The kind of coverage we need more of: Kelly Sinoski and Rob Shaw’s backgrounder in The Sun on TransLink:

High hopes at founding in 1999 have turned into a riddle of costs, ridership and political tensions


I’ll quote more later, but helpfully they have included a timeline  (unfortunately not in the online story).  What jumped out for me?  The number of times the local politicians have raised property taxes.

Ironic in two respects: the first chair George Puil sold the idea of TransLink to municipal leaders on the premise that it would avoid property tax increases in the future.  And secondly, the Province is determined that they do just the opposite, and argues that there is lots of tax room there to do so, particularly since the hospital levy was largely removed.  Indeed, the referendum may be just a clever device to force property-tax hikes on the region by limiting the options available for funding or as the source of last resource in the event of the referendum’s failure.

So, for the record, here are the points when property tax has been raised, in bold:

1999: TransLink is created by the NDP government, which allows the transportation authority to generate funds through a three-percent property tax as well as a share of the fuel tax, parking sales tax and transit fares. …

Nov 2001: TransLink approves $80 million in higher fares and, for the first time, a property tax hike to fund transit. …

2003: TransLink proposes more fare hikes (six percent), tax increase on paid parking (21 percent), another property tax increase ($61 per average home) and a tripling of the sales tax on paid parking (not pursued).

2005: TransLink raises parking tax and property tax again as it wrestles with paying billions for four big projects …

2007: TransLink receives another three cents per litre on the gas tax, brining it to 15 cents, from the province on the condition it raise property taxes for transit. …

2008: TransLink raises property taxes to cover the parking site tax that the province had cancelled a year earlier.

2011: Province approves another two-cent gas tax hike, brining it to 17 cents per litre, to help TransLink pay its $400-million share of the Evergreen Line.  Mayors also propose a vehicle levy or road/bridge tolling again, with a backup plan that if those fail to gain support they will impose a two-year property tax increase of $23 per home.

2012: Mayors ask the province for road/bridge tolling, vehicle levy or a regional carbon tax for transit, but all are rejected.  In response, mayors nix a backup plan to raise property taxes.


My hunch: regardless of whatever else the Province accepts as an option (in same issue of The Sun: “Province resistant to Metro Vancouver road pricing policy“), property tax will be on the table, leading to more regional divisiveness.


  1. My letter to the Sun in response:

    TransLink’s biggest failure is in selling its remarkable success. It astounds me that your recent article on TransLink, loaded as it was with financial facts and figures, missed the most important question: after all these funding and governance issues, has TransLink been a success?

    The answer is a resounding “yes”:
    — since 2006, the shift of trips to transit in Metro Vancouver is unmatched in North America. (The Canada Line was projected to have 100,000 riders by 2015. By 2011, it had 120,000.)
    — among peer cities our size in North America, none is even close to matching Metro Vancouver’s number of transit trips per person per year. We have more than three times as many transit trips per capita as Portland, which is the #2 city in the 2.0-2.6-million population peer group in North America.
    — among all cities in North America, Metro Vancouver is third, behind only New York and Toronto with their heavy rail subways, for transit trips per person per year. We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington D.C.

    Cities we compete with are committed to spending billions on improving their transit systems: Seattle $18 billion, Toronto $50 billion, LA $30 billion. We won’t have any new funding for at least two years, if then.

    If the 1.1 million people coming here in the next 30 years match today’s patterns of car ownership, we will have to find road and parking space for 730,000 more cars. Parked bumper to bumper that many cars would reach from Horseshoe Bay to Sault Ste. Marie Ontario. This is physically and financially impossible.

    Let’s start celebrating transit as a winning proposition. It’s the only way this region’s people and goods are going to keep moving in the future. TransLink has proven it can deliver. Give it some credit– and the resources it needs to stay successful.

  2. why not property taxes for translink?

    “Property taxes are a stable source of revenue in a globalised world where firms and skilled people can easily move. They are also less prone to cyclical swings. In the financial bust America’s state and local governments saw smaller declines in property taxes than other forms of revenue, largely because the valuations on which tax assessments are based were adjusted more slowly and less dramatically than actual prices. Property taxes may even restrain housing booms by making it more expensive to buy homes for purely speculative purposes.”

  3. Kelly Sinoski and Rob Shaw’s piece in the Vancouver Sun — Evolution of a transit authority – confirmed a suspicion I had, that I tried to get at in the piece you published on February 14 — the Referendum and a Clash of Paradigms. Stephen Rees helped to solidify this with his useful comments and insider knowledge of BC Transit.

    Translink/BC Transit seems to have always historically had a frugal approach to major capital projects. That is: plan for small scale, low cost projects to meet incremental needs, and that could be funded with small incremental increases in funding sources. That meant mostly buses, and sometimes surface light rail.

    But then, in every case for the last 30 years, the provincial government, whether SoCred, NDP or Liberal, has barged in and turned these projects into much more expensive skytrain projects, taken the credit, and saddled TransLink and Metro Vancouver residents with huge capital and operating costs.

    Lately, Vision Vancouver has stepped right into this trap and strongly advocated for a hugely expensive Broadway/UBC subway skytrain. TransLink and the Mayors Council have blithely followed along in advocating for a 5 to 15 Billion Dollar transit expansion plan. This does not even include replacing the Patullo Bridge or the Massey Tunnel.

    The provincial government has done a great job painting TransLink and the Mayors Council as spoiled greedy little whiners, when historically, they were not.

    Unfortunately, certain advocates of big transit spending – Gregor Robertson, Geoff Meggs, Diane Watts, Derek Corrigan – cannot now recant and advocate for small projects that could be funded within current means. Political repercussions, egos, and all that…

    1. 1. LRT from Vancouver to New Westminster and Vancouver to Richmond was supposed to be in place for Transpo 86. After the switch to SkyTrain only one line was built and it cost more than the budget for both LRT lines.
      2. Extensions to both Coquitlam and Surrey were to follow within 5 years. It took longer, but SkyTrain was gradually extended to Columbia, Scott Road, Gateway and finally King George. The arm to Coquitlam got as far as Braid. The governments of that era clearly understood how a relatively small amount of money each year makes incremental expansion possible.
      3. The Millennium Line was supposed to run mostly on the surface from UBC to Coquitlam, but demands for extensive tunnelling and the switch to SkyTrain resulted in both ends getting chopped off.
      4. The Broadway UBC study shows that even in today’s environment of inflated LRT costs, building on the surface is still 1/3 the cost of tunnelling. Considering that any LRT option would require a new maintenance facility and more rolling stock, the marginal cost of each additional km of track is only 1/4 the cost of a tunnel.

      Bombardier ART SkyTrain has many technical deficiencies, but we’re stuck with it so we should be extending the lines where it makes sense to do so. That includes both eastward to Langley and westward to Arbutus.

      I really hope the government of the day opts to build TransLink combination option 1 to UBC. According to TransLink that option would cost slightly less to build (despite having to build a whole new maintenance facility and buy a larger number of new trains), slightly less to operate, serve slightly more passengers by 2041, offer more route options for passengers, reduce crowding at Commercial/Broadway and hopefully prove that LRT can be successful here. I believe it best matches long term demand and offers the only affordable expansion possibility. Ultimately I’d like to see the LRT extended along the Downtown Streetcar route to Coal Harbour and Yaletown/Roundhouse.

    2. Adam Finch,
      Huge Capital costs are true for Skytrain, huge operating costs are not, you obviously put too much faith in Rail for the Valley. As with the Voony post Mezzanine linked to below, ‘cheap’ could very well cost you more. It is important to look at total costs (capital and operating) on a per rider and per new rider basis. What is a better deal, a system that only costs $20 million and carries 100 riders only 1 of them a new rider or a system that costs $1 billion and carries 1,000,000 riders 100,000 of them new riders. That is why there are all those expensive corridor studies to evaluate and do cost/benefit analysis. Sometimes you are better off spending more money (like on Broadway, the analysis is clear to me only 2 options are worth considering, full skytrain or combo 1 (although I would have liked to see an analysis of Skytrain to Arbutus with just B-line from Arbutus)). The others are poor use of money. I doubt a business case can be made for the George Massey replacement. One may be able to be made for Patullo assuming it will stop being usable in the medium term without major upgrades but I would love to compare that to the Broadway rapid transit options.

      1. I don’t have anything against the Rail for the Valley crowd, but I don’t think that they have the silver bullet solution either.

        People should understand that just because a transit system runs on rails, it does not mean they are all the same. The old BC Electric /BCRail track/ROW out through the Fraser Valley could make for a good long-haul commuter rail system, like the West Coast Express, and/or it could make for a leisurely tourist train or milk-run connect the valley communities type of service, maybe in the mid-day period, BUT it should not be confused with an inner city high capacity transit service, like what is conceived of for Broadway/UBC, or, to a lesser degree, what is conceived of lately for Surrey.

        What is important is to distinguish between long-haul, high-capacity, wide-spaced-stops transit (usu heavy rail, but could also be express bus), high capacity (by north American standards) rapid transit – Toronto subway, Vancouver skytrain) light rapid transit (Calgary and Edmonton LRTs), and streetcar/tram (like Toronto streetcars, and some European and Asian tram systems.

        What makes me so frustrated is that so many people, and especially the press, think that LRT and streetcar are the same thing, and then discount them both for the Broadway UBC route, because all they can envision is steetcars clogging up west broadway.

        What I have been advocating for a year now is that TransLink (and the City of Vancouver) consider LRT on the CPR/Arbutus line?16th avenue route as an incremental lower cost solution, and an interim solution. This is what I mean by incremental solution and frugal spending. It would probably serve the immediate transit demand crunch for 10 or 15 years or so.

        Is it wise to spend 3-5 billion dollars on a subway skytrain that will, undoubtedly, have higher long term capacity, envisioning continuous exponential transit demand growth for the foreseeable future? 10 or 15 years from now, UBC could be obsolete as a commuter campus, with students largely learning virtually.

        This may sound far-fetched, but I doubt that, 15 or 20 years ago, people foresaw the demise of the phone book, the phone booth, the video arcade or the record store, either. Won’t we look dumb if we build an expensive tunnel to an empty campus. Kind of like the Golden Ears Bridge, and soon to be the Port Mann Bridge too.

      2. Adam,
        I remember telling you why a 16th route would be money poorly spent even though it may be cheaper. 2/3s of the ridership is on Broadway and 16th has nothing but low to mid density residential and will likely stay that way. So you might save a little on construction but you will lose most of your ridership. The CPR alignment could be useful, but only in conjunction with a Broadway route.

  4. Media folks might get confused by the difference between LRT and streetcars, but railfans do the same thing. They envisage the street friendliness of streetcars with metro like level of service. But these two visions are not compatible. To achieve metro-like service, the LRT needs to run fast in a partially exclusive rights-of-way with infrequent stops. Basically it needs to be separated from the city as much as possible. But this isn’t at all the vision the railfans conjure up. They speak of a pedestrian friendly, super accessible, neighbourhood building range extender – expanding a person’s walkable radius. But an LRT walled off from the city will be the opposite of that. Cross streets will be closed. Barriers erected to stop errant cars. The train will be fast and noisy. This will be like a highway down the middle of the street. A train highway will be less noxious than a car highway, but neither are pleasant. But LRT cost/benefits don’t consider this. The “study” for the silly daft Eglinton Line in Toronto just ignores it entirely. As if pedestrians didn’t exist.

    The UBC aspect of the Broadway Line is a bit of a red herring. Broadway justifies a full metro all the way to Macdonald. This is without any growth in population or transit ridership, both of which will surely grow. The fact that UBC, a huge transit generator, is at the end of the line just adds to the case. And it really only needs to justify the segment from Macdonald or Alma to UBC. This is admittedly half the line length, but it will not be half the cost as the line will be cheaper to build along UBC Boulevard and there will be fewer stations in this segment. And the idea that social gathering will become obsolete is also unrealistic. It’s true that more and more instruction can take place online, and will probably do so, but that will not replace the university. For many people, university is as much a social experience as an educational experience. Frankly a date can be as good a reason to go to university as a degree. And even as UBC moves away from being a commuter campus, there will still be a large resident population that will want to travel and a large employment base.

    I do think that this line ought to be built with cut-and-cover at around $2 billion. Makes the numbers much nicer, and I don’t think that this needs to be a repeat of Cambie. The contract with Cambie just didn’t require the contractor to be fast enough in opening and then closing the street. Building the line on 16th Avenue just bypasses the traffic generators. If it made any sense it would only make sense if this line were only about UBC, but it isn’t. That is the trouble with the corner cutting that goes on with LRT alignments. They follow freeways of railways for a more exclusive right of way, but then they suffer for being in the wrong place. This happened with the Link LRT in Seattle.

    But what puzzles me most of all is this obsession with cheapness. Why does our infrastructure have to be sub-standard? Transportation infrastructure is vital to cities, and it is particularly vital for a low carbon high pedestrian system. And actually the region has been reasonably good about funding transport infrastructure. It might never be enough, and it might never satisfy us, but it actually is better than plenty of other places. (Seattle spends tons of money, but they do bizarre things with it.) We have had around 6 big projects on the transit side in the last 30 years: Expo, Expo to Surrey, Millennium, creation of Translink, Canada Line, Evergreen. At a time when transit is becoming more important, I would expect at least 6 big projects in the coming 30 years: Expo to Langley, Broadway Line, Harbour Line from downtown to Lonsdale, BRT in Surrey and more exclusive bus lanes elsewhere, Hastings Line, and comprehensive, regional bike network. Anything less is giving up.

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