The B.C. Liberal government is prepared to back down on changes it imposed six years ago to the Metro Vancouver transit authority, offering to return some power to the region’s mayors for long-term planning.
As the province prepares to impose a transit funding referendum over the objections of Metro’s mayors, Transportation Minister Todd Stone is offering an olive branch: He is promising to change TransLink’s governance structure to address their complaints about the way the agency operates.
Mr. Stone did not return calls on Tuesday, but he is expected to offer municipal governments more influence over TransLink’s 10-year plan – although that is unlikely to go far enough to assuage the mayors’ concerns.
TransLink was created in 1999 to hand off responsibility for public transit and transportation from the province to the region’s local governments. TransLink decisions, including taxation, initially were made by a board of Metro Vancouver mayors and councillors.
But when the mayors did not move fast enough to approve construction of the Canada Line, Kevin Falcon, the transportation minister in 2007, complained that the elected board members had generated a “circus atmosphere” that prevented good transit planning. Funding and planning decisions were driven by “local, backyard parochial” interests rather than the needs of the entire region, he said.
Mr. Falcon imposed changes that he said would make the agency more accountable. The second version of TransLink came with an unelected board of directors hired for their expertise in governance to oversee planning, construction and operation of the regional transportation system.
But the new regime did not reduce tension between the mayors and the province. Metro mayors have chafed at the remake, arguing they are held accountable for funding decisions to pay for a system they cannot control. Led by Surrey’s Diane Watts, the mayors have criticized the agency’s spending decisions and pressed for external audits.
As part of that campaign, the mayors’ council commissioned a review of the TransLink governance structure last year. The March, 2013, review concluded that the system has created an accountability gap, and that strategic decision-making on policies, plans and funding should be the responsibility of elected officials.
Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs said on Tuesday the mayors are waiting for Mr. Stone to explain what changes he is willing to make. Small adjustments are unlikely to fly: “Our council and most municipalities feel there should be elected officials running transit,” he said.
The province is hoping the changes will help end a standoff with the mayors over a transit referendum that the B.C. Liberals promised during the last provincial election campaign. Mr. Stone is adamant that the mayors agree on a vision for transit before he will set the question. The mayors say they do not have the authority to produce a plan because that is TransLink’s domain.
Although he is more tactful than his predecessor, Mr. Stone’s message is that the mayors have to put aside parochial politics to sell a single transit plan to voters in the November municipal elections. That means agreeing on which projects get priority, and how those plans are financed. This week, the minister indicated he may be flexible on the date for the vote, but the Liberals will not abandon the commitment.
Mr. Meggs countered that reaching consensus was easier under the original TransLink model. “In spite of Kevin Falcon’s frustrations, decisions did get made then – and we are having a hard time doing that now.”