Should the Province Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way?

busIn a recent announcement that the BC Government may be willing to postpone a referendum on transit funding for the Metro Vancouver region, Premier Clark emphasized her hope that transit funding would still be discussed during the municipal elections this fall, and that the Mayors need to lead the debate. She indicates that the Province is striving to be an ‘enabler’ in terms of decision-making for transit funding, and it’s “ultimately the Mayors who need to take the lead on it.”

It would seem that the Province is looking to get out of the way and let the region decide.

Unfortunately, there is no effective mechanism for the Metro Vancouver region to make a decision like this. The Mayors can’t “take the lead” and begin the discussion without a clear referendum question – an outline of what’s being asked of the public, or what’s on the table. Moreover, they’ve tried. In February of last year the Mayors’ Council provided the Province with five transit funding options upon request.

If, on the other hand, the Mayors are being asked to formulate a referendum question, anything they come up with would require provincial approval and can only list answer choices that the Province is prepared to implement. The Province, seemingly, would like the public to decide, leaving the whole discussion of transportation funding without, well, a bus driver.

This back and forth governmental quagmire has gone on for some time. The current governance framework extends back to 1999, when the province technically transferred authority over transit in Metro Vancouver to the regional level by creating the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority (aka Translink). Although the Act creating Translink was technically a transfer of authority, it fell short of the mark. Lest anyone be tempted to lay all the blame for indecision with the Mayors’ Council or Translink, the following events are important to keep in mind:

  • In 2000 Translink made the decision to institute a vehicle levy to pay for transit services. The Province refused to collect the levy, so it was cancelled
  • When the Olympics were announced for Vancouver, the Province and Federal government announced funding for the RAV line despite the fact that the region had planned that the Northeast municipalities would get the next investment in rapid transit for the region. On this basis the Translink board voted down the RAV line twice, after which the Minister of Transportation threatened to withdraw funding. A third vote was held, and the RAV line was approved.
  • The disagreement over the RAV line led the Minister of Transportation to conclude that the Translink board was ‘dysfunctional’ , whereby he re-structured the Translink board in 2007. (Because apparently disagreeing with the Province is tantamount to dysfunction.)
  • Despite multiple research reports by Translink staff that installing a fare-gate system would not be cost-effective, the Province and Translink Chair Brodie decided in 2007 to install a fare gate system.

To be clear, the question here is not whether the decisions listed above were good or bad. The RAV line is great. The point is that despite being technically delegated authority over transit services, Translink and the Mayors have not been empowered to actually make or implement some very important, and tough, decisions. Part of the problem is certainly the lack of accountability of the Translink Board – they’re appointed. Unfortunately, Provincial intervention is required to change this, and the removal of elected Councillors and Mayors from the board after the first 7 years of their ‘dysfunctional’ (aka, ‘disagreeable’) leadership certainly hasn’t improved the situation. 

In the past, when the Province disagreed, there was no hesitation to step in and lead. Extending back to 1999 (and even further), however, is the notion of the Province stepping out of the way to let the region decide. Based on current messaging about transit funding, it’s not clear whether the province wants to lead or follow. Unfortunately, a provincial mechanism such as a referendum requires provincial leadership.

Perhaps the issue of transit funding will finally force the issue: when it comes to the provision of transit services in the region, should the Province lead, follow, or get out of the way?

And if the Province is going to get out of the way – who should lead?

3 responses to “Should the Province Lead, Follow, or Get out of the Way?

  1. The RAV line isn’t great at all. That’s one of the problems. It wasn’t a priority until the idea of the Winter Olympics was advanced – and that proved to have been oversold. There was no measurable benefit in economic terms. The line was built down to a price making it difficult and expensive to expand and Brodie has committed to never extending it further into Richmond. The Faregate issue is equally demonstrative of a failure to understand a basic business case. Installation of the gates will do little to reduce fare evasion, which is not much of a problem in the first place despite a public perception unimpaired by hard evidence. It has diverted resources and funds badly needed to expand capacity.

    At the same time as starving transit of funding, the province has been spending massively on highway expansion – none of which had to face a referendum. Translink also decided to build a huge tollbridge which was not necessary, nor congruent with land use plans for Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, and retained the revenue risk of low usage, which further drains funds from transit service provision.

  2. The Province also devolved, in 1996 (and without consulting municipalities), over 1400kms of arterial roads and secondary highways across the province, and in particular within the GVRD (deeming them more relevant for municipal traffic than inter-regional trade), and foisting on local governments, and ultimately TransLink, an ‘unmanageable burden’ (as noted in a study by regional engineers in 1997).

  3. Thank you Stephen and Terri for this additional information! I believe that this ambiguous structure regarding final decision making has led to incongruous planning and transit projects – exemplified by the RAV line on the one hand and bridges on the other. And a frustrating case of increasing responsibilities (ie, roads) without the capacity to raise sufficient revenues.

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