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Sep 3,2009 Tri City News


Huge budget deficits for B.C. mean TransLink’s ambitious push to pour $450 million a year into transit expansion will almost certainly be shelved for at least the short term — and put the Evergreen Line in jeopardy — CEO Tom Prendergast says.

The expansion — the biggest of three options advanced for area mayors to vote on — would have required jacking a variety of taxes, imposing a vehicle levy and gaining the province’s permission to impose regional tolling or road pricing to extract even more cash from drivers.

But in an interview with Black Press, Prendergast said it’s no longer an option, at least for now.

“Times are, right now, exceptionally tight in terms of money,” he said. “I think we’ll still get down that path. But we’ll have to pull back a little bit.”

Instead, he hopes area mayors will this fall approve a 10-year plan that delivers an extra $130 million per year, mainly through higher transit fares and raising the fuel tax by three cents a litre.

Even that plan, however, is now in doubt because it also rested on tripling the tax on pay parking lots, a funding source that will now disappear as B.C. brings in a new harmonized sales tax.

The $130-million plan would put TransLink on life support while it tries to broker a new deal with the provincial government — and waits for the economy and Victoria’s spending appetite to improve.

The alternative is a base plan that freezes taxes at current levels but triggers drastic cuts that would slash bus service by 40%, back to 1970s levels.

Prendergast said the $130-million funding stabilization option would give TransLink another year, perhaps two to ensure TransLink is as lean and efficient as possible — in line with new demands from Victoria.

Transportation Minister Shirley Bond has ordered B.C.’s comptroller-general to probe TransLink for possible savings, potentially by capping executive and board pay levels. The recommendations are due by the end of September. TransLink already underwent a detailed hunt for savings last year, overseen by its new professional board.

Prendergast does not believe TransLink is grossly inefficient given its mission but says the province’s auditors are welcome to look for savings.

“They’re not going to find $400 million. They’re not going to find $40 million. But they’re going to find probably $2 million or $3 million, and we’ll make some changes,” he said.

After that, he predicts, the longer-term problem will remain: How much more is the region willing to pay for the transit system most stakeholders agree it needs to maintain and improve liveability, cut carbon emissions and keep pace with projected population growth? As well, who will pay and how will the money be raised?

If TransLink has failed, he said, it is in casting a vision of the future as the number of residents and vehicles on the road soars without a transit system that can keep up.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Congestion would bring things to a halt.”

The shorter-term challenge will be keeping the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam alive.

Prendergast believes elements such design work can continue even if a 10-year plan is passed without enough funding to build and operate the new line. The fear is that with TransLink unable to commit to the $1.4-billion line, the federal government may not keep its promised capital contribution on the table.

“We don’t want to lose the funding for the Evergreen Line from the federal government,” he said.

Prendergast also said there are legitimate fears that rapid transit extensions toward UBC in Vancouver and deeper into Surrey might face much longer delays if TransLink ends up with funding sources to build and operate the Evergreen Line but little else.

No matter how tight the finances, he vows safety and security won’t be cut. Instead, buses might be cleaned less frequently and service would be cut if necessary.

The new CEO from New Jersey came here just over a year ago believing the big challenge would be gaining a consensus of area mayors and broad backing of other groups. He admits he had far less concern about consistent support from the province, which had promised billions for transit expansion and reshaped TransLink with a view to it expanding east and north.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who chairs the mayors council, said the region will have to continue to press for road pricing — i.e., tolls — to fund a much more expansive plan, even if the idea is temporarily parked.

“The only way we can deal with another million people into the region and 600,000 cars is to look at road pricing models and best practices used all over the world to support a fully integrated plan,” Watts said. “Other than that, the region’s going to be in a mess.”

But BC Trucking Association president Paul Landry is relieved TransLink’s big spending scenario has been derailed by the economy.

“I’m really worried Lower Mainlanders are sleep-walking through this thing,” he said.

Under the $450-million plan, a one-car household would have paid about $160 more each year to TransLink — an average of $122 for the vehicle levy and another $38 in higher fuel and pay parking taxes. And as yet undetermined tolls would have added more costs for drivers.

“It’s hard to believe people would accept that level of payment,” Landry said, “especially since there’s not a good understanding of what people are going to get for their money.”

Landry accused TransLink of viewing motorists mainly as cash cows to be milked to finance transit that most can’t use. And he says drivers need to be wary that the ambitious spending plans could resurface sooner than later.

TransLink argues tolls — particularly if different rates can be charged at different times of the day — can make the system more efficient by encouraging the shift of more trips outside of peak hours.

Another rationale is that gas tax revenue will dwindle as vehicles get more efficient and motorists switch to electric cars.

But Landry said road pricing amounts to another unreasonable tax to drivers on top of fuel and parking taxes, the carbon tax and the planned vehicle levy.

“It’s a request for us to rent what we already own,” Landry said.

He welcomes the new review of TransLink and wants the transportation authority to go back to the drawing board and prepare all-new plans, with new measures to better meet the needs of freight haulers. He said that should include designating dedicated lanes and corridors for trucks and banning parking along key goods movement routes at peak hours.

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