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July 7,2008 Vancouver Sun

New buses, infrastructure will add to deficit of system already in major financial crunch

Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun

Published: Monday, July 07, 2008

New York came to Vancouver hunting for talent and definitely found some, scooping up one of our hockey stars. We went to New York looking for some of their's and, well, we'll have to just wait and see if it was a good trade.

Last week's big news was the New York Rangers signing Markus Naslund to get on track for a Stanley Cup. Less noticed was that our public transit agency hired Thomas Prendergast, the guy who helped New York's mass transit system.

Bet on Naslund having an easier job ahead in the Big Apple than Prendergast will here in supposedly laid-back Lotusland. TransLink's new CEO might want to get a few of Naslund's elbow pads, too -- he's going to need them for the job ahead.
The reality is TransLink, as the agency running our buses, trains and seabuses is called, is in a major financial crunch. Prendergast is going to be looking for some big dollars from you when he hits town -- as much as an extra $450 million annually -- to meet TransLink's looming deficit.

Here's what the man who once helped run the New York subway system as senior vice-president, and then went on to be president of the notoriously star-crossed Long Island Rail Road, needs to deal with.

By 2012, just four years away, TransLink is expecting a budgetary shortfall of $150 million. Add to that the cost of financing $2.75 billion in new buses and infrastructure over a decade -- about $250 million to $300 million a year. Total shortfall: $450 million.

Now, some of that whopping deficit will be eliminated by the real estate development TransLink has in mind. The agency expects at least $30 million a year from land and development deals around its new transit stations and hubs.

There's also the possibility of yet another rise in gas prices. Translink has the power to raise gas taxes by up to three cents a litre (if it dares) to pull in another $65 million annually.

That leaves them, by my account, $355 million short. Where is that going to come from?

Welcome aboard, Mr. Prendergast.

Here's the tough choices he has: cut service (difficult when our premier wants more of us on buses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), forget about all the new trains and buses (difficult for the same reason) or go looking for dollars.

Those would have to come from road tolls, fare hikes or even a return to the controversial levy on car owners (tried but abandoned by the New Democratic government in 2000). Dale Parker, chairman of the TransLink board, told the Tri-City News' Jeff Nagel that "all of those options are going to have to be considered. We are going to have to find new sources of revenue."

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon radically restructured TransLink, promising to bring in what's called "professionals" instead of mayors to run our mass transit agency. The question is whether Prendergast will be the guy to get this job done. Let's review his record on the tracks.

His CV is surely impressive: Since 2002 he's been a transit consultant for the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, overseeing more than $1 billion in projects.
He cut his professional teeth in 1990, when he became the senior vice-president of New York's subway system, the 1,130-kilometre network of snaking tracks, aging rail cars, dank tunnels, poisoned labour relations and runaway deficits that has pushed many a career off the rails. But Prendergast is no shrinking violet. In a 1991 round of labour relations, he drafted a plan for $91 million in cuts aimed at laying off hundreds of workers and reducing maintenance work.

Prendergast survived the subway and went onto his most notable credential. In 1994, he was appointed president of the Long Island Rail Road, the largest commuter rail system in the United States. This is where I have to pause.

You see, I've used the Long Island Rail Road and let's just say the trains did not always run on time nor did they often offer a salubrious experience.

"[Prendergast] tried to change what he repeatedly referred to as the 'culture' on the railroad," Lawrence H. Silverman, the past chairman of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter's Council, wrote in the New York Times last year. "He replaced some department heads with former colleagues from the subway.

"The results were not pretty: air conditioning failures, undercarriage fires and breakdowns that reports later found were due to neglected or faulty maintenance. At least partly because of Mr. Prendergast's difficulties with labour and management, riders suffered some of the worst service ever."

In 1999, the NYT offered up an expose on the benighted commuter line while it was under Prendergast's stewardship. The title summed up a litany of commuter woes and service breakdowns, which I can attest to: "Commuting In Misery: A special report: The Long Island Rail Road: Busiest, but Far From Best."

After more than four years on the job, Prendergast's response? "There is no easy fix." The president, the newspaper added, wished New Yorkers to be more "understanding of what we're dealing with." (Good luck on that, Mr. Prendergast.)

Our city's new transit guru might soon be employing the same lines here. TransLink may not be as storied as the Long Island Rail Road or the Big Apple's subway. But the challenges are every bit as big -- and costly.

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