It is with some reluctance that I blog on this issue – because it has been covered here already extensively. And though there is a lot in the local media this morning in reaction to yesterday’s meetings between the Mayors, the Premier and the Minister of Transport – and the MoU – really nothing much has changed. And most of the reaction you can read is simply driven by which side of the political spectrum the speaker is on. Many Mayors are closely allied to the right wing – or the elite or whatever else you may call them. They may not be very keen on Gordon Campbell any more, and they know they have to be seen to be defending their turf and the people who pay property taxes, but they all stress the party line about working together and “only one tax payer”. The event was carefully stage managed. As was the decision to announce public consultation as the next step. A bit of hubris over the HST - not the tax itself, of course, just the way it was done. As though public consultation is going to make the revived vehicle levy any more popular this time than it was last time. A few Mayors – and the NDP transport critic – simply rubbish the whole thing: of course.
Nothing much has actually changed. Everything is now on the table – except the carbon tax. Or the idea that the province should cancel its massive road building program – that was not even mentioned. The main thrust is still that people who live in Metro Vancouver have got to pay more taxes – some way or another – if they want more transit. The idea that the province should pick up more is not on the table either. The MoU is very specific about what the municipalities must do – much vaguer on what the province is committed to. Translink has access under the legislation to a few sources – property tax, parking taxes, a vehicle levy – and gets a share of the locally collected gas tax that the province collects. Anything else would require legislation – so the province gets to decide if that gets time in the house and a whipped vote – and even a vehicle levy needs more regulations, which is how Ujjal killed it last time.
So the next bit is Translink coming to ask us – once again – “how would you like to pay for that?” Predictably, the loudest voices will be the anti-tax brigade who believe that we are already taxed out – we cannot afford any more tax for anything. They also believe that government wastes money – and that there is a small fortune to be had by cutting expenditures. You can already see these themes in the comments sections of those sites that allow them. You will also hear from those who do not, they say, “benefit from transit” that they should not have to pay for it. There’s a special local variation of this – “they get more transit than we do, so they should pay more for it”.
Fortunately, Translink can now say, quite credibly, that they have done a good job at cost cutting. Of course, not nearly enough to satisfy those who will say “you shouldn’t have …” and then point to various investments that they don’t like: but then they cannot be satisfied in any event. They will also now be able to say that some form of vehicle levy now looks better than property taxes – which are still going to be the province’s fall back if no new source is identified.
Many better options are going to be rejected as impractical – or at least infeasible to implement in time to pay for the Evergreen Line, but “we will look at them for the long term”. So expect whatever is chosen to be hedged about with “pro-tem” undertakings. Which the populace will rightly be skeptical about. The province will not, I predict, shift from its opposition to tolls on existing infrastructure – and Translink is going to have a tough enough time getting tolls on the replacement for the Patullo Bridge. Congestion charges will also be rejected – mainly because our geography and land use distribution does not allow for the simple cordon pricing used elsewhere. We do not, any longer, all go to downtown Vancouver to work in the morning. Anything other than a simple cordon will get put off because of the time needed for its implementation. A simple sticker on a license plate will still have to get through the agency procedures used by ICBC – and the take they will want will increase dramatically if it is anything other than flat rate. And you can bet there will be stories about people registering their vehicles outside the region to avoid paying.
The idea that there should be some capture of the private sector’s gain from transit investment will also fail. Because the private sector can always say – just as they did when Toronto proposed this to pay for transit expansion there – “we will develop elsewhere. If it costs us more to do TOD then we won’t: we will keep on doing what we like – highway oriented development: and you have already committed plenty in highway expansions to give us more than enough scope there, thank you very much.” That may be one reason why Translink has been given the power to do TOD on its own – using the Hong Kong model. Not that we have seen much of that yet. There is still no development on some of Translink’s best located sites – like the Oakridge transit centre: there a combination of operational necessities and local opposition has been enough to keep it going as a garage.
I also expect to see a lot of noise from the people who think of roads as “investments” but transit as “wasteful subsidy”. The recitation of the old saws about only 10% of the people use the bus – we “need” more spent on the 90% who don’t. About the lack of choice. About ‘social engineering’ – as though the history of post war North America was not example enough of the social engineering that produced suburban sprawl and all its related ills. Roads, freeways and low density housing were all planned – they did not simply spring up at the will of the market place. They had to be forced on to people – and those people had to be co-opted into acceptance at great expense and effort.
I would like to think, as I once did, that sweet reason and the good example of the other places that made better choices than we did will be enough to win a reasonable solution. I am afraid that I have become cynical. Maybe it’s reading books like “Merchants of Doubt” that have done that. Perhaps the elite have bought in to the idea that some transit might not be a bad idea after all – and there will be some positive stuff seen in the main stream media to cajole along the reluctant. Perhaps enough people liked the Canada Line and the Olympic Line to move the needle of the opinion meters a bit. Maybe the awareness of issues like the impact of carbon on the atmosphere and our lungs has increased in recent years. Maybe we have got better at selling unpopular notions, like the need to pay for transit from tax revenue rather than fares. Actually, I bet that whatever tax increase there is, there will also be fare increases too.
But right now, my gut instincts tell me that the Evergreen Line will not be built. That the feds will yank their funding. They don’t like any form of public transport (see their Amtrak decision, for instance) and they have committed too much elsewhere to military spending. That keeping the Russians away from the next oil and gas bonanza in the Arctic counts for much more than reducing car dependency in the suburbs of Vancouver. That no-one now would trust Gordon Campbell to keep his word on anything – let alone a vaguely worded MoU that commits him to nothing. That there will be a tax revolt – the head of steam raised to fight the HST in this region being diverted at Translink since that decision will come before the referendum.
I hope I am wrong.