a neighbourhood bike route in a single year. We’re talking signage, paint, and a little paving, nothing crazy. Things are happening, but too slowly.

This budget predicament got me thinking about what we could build for the $4 million that Richmond spends on road repaving every year. Instead of cycling advocates fighting endlessly for new money, why don’t we put off repaving for a year (the roads will survive) and direct the money, and materials and labour, towards bike infrastructure? And let’s do it every three years. Spend year 1 consulting the public on what’s needed. Year 2 will be for designing and refining. Year 3 is the year the money is diverted and the facilities are built. Year 4 we celebrate, study the impacts, and start again. Do this three times over 9 years at a cost of $12 million and, combined with what’s being built by developers, Richmond will have some of the best cycling infrastructure in the country, and at no extra charge.

Could this work in every city? Probably not, but surely cities could rethink the necessity of some of their annual paving projects. Also, the benefit of Richmond’s very proactive paving policy is that the City’s roads are in exceptionally good condition. Should we have to do this? In a city that is able to find over $100 million for a seniors centre, pool, and fire hall, you wouldn’t think so. If transportation infrastructure funding is limited, however, sharing the wealth with bikes might be a plausible solution.

Posted in Richmond, Transport | 3 Comments

How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum?

A comment on the recent Price Tags article on the upcoming November 2014 TransLink Referendum (TransLink Referendum: Can It win? What do we need to know?) strikes a chord on the instruments of an upcoming transit expansion funding referendum. Commenter “David” posted:

Sadly there will be an anti-TransLink vote, even by people who favour additional funding for transit. Some will choose a non-TransLink supported idea just to spite them while others will switch to the “no” side. Unfortunately TransLink has been the victim of bad propaganda for the last 20 years and a significant number of people believe it needs to be reformed or scrapped despite numerous audits showing that it’s actually doing a good job. The people in BC never let facts get in the way of ideology.

Sadly, he is correct.

Votes in the upcoming Metro Vancouver transit funding referendum will be filled with the votes of people who may want transit expansion, but don’t want TransLink. These people want a Metro Vancouver transit future where the only service expansions will come through finding of additional “efficiencies” in TransLink, or the scrapping of TransLink altogether in favour of a different agency. A referendum, thanks to its ability to define a direct result, is dangerous in that it can be easily seen as a tool for these people to “get their revenge” on TransLink.

Sometimes egregiously bad propaganda, such as the recent wash on TransLink for providing free coffee to employees (let’s face it, TransLink is being singled out wrongly – it’s probably not the only transit management agency that does this), has been all over the local media for the past several years. In many ways, it has already had its effect on TransLink; as in recent years TransLink has indeed been put through a lot of scrutiny, and then through audit after audit.

The ironic thing is that many of these audits found TransLink to be a well run company doing a good job. One audit on TransLink efficiency stated that TransLink’s funding formula is the “best in Canada”, because it has allowed it (TransLink) to maintain transit expansion during the recent economic downturn, whereas others across the country were cutting service; its progress report has noted that TransLink does have an interest in pursuing efficiency, and has has made significant progress in taking initiative. A later review of its governance system, while noting that TransLink’s system is one-of-a-kind in the world, found that it is still seen as “state of the art” internationally.

However, these audits were also successful in fulfilling their main purpose – to be audits. While they found that TransLink has not been doing badly, they also found that changes can be made, and in those changes there are those opportunities to make TransLink’s efficiency “better”.

Because of bad propaganda, there are a lot of people and groups in Metro Vancouver who hold TransLink to absurdly high expectations of efficiency; and, so long as there are absolutely any potential “inefficiencies” in TransLink, even if a “solution” to that inefficiency is a reduction in service or an unreasonable impact to management (as were some of the recommendations in these recent audits), there will be an anti-TransLink vote.

Look around: the results of this bad propaganda are everywhere. An online news article that has to do with transit expansion in Metro Vancouver will often yield a number of comments made by folk who will oppose transit expansion just for the sake of TransLink being in charge.

Article after article, editorial after editorial, letter after letter, and decision after decision, bad propaganda has probably already dealt its damaging blow to the future of the Metro Vancouver transit system, and there might not be much that can be done about that.

(Header photo credit: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Andrew Ferguson)

Posted in Transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Police, fire services must be part of city budget restraint initiatives

The latest Canadian Federation of Independent Business report on municipal spending reveals that Canadian municipalities are increasing spending at four to 12 times the rate of population growth.

If you look at city budgets, almost half the spending is on the bread-and-butter departments of engineering and public safety (fire and police). Rarely is there any discussion of this spending, because everyone wants potholes fixed and no one wants to be mugged or burned. Firefighters especially, but also to a great extent police officers, are loved and respected for their dedication and professionalism and the vital work they do. Taxpayers consistently pay up with pleasure. But should they?

This year the city of Vancouver will spend $233 million for policing –the second biggest increase in departmental spending over 2012. The fire department will cost taxpayers $97 million – the biggest increase in departmental spending over 2012. Most of that is due to increased wages and benefits.

I suspect not much changes in the world of engineering: a sewer pipe is a sewer pipe is a sewer pipe. But in public safety, a lot has changed. Crime rates are down, surveillance cameras are up, bad-guy data is linked. Between 2007 and 2011, great work by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) – and plenty of budget increases – helped bring down violent crimes by 12%, property crimes by 28% and automobile deaths by 48%.

You’d think that success might translate into less spending. No. Police numbers and pay continue to rise, with the B.C. median income for police officers clocking in at around $95,000. In 2010, citycaucus.com revealed that 477 VPD employees were making $100,000-plus (up from 345 two years before). In Surrey, RCMP’s E-Division headquarters has just been opened – a $966 million masterpiece of public spending.

In Vancouver, police have made efforts to contain costs: keeping 77 authorized positions vacant, using unarmed – presumably lower paid? – peace officers in a pilot project. Police have also been beset with costly demands for reporting related to the Charter of Rights and a new world of online crimes.

Still, you have to wonder why we keep paying so much to so many police officers when crime is declining.

In the fire world, sprinklers are the new fire suppressors. In 1973, 40 people died from fires in Vancouver. Over the last five years, there’s been an average of four deaths per year. Firefighters’ staff numbers are down slightly from 2008, but the budgets keep climbing as firefighters reinvent themselves as medical first responders, safety inspectors and public health clinic hosts. Still, 88% of the budget is for “fire suppression and medical,” even though one source claims the average firefighter spends six minutes a year actually fighting fires – a figure that has been challenged but never corrected. No one else on the city payroll gets paid to sleep. No other group of employees has such a high percentage of second jobs.

Police and firefighters are experts in keeping money flowing their way – not just through generous election donations. Firefighters, unlike any other public servants, interview and pick a slate of candidates to support in paid ads, then send their “private” fire truck and volunteers to election events.

The police are also good at releasing costly reports about the dangers to the community if a budget increase isn’t approved. Or, as former Vancouver (now Victoria) chief Jamie Graham once did, delivering a bullet hole-riddled rifle-range target to a city manager who tried to hold the line on spending.

Former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, an ex-RCMP officer, once proposed cross-training police and fire forces to do each others’ jobs, as is done in 130 municipalities in 25 states. His idea was quickly shot down, surviving only as a plot line on a Da Vinci’s Inquest episode.

If councils are serious about curbing costs – as they should be – saving on police and fire services has to be on the agenda.

Posted in City Hall | Comments Off

Why a regional sales tax is the only real option for transit funding

As the days tick by and a regional referendum on transit funding inches closer, questions surrounding the ballot are become increasingly clear. One of the central issues that the referendum will seek to answer is what funding source the region should choose for transit. The provincial government has put forward four conditions any source must meet: affordability, regional in scope, public support, and economic impact. To that, I would add two others: sustainability and equitability.

Let’s take a look at the nine most frequently chosen funding options based on these metrics. The target is to raise $250 million a year to fund a $6 billion transit package, including the UBC SkyTrain, two Surrey LRTs, the Burnaby Mountain Gondola, 7 new B-Lines, and an upgraded Expo Line:

Transit fares. The average fare would need to increase from $1.87 a trip to $2.93 a trip – not affordable. High fares would decrease transit usage and simply increase car usage, precipitating congestion and decreasing economic competitiveness. Only 14% would pay under this scenario – not equitable, nor truly regional.

Gas tax. The fuel tax would have to increase 10 cents from 17 cents to 27 cents – not all that affordable. The fuel tax is already suffering from diminishing returns as motorists buy gas outside the region or opt for more efficient vehicles – therefore, its not sustainable. Targeting drivers means only 65% of the population pays – not equitable or regional in scope.

Property tax. The average property tax would double from $375 a year to $701 a year – not affordable. Property owners make up just 33% of the population – not equitable or regional in scope. Additionally, we would trade one problem for another as we drive up the cost of housing.

Tolls. We would need to introduce $2.60 tolls on all major crossings to pay for existing amortization costs of the Port Mann and Golden Ears, in addition to new transit funding. This source may also suffer from diminishing returns as commuters shift out of their cars or reduce their usage – not sustainable. Again, only 65% of the population would pay.

Vehicle levy. A vehicle levy would cost $166 per year, or $0.45 per day – potentially affordable. However, only 65% of the population – those with cars – would pay, meaning its not equitable or regional in scope. It may also suffer from diminishing returns, though the fixed costs of a car means it is more stable than tolls or the fuel tax.

Carbon tax. A carbon tax would essentially be the same as a fuel tax – see above.

Road pricing. Road pricing would essentially be the same as a vehicle levy, though the costs would shift around. This one is a complicated option to implement and is not realistic in the short term.

Sales tax. A sales tax at 0.5% would cost $129 per year, or $0.35 per day, making it the most affordable option on the list. 84% of the population would be paying – all those over 15 who make purchases – making it the most equitable and regional option as well. It is the most sustainable, as it does not suffer from diminishing returns issues that other transport-specific funding options do. However, it may have an impact on large purchases. Note that the GST has been reduced 2% and the PST 0.5% in the past decade, leaving room for a 0.5% sales tax increase for transit.

As you can see above, it is quite clear that a regional sales tax is the only realistic option that meets all the criteria set out. Therefore, it is my contention that the referendum not be a list of funding options as suggested by the Minister in the campaign, but a yes-no vote on a sales tax transit package. Further, all advocates should be pursuing the sales tax package as their most realistic option to win.

Posted in Transport | 7 Comments

3 conditions to remove New West parkade

New Westminster City Council has approved a plan that could see the removal of half the Front Street parkade in the next few years – and potentially the entire structure by 2030.

As reported by Patrick Johnstone, the Front Street parkade is an under utilized and aging piece of car-based infrastructure built decades ago when Columbia Street retailers were trying to compete with upstart suburban malls for business. The parkade is now seen as a significant barrier separating the revitalizing New West downtown with its waterfront.

Council approved a motion that approves the removal of the western portion of the parkade if three conditions are met:

  • adequate parking supply to support local businesses
  • building an effective connection to the waterfront
  • acquiring the funds needed for removal
Posted in New Westminster, Transport | 2 Comments