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What Works, What Doesn’t

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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 was recorded and will be available on the City program web page in due course. 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.

Map_of_Alameda_County_1878_LARGE

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.

COMPASS

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 .

TransLinkCard2

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.

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REACTION

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

Transportation Referendum: Lessons Learned from the Front Line

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First of the 2015 Rethinking Transportation: New Voices, New Ideas series of lectures sponsored by Translink at the SFU downtown City Program. This talk was also live webcast which is  available on youtube. I have also created a Storify from the tweets that carried the #movingthefuture hashtag.

Carl Guardino is the president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade association that represents more than 385 of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies.

He also serves as the chair of the California Transportation Commission, an independent public agency responsible for programming and allocating of funds for the construction of highway, passenger rail and transit improvements throughout California.

The sub headings are his own. He spoke without visual aids.

1 “Confessions”

He opened by talking about how much he loved Canada, having visited Vancouver “five or six times …and it never rained”. He said he was a political scientist (“the only real science”) a “public policy geek” and concerned not just with transportation but placemaking. Transportation is the skeleton on which we build the body of our communities. He was proud the innovative housing trust fund the SVLG had set up using a $20m fund to leverage $200m of investment. They had intended to house 4,800 individuals and families who could not afford housing in Silicon Valley’s expensive real estate market. Since 1999  they have now housed 20,000 families and individuals. He recalled the first city meeting he had to attend where he spoke last after a large number of opponents to the plan. He he was thinking to himself “One man, armed with the truth, is a majority.” He managed to persuade the city to proceed despite the opposition, and when the first project opened, the opponents came up to him at the ceremony and said: if we had known what affordable housing looked like, and what the people who need affordable housing looked like, we would not have opposed the proposal. The trust seeks to house three groups, and divides its tenants into roughly equal thirds: the homeless, those who need affordable housing (i.e. low income) and first time buyers. Out of 250 proposals they have only lost 12.

2 Context

SVLG was founded by David Packard (of Hewlett Packard fame) who called together 38 CEOs of companies in the valley many of whom were competitors. He stressed they shared common ground in the well being of their community. They now represent 390  employers with annual revenues of $6 trillion, all concerned with making their region a better place. They have taken part in five transportation funding measures, each of which became a magnet for regional, state and federal funding. “We were the first” – just as the Vancouver region is the first to have a funding ballot for a regional sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.

In 1984  the first measure was a ten year, half cent sales tax increase for specified improvements which raised $1.4bn in local funding. Each of the improvements was delivered on time and on budget “except those which were delivered early and under budget…. Promises made, promises kept.”

3 Common Ground 

The proposal included annual audits of the funds raised and spent, which were kept segregated from other funds. A watchdog committee was appointed to ensure accountability. The same structure was used for the 1996 campaign which looked a lot like the set of projects in Translink’s plan. There were 19 projects over nine years spread over all transportation modes – roads, transit, cycling and walking.

He has been impressed by the broad base of the coalition he had been speaking to that day. (This was the fourth discussion he had had – each different. And delivered on Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the US.) He stressed that opposition is important to a functioning democracy. “I hate taxes. I hate traffic more.” It was important to “wisely invest in the future”. The opposition continues but over time “build that trust, keep your word”. More California counties have followed suit until 80% of the state is covered by these voter supported initiatives accounting for 50c on every dollar invested in California transportation.

4 Commitment

“We can sit back and be enraged or stand up and be engaged.” There are now 55 days until the ballot starts and 75 days of voting to speak to the electorate. One million more people are coming here in the next 25 years which means there will another 600,000 additional weekday trips on an already congested system. Business CEOs have to “get into the game and move the ball forward” not just shout encouragement from the sidelines. They need to mount in house information campaigns – not telling people how to vote. It was important that people hear from their peers – students talking to students, for example

In the most recent campaign they had budgeted for a $1.6m fund: campaigns demand “time, treasure and talent”

5 Courage

A campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. You are running an Iron Man. I have immense respect for you: you care enough to work for it or are concerned enough about to want to learn more. We have won nine of ten campaigns. I am always asked what I learned from the loss. I hate losing. We worked as hard on the campaign we lost as those we won. Win this campaign, build a better Vancouver then invite me back. You are building for your future and that takes time. You are in it for the long haul.

Q & A

Q  Why doesn’t transit run 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

He politely declined to answer the question as it is outside his knowledge. He did point out that we are similar in size and population to Silicon Valley, but we have a higher percentage of trips on transit/walk/bike – and the climate in California is better.

Q  What guarantees are there that the projects will be built? You spoke of a skeleton which suggests that we have to build on what we have. Would courtesy transit be viable?

Silicon Valley is a lot more sprawled than the Metro Vancouver region. We do not provide free transit as the farebox helps pay for the service. Roads are subsidized too. We all benefit from their improvement.

Q about the campaign

Silicon Valley is comparable in size: the campaigns we are talking about did not apply to the whole of California. We chose to take command of our future as the federal and state governments were not getting the job done [applause]

Another Q about this campaign

There was a football game this weekend. I doubt the team coaches exchanged play books before the game started. This meeting is open to all and being webcast so I am not going to share what we discussed at the meetings earlier today. It is essential that everyone be engaged, but we all care about different aspects – cyclists care more about bike routes than buses. Employers are more concerned about how their employees can get to work in reasonable time and cost which plays heavily into employee retention. We must speak to the concerns of the community but I will not address strategy or tactics here. We started much earlier than you did, but we also had to deal with a skeptical media. The annual audits, sticking to the declared schedule and not co-mingling funds brought about a greater degree of trust. Our tax expired when the projects were done and all the commitments were met.

“I have never yet seen a government that everyone thought was great.”

Q We did not make the choice [to have a referendum]. It was forced on us. Is there a term on our sales tax?

See the language on your ballot. We had sunsets but Los Angeles, which faces far bigger problems, had an open ended approach

Q Disputed the statement that there is not enough transit. The questioner used it regularly without issues. He also felt that the No campaign was being under reported

This morning’s Vancouver Sun story was 90% unflattering. The coverage in general seems to be even handed.

Q related to Urban Farming

“You have me stumped”

Q The voice of youth has been under represented. The No campaign speaks for older voters, who are more concerned with no tax increase than better transit service. How do we bring in students into the campaign?

Students do not vote as often as they could. First get them registered to vote, so they get a ballot, then make sure they fill out and post the ballot.

We started two years before the vote – and before the recession hit. Once that happened the question “Can I afford it?” became more important to the voters than “Is it worth it?” We also had to get a 2/3 majority.

Q Issue for small businesses – included a remark that the opening of the Canada Line helped the questioner’s business

Often our approach has to be one of balance. Yes the cost goes up but the benefits are real and measurable. Neither the state nor federal governments were investing in transportation at a time when there was increasing demand and there was a clear cost due to the resulting congestion – and that is a real cost we all pay. We do a lot of polling and we have to be hypersensitive to what people are willing to pay. We found that a small sales tax increase was much more acceptable than larger (but revenue equivalent) increases to gas taxes or tolls.

Q There is no accountability here: the Compass card was cited as an example as well as underperforming bridge tolls

Q About specialised services for People with Disabilities

These were included in all four transit packages

Q Does your state still build roads without ballots?

California is at present adopting a band aid approach. They are not spending enough to meet growth nor local priorities. They are constraining spending to be barely enough to maintain the system.

Q Turnout? What about misinformation from the opposition? We tried to inform students recently “not many stopped at our table”. “We haven’t got enough detail about how the proposals will impact our students.

If they didn’t stop at your table maybe you should make your table more attractive – free chocolates? Or get out from behind the table and go talk to people.

Most of the campaign should be about your message. When someone posts misinformation, set the record straight. But if they are posting to Twitter and only have three followers, it may not be worth getting into an argument.

Q Does your experience with a series of successful ballots mean you are now locked in to doing this forever? Higher levels of government are probably quite content for you to take all the heat and pressure off them.

Washington DC is dysfunctional. Our measures do matter a hoot to them. The dysfunction is widespread and affects most programs not just transportation. We have found that when we had funds in hand and approached them for matching amounts we got a better response than we we simply asked for them to do something for us. We have formed a Self Help Counties Coalition to build on success and the federal government now often builds in a local match requirement in many programs. “Yes, they should do more, but  I can’t change their mind on that.”

“What’s in it for me?” is always top of mind

Pavement maintenance and rehabilitation spending now requires that local government maintains its previous levels of spending for the prior three years. This ensures that funds raised by the initiatives do not supplant existing funding but supplement it. The Pavement Condition Index must equal at least 75% to qualify for funds, and cities that are at 90% can use the funds for improvements on other things.

Q A planner asked how the campaign included planning

We bring them to a safe space and get them to talk to us as professionals. They have a huge say in what we do. Their local knowledge is essential to our regional challenge.

Q How do we make the shots they take work for us

“Come let us reason together” is the ideal. Stay factual, provide data and if you don’t know the answer, admit it. I have never yet seen a 100% vote in favour of anything in a true democracy.

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REACTION

I was really impressed by the style and clarity of the presentation, and the politeness with which all questions were dealt with – even when it was quite obvious that the questions were being directed at the wrong person. He was universally polite and good humoured throughout. The people who brought him here on a holiday weekend and exploited him so relentlessly owe him big time.

Despite all the similarities in the situation, BC is not California. That is the place where voter initiatives and “direct democracy” took root – mainly as a taxpayer revolt. This of course is as popular as the Boston Tea Party. Which was not actually so much about taxes as the lack of representation of colonists back in Westminster. But the idea that people hate taxes is a very old one, but not nearly as universal as might be supposed. Peace, order and good government is a collection of desiderata that at least implies a willingness to pay for the support services that provide that. We do not have the same deeply held and misguided faith in the value of personal responsibility as Americans. Remember that the US is the only advanced country on the planet that does not have universal healthcare. Proposition 13 was the start of the tax reduction movement which required a shift away to much lower service standards and a much greater reliance on fees and charges. Right wing governments at both provincial and national levels here seem eager to follow the example, but what was as equally clear after Proposition 13 was the collapse of civil society, the abandonment of many valuable programs and the continuing shift towards ever greater inequality.

Most of the people who spoke against the sales tax increase stressed its regressive impact on the poorest people in our community. The sales tax increase is not the best idea, merely the best of a bunch of poor alternatives. We have to improve our transportation system and the Massey Tunnel replacement is not regionally a high priority. It is obvious that most people here would not vote to increase their taxes to pay for a new bridge – or a new interchange in North Vancouver. We are also not being consulted on our willingness to help pay for transit in Kelowna – or another lake crossing there. People in Greater Vancouver already pay taxes to support transit in every other place in BC that has it, and we cannot understand why there is not reciprocity. The value of Greater Vancouver to the economy of BC is not in any doubt, yet fails to get mentioned whenever essential service improvements are needed here.

The province of BC continually pleads poverty, yet has no problem at all in funding freeway improvements. There is always money for tax reductions for the wealthy and for highly profitable corporations, who appear to be able to dictate terms to the province whenever they want to exploit our raw materials and natural resources, and never take any responsibility for the damage they cause.

The referendum must not be viewed as a popularity poll for Translink or the provincial government. Voting no on principle will hurt all of us. Voting no on the grounds that “Translink cannot be trusted” is simply falling for the three card trick that Jordan Bateman thinks he is so clever at. But he knows that the savings he claims are available are nowhere near enough to meet the necessary expansion. He also knows that “value capture” (building permits and development cost contributions) are already spoken for and the Mayors have made clear that yet another hike in property taxes to pay for transit is not acceptable.

The advice provided by the gentleman from Silicon Valley is critical to win the plebiscite. But we must not let our province become another California, nor our country a pale imitation of the US. We must win this one, then get on with the essential task of removing Stephen Harper and Christy Clark from office.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 20, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Todd Stone firm on tax limits for transit referendum

with 13 comments

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

Conservatives vote against helping Canadians save on home energy costs

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This is actually a Green Party of Canada Press Release. My expectation is that this topic is unlikely to get much coverage in the mainstream media.

I have to say as well that I did try to take advantage of the ecoEnergy Home Retrofit program, despite its somewhat cumbersome requirements. I did not get a penny from it. The simple reason being that while it was available it was almost impossible to get hold of tradespeople, who in any event at that time were also very much occupied on fitting out new build housing which was flooding the market. So when I bought an older townhouse in Richmond I got a new high efficiency gas furnace. I had to replace the hot water tank too and found there was no realistic alternative to like for like (tankless systems being only viable for larger households). I was then told by a City of Richmond gas inspector that if I installed a sealed system gas fire – to replace the negative efficiency open flame one – he would insist on the installation of a totally unnecessary air brick in an outside wall. This was because he did not understand the words  “coxial flue” and thought the new gas fire would need an additional supply of combustion air. At that point I gave up on a campaign with the strata council to speed up replacement of the windows and doors identified by the mandatory house inspection required by the ecoEnergy program which disqualified me from all rebates. And having replaced the extractor fans in both bathrooms I was not in a hurry to go back into the loft and add insulation up there.

Even so, and recognising that there is much more energy to be saved by cutting transportation emissions, I still think that retrofitting homes is a sensible thing to do, as the payback periods are shorten when energy costs rise. Of course the current glut of natural gas due to excessive fracking is not helping there either.


(Ottawa) September 25, 2014- In a House vote on September 24, 2014, Green Party Leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May and Green Deputy Leader Bruce Hyer, MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, voted in favour of a motion to have the government establish a program to support energy efficient home renovation.  

Once again, the Harper Conservatives put partisanships ahead of good policy and voted it down.
“Canada wastes more than half the energy we use,” said Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands. “Heating the outdoors in the winter and then cooling it in the summer just doesn’t make any sense. I am stunned that the ecoEnergy program was cancelled by the Conservatives in 2012, at a huge cost to homeowners.  This motion would have brought the program back – yet sadly, the Conservatives voted against saving Canadians thousands of dollars in energy costs.”

NDP MP François Choquette’s motion M-497 stated that an energy efficiency program would help to combat climate change while reducing Canadians’ energy bills and creating jobs.

“It was disappointing, if not unexpected, to watch almost every Conservative MP in the House stand against a proposal that could have restored the successful energy efficient home retrofit program,” Hyer said. “This motion was a no brainer. The Conservatives could have killed two birds with one stone – creating jobs while lowering carbon emissions. It’s beyond me why any government would oppose it.”

In 2012, the Conservatives cancelled their own ecoEnergy Home Retrofit program without warning. The ecoEnergy program gave out grants of up to $5,000 to homeowners to help pay for energy efficient upgrades like replacing furnaces, improving insulation and sealing windows and doors.

The program helped over 750,000 Canadians during its five years, saving users an average of 20% on their home energy bills every year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and adding up to $4 billion to the Canadian economy. It increased government revenue and created thousands of jobs.

“EcoEnergy brought huge benefits to the environment, the economy and the average Canadian.  It was particularly significant in Northwestern Ontario, where the cost of home heating is rising rapidly,” concluded Hyer.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 25, 2014 at 11:29 am

Federal NDP promises 15-year national transit strategy

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The Georgia Straight covers an NDP announcement today

Fin Donnelly, the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, told reporters that if New Democrats form the government after the 2015 federal election, they will bring in a national transit strategy…

“What we’re committing to is a 15-to-20-year window of predictable, accountable funding that municipalities, provinces, and First Nations can access, so that they can do the planning they need in their cities, in the provinces, in the territories to make the certainty of moving goods and people in their region,” Donnelly said today (September 8) during the news conference in Vancouver.

Which is certainly an improvement over the present arrangements. But it is not nearly enough.

First of all, what is needed is a permanent commitment. This is not a temporary problem that is going to be solved in a fifteen or twenty year time frame. Given the present imbalance between roads and transit, and the fact that federal funding has only been available for – usually major – capital investments (i.e ribbon cutting opportunities for politicians of the ruling party) a different approach needs to be established that provides certainty not just for now but into the future. And which has to support transit operations as well as expansion.

Secondly the assistance is to be tied to the gas tax, which is a dreadful policy. Predicated taxation ought to be anathema to elected officials. While it may buy political support from the right wing, which distrusts most government spending and wants to hog tie future government as much as possible, representative and responsible government must be able to look at all spending and revenue needs equally and make continual adjustments between them. A consolidated fund is the only way to do that, and is why budget debates and votes ought to be the centre of the democratic process. The federal Conservatives have, of course, been utterly and openly contemptuous of the parliamentary process with their sneaky omnibus bills.

The tax on cigarettes helps fund healthcare, but its revenues are not dedicated solely to the treatment of lung cancer or coronary artery disease. Nor should they be. The tax on alcohol is not regulated to being just enough to generate the revenue to treat alcoholism.

The gas tax is not a good and reliable source of revenue into the future.  As driving miles fell and engine efficiencies improved in recent years, so gas tax revenues fell at the same time as the need for transit spending increased.

Transit ought not to be regarded as a free standing object. It has to be considered as part of a wider strategy to deal with growing urbanism and its impact on the environment in general. It has to be part of making the places we live happier, healthier and more efficient. Reducing the need for vehicular movement has to be part of this process. There is no point at all in funding only those rapid transit projects that promote ever more urban sprawl, which was well under way long before the first automobiles appeared on the scene.

(Added as an afterword – Jeff Speck tweeted “Why good transit isn’t enough” citing Arlington VA, a suburb of Washington BC which has good transit but is a sad and soulless place. The author of that piece could be writing about much of the urbanized Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver. )  

It is not going to be just about “getting people out of their cars” either. If those cars are much better utilized, carry more people, require less parking space, produce much less or no pollution – all of which can be achieved by technologies now appearing in the marketplace – then we have to recognize that in suburban areas (which will continue to have their current form long into the future) where conventional transit has so much difficulty penetrating, cars are going to be part of the solution. They will probably be electric, self driving and shared. And they will be just as important as bike share programs and improved pedestrian accessibility and greater decentralisation of service provision of both public and private services. One way to reduce the need for HandyDART is to decentralise healthcare services. Some people will need door to door service, others will be happy with better services that they can reach by walking or cycling. Most will be even happier if there is a shorter journey involved. Location of workplaces and post secondary education both need to be revised significantly. If the university is not at the top of a mountain or the end of a peninsula – or includes affordable on campus student accommodation –  then much of the recent increase in transit demand stimulated by UPass would evaporate.

This a good announcement from the perspective of a party getting ready to fight a federal election next year. It is not nearly Good Enough as a formal policy statement tackling some of our most pressing problems and needs. But it is better than anything we are likely to hear from the Conservatives.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

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