July 20,2006

William Boei, Vancouver Sun

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2006

The biggest blacktop project in B.C. history was endorsed Wednesday by transportation officials, but TransLink also voted to cut back on rapid transit spending as a financial crisis looms.

Suburban directors outvoted Vancouver and Burnaby members to support the province's $3-billion Gateway project, which will twin the Port Mann Bridge, expand the Trans-Canada Highway and build new truck routes on both sides of the Fraser River.

But, facing a looming financial crisis, the TransLink board also voted to send an urgent request to the provincial government for more money.

By the end of the decade TransLink will be carrying so much debt, much of it for rapid transit lines, that staff are predicting annual deficits as high as $200 million, with no stable source of funding in sight.

Directors were told the agency is already far behind the tasks it undertook in its long-term plans.

It was supposed to have 1,800 buses in its fleet by now but has only 1,300, planning vice-president Glen Leicester said.

It has built only a third of the rapid transit it had planned. Only 11.5 per cent of travellers in the region use transit instead of 17 per cent as planned. It has barely begun to implement a package of transportation demand management measures such as tolls and transit priority systems.

Directors said TransLink simply can't afford to do its job. "We are taking on more obligations than we are able to support with the revenues we are receiving," said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan.

The board voted to defer a vote on spending $147 million for 34 new SkyTrain cars until fall, when staff will deliver a comprehensive report on TransLink's financial outlook. Directors decided to postpone the opening of the Evergreen rapid transit line to northeast municipalities for two years.

They then voted to ask the province to "take immediate action ... to establish appropriate sustainable funding" for transportation infrastructure in Greater Vancouver.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said later the TransLink board had already asked for more money for the Evergreen Line.

Falcon said if TransLink can make "a sound business case," he is willing to pitch it to Ottawa and ask for more federal money. He said nothing about the possibility of more provincial funding.

The cost of the Evergreen Line is estimated at $1.06 billion if it is to be finished by the end of 2009. Directors voted to postpone its opening to September 2011, reducing the cost to $953 million. That leaves it $383 million short, with only $400 million of TransLink money and $170 million from the province committed.

"We said we will be there with $170 million post-2010," Falcon said. "We have never wavered on that commitment."

He said the region's rapid transit projects are "critical, generational investments."

But he suggested that to get the province's help, TransLink should demonstrate the same "rigour" in its projects as the province has with its public-private partnerships.

The province used to pay 100 per cent of rapid transit projects, and at one point promised TransLink it would cover at least 60 per cent.
But with the Canada and Evergreen lines, provincial support has fallen to less than 20 per cent, leaving a huge burden for regional taxpayers. Canada Line debt will hit TransLink hard starting in about 2010, saddling it with a deficit of $40 million even if it spends no money on new projects between now and then.

If it builds everything in its 10-year plan, the deficit will escalate to $200 million a year or more.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and Coun. Susan Anton said the new SkyTrain cars should have been approved now because with Expo Line passengers increasingly bypassed by full trains, it is unthinkable that new cars would not be a priority.

TransLink's conditional support for the Gateway Program was approved over the objections of Vancouver and Burnaby directors when three northeast mayors voted in favour.

Corrigan accused them of hypocrisy because last year, northeast mayors were unanimously opposed to twinning the Port Mann Bridge and adding lanes to the Trans-Canada Highway.

But several of the mayors have been replaced since then, and others have heard from their voters that they want more roads.

Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini sponsored an amendment to the Gateway support motion to say new highway capacity should be used for "exclusive lanes for buses, transit, goods and services movement and multi-occupancy vehicles.

"So I am satisfied that with that in place, we are doing the right thing," Trasolini said.

But Anton said the highway expansion was "just the wrong thing to do," and should be held off until the region can judge the effects of the rest of the Gateway plan -- new truck routes along both shores of the Fraser River.

Vancouver and Burnaby directors said there is no room in their cities for more traffic.

"There would be an increase in Vancouver that we have no capacity to accommodate, other than slowing down and jamming up the roads," Vancouver Coun. Peter Ladner said.

Corrigan said the plan will wreck Greater Vancouver's reputation as one of the world's most desirable places to live.

"No longer will we be considered one of those cities worldwide that is working towards more environmentally friendly solutions, more sustainable solutions," he said.

"Instead we are following the North American model that has been adopted, particularly in the United States, that is simply creating more and more highways."

But Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt said Vancouver has dozens of traffic lanes connecting it to other municipalities while Surrey has just five -- over the Port Mann Bridge -- and they are seriously congested.

Hunt said a third of the bridge's traffic is between Surrey and Coquitlam, neighbouring communities across the Fraser.

"Everybody's acting like it's a bridge that's connected to Vancouver," he scoffed.

Environmental groups said TransLink took a wrong turn by supporting Gateway.

"We're heading down the same congested road as cities like Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto," said Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation.

TransLink's own staff reported that the highway-bridge plan would reduce ridership on the Evergreen and Expo lines by five per cent or more, Bruce pointed out.

The foundation and other environmental groups issued a joint statement saying that "no jurisdiction in North America has managed to solve its traffic problems by building larger roads, which lead to more urban sprawl and more traffic."