Ex-bus drivers and other former TransLink staff with as little as two years service enjoy free transit passes as a retirement bonus.
The arrangement, details of which were disclosed this week, is under fire from critics who say it's too generous.
More than 10,000 such free passes exist for current and retired employees and some of their family members.
Employees with at least two years service who retire from TransLink, Coast Mountain Bus Co. or the Transit Police (they must not simply quit to go work elsewhere) get a lifetime pass and can get a family pass for their spouse as well.
SkyTrain and West Coast Express workers are eligible for retiree passes after working five years.
Current staff also get passes.
TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said the free passes were negotiated as part of the compensation package in union contracts years ago, back when BC Transit ran the local transit system.
"It doesn't cost TransLink anything to issue these passes," he said, suggesting TransLink would otherwise end up reimbursing employees for company travel if they paid cash for tickets.
"We're trying to promote sustainable travel options for people," Hardie added. "So extending it to non-work related trips is a pretty sustainable move – those are cars that are not on the road."
But Canadian Taxpayers Federation spokesperson Maureen Bader argues cash-strapped TransLink might recoup millions of dollars a year if staff and retirees had to pay their own way.
"That's just out of line," she said of the free passes. "We've got TransLink employees taking a free ride on the backs of tax-paying hard working families."
Other employers partly subsidize transit passes to encourage their workers not to drive and clog parking lots, Bader said, but added there's no reason TransLink should provide them completely free.
She called it evidence of TransLink's "misplaced priorities" and said the transportation authority seems unwilling to look hard for places to cut costs when it can simply raise taxes and fares.
TransLink has for the past two years been on a cost-cutting campaign that included a significant number of layoffs, restructuring of the senior executive and elimination of several vice-presidents.
But Bader said TransLink would cut back on perks for its unionized workers if there was more competition in the form of open bidding to provide more of its services.
"TransLink is a huge leviathan," she said. "There is plenty of opportunity to break up some of the power the union has to force these huge concessions ultimately onto taxpayers and transit riders."
Don MacLeod, president of the union representing Coast Mountain bus drivers, said negotiations on a new contract start next year and TransLink could reopen the issue then.
"If TransLink feels they want to put a proposal on the table to deal with it, that's their right to do so and we'll deal with it in a fair bargaining process," he said.
He said the passes are a taxable benefit on which income tax applies and in that sense are not "free."
The earliest a retiree can get a pass is age 55 and they don't qualify if they quit their job prior to retirement.
Employee passes are standard fare in major transit systems across Canada.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) gives free passes to its current workers and pensioners but not to their spouses.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for our employees to take transit," TTC spokesman Kevin Carrington said, adding the staff pass there also acts as employee ID.
BC Ferries employees all get free ferry travel, according to spokesperson Deborah Marshall, who noted they must still pay for reservations or assured loading if desired.
Retirees who logged at least 10 years with BC Ferries get lifetime passes giving them 24 free one-way trips per year.