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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for the ‘transit’ Category

Outages, breakdowns and responsibility

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I got an email this morning from Car2Go apologising for a disruption in service last night. It was a significant event.

Yesterday, at 4:30pm CST, our car2go vehicles experienced a disruption in service that was directly related to our Germany-based mobile provider.  At that time, our provider had undergone a malfunction within their network that disabled cell phone roaming, resulting in a break in remote connection with all of our car2go vehicles across North America and their network in Germany.  Thus, members were not able begin or end their trips until the issue was resolved at 12:54am CST today.

The letter goes on to explain further and detail what car2go corporately had done at the time and would be doing in future. This incident did not get reported on the CBC Vancouver TV evening news. In fact until I got the email from car2go I was unaware that there had been any problem. What we did see last night was the disruption in the UK due to a computer issue with air traffic control – also a non-trivial impact – and a rehashing of the potential “news story of the year” – Skytrain and Compass problems at Translink. Conflated, you will note, but also problems of a similar nature to car2go and UK ATC.

We have become dependent on computer systems and they are not 100% reliable all the time. When they do go wrong, it is not just inconvenient for a few, but many and for extended periods of time. And we look for someone to blame. CBC reran the video of Todd Stone comparing Translink to the private sector where, he said, “heads would roll” under similar circumstances. Again, no one pointed out that the problems with Compass are the responsibility of the private sector contractor, Cubic, who is failing to deliver what it contracted to provide. We seem determined to blame Translink for this failure (even though Faregates and all that followed result from a decision by Kevin Falcon): as though sacking Ian Jarvis would somehow compensate for that. He isn’t going to resign – though reporter Eric Rankin seemed seemed to be saying he should due to the SkyTrain problems. Actually he was misreporting since Stone was talking about Compass NOT Skytrain. But we will let that go.

Anger gets directed at Translink: this is not unusual. Most cities have the same love hate relationship with their transit systems as they do with their computers. Though again it is not always clear where the fault lies. If the video I want to see (a damning review of “Noah” and much else) does not load instantly, is that a problem with the tablet, its operating system or the internet service provider?  Would replacing Telus with Shaw actually make the slightest bit of difference? I have no idea of the complexities of delivering video clips from remote servers, or the state of my operating system from moment to moment (is it downloading the movie or updating the app?) but my instinct is to blame the hardware, since we all like getting new toys. Similarly with Translink. People have a conviction that because they have used a bus many times, they know enough to criticize Translink. For instance

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Now Bob Mackin is a “news, sports, business and politics journalist.” He poses a question – but in reality is implying that Translink is inefficient because a trolleybus is nearly empty. I declined to be drawn because the question betrays the ignorance of the questioner. Of course the trolley bus is going to empty some of the time, on some parts of its route. Unfortunately it is impractical to switch it for a smaller bus some of the time and for some of the route, because its capacity is going to be needed later somewhere else. It is the nature of transportation demand to be peaky. That’s why you can get deals on airlines for some flights on some days – they have a pricing system that allows them to optimise demand. We have not yet reached that level of sophistication with transit, and the technical problems of getting Compass to work with a much simpler (but still complex enough) fare system are a good enough illustration of why that might be. Anyway, the major cost of bus operation is the driver – and the mechanics who look after buses when they go out of service. Translink pays the operators of “minibuses” (community shuttles) a bit less but that was a concession hard won. It is impossible for any transit system to have the right sized bus on part of the route for different parts of the time. Just ask the kids who go to school on Community Shuttle routes. Unlike SkyTrain, where you can turn additional capacity on and off as long as there usable spare trains available, (and not of course on the Canada Line even if though there are) there is no back up of drivers and buses that can be summoned or dismissed easily and cheaply. But Bob Mackin is sure that if he was in charge or Translink, he could make it run better: or maybe he thinks that he could hire smarter people who could. Which was exactly why we had that long bus strike, and why most of us are glad that we seem to have avoided one since. Of course, for Translink critics, like Jordan Bateman, any public sector operation is by definition inefficient. Translink management gets no credit at all for running a pretty reliable service most of the time and avoiding strikes and other outages. Mistakes – such as accommodating demands for greater efficiency by not buying an expensive software package – will be noted as black marks, not rewarded as cost cutting. Most cost cutting leads to impacts elsewhere, as the Mayors elected in municipalities impacted by service rationalisation were eager to stress last Thursday. But how else does Translink get more service hours to increasing demand on overcrowded routes when there is no new funding? And isn’t this exactly the same problem writ large that Mackin identifies?

Bob Mackin is also the reporter who chose to list the cost impact of increasing sales tax. It is sometimes hard to tell when reporters are actually trying to influence their readers, since there is always an editorial process that leaves other stuff out. It is the absence of other information that gives the story its slant. This does not have to be deliberate “spin” but we do expect that all media will at least attempt even handed reporting. This in itself can result in spin. The way that mainstream media has given so much prominence to climate change deniers, for example, when there is hardly any real scientific disagreement. See that video clip above for another example.

I do not pretend to be a reporter. I am unabashedly an advocate. My preferences are clear. More transit is a better outcome for this region than more roads. Congestion is not even the major problem that I would chose to stress, though I see why the BoT would. Air we can breathe, water we can drink and food we can eat are not merely desirable, they are essential. Edible shellfish are currently denied us at our beaches. The weather is dreadful and the seas are rising. The place we get our food from has had a prolonged drought – and we have covered over our own food growing area to store containers. Most of which are empty. People are in general hard pressed financially. Not so much through taxation as its replacement by fees and charges and the unwillingness of many private sector employers to pay wage increases in order to increase profitability. I understand why this inevitably leads to opposition to tax increases, but things have to be paid for – and this current proposal is the least worst option. And as a value for money proposition is, I would argue, unbeatable.

It would be preferable to live in a society that valued all its members – not just the incredibly wealthy. It would be better if we spent money on housing, education, health and public transport than tax breaks for the rich and their corporate entities. We could have had a much more vibrant local economy if we had chosen to develop renewable energy sources – which are abundant and relatively benign in their impacts – than LNG. Far better to have built fast LRT and slow streetcars, with lots more regional rails than freeways. Not taking money from people as MSP contributions, higher ICBC premiums, BC Hydro bills and BC Ferry fares but increased income tax on the top brackets. Less emphasis on profitable high rise condo towers, much more for co-ops, housing societies, even outright public housing. Not developing the University Endowment Lands for private profit and occupation but for student accommodation. Not building the real boondoggles – the convention centre, BC Place, the casinos but putting that money to work where it is is actually needed for local welfare – which includes mobility for all, not just those who can afford a new car.

We do not live in such a country. Our province has long abandoned such approaches no matter what it claims. The best we can do is make the adjustments that we can. And a half a cent on the sales tax – provided other levels of government match the funds – is at least a step in the right direction. The people who oppose it have (so far) failed to come up with anything better.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 13, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Metro mayors vote to hold transit sales tax hike referendum

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I went out this morning to the new Anvil Centre in New Westminster. The Mayors’ Council held a public meeting to approve the referendum question which is based on a proposed 0.5% addition to Provincial Sales Tax levied in Greater Vancouver. The link takes you to all the material discussed at that meeting and for a very good summary, as well as copies of the distributed materials I recommend Jeff Nagel’s report in the Surrey Leader.

Only three of the Mayors dissented but then they can do that safe in the knowledge that the referendum process will proceed, and if the question passes their communities will still benefit. So they get to do a bit of grandstanding. Mayor Corrigan of Burnaby boasted about how much more he knew about transit than anyone else having been in charge of BC Transit at the end of the nineties – when it won awards as best transit system. You may recall that was the contest where BC Transit nominated itself and there was no other system nominated. You may also recall his discomfiture at the revelation that he himself did not actually use the system but was happy to drive himself around in a leased Saab paid for by the system. West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith seemed most offended by Translink’s decision to set aside $4.5m to “lobby on the referendum”. “Are they a transportation company or a political lobby group?” he asked rhetorically. Of course since the referendum is about Translink it would be even stranger if they made no attempt at all to communicate with the people who are being asked to vote on a tax increase. And even then he had to admit that the problems really lie with the governance of Translink, which has to report to the province, the professional board, the Mayors’ Council and the transit commissioner. “No one is really accountable” he said. Translink is “high cost model” and the “strong winds of private sector should blow through the organisation.” He was most upset about the free passes given to staff, their families and pensioners. He claimed that no private sector company gives discounts to their staff. (Really? Doesn’t he know anyone who works for an airline? Does he know what the marginal cost of an empty seat on a bus is?) I was surprised he did not mention the “gourmet coffee”.

I found a bit more sympathy with the new Mayor of Maple Ridge who opposed the motion on the basis that the Mayors will have no say at all on how the money is going to be spent. Actually, if you look at the question itself you will see the other Mayors had this covered by insisting on independent audits. Lois Jackson managed to work in a sly dig at the amount of work the new Mayors must have had to do to get up to speed on the proposal. She was all in favour of it, the combined Mayors of South of the Fraser having got all they wanted into the proposals. 20% of the population currently lives within walking distance of the Frequent Transit Network. Once this plan is implemented that will increase to 53%, she said. The figures for distance to jobs are even better: from 31% now to 67%. (All these figures are direct quotes from her second speech which came just before the vote).

Ian Black CEO of the Board of Trade spoke to the Mayors before their debate started on behalf of the new coalition which has been formed to promote the Yes side of the campaign. His case seems to be that people will vote for better transit if you add the words “transportation” and talk about how congestion increases business costs.

As usual Translink came in for a lot of criticism about its lack of accountability (as though that were their fault) and their apparent reckless spending. No one mentioned the many audits, consultants reports and comparative studies that have been done over the last few years most of which came from independent sources, usually highly paid accountants, all of which found that Translink performs as least as well and in some cases much better than transit systems of similar size across North America. If this referendum does turn into a Translink popularity contest then I hope at least some of the money set aside for communications goes into wider distribution and publicisation of those studies. Not least from the province, who created the current professional board – well represented at today’s meeting, none of whom said a word – mainly due to the dismissal of the municipal representatives’ apparent inability to control spending.

I have pages of notes from the meeting but no time to transcribe them now, due to other commitments. But I will be looking out for other links in the media and blogosphere – Nathan Pachel was sitting near me as was Eric Doherty. Was there any live tweeting going on at the time?

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Referendum Question

Written by Stephen Rees

December 11, 2014 at 3:45 pm

BC Transit offers Hydrogen Buses for sale

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BC Transit 1000

I saw this story on the CBC News last night so that’s where I am linking to. It gets picked up by the paywalled press too, of course, but what I think is interesting about this version is the commentary from Eric Denhoff of Ballard.

The claim that these buses saved greenhouse gas emissions is contradicted by the admission that the hydrogen had to be trucked from Quebec. Hydrogen is of course freely available everywhere: extracting it, packing and shipping it is, of course the expensive bit, and itself consumes lots of energy. And the trucks which drove back and forth across the continent were diesel powered. There is also a plant in North Van which vents hydrogen it produces as a byproduct which is not clean enough for the finicky fuel cells.

What annoys me about the web version of this story is that is misses the correct attribution of responsibility. The TV news had quite a bit about the decision by Gordon Campbell to buy these buses and have them run in Whistler during the Olympics. It also mentioned the complete failure of the “hydrogen highway” that he announced with Arnold Schwarzenegger that never materialized.

The Province always has money for these ribbon cutting, PR fluff type projects. Obviously just not enough money for Whistler’s transit system to keep running the things. There is never enough money to run transit in BC but every so often they go all loopy and buy a bunch of white elephants. Several different iterations of CNG buses wished on to Vancouver before they got one that actually worked reliably. Even though the emissions from diesel buses fitted with mandatory control equipment now equal the tailpipe performance of CNG. Not that there is much wrong with air quality Vancouver.

It is also worth noting the the CBC web version mentions that there is a Plan B if BC Transit can’t find a buyer, which I would think is the most likely outcome.

Todd Stone firm on tax limits for transit referendum

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The headline comes from a Jeff Nagel interview he did yesterday. It seems to me that it requires a point by point refutation

“he won’t sign off on the extra $300 million a year the mayors want, calling it unaffordable.”

He has sat on the Mayor’s proposal for months. He insisted that they come up with a costed plan – and they did. But he has waited until now to object to the proposed provincial contribution. So why is it unaffordable? Is it because the province has been giving away far too much potential revenue to the oil and gas industry? Or is it an acknowledgement that their much touted LNG bonanza now seems increasingly unlikely? Or was it simply that they did not take into account the revenue shortfall of the Port Mann toll? Does that mean the replacement for the Massey Tunnel has become unaffordable too? Or that the second bridge for the Premier’s constituency has been cancelled? No. Of course I am joking about the last two. Those projects are unassailable.

“Stone would not say exactly how much in new tax money he would approve “

So how exactly are the Mayor’s supposed to make plans for the future? If they do make the – very unlikely – choice to once again increase property taxes to make up for the shortfall in provincial contributions , what’s to stop Stone from deciding that he does not actually have to come up with any money for transit at all? Of course, if the Mayors want money for road projects, or to stuff more cash into the P3 money pit, I suppose that will be quite acceptable.

“The $1.6 billion they have earmarked in their plan for capital contributions from the province is simply not going to happen,” he said. “They might be wiser to count on or ask for half that amount.”

The amount requested is far more than has been extended in the region in previous 10-year periods, he added.

As though there was something magical about the previous periods. The Province of BC has systematically starved transit  – not just in the Lower Mainland but in the rest of the province too – for as long as records have been kept. The Metro Vancouver region has been growing rapidly, is absolutely critical to the provincial GDP but has never had enough support to extend transit into the most rapidly growing areas. The result of lack of transit spending, combined with continued highway expansion, has been increased car dependence. And as a result higher healthcare costs, damage to the environment, loss of productive agricultural land and green space. All things the provincially approved Regional Growth Strategy was seeking to avoid. But there is now a wider Highway #1, the South Fraser Perimeter Road, the widest bridge on earth (she says) and an improved Sea to Sky Highway. And a little tiny subway built down to a price not only inadequate to carry existing loads comfortably but apparently impossible to put all of its 20 two car trains into service due to the ruinous P3 arrangement.

“Nobody thought that the mayors would be able to pull together and unite behind the plan. And they did,” he said. “I’m not certain would have or could have happened in absence of the referendum requirements.”

Well, if you renege on your part of the funding bargain, or the referendum fails all that becomes academic. The election of a new Mayor in Surrey who has already declared she can deliver LRT even if the referendum fails shows how easily the present unity of the Mayors can fall apart. I am not sure that that is not the intention.

The Province – no matter which party was in power – has always preferred to dictate where major rapid transit projects will go and what technology they will use. The Millennium Line, Canada Line and Evergreen Line all reflect control from Victoria. Translink has to make the best of them it can, but they leave much of the region underserved by good quality transit. There was supposed to have been increased transportation choice ever since the LRSP was adopted, but for most of the region it has not happened. The choice is to drive or get someone to drive you, unless you are willing to wait for slow, unreliable and infrequent bus service. Only the #555 shows any real improvement South of the Fraser – and even then they left out the bus stop for Surrey. And there is still no direct bus service between Coquitlam and Surrey centres because that would impact the indirect two transfer SkyTrain option that the Evergreen Line will eventually provide.

But the amounts made available to transit pale in comparison to the amounts devoted to continuing highway expansion. No-one ever gets to vote on those proposals.

Who would like a referendum on LNG?

Written by Stephen Rees

December 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm

Election Impact on Transportation

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I got a call this morning from Global BC, inviting my opinions for their live cable news show which only goes to Shaw customers. So if you have some other way of getting tv, this will help fill the gap. Gordon Price was in the same coat closet sized “studio” ready to follow me, for another show and the same subject. While he was talking to me I heard the feed from Burnaby in my earpiece, where Keith Baldrey was playing down the likelihood of a Broadway Subway. He said that Christy Clark has no interest at all in funding a project for a constituency that had rejected her but would probably be very willing to help Surrey get LRT. Oddly, Gordon was pointing out almost simultaneously that former Mayor Diane Watts would be able to do some of the heavy lifting for the same project in Ottawa. So no wonder Linda Hepner seems so confident that she can deliver an LRT for Surrey by 2018.

What I had to say was that she seems to be implementing Plan B – what do we do if the referendum fails? – before Plan A had even been tried. Plan A requires agreement on the question – still to be decided – on how to fund the project list decided by the Mayors before the election. In order for any package to be acceptable there has to be something for everyone. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if one project was seen to take precedence, that would be the death knell for any funding proposal that did not deliver for the rest of the region. The Mayors, under the guidance Greg Moore, re-elected Mayor of Port Coquitlam, have been acting very collegially up to now. Translink is not just a transit agency, so there would be some road projects for the parts of the region where transit cannot be a significant contributor for some time. And no-one was being allowed to play the “me first” card.

Actually, given the political cynicism  realism I was hearing from Baldrey and Price, perhaps this explains why Kirk LaPointe was so confident that he could deliver transit for Broadway better than Gregor Robertson. Peter Armstrong – who paid for much of the NPA campaign – must have given him some reason for believing that he would be favoured by the federal Conservatives (who featured so prominently in the revived NPA organization apparently) – and maybe even the province too.

It is very sad indeed that we cannot talk about how will build a sustainable region and meet the challenges of a world that will be sending us more people – whether we have plans to accommodate them or not. How we move to higher densities without upsetting existing residents, how more people can give up using their cars for every trip as things become more accessible and walkable, how transit becomes one of several better options than driving a single occupant car that is owned – not shared. How we have a region wide conversation on what needs to be done, and how we pay for that, in a way that satisfies a whole range of wants and needs across communities.

Worse, that is seems to be really easy to get funding for a major upgrade to a freeway interchange in North Vancouver when there seems to be no possibility of relieving overcrowding on the #99 B-Line. No doubt the new highway bridge between Richmond and Delta will still get precedence in provincial priorities. Once the Evergreen Line is finished there will be the usual protracted process before the next transit project starts moving and, as we saw with the Canada Line, perhaps expecting more than one major project at a time is over optimistic. The province also has to find a great deal of money for BC Ferries, since it seemed very easy to make a decision on the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo route really quickly – without any clear source of additional financing for the identified structural upgrades its continuation demands.

If the fix is really in for Surrey, who is going to find the local contribution? Assume that the feds and province pick up a third each, can Surrey cover the rest alone? Is it likely that the other Mayors will vote for a package that gives the major capital spending preference to Surrey? And if not, and Surrey does find a way to that – a P3 is always a possibility – do Surrey transit riders and taxpayers pick up that tab? Who operates Surrey LRT and will it have the same fare system – or do the rest of us have to pay more for that?

No I couldn’t cover all of that in the time allotted to me. I spent longer getting down there and back than I did talking. But these ideas and the questions they raise seem worth discussion below.

“Greens support a referendum on how we fund transit”

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The title is a tweet by @Vangreens. I am a member of the Vancouver Green Party and I have supported their current campaign – although as I did not pay $100 or more, that does not show up in their public declaration. This blog post is my response to the tweet, simply because there isn’t a way to say this diplomatically in 140 characters.

I do NOT support a referendum for transit. On the whole the move towards more direct democracy has been used by right wing ideologues who think that voters hate paying taxes and will vote them down. Seattle, of course, is now being cited as a success. Indeed of the transit questions on the US ballots in the most recent midterm elections, voters said Yes on 65% of them. That’s not bad, but I do not take a lot of comfort from it.

As many people have pointed out, there was no suggestion of a referendum for the widening of Highway#1, Port Mann Bridge, SFPR package. Nor will there be one for the replacement of the Massey Tunnel. There wasn’t going to be a referendum on BC Ferries either, but I was very impressed indeed with the speed with which Todd Stone moved to quash the idea that the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo might be cancelled. And that after the BC Liberals had tried to pretend that making the organisation a company rather than a crown corporation would reduce political interference. Which, of course, is still rampant at BC Hydro and ICBC which have both been used as (regressive) revenue sources to replace fairer taxes.

It seems to have been generally accepted in the mainstream media than “money is tight”. For instance, CBC tv news a few nights ago was looking at why school playgrounds must be paid for through PAC fundraising and not taxes. Money is not tight at all. We are so flush with it that we are paying over the odds for money borrowed for infrastructure projects. BC bonds would pay 4%: going through the P3 process means we now pay 7%. The Auditor General is not impressed.

The terms of the “transit” referendum have not yet been announced, although the Mayors have set out in detail what the funds would be spent on. We also know that the Province has been busy making sure the question will conform to their policy straight jacket. So the carbon tax is out. The province continues to push for more property tax as well.

If the use of referenda were more widespread and the questions more open, I might be more inclined to support them. But I do not think that it is a good way to increase participation in politics. The questions have to reduced to sound bites, and populism is more likely to win than policy analysis. Not that in our system politicians pay much attention to that, even when they have set up the system themselves (see BC Ferris above).

The need for this region is much more transit. The referendum will be about much more than that. Translink is a transportation agency, which means the province was able to lumber it with a number of problem structures – Patullo, Knight Street and Canoe Pass bridges – all of which were in need of expensive upgrades. The Major Road Network was devised as a way to get support for the new agency from suburban Mayors who were going to get provincial highways downloaded onto them anyway. Some of the questions that got turned down in the US had significant road measures tacked onto the transit elements in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the sort of people who vote. I am afraid that what we have seen so far is that inevitably the referendum will be a way to pass judgement on Translink. Just as the midterms were used to pass judgement on POTUS even though his name was not on any ballot.

I think that in BC we need to see a fairer tax system which extracts more from large corporations and the exceedingly wealthy individuals who have done so well from the tax cuts of recent years. I would like to a general roll back of flat fees and charges for public services, to be replaced by a truly progressive income tax system. Those who can afford to pay should pay more than those who have little. It is time to reset the balance. Inequality has become extreme nearly everywhere. The few countries that have resisted the pressure of the Chicago school have done better economically as a result.

I do not accept that there is no money for transit in Greater Vancouver. I do understand that it is unpopular in a political system where constituencies outside the Lower Mainland have far more electoral power than we do. I also understand that politicians who repeat the mantras of the right will get better treatment in the mainstream media and thus from voters. It does not make them right. There ought NOT to be a referendum and I oppose it. But since there is going to be one anyway, we Greens had better make sure that we get over the pass mark. Note too that there was a referendum, not so long ago, on a better voting system. That followed a remarkable public consultation process, and was supported by more people than opposed it. Just not quite enough to get the supermajority required by those who benefitted most from ignoring both sense and popularity.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

More Delays for Compass

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Compass reader

I got a call today from a producer at CBC TV news who wanted my opinions on the latest delay to the roll out of the Compass card. It seems that the Union has been drawing attention to the poor performance of the card reader on the buses, especially for those who remember to tap out when they leave the bus. This has been getting quite a bit of media attention today. The CBC coverage has been developing – as they say – and I said I was reluctant to appear, given earlier experiences when I gave a thorough analysis of a problem and all that was broadcast was a ten second sound bite. I was told that their methodology had changed. So I went to the studio and was interviewed by Miyoung Lee – and most of what I said made it to the 5 o’clock segment as the second item. Here is a link to video which is also underneath the story cited below.

Then at 6 o’clock the same story was handled by Eric Rankin, and quite a different picture emerged. This time there was extensive commentary by Todd Stone. He remarked that in the private sector delays and inadequate performance would result in “heads rolling”. No one seemed to remind him that it is the private sector company Cubic that has been missing its targets. Later in the segment, Rankin stated that Cubic had warned Translink that the reader on the buses might not work as required for the tap out system to be sufficiently reliable. That was certainly news to me. Cubic seems to have been reticent to put in any appearance in any of the local mainstream media coverage I have seen up to now.

The other surprize for me was the suggestion – raised by TransLink vice president Colleen Brennan  – that the three zone system might have to be replaced by a single zone system if the tap out on the bus issue cannot be resolved. If that had been raised in my interview, I would have had quite a lot to say about that. My Florence bus ticket validator story did not make it to air either – and their system was not supplied by Cubic.

I was relieved that although a CBC trailer had Jordan Bateman spouting about “boondoggles” he did not get quoted in this context, but something completely different. I did my best to avoid Translink bashing by pointing to the “fit for purpose” test that has to be applied to any contract. I think Cubic needs to be held accountable, unless it can be shown that Translink was told that fare by distance would not be feasible on buses before they signed the contract but went ahead anyway.  This is not the sort of story that needs to be leading the 6 o’clock news at this stage of the referendum process. Translink is already in deep trouble for the ongoing series of failures on SkyTrain – another one of those yesterday.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2014 at 7:28 pm

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