Oct 14,2008 Tri City News

By Jeff Nagel - Surrey North Delta Leader

Published: October 14, 2008 3:00 PM
Updated: October 14, 2008 3:45 PM

Tom Prendergast loves much about TransLink.

But the plain-spoken new CEO from New Jersey doesn't shy away from laying out his candid assessment of its weaknesses and challenges either.

When it comes to SkyTrain, the former New York City subway boss piles praise on the automated system's speed and frequency at least in terms of the areas it now serves.

But he also makes it clear he doesn't see the heavy metro system as the optimum answer everywhere as the region plans an aggressive rapid transit expansion.

"SkyTrain isn't for every place and for every time," Prendergast said in his first wide-ranging interview with Black Press.

"If there's one thing I feel, I feel that it's not clearly evident that an alternatives analysis is gone through when people decide what technology to use to deliver the service in a corridor."

It's not the most politically correct answer. The provincial and federal governments have lined up behind SkyTrain technology for both the Evergreen Line and an Expo Line extension through Surrey to Langley.

So far rejected is light rail, which costs less than a tenth as much as SkyTrain, or put another way, 10 to 15 kilometres of light rail can be built for the same budget as a single kilometre of SkyTrain.

"Your capital costs are generally far lower than a SkyTrain," Prendergast said, adding the line can usually be built far faster as well.

He predicts that as rapid transit lines drill deeper into suburban (he's reluctant to use that term, preferring "different density") neighbourhoods, elevated SkyTrain will run into more resistance than in urban core areas where towers and other overhead structures are expected.

"If you've got wide street right-of-ways in Surrey and Langley, you can take some two or three lanes, put in a dedicated guideway in the centre or off to one side that would be light rail, and it will work very effectively."

He points to light rail systems going into Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, but adds each corridor here needs to be assessed individually.

Prendergast took the helm of the transportation authority in July, as the board decided it would have to impose tolls to rebuild the Pattullo Bridge.

The prospect of a cluster of tolled bridges the Port Mann, Pattullo and Golden Ears targeting drivers going to or from Surrey has drawn fire from the public and made a shambles of the provincial policy that motorists must have an untolled alternative.

Prendergast said it would be better to take a "wholistic view" of the region in considering tolls than to "do it piecemeal" one bridge at a time and then struggle with disrupted travel patterns as people change routes to avoid tolls.

"Let's get serious," he said. "You get higher demand on those that are non-tolled than those that are tolled. Which is problematic.

"Over the long term that is an issue that's got to be fixed."

Prendergast is deeply aware any moves by TransLink to apply contentious new charges it is contemplating everything from regional tolling to a vehicle levy to raise money for massive transit expansion must come with Victoria's blessing.

He's been studying TransLink's history and its failed attempt in 2000 to bring in a $75 vehicle levy. Although TransLink had the authority to implement it, the then-NDP government bent to public rage and refused to collect the fee, leaving the authority chronically underfunded ever since.

"I can just read the pain from that," Prendergast said. "It was very painful something we'd like to avoid happening in the future."

TransLink has been quietly mulling a $100 vehicle levy which would generate at least $100 million a year and bring it about a quarter of the way to raising an estimated $300-$500 million more officials say is needed each year after 2011.

Another revenue source is to be real estate.

Future rapid transit lines will be built to maximize the development potential of surrounding lands, from which TransLink intends to profit.

"Can you imagine if Metrotown station were right in the middle of the mall?" asks Prendergast. "How powerful that would be from a development standpoint?"

He envisions scenarios where developers agree to build entire stations for free as part of development partnerships.

He dismissed suggestions the real estate strategy will drain money from other initiatives in order for TransLink to buy more land than it would otherwise require to build new transit lines.

He estimated $20 to $30 million per year will be needed to gradually buy up land along future transit corridors.

Prendergast is also enthusiastic about the pursuit of a smart card payment system.

It would allow innovations like pricing travel differently at different times of the day.

"Right outside of rush hour we start hitting capacity," he said. "And way outside of rush hour we've got a lot of capacity. If we can get people to start using that capacity, that's great for us."

The technology now allows a swipeless system where people simply walk near a reader for it to detect and debit their accounts.

If SkyTrain eliminates its open system and moves to gated access, he said, it needs to happen at the same time smart cards are deployed.

A turnstile system would cost at least $100 million in capital costs.

Many people believe it would cut crime on the system and recapture lost revenue from SkyTrain fare cheats who don't currently pay.

The new CEO isn't jumping to conclusions while until more research into gates and smart cards is finished.

"I'll tell you, for a hardened criminal, a fare gate doesn't make any difference," he said.

"We need to determine what perceptual benefits we would get from a safety and security standpoint."

The latest fare evasion audit found 5.4 per cent of SkyTrain passengers didn't pay full fare, a number turnstile champions (including the transportation minister) ridicule.

"My gut tells me the fare evasion is greater," he said. "How much greater I don't know."

Prendergast, who brings 30 years in U.S. transportation and infrastructure leadership to the table, says the region presents unusual challenges he hasn't faced before.

Foremost among them is the fragmented civic government, with 21 different municipalities within Metro Vancouver.

"It's not daunting, but it's different than what I've had to do in the past."

Likewise, he points to the strong influence the provincial government exerts over policy and purse strings.

But he finds it an exciting time to join TransLink and likes what he sees in Metro Vancouver.

"I'm still very heartened by the approach the region has to public transportation. It is an enlightened approach. It's one that recognizes the importance of transportation and land-use planning and how they have to go hand in hand as a region grows. Otherwise you have all kinds of problems."

He also credits an eco-aware public and the strong desire here to fight climate change.

"At the end of the day, it's the people that say and then do what they say they're going to do that sets the example for others to follow."