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Blowing up TransLink for fun and recrimination

July 3, 2015

Jarrett Walker wonders if it’s possible anymore for Vancouver to have a reality-based conversation about transportation.

Here are his post- referendum thoughts. Long – but worth it.

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Hating your transit agency won’t make it better.

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Metro Vancouver has now reached the climax of an orchestrated orgy of rage directed at its transit agency, TransLink. Over 60% of voters have rejected a sales tax increase for urgently needed transit growth, largely due to an effective campaign that made the transit agency’s alleged incompetence the issue.

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There’s just one problem. TransLink is (or was) one of North America’s most effective transit agencies. Parts of the agency had made mistakes, and the governance was dysfunctional, and of course TransLink was struggling to meet exploding demand in one of the world’s most desirable metro areas.

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But TransLink is, or was, an effective network, run by a reasonably efficient agency. For years I cited it all over the world as a model for good planning. Whether it remains that depends on how much of it is now destroyed in the thrill of recrimination.

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Admittedly, I have a personal angle on this, because I worked inside TransLink’s planning department for two long stints, for a year in 2005-6 and for six months in 2011. (I have assisted them as a consultant since, but I have no contracts with TransLink now and no expectation of one.) It was, I thought, an unusually forward-thinking and principle-driven transit planning department. I assumed this was an expression of Metro Vancouver’s unusual culture of intentional, strategic, controlled urban development. It also reflected an era of leadership that created the space for these thoughts to occur, as opposed to the crisis-by-crisis lifestyle that too often prevails in transit management.

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The conversations that were happening at TransLink — especially about the difficult question of how a regional transit agency can form a reality-based relationship with its constituent cities — were extremely sophisticated and respectful. How should a large regional agency interact with city governments when it holds the technical expertise about transit that city governments mostly lack. For example, when a city government demands something that is geometrically impossible, how can the transit agency’s response avoid appearing overbearing? Much of what I now know about this relationship, and the unavoidable forces operating on it, I figured out while helping with policy development there.

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Today, those issues are at the core of my practice, as the relationship between city governments and transit authorities becomes an urgent issue almost everywhere.

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Special-purpose regional governments are vulnerable creatures. The marquee leaders of an urban region — usually major mayors and state/province leaders — influence them but don’t control them directly enough to feel responsible for them. Blame is easily shifted to them by the more powerful governments all around them.

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Read more…

Referendum Reaction: The Vacuum

July 3, 2015

From Michael Mortensen:

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Predictable.

The Province’s first failure was to put this to a plebiscite. The $3B+ Highway 1 expansion and investment in carbon intensive transport did not need a plebiscite; why then did transit need one?

The Province’s second great failure here was to set a binary plebiscite question with “do nothing” as the only other option. The proper course should have been to present two or more options, either of which would ensure the articulation and expansion of transit to support a livable growing region demanded by residents. Kind of like asking your kids “what kind of toothpaste do you want to use to brush your teeth?” – not brushing is simply not an option.

The plebiscite cost millions and solved nothing – just leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth doesn’t it. Hope the region does not develop cavities!

A vacuum of leadership indeed.

The TransLink Dilemma: Punishment for Perfection

July 3, 2015

What do we do with TransLink?

Since so many people justified a No vote on the referendum because they believed TL was too incompetent and wasteful to be trusted with more tax dollars, there must now be some response to their beliefs.  But what?

Presumably the intent is to see TL reformed so that it no longer wastes money and is operated efficiently – and to do that, it needs to be punished.  Staff must be let go, particularly senior management; wages and benefits, particularly for drivers, need to be reduced.  Low performing routes eliminated.  Compass cards either abandoned or implemented – without any further expenditures.   Do more with less: accommodate existing demand plus growth without doing anything that would piss people off.  And do it with less money.

In sort, TransLink needs to be punished in order to get to a sufficient level of perfection to justify a tax increase.

Where did this absurdity come from?

It became clearer to me in a conversation I had on the street with a smart, conversative, long-time Vancouverite who very much agreed on the need to have a well-functioning transit system around which to shape growth in the region.

But whenever we got to a certain point of agreement, out came the anecdotes.  Stories of imcompetence, of staggering waste, of overpaid bureaucrats – all familiar stuff, all believed to be true, regardless of an undeniable reality: the transit system we have is pretty good.  Sure it could be better, but somehow we managed to build and run one of the better transit systems on the continent with totally incompetent management and staff.

Yet thanks to confirmation bias – the repetition of self-reinforcing opinion and selected facts among a peer group – he wasn’t able to acknowledge that inconsistency.

Until it came to the salary of Translink’s CEO.  On that point, he departed from group-think consensus: no, at $400,000, that was not excessive compensation for a manager of a $1.5 billion corporation on which the economy of the region depended.  Further, it would indeed be difficult to recruit a first-class manager unless he was paid competitively – say, on the order of Port Metro Vancouver, which pays twice what TransLink does.

And yet that’s now impossible politically.

Instead, we must punish the organization in order to improve performance, reduce its resources in order to increase service, trash its reputation in order to restore confidence.

Left unaddressed was the dilemma we now find ourselves facing: How will we pull out of what will otherwise be a downward spiral in order to get us back to where we once were.

Referendum Reaction: “Utter nonsense”

July 3, 2015

From Michael Geller:

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What utter nonsense.

While I have been a Liberal supporter for my entire life in BC, I am not at all pleased that the “Liberals delivered on their platform promise.”

Quite the contrary.

For you to now send out this message is like rubbing salt into the wounds.

What were you thinking?

I am sure I am not alone in feeling a total level of disgust with this email message.

 

Dear Michael,

In 2013, we campaigned on giving Metro Vancouver voters a say on any new fees or taxes for transit expansion – and we did exactly that with the 2015 Transit Plebiscite.

Today, Elections BC announced the results of that plebiscite: Metro Vancouver voters rejected the proposal by 62%.

Some will be happy with that result – others disappointed. But as BC Liberal supporters, we should all be pleased that our government delivered on our platform commitment to give voters their say.

So what comes next?

With the Lower Mainland projected to increase by 1 million people over the next 30 years, we know doing nothing is not an option – which is why the provincial government remains committed to paying its share towards expanded transit across the region.

The province has reconfirmed its third. And the federal government has expressed support with their third. So now it’s up to municipal leaders to regroup and determine how they’ll generate their portion of the funding.

The other piece of the puzzle is TransLink. This agency must now focus on restoring the confidence of Lower Mainland voters by delivering reliable service levels, and improving customer relations. They now have an excellent opportunity to take a big step forward in this direction as they recruit a new CEO.

In the coming months, we’ll all have to work together to arrive at a solution that’s fair, affordable, and transparent. And as always, we’ll keep you posted on that.

After all, those are the values we campaigned on when you gave us our mandate in 2013, and we thank you for your support as we keep working to build a stronger, thriving British Columbia for this generation and the next.

Sincerely,

Jillian Stead
Communications Officer
Today’s BC Liberals

 

After the Referendum: What needs to be done?

June 30, 2015

What actions do I think need to be agreed on after the referendum?

  • No more referenda
  • Reform of TransLink’s governance
  • Reaffirmation of the regional vision, especially of the role of transit in shaping and serving rowth
  • Agreement on funding, initially by postponing the tax cut for the richest 2 percent, using the revenue to provide the infrastructure that actually generates wealth and serves all British Columbians

Off to Copenhagen

June 30, 2015

I’m away for a few weeks.  I’ll try to keep up with the post-referendum observations and debate – and will bring forward the best of readership input as separate posts.  But there’ll be a limited amount of blogging until I return after July 14.

And if any of you have recommendations on what to see and do in Copenhagen – as well as any contacts I should make (especially if there PT readers there), let me know below.

Morning Thought: Yes or No – What happens next?

June 30, 2015

Word has it that the results of the referendum will be out on Thursday at 10am. Like a lot of other people, I’ll be out of town.  So here are some anticipatory thoughts.

What happens if there’s a Yes vote? – as unlikely as that seems. (I thought a referendum would fail the moment I heard the Premier put forward the idea in the last election.  Nothing since has changed my mind.  Indeed, I thought the best strategy would be to get everyone to vote No, regardless of where they stood on the issues, in order to discredit the whole process from the beginning.)

But if the Yes side prevails,  I think there would be an immediate shock, a lot of surprise, and then a discussion about which priorities should move forward first.  The first thing we’d notice from a ‘yes’ outcome would be a quick increase in service on some express routes, orders for hundreds more buses,  and a reaffirmation of the regional strategy, both for land use and transportation.

Here, though, are some of the immediate questions in the event of No vote.

What happens to TransLink?  There will be an immediate call for new governance, both in process and on the board.  The appointed board, after all, has to be accountable for the decisions it made – and then failed to defend effectively – that became the justification for so much negativity and culminated in a vote of non-confidence.  Having been part of the process that chose its members, I believe that while they are qualified and committed people, they nonetheless should put their appointments up for reconsideration.

Fortunately, the board has indicated that its meetings will be now be open to the public – a necessity, given that its job will be to authorize the reallocations of service and more and more cutbacks.  To do that in closed sessions would be totally unacceptable, and a further discrediting of TransLink.

The Mayors’ Council will have to consider its role too, at least in the short term.  What further political capital are mayors prepared to spend, after having done everything the Province asked but still effectively received a vote of non-confidence from the voters?  Will it speak as one, or fragment into parochial and partisan division?

Will the Yes coalition stay together, at least to make a case for a better process that can get us to Yes?

What responsibility does the Minister Stone take?  He was mandated by the Premier to work with the mayors to achieve a Yes vote.  Did he take that seriously, and what conclusions does he draw?

In particular, will there have to be another referendum?  If the provincial government requires that every time the region wants to consider transit expansion, we’re going to have another $12-million-dollar referendum and we aren’t going to be confident of the outcome, that effectively ends the ability to plan the region around transit.

What is Plan B, at least in Surrey and Vancouver?  Their mayors indicated they either had a Plan B or will move quickly to get one.  In the case of Surrey, observers are anticipating the senior governments will be at the table with hundreds of millions to move light rail forward, and the city presumably will lever development and property taxes for the rest.  Don’t expect the same for Vancouver.  This ad hocery will leave the rest of the region (and TransLink) without resources to operate Surrey’s expansion or to consider needs elsewhere in a system that must be integrated to work well.  The results will be brutally divisive, and make the next referendum, if required, even less likely to pass.

What is the default transportation strategy for the region?  If we are not going to plan, shape and service growth around transit, what will be the basis for decisions that have to made regardless?  Do we assume growth will now be primarily serviced through expansion of the road system, with more dependence on vehicles?  That effectively ends the regional plan as we know it – and reverses the legacy of the last several generations of planners and leaders.

It means municipal plans will have to be reconsidered and zoning decisions looked at in a new light of a harsh reality.  Already I hear that some local leaders are calling for a reconsideration of high-density urban form along growth corridors that cannot count on new transit service.  What about ‘complete communities’ anticipated for sites like Jericho, the Pearson hospital lands, Riverview or any other megaproject in the region?  On hold?  Cancelled?  Or redesigned to be auto-oriented?

Does this mean by default we squeeze growth out to urban fringe, putting more pressure on the agricultural land reserve, already being stressed by the new road infrastructure, both completed and planned – notably the Massey crossing and an expanded Highway 99? (Vancouver, in particular, has to realistically consider the implications of wider roads and bridges that lead from north, east and south to its borders.  How will more traffic be accommodated?  Expect a version of Freeway Fight 2.0.)

What, in particular, will happen to the Pattullo Bridge?  Is TransLink now expected to pay millions for short-term refurbishment and then hundreds of millions more for a new crossing, when it has no new resources?  (Even a toll or road pricing might, in theory, require a referendum – certainly permission from the Province.) Why not just close it down and return responsibility to the provincial government?

Ultimately, the most important question of all is simply: What is our vision for the future?  Is the regional plan dead?  Will a second-rate transit system will be acceptable if that’s the only way to get a Yes vote in the future?  What does that mesn for our reputation as a green, sustainable region – when those who saw us as an international model of success now realize that we voted against transit even as we committed to spend more to build roads and bridges?

Will there be leadership?  Listen very carefully to every word and nuance from the Premier in response to a No vote.  Will blame and responsibility be passed on to the region, without a vision from the Premier herself for the economic engine of this province and a majority of its people?  Will there be a few politically chosen transit projects to give the illusion of progress but without a belief that this region deserves and needs a first class transportation system?

What does this vote mean for tangential, generational issues?  Add the loss of transit expansion to the rising cost of housing, to a tax cut for the richest 2 percent equal to the amount that would have been raised for transit, to the end of the regional vision and a default to motordom, to an expansion of fossil fuel exports through the region accompanied by a loss of lands in the ALR for port expansion and quick, cheaper development, and you have a toxic mix of issues without resolution.

That political vacuum would have to be filled.  Some, like Jordan Batemen, who will be given considerable credit as a giant killer, will argue that No means voters just want lower taxes, less government and will be satisfied with that second-rate transportation system.  Others, especially those assembled around the Metro Vancouver table, will have to offer an alternative.

Or maybe it means that a new generation of leaders will have to emerge who are prepared to fight for the vision that has sustained us for so long and so well.

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