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

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

How to fix Translink’s broken governance

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The need for this article, right now, is almost purely academic. The ruling BC Liberals seem immune to widespread obloquy over not one but a series of scandals any one of which might have brought other kinds of government down. Yes Translink is a problem for those of us living in the region  – and that is, numerically at least, the majority of the BC population. But that is not the way politics works here, and Christy Clark seems able to serve out the rest of her term. And anyway there are plenty of other issues where she is at odds with most of the people who live here, but can survive at least until the next election.

The reason I decided to start writing was a piece in BC Business entitled  “How TransLink might fix its broken business model” which is nearly a month old now but its author, Frances Bula chose to tweet it again to-day, which caught my  attention. Basically the article looks at the turn around in Atlanta, and speculates about a similar approach here.

My comment is under the article, and this post is designed to enlarge upon it. Quoting myself

The problem in Vancouver is not management. It is governance. The present model is unaccountable and unrepresentative. It was imposed by a provincial government that has clearly demonstrated that it has absolutely no interest in seeing it work.

The province has always had a policy that transit is different to other types of public service, and needs a unique approach. It interferes continually but, at the same time, refuses to fund transit properly while spending far too much on road expansion. A referendum is required for any new funding mechanism, but is never required for any highway project – or indeed any other type of provincial spending/funding decisions.

And Jordan Bateman will always be only too happy to torpedo any proposals that might actually work to improve the situation as that would rob this one trick pony of his audience.

A new CEO is not going to be able to change the governance. Only the province has the ability to do that. This government never admits to any of its mistakes. Only a change in Victoria as complete as the one just seen in Ottawa is going to make any difference.

So one day there will be a different provincial government that decides that it is time to reform Translink. Here is what they will need to think about:

The current arrangement has been cobbled together to suit the BC Liberals of the day. It makes no sense now to continue with it, and the easiest point to start might be to unpick what they did by simply repealing their legislation, and go back to the former GVTA. Except that was not exactly popular either, and for very good reason. In its first iteration it was a new body run by some but, not all, of the Mayors with some acknowledgement of the varying sizes of the municipalities. This method of indirect representation is similar to that of Metro Vancouver, responsible for waste disposal and water delivery, regional parks and planning, but there all the Mayors get a seat at the table but with weighted votes.

Translink was supposed to have been a transportation agency – with responsibility for some bridges and the Major Road Network (MRN), but this was really only provincial downloading of responsibilities that would have happened anyway. One of the worst decisions, in terms of its financial impact on Translink, was to replace the Albion Ferry with the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, which has created a huge drain on the agency’s revenues as traffic has never come up to expectations, and revenue risk was not transferred to the P3 – which pretty much vitiates the reason for using that method of funding. Apart from that the MRN seems to have worked well except for one long running argument over a bridge between New Westminster and Coquitlam. On the other hand the ill conceived North Fraser Perimeter Road was soundly defeated and has yet to re-emerge. Though it almost certainly will if the Ministry engineers get their way – as they usually do in the Long Run.

I have long argued that indirect elections are a recipe for discontent. Mayors are not elected on regional issues, and tend to adopt a stance that is defensive of their turf before any regional consideration. But no matter how much you might dislike what your Mayor says over regional issues, they are not the deciding factor come election day. We need representative and responsible government and you do not get that by holding infrequent, contentious non binding plebiscites.

The governing body has to be an advocate of better transit, because this region has historically been underserved for most of its existence, and is the only feasible way for a region of this size to function effectively. Transit is not only vital to the economy, it is also essential to tackle our most pressing environmental and social issues – and those include affordable housing. Where you chose to live determines how much you travel and the concept of affordability has to include costs of housing AND transportation if it is to be meaningful.

And while the province will never make any concessions over the needs of longer distance travel and transport, nor will the federal government in terms of ports and airports. Both levels of government have effectively abandoned their responsibilities with respect to housing but that is not sustainable and will inevitably have to change. And while technological changes may well have some dramatic impacts on how we use the transportation system they are unlikely to reduce demand for movement of people and goods overall.

It is also obvious that you should not plan just for transport as though it was not intimately enmeshed with land use. Sadly, we continue to behave as though the two subjects were unrelated – even if we give the idea of integration at least lip service if not substantive commitment. By and large, when new transit lines are planned it would be much better to get them up and running before the people arrive, if you do not want them to get used to driving everywhere first, which is what has been happening.

So, given that Metro Vancouver seems to work acceptably, why would you not just put Translink under its command? I think that is a temptingly straightforward solution but not one that satisfies the need to improve accountability. Much better I think to reform both at the same time and hold direct elections for regional government – with a Mayor for Metro. This is the solution that was adopted in London. Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, but then balked at privatising and deregulating London Transport. It was the proverbial dog’s breakfast and did not last for long after she was deposed. The Greater London Authority and its directly elected Mayor now runs Transport for London – and some related issues that have been downloaded including taxis (which used to be run by the Home Office). Much of the transit service is contracted out, but there is a single integrated fare system, and some of the local train services have been transferred from the national rail system to the Overground.

The huge issue that I have not so far dealt with is the need for much more investment in transit as well as increasing need for revenue support – if only because the use of gas tax revenues has been a victim of the system’s very success at getting people out of their cars. Property tax is not going to be accepted, and the province needs to become much more responsive to the needs of people to get around without a car. This applies as much outside Vancouver as within it. It is absolutely baffling why the province refuses to set up a transit service along Highway 16 (“The Highway of Tears”) between Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert. That has to be part of the solution to terrible loss of life due to aboriginal women being forced to hitchhike as the only way to get to essential services. Victoria’s need for rail based transit could not be more obvious, nor so long obviously ignored. Restoring trains on the E&N is only a start.

So yes there is going to have to be more provincial money for transit, and the roads budget is the place to start. We simply cannot afford more freeways and gigantic bridges. We also need to raise money fairly and equitably. Income tax and corporation tax are the obvious places to start, and the odious fees and charges levied without reference to ability to pay have to be abolished. So much less reliance on BC Hydro, ICBC as revenue sources, no more MSP and a thoroughgoing reform of BC Ferries to make it once again a public service and not a pretend corporation. The wealthy can readily afford to pay more tax. There has to be an end to all the corporate welfare, especially subsidies and outright give-aways of natural resources. There will still need to be fossil fuels, but levying reasonable royalties (cf Norway) has to be central to public finance. Carbon tax has worked, to some extent, but the “revenue neutral” mantra has to be abandoned.  We have to switch away to renewable energy sources at a much faster rate, and a lot of carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. At the same time, we have to recognize that far too many people are currently living a hand to mouth existence, and cannot absorb more levies fees and tax increases. We have to be more socially responsible, but this also will often mean better ways of doing things. It is cheaper to house people than it is to cope with the costs of homelessness. The war on drugs is unwinnable, but recreational substance use can be a useful source of revenue – and self medication.

The idea that we can reform Translink by tinkering with its PR and “business model” (whatever that means) is delusional. And like any interdependent ecosystem, we cannot just pull on one or two strings and expect the web to stay intact.  But we can also readily identify where the current policies have not worked and cannot be made to work better just by getting tougher. Most of the knee jerk right wing responses are ill informed and unsupported by any credible data. Better policies are in place elsewhere and we can find better examples than the one we have been so blindly following. And none of this is a stand alone issue. It is long past time for some joined up thinking.


From the Globe and Mail Friday November 20

One change Mr. Fassbender said he’s not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what’s really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink’s CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. “It’s important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system.”


Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Rachel Notley’s Speech to Investors

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Like many people sick of conservatism, I was greatly encouraged by the recent change in the government of Alberta. The victory there of the NDP after so many years of right wing domination seemed like a breath of fresh air.

The disappointment I am currently experiencing is visceral. Premier Rachel Notley spoke to the Stampede Investor Forum on Tuesday “her first major (private) speech to an industry crowd, two months after her New Democrats won.”

…it’s the oil sands that have really emerged as our international showpiece.

For more than half a century, Albertans have been coming up with unconventional solutions for an unconventional resource so we can extract, handle and ship it responsibly, to the very best of our abilities.

This attitude of pushing the limits of what’s possible influences every aspect of the oil sands, from research and development to environmental management to the service and support fields.

It’s a tremendous asset which has transformed Alberta into one of the world’s leading oil producers.

And I’m here today to emphasize that the province has a government determined to defend this advantage, by being constructive at home, and by building relationships around the world.

…Alberta will continue to be a healthy place for private investment under our government.

This definitely applies to energy.

Expanding existing oil sands projects, establishing new ones and pioneering advanced technologies — all this requires spending on a large scale.
Under our leadership, Alberta’s abundant oil and gas reserves will remain wide open to investment.

MacLeans has “the premier’s prepared text at the forum cosponsored by her government, Calgary Economic Development and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry’s main megaphone.”

I have been regularly berated by NDP supporters who claim that the Green Party is “splitting the progressive vote”. I will now quote this speech to anyone who dares to claim that the NDP and the Green Party share the same values.

Humanity is rapidly approaching  an existential crisis. If we are to have some impact on the increase in greenhouse gas emissions we have seen in recent years, then it is essential that fossil fuel consumption starts to decrease. It is not enough that some renewable energy sources have been increasing. These sources have to replace fossil fuels, not supplement them. We have to reduce our carbon footprint. In Canada that means the tar sands – one of the dirtiest forms of energy – must be left in the ground. We simply cannot follow a path that sees exports of diluted bitumen as a way to make short term profits at the expense of a habitable planet. We cannot plan to increase exports of coal or LNG either. Which, by the way is nothing like the clean fuel that Christy Clark likes to pretend (see: Methane Emissions in Texas Fracking Region 50% Higher Than EPA Estimates)

Of course I want to see Stephen Harper unseated at the upcoming election. If the NDP is really serious about its intentions to lead the next federal government, it would be making overtures to the Liberals to create an anti Conservative electoral pact. It is simply not good enough to hope that a coalition can be formed after the election. But that seems to be their current strategy. I do not think that the Liberals can be seen as “progressive” given the way that Paul Martin ran a more conservative than the conservatives economic strategy. And Trudeau Junior does not seem to me to be nearly as committed as his father – to anything at all! But he sure would like to be elected. And will say anything at all to make that possible.

And to those that still think that somehow the economy trumps the environment I can only say that they are just not paying attention. Renewable energy is showing itself to be a significantly better investment in terms of local employment – even if you disregard the huge environmental benefits. You also need to be blind to the current impacts of less than 2C of warming that we are currently experiencing. If you think long hot summers with droughts and forest fires are bad now,  I feel certain that what we are seeing now will seem mild in comparison to what is coming. The loss of the bees and the salmon seems to be getting some attention too. About time.

Notley again

“the energy sector needs stability to keep Albertans employed and to innovate as it confronts climate change.”

Which seems as usual to be pinning her hopes on the elusive carbon capture and storage which has always been  just around the corner – and always will be. At least Alberta is also a leader in wind energy – the Calgary LRT already runs exclusively on wind power. They will probably be beating us in solar panels and geothermal too, given the miniscule attempts being made in BC and our foolish commitments to Site C and run of the river.

Calgary Transit C Train

Pincher Creek

Afterword: and the BC NDP is no better.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 11.24.27 AM

The LNG in question would be produced from fracking. Fugitive methane from fracking makes it worse from the GHG perspective than coal. BC LNG is unlikely to be cost competitive for the export markets it is aimed at: the Chinese, for example, have already signed a deal for Russian gas at a price BC could never match let alone beat. But if the BC NDP wants to claim it cares about the environment it cannot at the same time support more fracking for gas here.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 10, 2015 at 11:35 am

It wasn’t supposed to pass

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CMBC ETB 2171 on #16 Arbutus @ West Blvd & 57th

The word “blog” is a contraction of “web log”: a record of a “journey” across the web and the sites visited. The announcement of the results of the plebiscite on transportation investment funding produced the very rapid response we have come to expect on twitter and the instant analysis. Of course a lot of organisations were involved and most had their pre prepared press releases ready. Many claimed to have correctly predicted the outcome in advance. I had declined to appear on Global TV since I did not have such a position ready. But on reflection it became clear to me that the reason the question was made non-binding by Christy Clark was that she did not want to have to abide by an answer she did not like. And the glee that was evident on the face of Todd Stone when talking to the press pretty much confirmed that.

Of course I was not the only person to think that. Gary Mason of the Globe lists the reasons why “The referendum was an unmitigated disaster from the start.” Todd Stone doesn’t think it was a disaster – he thinks there should be more of them. But only for transit of course, not major road projects, or healthcare or education. Crawford Killian in the Tyee was far ahead of the Globe writing that the referendum was designed to fail back in February.

Much of the “analysis” was simply opinion based on preferred anecdotes. But there is some actual data based on surveys conducted by Insights West and Angus Reid. They come to similar conclusions about why people voted No. Of course since Jordan Bateman got busy far before the Yes side was even organised his simple message, the Translink was not to be trusted, got across. None of the subsequent analysis which showed that Translink is actually quite well managed dented that. Which is what I told the Vancouver Observer. The real problem is the governance model and that was created by The BC Liberals when the previous board of elected municipal officials (mostly Mayors) took exception to the way that the province wanted to put building the Canada Line ahead of the Evergreen Line (which is still not finished). So I cannot agree with Mario Canseco’s conclusion that reforming the way Translink operates ought to be the first priority – even if both Yes and No voters agree on that. It is the way it is governed that is the problem.

Discourse Media does have some good data driven information on what the No vote means. But no recommendations on what to do to achieve that. Richard Zussman of the CBC is good on why referenda are not the way to proceed. I think that means that if the province does propose another one we should organize a resounding boycott of the proceedings. Badly run referenda are designed to produce a negative response and I do not think that the province is actually interested in a better form of communication. Why would they when they got the result they desired.

The idea that I have proposed to reform Translink’s governance – a directly elected regional board – seems to be getting  some traction. There is growing disquiet too with Metro Vancouver – which is indirectly elected and also seen as remote from electoral control. If we were actually serious about doing regional planning and transportation properly, we would follow the example of cities like London, England or Portland, Oregon. I would be very surprised indeed if that actually happened. If anything at all I expect there will be some more shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic. Maybe another name change and new livery: more communications/marketing bafflegab. No real change. It is a long time before we have another provincial election, and no matter how bad the government, if it simply ignores everything going on  – the scandals this government is surviving would have brought out the media in rage if it had been an NDP government – it might even get re-elected, despite its obvious incompetence.

So what happens now? Human Transit is, as always, very illuminating. And Peter Ladner has some penetrating analysis in Business in Vancouver.

And now (July 6) from Martyn Brown (“former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia.”)in the Georgia Straight:  The great TransLink railroad job: Why Christy Clark couldn’t be happier about the outcome of the transit referendum. Which makes for a very depressing read but is, no doubt, well informed and realistic.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 3, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with

“What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?”

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Greenpeace Shell BC

Illustration taken from GreenPeace

One of the benefits of having a blog – and one of its curses too – is that I get things in the email that other people want me to put on my blog. Or write about on my blog. This is one of those: it comes from The Nation which is a magazine whose web site operates behind a paywall. So I get a complimentary log in to see articles which they think I will direct you to. Many are worthy, and I understand why The Nation wants to stay in business and keep paying its journalists to provide content. But, as far as possible, I continue to try and find sources that are not paywalled.

Today the news is full of two things that everybody is writing about: the new Papal encyclical and the latest American shooting atrocity. The Nation has three, searing articles about that and how this church and this date were neither randomly picked. And a commencement speech by Naomi Klein to the College of the Atlantic on June 6, 2015.

Mine is not going to be your average commencement address, for the simple reason that College of the Atlantic is not your average college. I mean, what kind of college lets students vote on their commencement speaker—as if this is their day or something? What’s next? Women choosing whom they are going to marry?

So as it happens there’s a couple of things here that have resonance with me. Firstly the Atlantic has, very wisely, closed comments on the three articles about the Charleston massacre. After yesterday, I have been seriously thinking that might not be too bad of an idea here, but two comments from the Usual Suspects set me straight on that. We do have good discussions here, and one wingnut is not going to be allowed to upset that. Secondly, one of the topics that Naomi Klein addresses speaks to something I have been thinking about.

These days, I give talks about how the same economic model that superpowered multinationals to seek out cheap labor in Indonesia and China also supercharged global greenhouse-gas emissions. And, invariably, the hand goes up: “Tell me what I can do as an individual.” Or maybe “as a business owner.”

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.

Recently Jane Fonda visited Jericho Beach and spoke there about pipelines and coastal tankers and whatnot, and of course the commenters weighed in as usual, being snide about how Jane chose to travel here, and thus was some kind of hypocrite because that trip used fossil fuel. Just as the same cabal has chided Al Gore for his campaigning on the same topic.

Maybe the Pope is going to be different. Maybe his speech will start the moral shift that is needed in the corridors of power to finally address the issue. Of course the fact that someone inside the Vatican leaked the encyclical (not a usual turn of events) and that Jeb Bush was already out front of it seem to point in the direction that the pontiff will be going. A bit like the way the President has had to acknowledge on gun control.

But continuing the “fair use “privilege, here is how Naomi Klein sees it towards the end of her speech

….the weight of the world is not on any one person’s shoulders—not yours. Not Zoe’s. Not mine. It rests in the strength of the project of transformation that millions are already a part of.

That means we are free to follow our passions. To do the kind of work that will sustain us for the long run. It even means we can take breaks—in fact, we have a duty to take them. And to make sure our friends do too.

And, as it happens you can also watch – for free –  what Naomi Klein said on YouTube

And also here is what she has to say about the Pope’s new message

James Moore Gets a Surprise Delivery

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A link to this video arrived in my email this morning.

I am not sure that the direct confrontation achieves very much, but the speech by the former commander of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station is telling.


Just to nitpick a bit more, the Marathassa was not a “grain tanker” (whatever that is) and the spill was Bunker C fuel oil, not diluted bitumen which is the most likely export from the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Dilbit sinks. There is also some doubt that 80% of the spill was recovered as there could well be oil residues that sank from the fuel spill – which is why fishing in the inlet has now been banned.

The email was intended to recruit more people to attend direct action training. I am not about to take on that myself, but click here if you would like more information

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2015 at 10:17 am

Posted in Environment, politics

Tagged with

Jordan Bateman calls Yes campaign ‘vicious and personal’

with 7 comments

Last night the CBC evening news gave Peter Ladner and Jordan Bateman equal time to put their side of the plebiscite debate. Not as a confrontation, thank goodness but as a pair of “one on one” interviews with Andrew Chang. The clip discussed in this link did not actually get broadcast. I think Peter Ladner’s criticism is fair: Bateman sticks to the same speaking points all the time, and those are designed to make people angry. The technique has been a favourite of right wingers for a long time – and was actually analysed rather well in “The American President

“You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. ”

Jordan Bateman has been trying to make people angry about the salary paid to Ian Jarvis – and about the Main Street Poodle. He says that these are examples of waste. And he keeps repeating that, even though the argument has been pretty much debunked. Translink has indeed made some grievous errors – but Bateman never refers to the waste of the Golden Ears Bridge, because he has been an advocate of many more bridges across the Fraser. He is probably made uncomfortable too by the fact that the toll revenues on that bridge do not pay for its ‘mortgage’. The way the P3 is structured, a private company is taking money from Translink that ought to have been available for transit. But our provincial government does not permit revenue risk to be transferred to the private sector. That is one of the few benefits of P3s, as far as I am concerned. It would also obviously draw attention to the grotesque waste of the Port Mann Bridge. Which far exceeds the cost of a poodle on a pole in every city centre!

Equally he never talks about the reorganisation of HandyDART, which cut service and increased cost for the benefit of a US based contractor. This again is a much bigger issue than some tv screens on SkyTrain not working. Yes the compass card is not yet working properly – but Jordan would not dream of pointing the finger at Cubic. Or Kevin Falcon.

In my experience the social media discussion has been dragged down by his supporters. He complains about fake accounts on Twitter. I would have thought he would have been aware of the BC Ferries misstep there just recently. Twitter can be a very nasty place indeed. So can facebook and the comments area of blogs and mainstream media sites. The No campaign has been very active to make sure that any comment made in favour of the Yes side gets bombarded fast and hard.

One of the favourite techniques actually speaks to the different styles of the campaigns. The mainstream media has criticised the Yes campaign for being geeky: concentrating on facts and figures, and making complex arguments showing how transit is related to other issues like access to employment, affordability of living in this region and so on. They have been recommending the sort of emotional appeal that works for the No side. So when a fact or figure is cited by a No tweet or post and attracts a reply which refers to the context a favourite ploy is to call that “opinion”. After all, every one is entitled to an opinion, even if it is wrong. So then the next step is to try and drag out the exchange and demand data and sources. I originally thought this was a variation of the old doorstep debate technique to hold up the canvasser and waste their time. But actually it is nastier than that. The initial responses are polite and appear concerned with debate, but gradually decline in tone, as other commenters pile on. On twitter, more names and hashtags get added to replies to use up more of the 140 characters. And beware of any discussion that has the bcpoli hash tag. Now that gets really down and dirty.

Jordan is not just the main spokesperson for the No side, he has actually been the campaign. One or two rogue elephant Mayors would like to share that limelight but Jordan has been adept and able to keep the spot for himself. He can hardly complain now when people start looking at his track record, and wondering where his pay cheque comes from. As usual the best thing to do in politics is always to follow the money. Who benefits most from a No vote? Note that in this region nearly every politician has wanted to acknowledge the truth that we need more transit. In reality, there is not that much choice. We know that motordom has failed to deliver on its promises, but our Premier seems not to have noticed or care. She has the chutzpah to promote a carbon tax and LNG at the same time. Left to her own devices she can readily find the tax payer funds to pay for more roads and bridges and the private sector profits and higher financing costs of P3s too. Motordom and big oil pay for right wing think tanks, and the Koch brothers have been funding anti-transit campaigns in the states for years. Since the CTF is not a charity, it does not have to reveal its funders, so it doesn’t. So there is no visible money trail. But the techniques and arguments have been translated holus bolus.

Of course people feel that their finances are stretched. Personal incomes for most people have been static, while those for the wealthiest have grown very rapidly. Income taxes have been cut – because that is what the wealthy demand. But it has not produced the economic growth that was promised – and what has flowed has failed to trickle down. Instead of a progressive income tax, all sorts of fees and charges have been increased instead. MSP is the most egregious example, but add BC Hydro rates, ICBC payments, bridge tolls, transit fares, BC Ferry fares and even the decline in gas prices quickly gets swallowed up. People genuinely do not feel there is room for more sales tax. The HST must have been on Christy’s mind when she made her promise to put any new transit funding mechanism to a regional referendum. And yes of course people dislike the way Translink was insulated from even indirect democratic control.

The reason that the No campaign has scored well is that it was nimble enough to get its shots in first. The trouble they are in now is that they are on the defensive. The coalition which took so long to pull together and get moving is indeed proving effective. As it must. Of course Bateman whines about using taxpayers’ money to fund the campaign. But increasing transit capacity – and adding bike lanes and more HandyDART service and even the selected road expansions – are all critical to municipal success in building the sort of place that will continue to grow, and remain livable. Greenhouse gas reduction over the motordom alternative does not get mentioned very much simply because most of those genuinely uncommitted are weary of of the very similar broader “debate” prolonged by the climate deniers’ refusal to admit they are wrong. Just as the people who became so rude and abusive over Point Grey Road traffic calming – or any protected bike lane anywhere – ever admit they have been proved wrong every time as well.

The Mayors did not pick this battle. It has been three years of asking for sustainable funding for future transit expansion, during which time Christy Clark has hid behind the need for yet another audit – none of which showed profligacy – and then her increasingly dubious playing with the referendum. Which was initially binding, and based on a clear question, but is now non binding and the question neatly made more fuzzy. Just how much more wiggle room does she need? Enough I think to dismiss any Yes result. She has a Plan B. Of course she does. She intends to stay Premier, and then pass on the baton to a chosen heir. So LRT if necessary for Surrey but not necessarily transit for anyone else, unless there is a short term political advantage in a swing constituency. BC politics as usual, in fact.

The No vote will not change anything, and it saddens me that so many people who have been allies on the generally progressive side continue to believe that this is another HST campaign. It isn’t, and Christy’s careful distancing herself from promoting the sales tax increase should be clear enough indication of that.

Jordan should not complain about “vicious” when so many of his supporters have so eagerly embraced that, where it suits them. Jordan cannot complain about personal since he has been front and centre from the start. Ian Jarvis was picked as CEO for Translink when it proved hard to attract good candidates from elsewhere. The speed of the departure of Tom Prendergast did not go unnoticed among the quite small field of potential replacements. He had also been very effective as a CFO – a job he had formerly held at GVRD. I thought the action of the Board in dismissing him, and realising too late that they still had a contract to fulfill, would have been inept for a politically oriented board. But for one that was supposed to be the best the business community could summon it is unforgivable. Ask Ian how he feels about personal attacks, Jordan.

Jordan is also disingenuous when he says that the Yes campaign has ignored his plans and proposals. They haven’t, of course.  There is just not much to argue about. You cannot find enough money  within Translink to fund growth. And indeed it was the policy of penny wise pound foolish that caused that huge SkyTrain disruption. Translink had decided not to buy a software upgrade, that would have removed the need to restart every train manually. Since the need had not arisen before, it was not thought necessary, and the pressure to cut costs was intense. The municipal governments are not going to use development cost charges or increases in property tax revenues that flow from rising house prices, because that money is already spoken for. To pay the wages of firefighters and police officers, for one thing. To patch the roads and prop up the bridges for another. To cope with the constant downloading from senior levels of government.

Vancouver Insider tweeted “You don’t have to like Translink, mayors, or sales taxes to know that better transit is much better for all of us. All else is noise. ”

But the noise will continue. NO will be mainly Bateman – but also a lot of people who think that taxes make them worse off. And who do not want to argue about facts and figures. It is a feeling – and a feeling they have in common with many others. Quote from The Goodbye Girl “I’m angry. I don’t want to lose it.”

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2015 at 8:57 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with ,

What Works, What Doesn’t

with 4 comments

Jeffrey Tumlin

San Francisco transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin talked last night at SFU mostly about the experience of transit funding referenda in California. The presentation is available on video.  Tumlin’s book “Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Healthy, Vibrant and Resilient Communities” is used as part of the Next Generation Transportation course.

Have you ever been to Phibbs Exchange? It is probably as bad as they get – a dreary, isolated and unpleasant place to wait for a bus, (and one I often use in my own discussions about what is wrong with transit here). Translink has a lot of room for improvement but “it’s also the best that I have worked for.” We invented transportation tax measure referendums in California, and if you think the current experience here is bad, understand that it is so much worse everywhere else. You are right to demand perfection, but don’t let the best get in the way of the good.


Alameda County in California has 1.6m residents in 14 municipalities and 6 unincorporated areas. The original transcontinental railway did not reach San Francisco – it reached Oakland where passengers transferred to ferries. Up until 1994 it relied on a gas tax to pay for transit but as “funding dried up” in 1986 they introduced a county sales tax, which was risky given that at that time other neighbouring counties didn’t. In a referendum in 2000 a tax increase was approved by 82% of the vote. In California any general purpose tax increase must be approved by at least two thirds of the votes. That means for a vote to succeed there must be no organised opposition since at least one third of the voters are ideologically opposed to any tax increase. There is no federal or state support for transit operations or maintenance.  In 2012 Measure B1 a half cent sales tax increase failed at 66.53%. Measure  BB in 2014 passed at 71%. That was because by that time there was a coalition “with everyone on it” which adopted a strategy of focussing on “investments that matter to real people”. Communications stressed improvements in safety, efficiency, local streets and maintenance. Some projects were identified but not fully funded. Many projects were tied to housing development and many stressed bikes and pedestrians. The county is half suburban, with over a 70% car mode split. Car drivers voted yes because they understood that if other people switched modes there would be more room on the existing roads for those who continued to drive. Doing nothing would make matters worse.

Transit demand is increasing faster than population growth. This is due to demographics. As the baby boomers age and retire, they drive less and the millennials have much less interest in car ownership. Housing prices are actually worse than Vancouver. For many people in a low wage service economy driving is too expensive when housing costs have to be met first. Much of the success of the coalition was from the understanding of the combined affordability of transportation and housing. Every county in California has a similar story. Los Angeles knows that for its economy to succeed they cannot continue to bulldoze neighbourhoods to build freeways through them.

Messages that work

  1. Stress people, not mobility NOT focussing on congestion relief. For instance, tell the story of the single working mother who has the challenge of getting her children to and from daycare/school and herself to work – and how expensive that gets if she has to drive.
  2. Use pictures of people, including seniors and people with disabilities and reflect the diversity of the population. Be culturally sensitive to those communities and produce written materials in their languages
  3. Stress the need for employers to attract and retain young talent – people who don’t want to drive everywhere
  4. Improve public health – reducing the obesity epidemic means walking has to be built in to daily lives
  5. Improve economic efficiency – the space needed to move an automobile is ten times more than any other mode. There is much more people moving capacity if they are not all in cars – for the same space.
  6. Accomodate aging adults – see “Best Cities for Successful Aging” – that means walkability and more transit
  7. Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed – which is where the housing and transportation affordability index comes in. “San Francisco is more affordable than Little Rock, Arkansas” simply because it has homes and jobs within easy commute distance and good transit. It is not just affordable housing – its the combination with affordable transportation options. In Little Rock houses are cheap but they are distant from jobs and the only way to cover that is by driving. You do not improve the competitiveness of your region in the global economy by forcing poorer people to live in remote suburbs where they have to drive.


Much has been made by the No side of the delays in introducing this smart card fare payment system. The Bay Area has been trying to get such a system established since 1993. It was originally called Translink. It was launched in 1993 and abandoned in 1995. Twenty of the larger transit agencies agreed to relaunch the idea in 2010 .


By 2015 only 15 of the 20 agencies have actually implemented the card. Now rebranded as “Clipper” it is hated by all. The problems are many and various. For instance in San Francisco alone there are six transit operators each with their own fare system and no coordination between any of them.

In fact there is no better transit system in North America than TransLink. Look for example at Boston, which is currently trying to de-ice 120 year old rail switches. Or Chicago where ancient wooden platforms on the El are disintegrating, dropping debris on the streets below and leaving foot wide gaps. Or BART which has had a disastrous 18 months. “You set the gold standard”  for integrating land use, transportation, environment and social equity. In terms of cost effectiveness Vancouver ranks alongside much larger systems like London or New York. If you want to see disfunction look at New Jersey.

The one thing where Translink has fallen behind is communications. To some extent this can be attributed to Canadian culture and your dislike of “boasting”. But also Translink needs to get better at listening. Public officials need to be in the limelight all the time. There needs to be a greater focus [in the Yes campaign] on telling stories not wonkishness. In California the campaigns for funding measures last two to five years. Plan B must be to win next time. The new campaign starts as soon as this one is over and will be a lot of work. It has to identify outcome based performance indicators, not just dollars per ride. How you meet economic, environmental and social targets to show tax dollars are well spent. Every $1 spent on transit produces $5 of benefits.

Q & A

1  “I want better transit but I see the defects of Translink.” The BC Government is the problem. They give tax breaks to the corporate sector and do not step up to the plate to pay for needed infrastructure. We do not have a fair tax system.

We have many people who share your values. Sales tax is the worst form of taxation. It is regressive. The poor pay the most and the rich are the least impacted. But we have to live in the real world. The right solution is not necessarily the most workable one. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the alternative is worse. Pressing for perfection is a recipe for not getting anything at all.

2 “Can we pull it off? In a month?”

Poll results are often different to polling – going both ways. There have been lots of surprises and rapid turnarounds in sentiment. The important thing is the delivery of the message to voters – mainly through tv and radio. There has been rightful criticism and it warrants a full response. The problem is that it is very hard to do that in a seven second sound bite. The Alameda County campaign relied on images and factoids.

3 The current provincial government was elected by the majority. The coalition has a very wide range of organisations within it. The question is did anyone’s views change as a result of your campaign?

Tumlin then conducted a quick straw poll of those present. Many there said they were “conflicted” supporting transit spending but mistrustful of Translink or disliking the sales tax. A few who came undecided said they had been persuaded by the presentation.

4 The next questioner linked the distrust of Translink to the pay of its CEO as “grossly overspending”

Tumlin gently pointed out that Translink is comparable to other agencies and that the cost of living here is very high, which makes it hard to attract people if you offer lower pay. There are some systems that pay less due to “the optics” – but they do not necessarily get the best managers as a result. You are actually talking about less than 0.1% of the budget

5 Gordon Price asked if privatisation – perhaps of parts of the system – was a way to improve performance.

At that point my notes stop as I stood up and positioned myself to reply to that assertion. I think Tumlin must have dealt with it effectively, as I then talked extempore about the campaign – and how Tumlin’s interview with News1130 had been received by the facebook trolls. I did scribble “governance – none is perfect – Portland Metro” which he said was directly elected – and is certainly an approach I would favour.   Privatisation has been a disaster for public services everywhere: and worst bits of the Translink system are privatised – MVT runs HandyDART at much higher cost and lower service levels than the previous collection of mainly NGO and volunteer supported service providers. The Golden Ears Bridge and the Canada Line are P3 showcases of profit for the private sector at public cost.

6 How much do people save when they stop driving?

A media campaign is not an information campaign. The best facts are hard to explain. The cost of driving needs to include externalities, and needs to be expressed as an opportunity cost. That is a challenging message to deliver especially to the undecided. You need short messages  for swing voters, you don’t have half an hour. It also depends on who says what: it has to be seen to be real. Campaigns that work bring on key people. We found that affordable housing advocates were key – once they got the tptn+housing affordability index thing sorted they could relay that to their clients in meaningful ways.

7 The first speaker got another turn at the microphone. “It is not right or equitable that the corporate sector gets the benefit of de-congestion at the expense of the people. There has been a $13bn loss of revenue due to tax cuts for corporations and that is being filled by fees and charges on the poor. It is a beautiful plan but I don’t want to pay for it. There is no Bill of Rights for users.”

You present an intelligent reasoned argument, which is valid from a good governance and policy standpoint. But it is a solution for the next provincial election not this referendum. It is possible for voter initiatives to rescind taxes – and you can go back every year. (He was obviously talking about the California Proposition legislation at this point, not necessarily BC.)

8  We are tribal social primates. We have no sense of belonging (I think he meant to the region) which has lead to a loss of trust. How do we deal with tribalism?

Metro Vancouver is a coherent economic  unit and a very effective competitor in the global economy. It is more cohesive than many California metro areas. San Francisco is quite different to San Jose – but it is very difficult to put a simple line between them that  does not have boundary effects. In terms of economic productivity the boundaries here are clearer and well set. By tribalism I think you mean that we do not want to pay for other people’s projects. I think the way to deal with that is to engage young people as they are better networked than anybody else – but then you also have to get them to vote. I think you do have here a sense of commonwealth which is missing in the US. You have no idea how bad things can get. No-one can get everything they want. You have to develop a sense of compassion for people who are different to you. We are not in competition.  It is in my interest to help you become more productive. In crass politics give them what they need but not all that they want. It is an ugly process.

Hire a lot of young people and get them involved in the campaign. Get them to show up at the polls. The Alameda County  proposition was lost by 731 votes!

9  Erica Rathje reminded those present that the federal government subsidises the fossil fuel industry with billions of dollars. We will have the opportunity to deal with that in this year’s federal election.

Do not punish yourselves locally by denying additional funding that your transportation system desperately needs.

10  The Hong Kong model which produces great transit at no cost to the taxpayer.

I am very much in favour of Value Capture. We use a lot of it in San Francisco. Development of land freed up by the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway for instance. The TransBay Terminal is being funded in part by Tax Increment Financing. Impact Fees on residential developments pay for affordable housing.



The meeting was large and well attended. Discourse was generally polite – except for some heckling when the first speaker made a long statement which appeared not to include a question. He did get a better reception later, and many people admitted to “feeling conflicted”. I agree. I do to. I think we are being manipulated. We do not have the same antitax Proposition 13 mentality here – and it should not be foisted upon us. I think the speaker was right when he said that if this sales tax proposal is approved, the province can then withdraw from funding transit expansions and concentrate on its favourite road building projects. But I think he missed how much provincial politicians love to cut ribbons on SkyTrain extensions. It will be interesting to see, if Linda Hepner has to proceed with her Plan B, if the province co-operates. Though that risks creating the multi-agency mess that sank the TransLink card in the Bay Area and bedevils their Clipper.

My understanding is that the problems of the Bay area are more of Fares Integration and Service Coordination are at the heart of the Clipper problems rather than technology issues. When I came to Canada in 1988 it was to work on FISC between the TTC and GO Transit who had incompatible mag swipe and optical reader tickets respectively. But the problem was not one of technology – a clumsy “TwinCard” approach fixed that – but rather incompatible tariffs and service objectives. Much has changed in the Toronto region since but transit mode share regionwide has not advanced by very much. And the number of agencies has actually increased. The battles in the Bay Area are I think similar and are reflected in the number of agencies and their local loyalties. It would be very sad indeed if one of the outcomes of losing this plebiscite is  that Translink were broken up into municipal fiefdoms but that seems to be in the back of the West Vancouver Mayor’s mind.

As to Value Capture I must say that I am not all convinced that our developers will welcome the Hong Kong approach here. They have been infuriated by suggestions that Translink here get into the property development business. My experience with the first TTC Sheppard Subway proposal was that when developers heard that value capture of station developments would pay for the line construction, they would not give up so much of their profits and would be able to make more by simply taking their development proposals to adjacent municipalities outside the TTC service area. I have also heard here that many developers are becoming averse to the current Development Cost Contributions regime – which they see as capricious and open to abuse.  The municipalities meanwhile point out that DCCs pay for parks and schools, community centres and sidewalks, and other desirable amenities. They do not wish to relinquish this source of funding to the regional transit system which has more nebulous local benefits, in their view. Here is more about the use of value capture for rapid transit.

Oh and as for privatisation read this

Written by Stephen Rees

February 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm


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