Richard Walton, chair of the TransLink mayors' council and mayor of North Vancouver District, has found a possible way out of the transit funding quagmire in Metro Vancouver. He has floated the idea of a referendum focused on improving the existing transit system, and putting off decisions on major rapid transit investments for another day. This would mean a modest vehicle levy and a cent a litre on gas in the region would do.
This might sound like it would delay the desperately needed rapid transit projects planned for Surrey/Langley and the Broadway corridor in Vancouver. But these projects need a couple of years of work before they can proceed to tender. And, this would also allow TransLink to follow through on their commitment to "facilitate a regional discussion with the public, stakeholders and elected officials to examine the trade-offs of each option" before selecting the single preferred option for each corridor.
The joint municipal/TransLink planning processes have now narrowed the rapid transit options to four for Surrey/Langley and three for Broadway. All of these appear to be good choices, with a range of benefits and costs. But short circuiting this process to meet a referendum time schedule risks undermining public confidence. Premier Christy Clark and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone may think these major decisions can be made overnight, but this is no way to win a referendum in Metro Vancouver.
It now looks like the transit funding referendum will be held in June 2015, if it happens at all. While many have suggested that the likely outcome is a NO vote and disastrous deterioration in our already overstretched transit system, a vote on a modest amount of money to fund improvements to the existing system might well succeed.
Better bus service would improve accessibility throughout the region. What is on the table now, without an increase in funding, is an escalating series of cuts to all but the busiest bus routes. This is a recipe for a downward spiral of deteriorating service and declining public support for transit. The public is ready to support more frequent and reliable bus service.
Transit referendums draw public attention to transit, and open up dialogue on what kind of transit system people really want, and are willing to pay for. Seniors vote so making the system work better for our growing population of seniors makes sense on multiple levels. HandyDART service levels have been frozen since 2009 and trip denial increased by over 600 percent as a result. Installing washrooms at major transfer points and increasing funding for HandyDART are solid ways to build support for transit.
Walton's common sense proposal could also fund increased SeaBus service to the North Shore. TransLink bought a third SeaBus to provide service every 10 minutes, which was a crucial part of the 2010 Olympics transit success story. SeaBus has been cut back to 15 minute frequency.
A transit referendum focused on existing services would also increase the pressure on staff and politicians alike to implement cost-effective improvements. One possibility is introducing the longer bi-articulated buses now common in Europe. The province has already given the green light to start using these buses which carry about 25 per cent more people than the largest buses now in TransLink's fleet. All the routes being considered for rapid transit now have enough ridership to justify running these larger buses.
Photo courtesy manufacturer
One innovative plan that has been considered for about a decade, but has never been funded, is a system commonly used in Europe called "headway operations." This means buses depart at regular intervals keeping the headway (time between buses) even and avoiding bunching, instead of trying vainly to stay on a fixed schedule in widely varying conditions. This is how most rapid transit systems including SkyTrain operate. Modern GPS systems allow dispatchers to know where every bus is, and adjust operations accordingly. This would reduce wait times and overcrowding on the busiest routes, and might well reduce the cost per passenger.
Premier Clark has gotten us stuck in a transit referendum quagmire, and I don't see a better way out than focusing on improving our existing transit service. Given that global warming has already devastated B.C.'s interior forest industry and that carbon dioxide pollution has made the Salish Sea too acidic for oysters to reproduce, in a couple of years we should be ready to support the bigger rapid transit investments needed.
Eric Doherty is a Vancouver-based transportation planner who represents the Vancouver -Burnaby Chapter of the Council of Canadians on the GetOnBoard BC transit coalition.