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

Cindy Chan Piper on Translink

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Women’s Transportation Seminar Speaker Series 3 June 2009
Cindy Chan-Piper Translink Governance: The First Year

Held in the KPMG training room in a high rise office block downtown, I think this must be the first WTS meeting I have attended. Apparently, men are welcome. I heard about it through the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and recognised many people – either former or current Translink staff members. All of us curious to find out what goes on in the Translink Boardroom now that all meetings are held behind closed doors. Ms Piper’s opening was that she would reveal no secret inside information on Translink.

She started with why the Board was changed: “I wasn’t there. It wasn’t working. Mayors are elected to represent their constituents so they tended not to think on a regional basis, there was too much testosterone: they were not rational and there was too much silo thinking.” While there was “anger and angst about firing the Board” that was now declining.

She spoke about how she was hired: she saw an ad in the newspaper and was initially intimidated, but submitted an application on line. There was a screening panel (chaired by Gordon Price) And after being called in for interviews there was a short list then “more process” from which the Mayor’s council selected from 12 candidates for 9 positions. One third of the Board is replaced each year so while she initially had only a one year contract she recently got renewed for 3 more years. Skip Triplet moved out of area and was replaced by Howard Nimton.

CEO Pat Jacobsen resigned within a month, she was “worn out” and while the board looked for new CEO, Dale Parker the Board Chair became an interim CEO.

Translink has “lot of projects and no stable funding – we’re broke – hence 2010 budget plan.” While there are a lot of ambitious projects the province’s transit plan, there is no funding. Initially the new board faced a lot of uncertainty: there were “big thick board packages” which overwhelmed them. Previously Translink worked like a municipal system with “all decisions made by the Board. “Staff wanted to give us all the possible information but we tried to get them to give us less. We changed the team: we wanted to work with the executive and tried to get VPs to sit at the same table with us. They preferred to sit not at the table but round the outside of the room. In the end we had to take the chairs away.”

“We are now feeling more comfortable. We changed procedures, paring down the board package and flattening the hierarchy. We are still presented with Provincial initiatives without funding – all of these announcements but show me the money!”

“I have been trying to get across the idea that land use and transportation are intimately linked but it is hard for them to understand. This basic stuff was a challenge but the new CEO Tom Prendergast gets it. We needed to run Translink like a business. The board is good at that fiscal stuff but I am good at that mushy stuff “how does it feel on the ground”. My fellow directors getting it now, as I am starting to hear my own words coming back at me: they buy into it now. We are making progress. The board is healthy: we don’t agree but we do respect each other. A third party evaluation of the Board was positive and we get to consensus.”

The next challenge was to overcome anger of Mayors. They were invited to meetings and Dale Parker visited every one. “We tried to include them in the budget process.”

“We brought in a whole bunch of governance structures”: it is now a hybrid between a commercial and a municipal organsiation. Most of the Board “feel really good with numbers” – kpis (Key Performance Indicators). New guidelines were introduced and a peer evaluation process so that there is a “lot of accountability”. She also claims that the Board is “transparent within mandate”. Meetings have to be private because they are talking about land, employees etc but “all minutes are open within a month or so (or is it 2 weeks?)”. Since there is no public or press present there is no need for “grandstanding”. “All have the best interests of the region at heart. What we discuss does not get misconstrued in the media and discussion is more heated than it would be if media were present.”

Her list of initial Board achievements included “we put together the 2010 Transportation Plan” (i.e. the plan for the two weeks of the Olymics) and are now “Halfway through the corporate strategic plan”. But most of the work is mainly about finding the funding. The 2040 Plan has been published and the next 10 year plan “shopping it out”.

“The surplus will be gone by 2011: without an additional $150m we have to cut services. We need $450m to meet what province wants. The Mayors do not want it to come from property tax. If we compete for those dollars everybody loses. We are looking for diverse sources of funding.”

The Canada Line is ahead of schedule and under budget as is the Golden Ears bridge “quite an accomplishment based on my experience” and “we are starting a smart card which will provide much need data and will be easy to use. We have projected a deficit this year. Transit Police have been built up, we have a new communications system there has been fleet expansion both for bus and Skytrain, and a new GPS driven on board annunciator.”

Q & A

1. Gavin Davidson: Only questions worth $50m or more go to the Board – this means that issues around pedestrians and cyclists do not get to the Board

Under $50m the decision goes to the VP. We only look at “major” projects. This is because we believe in teamwork, trusting your executives. It is not that we didn’t want to hear about pedestrians and cyclists and if it is a policy decision we do but the details are at the VP level. We don’t want to micromanage. If there is something you think we should see, bring it up as a policy question.

2. Tanja Baja – will you use open architecture for the smart card?

We have not made a decision yet.

Does the Board understand the difference between car pooling and car sharing?

No its a work in progress

3  One of three people from Bunt & Associates pointed out that in the UK “gas tax” is much higher “also pays for health – more equitable” [Actually taxes on fuel all go into the central government’s “consolidated fund” – there is do dedicated taxation in the UK]

” We will look at anything – if its money we’ll take it. But we are limited by legislation. There was a lot of controversy over our proposed cell phone tax but lots of US cities do that.”

4. Jan Pessaro – what would the board decisions be if we had an all female board?

“There’s three of us. There are not many women in transportation and we do value the testosterone. We do not want just one point of view. We need more female directors for a better balance but I like a mixed board.”

Gordon Price intervened “What other voices are needed?”

Another land use planner – younger people – younger men are open minded. We have one women VP but she is the best performer

JP “How might we approach Translink to advance women?”

Talk to Tom Prendergast

5. A planner from Surrey asked what is the policy for density around rapid bus corridors?

“You are not going to get a station if you don’t put in density, but we are not going to dictate specific numbers. We need evidence that density will increase.

The planner replied that somebody has to come up with some kind of numbers

Her reply seemed to me to indicate that the decision would turn on existing ridership so I intervened and said that we had to get away from serving density to shaping growth.

Ms Piper replied “I think we should shape growth. We need to think on a regional basis. Metro just released its growth strategy: it is not clear and we need more information. We have to work with metro and municipalities. We can’t keep going with silos.” However the new VP of planning has only been on board for 3 weeks.

6 A planner from the City of Vancouver said that a recent study of pedestrians showed that people will take a 20 minute walk for a frequent transit service, and that “old thinking” around transit staions and a 5 minute walk needed to be revised. She asked “How well does the Board understand the municipal professional staff (as opposed to the Mayors)?”

“They are learning but they do not go out to Maple Ridge: they don’t know it on the ground

Ms Piper then spoke about a recent Globe and Mail article of a town in America where everyone takes transit or cycles and there are no garages. I think she was referring to the article about Freiburg in Germany, recently reviewed here, in the New York Times. There is nowhere like that in the US. Even there,  there is a large multi-storey car park, and though car ownership is low, it is not zero.

She apparently thinks that there will be dense development corridors along the frequent transit network. While she may be right I suspect Translink will first have to rethink what it means by “frequent”.

7 Finally Gordon Price asked the question about Gateway – “how you integrate that into your frequent transit network?”

“We are not thinking about that. It’s not our project. We should. I don’t think we should be doing Gateway but that’s just my personal view.”

==============================

On the whole I was more favourably impressed by Ms Chan Piper than I wanted to be. I think if she were running for office I would probably vote for her. But some of the quotes above show that she has gotten too used to speaking “off the record”. For instance, if you reversed her comments about Sheri Plewes – suppose there were just one male VP and he was “better than all the rest” – or had (as Ms Plewes did) taken on three major positions at the same time – would that not have been seen as empire building? And does having a women only board mean there would not be a diversity of views?

The professional Board actually cannot achieve what it has set out to do for, as she noted, the legislation not only lists the potential funding sources, it also caps them. And Kevin Falcon has gone on record as deprecating the idea of new revenue sources. Besides, even if you have multiple streams of new revenue, when the economy tanks they will all dry up. This is what is happening now across the US. Multiple transit agencies have higher than ever demand at the same time as their revenues have dropped – and all are proposing to raise fares and cut service as the only way to balance the books. While she is probably right about property tax that is obviously the target the province has its eyes on. And, as it happens, when my old employer the GLC got control of London Transport, it decided that raising the rates (as we called property tax in the UK then) was the only way to get the system working properly. That of course brought about the Thatcherite backlash that destroyed not only regional government but also replaced the rates with the “Council Tax” – a draconian, regressive poll tax. Because senior governments cannot tolerate municipal governments that demonstrate independence.

That list of achievements does not impress me at all. Most of those initiatives were started by the old Board years ago and simply got completed in the new Board’s first year. They cannot take credit (or blame) for the Canada Line or the Golden Ears Bridge. And they were arguing about IT “architecture” back when Translink started in 1999.

The simple fact remains that the current Translink Board is not democratically responsible but is spending tax payers’ money. That is intolerable. They are not a business but an Authority, and they are not accountable, or open, or “transparent”.  They may be well intentioned but that is not enough. And yes, politicians have to “grandstand” because they face re-election – but that also means they can be replaced by the people . If you want to know what a professional does, when he has control of a revenue source and no need to concern himself with voters, read the biography of Robert Moses. And be afraid – be very afraid. Ms Piper is one among nine. They may work by consensus now, but when the crunch comes she will be over-ruled.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2009 at 9:09 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I would like to know what level of experience with transit the boards members have! At work I have dealt with managers that had no idea what “products” we were making and what the workers were actually doing and it wasn’t pretty. More seriously.. I have checked towns big and small that have good to great transit systems (I am making, for my own information, a survey of fares in about 10 towns using a smart card system) and everywhere it is the council of the greater area, in other words local mayors, that are in control. It does work for the reasons that Stephen mentioned. We definitely have a dysfunctional provincial government when it comes to transit. They dictate yet don’t provides funds.

    Red frog

    June 4, 2009 at 11:01 am

  2. Capital spending always makes headlines. Providing operating expenses doesn’t. That explains how almost everything is funded in North America.

    When I was a student at UBC they didn’t have enough money to pay someone to clean the floor, empty the trash cans, apply a can of paint or bang a loose nail, but they were able to erect half a dozen brand new buildings.

    I saw the same thing in China in the 1980s. I stayed in a nearly new hotel that was quite literally falling apart before my very eyes. The air conditioning didn’t work because the machine was so dirty that air wasn’t getting through and the motor had burned out trying to cope with the load. Simply cleaning/replacing the air filters would’ve prevented the problem. We saw all sorts of other things that were falling apart because nobody had bothered to tighten a screw or nut.

    David

    June 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm

  3. Quite frankly, I just do not have any confidence in TransLink’s Board of Amateurs. Sadly, they are leading TransLink down the path to bankruptcy, which of course means higher property taxes for all.

    Unconventional transit planning, leads to very expensive transit. One of my correspondents overseas, in regards to a question about transit planning, scoffed in an Email about TransLink and sarcastically said “TransLink? Who cares? We certainly don’t!”

    Sadly, history will point to this era as the nadir in transit planning and muse why the public could not change it.

    Portland’s 5th LRT line is nearing completion and already they are planning for their 6th, with completion by 2014. Also,there is active planning for a Portland-Salem Interurban along the old interurban route. Sound familiar?

    DM Johnston

    June 4, 2009 at 5:35 pm

  4. I found an interesting blog about financing transit at http://thetransportpolitic.com/2009/03/04/how-to-fix-transit-financing/
    The comparison is between Paris and New York. Transit in the Greater Paris is the responsibility of an organization called STIF. “The authority which organises public transport in the greater Paris area, was set up by the local authorities governing the greater Paris area (Ile-de-France region, City of Paris and the 7 other départements). It must be chaired by the Chairman of the Region or an elected representative appointed by the Chairman. A representative of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a representative of the EPCI (Public Institution for Intermunicipal Cooperation) sit on the Board of Directors which includes 29 members.” See http://www.noctilien.fr/Noctilien/pages/en/autorite.html

    Comparison between France and Canada isn’t easy has France doesn’t have Provinces anymore but regions (22 in Metropolitan France) each with a regional council and regional president, all elected politicians.
    But considering the size of the population of the Greater Paris one could say that the Ile-de-France region is at least as powerful as B.C. In that case Gordon Campbell would be the chairman of the transit board and various mayors and business representatives would be some of the board members..wouldn’t that be interesting???
    Any info on the transit authority board in Milan, Berlin, London etc. is welcome (internet links for example)

    Red frog

    June 5, 2009 at 12:28 am


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