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Q&A: TransLink CEO Doug Allen on transit referendum failure

07/03/2015 06:22 EDT | Updated 07/03/2016 05:59 EDT
An overwhelming 'No." That was the message Metro Vancouver residents sent in this year's transit plebiscite that asked people in the Lower Mainland if they would like to raise the sales tax by 0.5 per cent to fund transit improvements.

The No side received more than 61 per cent of the votes cast.

Doug Allen, interim CEO of TransLink, shared his reaction with Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition. 

How devastating is this result to TransLink?

The ballot really had two questions. Will you approve an investment plan, a ten year investment plan? And, will you fund it with a tax increase? The result is pretty clear. The answer on the tax increase is no.

This ended up being about TransLink and the operation of that organization and whether it was paying taxpayer money wisely.

I don't think so. I think this was about a tax increase. My travels through the system tell me people weren't prepared to accept a tax increase. I recognize there are people that don't like TransLink but I think the fundamental issue was will you accept a tax increase and people said definitely not.

Every comment board, every critic, every commentator, this morning and yesterday say this was a vote about whether people have any confidence in TransLink. Surely you can't disagree that that played some part in this?

Of course it played some part, but through the campaign, particularly the latter half, in talking to millenials, seniors, you name it, my sense was as people got the facts as to how this service is delivered, and it's a good service, the debate changed. People were more thoughtful about that and I think recognized that this is a pretty safe, reliable service.

I am aware that some people don't like TransLink. I'm also aware that our customer surveys, they come out every quarter, they're done independently, are very favourable. People like the Seabus, they like Westcoast Express. 

They like the Canada Line. They like Skytrain, they like the buses. There is a contradiction between what the customers are saying and the buzz generally.

The Mayor's Council seemed baffled when asked ... what plan B is when it comes to funding transit across Metro Vancouver.

The provincial government has said its one third is still on the table but that the mayors are going to have to come up with something. The mayors are pointing back at the provincial government. Where do you find a solution in all of this?

Well, we've said quite consistently that we're prepared to work with the mayors and the province to find another solution to this other than what was proposed. In the meantime all we can do is deliver the best service we can.

But you're the CEO of TransLink. Tell me something about the list of options. Where else, if not a sales tax, and the mayors have already said no to a property tax. 

Where else can the mayors or the province or TransLink go to find the money it needs for improvements?

Well Stephen, as I say, that's up to mayors and the province to come up with that list. We have to operate with the hand that's dealt, and we have to deliver the best service we can with the resources we've got.

A big part of our resources as you know come from the fare box and we're not going to be increasing fares in the short run.

Lots of calls from the public and politicians for the complete rebuild of TransLink. Tell me about that.

Well, again. There are people that think TransLink should look differently. But my read on this is you have to go with the service that's delivered and you have to look at the customer response, and it's pretty favourable.

If, in fact, there are governance changes people want to consider, that's again with the mayors and with the province.

You say that you get good responses in your customer surveys, but anecdotally what I hear everywhere is that TransLink is inefficient, it's bloated, it does not spend taxpayers' money well and that the service it's offering is substandard. Explain that disconnect to me.

There is a disconnect. But if you look at the hard customer survey data, it's pretty good. If you look at our peer reviews, they're very good. So there is a sense from the customer that things are being delivered well.

If you look at our expenditures since 2010, they have been on an annual basis below the rate of inflation. I can't think of any public body in our part of the world that would have that rate of expenditure.

So to say that we've been wasteful, that is, as you put it, anecdotal evidence that I just don't think is supported by the facts.

So what's going to happen? Are we going to see service cut?

Well, I think over time with the population growing by a million people over the next several decades we're going to see a lot of pressure on services for sure. If in fact we've got the current funding arrangements, they're not sufficient to accommodate the growth we're going to experience. There's going to be congestion and people are going to feel it.

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