Business & Economy
March 23, 2016

#BDGT16 Transit Teaser

There was much anticipation before the federal budget was unlocked yesterday. Many of us were particularly interested in how much money would go towards transit investments in our region and whether the 33.3% x 3 percentage split for transportation infrastructure amongst federal, provincial, and municipal governments would be adjusted.
At first I was underwhelmed by the initial commitment of $370M for transit projects in Metro Vancouver. It doesn’t seem like much for the next 3 years. I have been assured by those in the know it’s a great start for the planning and design of projects in The Mayors’ Plan (pedestrian and bicycle improvements, subway and LRT, for instance) with more funding to come after that. That depends on re-election, of course.
The federal government also announced it will cover up to 50% of transit project construction costs. It seems to me, assuming the provincial portion remains at 33% and the max of 50% doesn’t depend on the provincial portion changing*, 100%-50-33=17% for municipalities – a long overdue improvement in the funding structure.
My federal budget scoop on Monday about The Mayors’ Plan, directing our regional requests for federal funds, continues to be good scoop. The Mayors’ Council put out a PDF statement on the federal budget yesterday. The federal Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sohi meets our Mayors’ Council tomorrow. My source tells me we will get more details after that meeting. Stay tuned.

*The BC provincial election is May 9, 2017: contact BC political parties now urging them to put sustainable transportation in their platforms.

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Remember the under-appreciated miracle that was The Mayors’ Plan?
That plan that almost all of the Mayors, 1 Chief, and 1 Director of Metro Vancouver agreed upon? Most voters had no idea what a huge accomplishment it was for 21 municipalities, 1 Treaty First Nation, and Electoral Area A to agree on the transportation infrastructure we needed as a region for the next 10 years – and in what order – just in time for our first transportation plebiscite.
The bad news is, those projects have been delayed ever since. The good news is, that plan is still useful. I’ve heard from a reliable source that The Mayors’ Plan continues to represent Metro Vancouver’s transportation needs to the federal government in recent budget preparations and negotiations. This includes a Broadway subway, LRT south of the Fraser, and 2700 kms of bikeways. My guess is that 11 new rapid bus routes will be the fastest to implement.
Further to Ken’s post earlier today Federal Budget — the Wish List in anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement, here’s another interesting bit from Toronto Mayor John Tory’s op-ed piece:

Every day, more than 2.7 million trips are taken on Toronto’s transit system. In Montreal, more than 2.2 million are taken on the Metro on an average day, while the Vancouver system sees more than 1.1 million.

[…] Taken together, their daily ridership numbers are higher than the combined populations of eight Canadian provinces and territories.

What’s not in The Mayors’ Plan? A 10 lane bridge to a fertile land that might soon be literally and figuratively below sea level. Let’s hope the federal budget focusses on sustainable transportation.
Stay tuned for more on this tomorrow.

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It’s clear the Liberal government doesn’t really care much about Metro Vancouver, the City in particular.  Even as their policies and strategies (always another referendum requirement) work against our long-term sustainability (but always more highway infrastructure), our Liberal MLAs have nothing substantive to say about the two most critical issues that affect us: transportation and housing.
But then, neither do the NDP.  Vaughn Palmer in The Sun quotes from their resolution book at last Friday’s convention:

We need a party platform that is coherent, builds confidence, and is aimed at a broad voter base with a clear message,” declared the item put forward by the B.C. Federation of Labour and one of the Burnaby ridings.
Therefore be it resolved that: “The BC NDP will design a platform that has a clear vision for change, that resonates with British Columbians and will focus on ballot box issues like job creation, building a sustainable economy, delivering quality public services, ensuring fair labour laws, a commitment to work with both rural and urban municipalities on key issues like infrastructure, education, skills development and training, health care, and housing.” All this to be drafted and “market tested” before the election call, then coupled with a “concise communications strategy” grounded in “straightforward ideas that resonate with the voting public.”

Not even a mention of transit.  Their leader, John Horgan, in his attack on the Premier on Saturday, failed to frame the issue.  If anyone has anything to report on the vision the NDP has for this region, what alternative they would offer, what wasteful infrastructure they would oppose, please share.
Has the NDP taken an explicit stand against further referenda, proclaiming that, if elected, there will be no more of that?  Not that I’m aware of.  What about Andrew Weaver, Green, or Vicki Huntington, Independent?  The former stayed neutral on the ref; the latter effectively supports the Massey Bridge while critical of the process.
So with no one taking on the Liberals for their transportation strategy for Metro (‘Motordom by Default’), the issue stays muddled or unaddressed.  The commentators discuss strategy, not substance.  And any serious policy discussion about housing, if it involves affecting rising values or suggestions of racism, is avoided at all costs.
The vacuum is deafening.

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From Business in Vancouver:
Harper’s Surrey LRT pledge hinges on regional funding $700 million federal election campaign promise only part of city’s rapid transit puzzle


The federal Conservative promise of $700 million from taxpayers to build a light rail system in Surrey is the latest vote-getting pledge from the major federal parties to open purse strings to fund TransLink expansion.
But a TransLink executive told the TransLink board of directors on September 25 that business cases with more precise cost estimates are required to unlock both federal and provincial funding for the proposed Surrey light rail transit (LRT) and Broadway subway projects.
Fred Cummings, TransLink vice-president of engineering and infrastructure management, said a third of funding from the B.C. government is “committed” and a third from the federal government is “anticipated.”
The third from Metro Vancouverites is the wild card, after voters rejected hiking the provincial sales tax to 7.5% from 7% in this year’s transit funding plebiscite.
“Because of the size of the investment, the ability to advance the rail projects is really contingent on determining a new regional source of funding,” Cummings said. “We can’t obviously fund them with our current revenue streams.”


So it’s clear, as if it was ever in doubt: The region needs a new source of revenue to finance the major projects in order to match the already-promised sources from senior government.

And we aint got it ’cause we voted no.

And we aint gonna get it anytime soon.

From The Sun:

Any move to toll roads, bridges would trigger another referendum: Fassbender


The Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation voted late last week to get a staff report as quickly as possible on how to advance “mobility pricing,” after the public rejection of a transit tax in the July plebiscite. Mobility pricing can include tolling highways and bridges, or charging drivers based on distance or road usage. Mayors have debated its potential merits for years as a way to cut congestion and generate new funds.
It’s a complex and interesting idea, said TransLink Minister Peter Fassbender. But mayors won’t be allowed to implement it unless they get permission from voters in another referendum, because it’s a new funding source that is not already approved by current legislation, he said.
The mayors of Vancouver and Surrey said Monday they have no desire to plunge into another transit referendum. Yet they and their regional counterparts are wrestling with ways to generate billions in local transit funding for projects like Surrey light rail, Vancouver’s Broadway subway line and a replacement for the Pattullo Bridge.
The federal and provincial governments have each promised one-third funding for the $2.1-billion Surrey rapid transit project, putting pressure on the mayors to find a way to finance their share.
Another transit referendum would be “suicidal” for mayors, said Gordon Price, City Program director at Simon Fraser University.
“If they have to go back to a referendum, that’s effectively the end of transit planning for at least a decade,” he said.


Two further points:
There must be a movement in this region to convey to the provincial government: No more referenda just on transit, just in Metro.  Or there have to be political consequences.
Second, Fassbender also said this:

Fassbender met with mayors privately last Thursday.
He said he told the mayors they should better co-operate with TransLink’s board of directors. The mayors are welcome to raise property taxes or implement a vehicle levy to raise money, said Fassbender. But the mayors have previously shied away from both sources.

Is the Minister really saying that his government would accept a vehicle levy if the mayors voted to ask for it?  Because in the past, provincial governments, both NDP and Liberal, have rejected the vehicle levy even though it’s authorized in the legislation and the regional bodies have asked them for it (the report above is incorrect; the mayors have not shied away from it).
Could we get out of this mess – at least enough to proceed with the major projects – if there was joint support by both levels of government to move forward, without a referendum, to implement a vehicle levy (perhaps sweetened with the removal of tolls from existing or proposed bridges)?

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Yup, that’s what I said at a Surrey Board of Trade Forum last week.  Here’s the coverage from Novae Res Urbis: .

Vancouver should strongly support Surrey’s plans for light rapid transit even if its own Broadway subway line is delayed, a forum on Surrey’s transportation future was told last week. Former B.C. premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt and Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, both said they agreed Surrey should be at the top of the priority list for transit projects. …
Price said to applause from the Surrey Board of Trade audience: “Surrey should go fi rst. It deserves the next dollar. “When you’re talking about the fastest-growing region, where the future is, you have this window.” Price said the Broadway subway is unlikely to get the funding soon, although that needs to be addressed. “So Vancouver should get behind Surrey and say ‘We’re here for you.’ And then let’s get in with it. Let’s build that system.”
Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner said Surrey is expected to add another 30,000 residents over 30 years, making it the most populous city in B.C. … “If we were to upgrade all of our roads, to capacity, it will satisfy 12 per cent of that demand,” she said. “You know where that leads to — into gridlock.” …
She said light rail has been chosen over SkyTrain technology because it’s a “simple dollar and cents issue” that will allow Surrey to service more communities with more frequent stops, which will attract more retail and service uses, with 41 million square feet of redevelopment capacity around the stations. Hepner said the provincial government has committed to pay for one third of the project’s cost and that all three major federal parties have promised funding. “But the regional funding remains elusive,” she said. “I expect that will take some form of mobility pricing. How we work that out and how we develop that funding model is going to take time and certainly the collaboration of mayors and the province is going to be necessary for that.”
Harcourt said he thinks congestion charging is a good idea. Price said mobility pricing is a tax “on something that we have previously taken for granted” as something that was free, and the issue would require exceptional leadership.
Both Harcourt and Price said there should be no more plebiscites or referenda on transportation funding. “If the premier will not clarify there won’t be another referendum, that’s the end of regional planning for the foreseeable future,” Price said. “How can you plan with any success of implementation if you know you’ve got to go to a referendum. “If we believe in this place, if we believe in that vision, we want our leadership to make some tough choices and that referendum has to be off the table.
Harcourt agreed: “I think you’re elected to lead and you don’t have referendums and plebiscites to fi nd out if transportation infrastructure should go ahead. I don’t ever want to see that happen again. That was a big, bad mistake.” …


UPDATE: Just heard from a Victoria reporter that Peter Fassbender has confirmed that there will have to be another referendum for any new funding source.  This would, of course, be disastrous for the region, but apparently even the MLAs and cabinet ministers who represent us don’t understand or don’t really care.  But would they allow the vehicle levy, already in the TransLink legslation, to proceed if the Mayors Council voted for it? Read more »
In December 2012, the SFU Centre for Dialogue – well before the referendum – brought together between 25 to 50 members from a diversity of organizations to share information and to try to find a path forward for transportation in Metro Vancouver. As the referendum drew closer, it grew to an informal consortium of over 30 organizations and 100 business, government and community leaders.
Without playing a political role, it “committed to developing the educational campaign and preparing Metro Vancouver citizens and stakeholders for the referendum by providing information on transportation issues and funding options for the region in the context of the upcoming vote.”
In a just-released report, it analysed the results.



What did they learn?

Early on in the referendum process, MLR provided evidence-based research on past ballot initiatives and referenda that highlighted three main points

  • (i) the political process requires a lead time of at least 18 months from the development of the question and revenue tool to host a well-organized transportation referendum ;
  • (ii) there needs to be strong political leadership that supports a favourable outcome; and,
  • (iii) there needs to be both a strong advocacy campaign and a strong educational campaign from a trusted source.

Insufficient time to plan effective messaging, properly organize the affected communities, and put together a robust ‘get out the vote’ effort can doom a campaign. This was the case in the 2012 Los Angeles ballot initiative that failed, despite strong coalition, ample local political support, and several previously successful campaigns. …
Despite making this research widely available, the recommendations from this research were not followed, and a reasonable period for both the Yes and No campaigns to inform voters were not established.
The economic, health, and environmental impacts of traffic congestion that were apparent to diverse business and community organizations did not resonate with or were not communicated well to citizens prior to the vote. Citizens did not have an opportunity to meaningfully engage on the transportation vision, referendum question, or funding sources; despite broad consensus on the need for sustainable funding for regional transportation, regional leaders focused their efforts too narrowly on diverse but representational stakeholders groups.
Given a longer timeline, the province, Mayors’ Council, and TransLink could have developed an engagement strategy to ensure that citizens had a voice in developing the region’s transportation vision. …
Participation in a democratic process requires cultivating a certain level of knowledge on political issues that affect us as civil society. The truth is that free time, access to objective information, and the opportunity to consider a range of opinions and ideas, is a luxury in today’s world. How can we connect the decision-making mechanisms of government with citizens, while ensuring that they have the opportunity to move beyond an emotional or partisan response, to a full consideration of the implications of a certain result?


Was the referendum meant to fail?  If so, why?
I can think of several reasons:
(1) It was a way to limit the capacity and resources of local and regional government.  Conventional (neoliberal) wisdom argues that all levels of government should accept the construct of low taxes (and certainly no increases), no deficits, less regulation and more private-sector delivery of services and infrastructure.
As provincial and federal governments vacate or download responsibilities to local and regional governments, the pressure is on, mainly by the right, to constrain their growth to no more than the rates of inflation and population growth.  The referendum was a successful way to use antipathy for government (notably TransLink) to get the public to, if necessary, vote against their collective self-interest and thus restrain local governments’ ability to expand services.
(2) It was a way to catalyze a protest vote and thus force a reformation of TransLink.
(3) It was a way for the provincial government to avoid making commitments for transit in Metro Vancouver, even as it could use revenues (and taxes from Metro Vancouver) to fund highway and bridge projects both in Metro and, more importantly, elsewhere in the province.
(4) It was a way to negate the vision of the region that has sustained it for a half a century:

We commit to help create a livable and sustainable region while maintaining municipal character and diversity by fostering complete communities in a compact urban area,

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Much talk about this topic, and so much to say. It is my opinion that in this world, massive forces are at play, even in our tiny soggy corner.  And it is no accident that motordom is challenging at every turn.
First the final report from SFU’s “Moving In a Liveable Region”.  It nicely covers the unprecedented transit referendum we held in Metro Vancouver.
As to lessons learned:  “In a country where investments in infrastructure are generally made without direct public voting (though not without consultation), Metro Vancouver’s transit and transportation referendum is a political anomaly.
For campaigners and transportation professionals who worked to secure a positive result on the transit and transportation referendum, the No vote was a great disappointment. Many supporters were students, volunteers, low-income transit users, nonprofit workers, and young professionals.
In hindsight, the result was not particularly surprising: Asking voters whether they want to pay more taxes, with only 10 weeks to explain the benefits they will receive in return, is a nearly impossible task, as many visiting American transportation experts had forewarned. A global survey of referendum timelines indicates that 10 weeks was unusually short for a campaign on such a complex issue, and our early research revealed that opponents of transportation funding usually have an easier campaign (Weyrich and Lind, 2001).
The mayors knew this, but felt they had no choice; it was a vote or the prospect of no funding for transportation for years to come. ”
Second:  since transportation is largely dependent upon fossil fuels, and in some cases is transporting fossil fuels, a look at the enabling product is worth your time: ” Investors managing some $2.6-trillion (U.S.) in assets have signalled their intention to shift focus away from fossil fuels, a report released at a United Nations climate session this week states. ”
Third:  Who pays for roads?  Yet another report (this time from the US) that comes to the same conclusion as so many others — a conclusion that never seems to make it into public consciousness. (Bike-haters:  I’m lookin’ at you.)
But this massive subsidization goes mostly unnoticed, and affects us all, and most transportation decisions.

‘“We need to dispel the myth that user fees are paying for the building and maintenance of our road network. The reality is that these funds are barely covering a fraction of the cost,” said Gabe Klein, SVP of Fontinalis Partners, and former Commissioner of Transportation for Chicago and Washington, D.C. “The highest return on investment is on bike, pedestrian and transit projects,” he said.’

Thanks to Todd Litman for sending this around.
Fourth:  who’s profiting from motordom?  Well, the short answer is that lots of corporations profit.
But here’s a glimpse of just one corporation, and the profit from just one of its product families.  And if people have the option to switch to transit, biking or walking — some of this goes away.  It’s a powerful incentive to the rich and powerful to keep and expand the status quo of free (or subsidized) roads and lots of them, and to battle investment in walking, biking and especially the big one — transit.
On the Ford F-150, -250 and -350:  “The gross profit on each pickup is about $8,000. If Ford can continue selling more than 700,000 trucks a year, that’s a $5.6-billion cushion.”  Yearly.  Every year.
Ken Ohrn  |  Cypress Digital   |   604-307-8052

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Here’s the head from today’s Sun:


Here’s the actual wording:

“Surrey is well placed to secure B.C.’s first funding commitment under the Liberal plan.”

And in that subtle wording – “well placed” –  is more evidence of the damage being done by the referendum.

The Conservatives also want to pledge billions to Surrey for light rail.  The Province too – only key people in Victoria would prefer, it is said, a SkyTrain extension down the Fraser Highway.  But none of them can actually commit the money until Surrey can come to the table with one-third of local funding.

But guess what?  Surrey can’t.

Oh, it’s trying.  I hear rumours of casinos, value capture, whatever might be needed to fulfil a unilateral election promise. So far, it appears that the numbers don’t add up.

Normally, the one-third would be a commitment of regional dollars from TransLink.  But not now, at least not by cutting a huge hole in its budget which accommodates only the current level of service and, because of the referendum, has no source of money to spend on capital expansion at that scale, without penalizing everyone else in the region.

Of course, if Surrey wanted another big bridge or widened highway, no problem.  The Province would possibly cover all the capital. But transit?  If the Province covered both its and the municipality’s capital costs, it would be using dollars from taxpayers throughout B.C.  And the Premier would have to explain to the citizens of West Kelowna why they should help pay for Metro transit after Metro citizens voted not to.

Let’s see what Peter Fassbender comes up with.  No matter who gets elected to Ottawa, there are big bucks looking for a place and a way to land. With, so far, no obvious way to do so.

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We are in a new era:

(1)  Metro Vancouver voters have rejected transit (whether they meant to or not) as a way of shaping growth.

(2) The regional vision and plan are irrelevant.  It’s now Motordom by Default.

(3) This will lead to demands for de-facto freeways into and through Vancouver.

For example, PT commenter Eric just added this to the post below:

The transit tax losers need to realize that they lost, quite profoundly badly too …  It will now have to be the provincial government that makes the important decisions on smoothing the flow of traffic into and out of the bottlenecks to the north shore, along 1st and south down Knight and Oak.

Ah yes, “smoothing the flow of traffic.”  Eric’s description is essentially the polite way of justifying the freeway plans that began when Vancouver city manager Gerald Sutton-Brown initiated the first regional transportation committee in the mid-1950s to plan for future freeways and that by the mid-1960s led to the plans were pretty much identical to what Eric suggests: traffic corridors parallel to East 1st, Knight and Oak, and a Third Crossing from the North Shore.



We built the red: the Expo SkyTrain, the Canada Line, the B-lines and SeaBus.  Will the provincial Liberals be prepared to push through the blue as traffic congestion becomes intolerable to their suburban base and transit funding is seen to be for ‘losers’?

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Don’t overlook this op-ed in the Vancouver Sun on August 10: the annual attack by Wendell Cox of Demographia on one of the foundations of our regional vision, and all the plans that have followed.


Affordability: If middle-income housing is not made available, prices will keep rising


The 11th annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, found Vancouver to be the second-least-affordable major metropolitan area of 86 in nine countries. It takes nearly 11 times the pre-tax median annual household income to buy the median priced house today. Only Hong Kong has worse housing affordability. …

The average detached house price is now more than $1.4 million in the Vancouver metropolitan area. This is more than triple the detached house price in 2000. The average apartment condominium now costs more than the average detached house in 2000. Since that time, house prices — detached, attached and apartment — have been rising at more than twice the rate of median incomes. …

At the root of Vancouver’s housing crisis is its long-standing urban containment policy, which seeks to stop urban sprawl by forbidding development on nearly all the remaining suitable land. The Economist contends, in discussing London, that it is possible to stop urban sprawl by urban containment policies, but that the consequences are severe. They are even more severe in Vancouver.

Agricultural preserves in the Lower Mainland (including the Fraser Valley) take considerable land on which urban development is prohibited. Meanwhile, as the demand for housing continues unabated, the land shortage has become even more severe and prices have skyrocketed. This is exactly what basic economics predicts. …

Policy reforms are needed, and everything must be on the table, including more land.


These are the arguments, attached to a populist sentiment, that persuade decision-makers and party strategists who have neither the time nor interest in pursuing the underlying assumptions so long as they are consistent with their ideology (categorized generally as neoliberalism, a word that is more confusing than enlightening.)

Cox, Demographia, the Frontier Centre, as mentioned, and all the related foundations, funders, think-tanks and organizations (Fraser Institute, Canadian Taxpayers Federation locally) have been effective over the last few decades at shifting the political centre to the right – but now aim for more transformative achievements: reversing a generation of public policy, institutional structures and ideas – characterized as smart growth, sustainability, transit-oriented development, complete communities, and so on.

The trashing of TransLink was one of those achievements, facilitated by the referendum that allowed the public to do what the legislators in Victoria could not: dismantling one of the foundations of the regional plan – a region in which growth would be shaped by a frequent transit network.

Regional growth cannot be shaped by transit if there is no more transit to be funded, without the reduction of service somewhere else. It is now Motordom by default.

The Province has already built much of the highway infrastructure to facilitate this, and is planning on more – notably the Massey Crossing and expansion of Highway 99, connected to the South Fraser Perimeter Road and a widened Highway 1 and Port Mann Bridge.  More, no doubt, is being considered.  (I’d guess a new crossing at Boundary Road and southern freeway to the Abbotsford Airport).

Next up: the obliteration of the urban containment pillar – in particular the paving-over of the agricultural land base in the name of affordable housing, single-family housing in particular.

Cox’s article, repeated frequently, makes the ideological case.  Policy, legislation and strategic moves (like plebiscites) follow.

Dismantling the regional vision, its foundations and reversing the direction of Metro Vancouver’s growth would be an astonishing victory for this branch of neoliberallism.  But seeing Vancouverites vote against transit funding shows it can be done.

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