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How will TransLink save itself after the Olympics?

January 21st, 2010 · 13 Comments

The TransLink story the last year has been a regular soap opera (ok, municipal version): mayors band together to pressure provincial government for more sources of funding, complete with news conferences and various other tactics; province makes many snarky remarks about operations of TransLink spending and orders a review; CEO, freshly recruited from New York, abruptly quits and goes back to New York; TransLink mayors reluctantly pass a status-quo spending plan that does no more than keep the existing system going.

They kind of faded from view as that rolled to a close last October. So I hiked out to Metrotown this week to find out whether they’re going to take another run at the provincial citadel, whether they’ve launched a hunt for a new CEO, and whether we all just have to hang onto our bus straps for now because there’s no new money in sight.

Here were some of the answers.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • It’s weird to think that Translink has to be in a holding pattern or ‘aggressively’ expanding.

    What about a slower pace of expansion or a focus on service reconfiguration to make better use of the infrastructure they already have? I might be reading too harshly, but the choice seems to be paralysis or full-speed ahead, which is silly.

  • Frances Bula

    Todd,

    I think you are reading a little harshly, though maybe it’s partly my poor wording. They say in the story that they are doing exactly what you suggest — a focus on service reconfiguration. And, though I didn’t ask them this, I think one of the reasons that expansion can’t be just incremental is that some of the things that are needed — Evergreen, Millennium line expansion, and expansion of SkyTrain in Surrey — are projects that are hard to do incrementally. It’s all or nothing.

  • Joe Just Joe

    If Translink could get itself out of paying for capital costs and only had to worry about paying for ongoing service/maintance it would be in very good shape financially.
    They need to find a way to get development to pay for expansion (development seems to pay for everything else in this city anyways).
    Have cities that want expansion could provide Translink with bonus density. This is a very crude example, but the city could provide Translink with an fsr of 1.0 for everything with 250m of a station and 0.5 for everything with 500m of a station. That would only be useable within that area. So when a landowner goes to develop they would be able to buy that density from translink at the set price if they choose to. This should provide enough funding to pay for expanded lines. If one city doesn’t want transit then they don’t offer any density to Translink, if another city is deperate for a new line perhaps they up the ante and other more density. Unfortunately the whole thing falls apart if the line needs to tranverse a city that isn’t willing to cooperate.

  • MB

    JJJ has it right. Devoting a portion of development rights near stations to finance transit has yet to be explored here. However, I am doubtful selling bonus density will pay for 100% of new transit on major rapid transit lines unless we were willing to accommodate Hong Kong densities. Suburban light rail and rapid bus routes may be another story. Still, it’s a wide-open option at present.

    I believe the issue of senior government participation in transit will be forced when we are beset with ever more energy prices spikes over the next decade, and when carbon pricing on fossil fuel exports kick in and significant investments in alternatives / renewables and greater urban efficiency become necessary.

    However, it appears that transit and energy efficiency will compete with the higher healthcare and pension costs imposed by an ageing population.

    Has no one at the federal or provincial level heard of the concept of long term planning?

  • MB

    Regarding ‘waiting for transit’, Port Moody for one has already planned for and approved significantly higher densities in anticipation of the arrival of the Evergreen Line. They’re still waiting … and waiting.

    I don’t know of one city in the region that would reject a new line. Some developers may strenuously object as a negotiating ploy until they get the additional density they want.

  • @ MB: In terms of development around stations, and I could be wrong here, but I seem to recall TransLink saying they could only make about $30 million from land around existing SkyTrain stations. Which amounts to nothing in a billion dollar budget.

    Only other problem with using development as a money tree: We’re used to using development in this region as a means of building parks, community centres, and affordable housing. If TransLink suddenly starts demanding developers pay the bill for transit, we’re most definitely not going to be getting any of the amenities we’re so used to and which make our lives so “livable”.

    @JJJ: You’ve got it absolutely right in one regard. Before, when TransLink simply paid for operating costs, like BC Transit, budgets were fine. The monetary issues arose when the Province started demanding the region pay a share, and started doing these tripartite deals with TransLink and the feds sharing the bill. That added hundreds of millions in debt – Golden Ears and Canada Line – that TransLink has never had to deal with before.

    Not saying that’s the whole problem, but it’s definitely a major part of budgetary concerns.

    @ Frances Bula: Somebody is going to have to bite. The Mayors should’ve played political hot potatoe with the Province. They should’ve voted against the tax increases and cut service 70% right as the Olympics were coming up. Obviously, the Province wouldn’t have had it, and would’ve had to react, either by killing TransLink and absorbing the infrastructure or by throwing money at the system, at least temporarily. Instead, the Mayors did the Province’s bidding, and here we are. Or course, it’s easy to say that in hindsight.

    The Mayors have nothing to bargain with. That’s the ultimate problem. Nobody is blaming the Province for underfunding the system – everybody just blames “TransLink”, which, as an agency, ultimately has no say in any of this.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    Perhaps this also highlights the Liberals’ ineffective Carbon Tax-GRAB, which, instead of going into transportation infrastructure and green technology developments, is just flowing into general revenues, where all it does is help cover their asses somewhat for the horrible mismanagement of taxpayers’ dollars in general, and Translink in particular.

  • This is a good and much needed discussion. A few more observations.

    1. Translink has been exploring the opportunity to acquire land around future stations for redevelopment, to generate revenue. However, I understand it requires a legislative change, since at the moment, it can only acquire property for ‘transit purposes’. I am not sure of the status of any formal request for a change, but it has been talked about for quite a while. This change is a priority since otherwise, much of the land will have been assembled by others and it will be too late.

    2 JJJ and MB are right in questioning just how much money can be generated from development, in relation to the amount needed. But the point is Translink should be actively in the market, and generating whatever it can from future lines and other opportunities around existing lines.

    3. Paul is also right. In recent years, we have looked to density bonuses as a way to pay for new amenities…especially in the COV. If the money is to be ‘shared’ between amenities and transit improvements, there will be less to go around. But, this approach should still be explored.

    4. Reference is made to Hong Kong and its success in generating revenues from land development, albeit at much higher densities than we normally accept. ( I say ‘normally’ since the former Ritz Carlton site is 20.8 FSR…that’s getting up there!)

    To further learn about what other cities have been doing, Larry Frank, UBC’s celebrated Transportation Planner, Michael Goldberg, former Dean of the UBC Business School and I are discussing the organization of a forum later this spring. Our goal is to bring in people who can talk about the experiences of other places in North America, and outside North America with particular regard to generating revenues from development.

    Some of you may have seen Goldberg’s recent Vancouver Sun op-ed pieces on this and related topics. I will keep you posted on further details.

  • Regarding development, I generally agree with others comments. There are two possibilities that do make a lot of sense. Using funds from a reduction in parking requirements from a development near a station and the integration of construction of underground stations with developments. Nether will make too much of a difference but every bit helps.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    1. Forget using “proceeds from development” to fund transportation in the Lower Mainland.

    The Gateway project has made it such that for the next 10 or 20 years a glut of development will be built in the Lower Mainland, all of it of the wrong type: auto-oriented and equal parts suburban sprawl, or tower sprawl.

    The Gateway project itself is a reminder that we lack elected, representational and accountable regional governance for effective decision making.

    2. Coordinated Community & Transportation Planning at a regional scale.

    Planning transportation to support community planning, and vice versa, is both what we should be doing, and what we are not getting done.

    Not in Port Moody, White Rock, Metrotown, the City of Nanaimo, the Cambie corridor, the goings-on at Fraser and Broadway—none of these proposals get the urbanism right.

    3. Density bouncing is not good urbanism.

    The reason why is quite clear. Good urbanism sets out development goals one-neighbourhood-at-a-time to achieve what I have called “Canadian Quartiers”. That kind of urban design plan is fully worked out, and there is no room to add on a few more stories here, or a few more stories there.

    What the urban design approach to town planning does deliver is solid basis for planning tax increment financing. In the case of transportation implementation, these funds could be used to complement funds flowing from Federal and Provincial sources.

    4. Both the GVRD and Translink are flawed.

    We need elected and representational regional government to get coordinated transportation and community planning done.

    In order to make the municipalities follow along, they need to be part of the process (as in Metro Portland). However, that process needs to initiate a “beauty contest” of sorts whereby municipalities compete with each other to “win” transporatation dollars by doing the right things.

    “Doing the right things” might include planning the implementation of townsites on 3 kilometre intervals along the Interurban R.O.W. This is a rail right-of-way still fully extant, and lying in waiting, that runs through a Richmond-Delta-Surrey-Langley-Abbotsford corridor all the way to Chilliwack, if memory serves.

    Go in the other direction, and there is a bridge that crosses the Fraser and runs up the Arbutus corridor all the way to Kitsilano. Also fully extant.

    5. We’ve heard from visiting experts already, and Geller is right, we need to keep bringing these folks in.

    From Portalnd Mayor Adams we heard that developers have no qualms about buying land along the new tram routes. The parcels just seem to sell themselves.

    From the NYC Transportation Commissioner we heard that BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is a priority in her city, because it is the only feasible means to get the transportation corridors up and running in the kind of time-line conditions demand.

    From one Metro Portland (elected) Councillor we heard that the Obama Administration contacted Metro with an offer to give them “a bunch of money” if they could meet a rapid implementation of a BRT system. She felt the new line to Tigard might be just that project.

    They all agree on one point: they will not use Skytrain because it is just too expensive.

    6. The Evergreen Line as Poster Child for “What Not to Do”

    What I keep hearing from people who sat on the decision making bodies is that “Skytrain” in the Lower Mainland, including in the North East Corridor, has been a condition imposed from above by the Provincial Government.

    I would propose that the Evergreen Line run as BRT, providing the needed service now, and reserving road right-of-way until such time as LRT is implemented.

  • MB

    A very good discussion.

    @ Lewis, I wouldn’t put so much weight on Gateway, at least not in the long run. The world pricing of fossil fuels will have more influence on urban, suburban and exurban planning than any other factor. There is the very real possibility that fuel prices could cripple the entire economy several times over the next decade, as it did in 2008 (read Jeff Rubin, and take a look at The Oil Drum on the Net).

    The physical infrastructure and financing of Gateway will not function well within its intended purpose without cheap fuel to keep the toll-paying commuters rolling in vast numbers. That project is so last Century.

    I would prefer to plan for LRT and commuter rail in the suburbs than for BRT, which seems to be a half-assed interim step. Rail gives a better ride (which is a key derminant for increased ridership along with quality of service), and the modern low floor Euro trams are zero emmision vehicles that use even less power than the articulated electric trolleys in Vancouver.

    I agree that numerous urban design charrettes are necessary for all development oriented to transit. But I do not agree that funding for transit should exclude trading development density for transit funding. You said yourself elsewhere that density needn’t be knee-jerk towerization, but could be accomplished in more relvant and appropriate forms that represent human-scaled urbanism. For bean counters looking for new tax revenue for transit, a square metre is a square metre whether it comes from good urbanism or bad.

    @ Paul Hillsdon, one cannot address transit funding in Canada without highlighting, underlining and seriously emphasizing the tremendous lack of interest from the federal government. This runs counter to the reality in most other Western governments. Sure, we’ve received a few pots of cash here & there that are targeted to specific projects, but it’s been given reluctantly and inconsistantly at best, and is usually directed to pet projects defined by provinces.

    The feds don’t even need a stick to force the little kingdoms we call provinces to act in accordance with their wishes. Just offer the premiers the carrot of serious, long-term funding for transit say in a 10-year program with conditions like allowing elected regional governments to act in the best interests of the people in a region, to perform deep public consultation on all transit oriented developemnt (contract Lewis to head this up), and to write in new and very stringent energy efficiency codes on all new buildings. My guess is that even Alberta wouldn’t reject such serious funding.

    And TransLink making $30 million from development around major stations isn’t something to sneeze at. That’s the rough cost of a decent above ground station.

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    MB give me a day or so to get back to you.

    However, this much I can comment on now. Cheap Oil is a commodity, and I am loath to plan based on the spike (up or down) of commodity pricing.

  • MB

    Peak oil is something that most definitely requires planning for, if for anything to minimize risk.

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6144#more