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Transportation funding has forever been driven by politicians seeking headlines for projects in ridings they hope to keep or win, which leaves municipalities continuing to scrounge to pay for less glamorous transit necessities, such as buses, from other sources.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

In late August, at the beginning of the pre-federal election hype, TransLink’s Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation raised a second rallying cry for a traffic-congestion relief fund.

The idea, originally pitched in the spring by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, makes infinite sense. It calls for the federal government to stop project-by-project transit investments and instead contribute $3.4-billion annually to a fund that would be divvied up among Canadian cities based on ridership.

For TransLink, it would amount to a contribution of $375-million each year.

That amount of stable funding would allow TransLink to deliver on long-term plans and essentially strip the politics out of transportation funding. While this may sound reasonable by any measure, it’s unlikely to happen.

Transportation funding has forever been driven by politicians seeking headlines for projects in ridings they hope to keep or win. And that’s too bad because it leaves municipalities continuing to scrounge to pay for less glamorous transit necessities from other sources.

TransLink is required by law to plan 10 years ahead, which is far longer than any election cycle. The lengthy horizon is necessary because transportation projects are so expensive that funding for any region typically only allows for one or two at a time. The SkyTrain line from Surrey to Langley is expected to cost $3.12-billion; Vancouver’s train to the University of British Columbia could top $4-billion. The price tags on both projects are so high that so far, funding is only in place to build both to the halfway mark.

While they are being built, those plum projects for Surrey and Vancouver will suck up most of the available cash, leaving other Lower Mainland mayors waiting for their turn. The mayors are only willing to be patient if they can look at a long-term plan and see their projects moving higher in the lineup.

However, transit planning is predicated on contributions from municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. And when the higher levels of government jump the queue to pick and choose projects, long-term plans fall by the wayside.

This presents challenges for the less sexy necessities, such as maintenance centres for transit lines – items that need funding, but don’t lend themselves to flashy ribbon-cuttings, says Jonathan Cote, who chairs the mayors’ council. And that’s where the trouble lies. Big-ticket transit projects, such as trains and SeaBuses, are big hits with the public – you might recall the lineups of riders keen to try out the Canada Line on opening day in 2010. It’s understandable that federal and provincial politicians, who always have their eye on the next election, like nothing better than to announce an attention-grabbing new train line.

Buses, which form the backbone of the transit system, don’t have the same cachet, so they garner less federal investment.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart points out the opportunity for municipalities to pull together any kind of big transit or housing deal is far shorter than the four years between elections.

“It’s a very short window when all three levels of government are stable enough to sit down and plan without thinking about 'Who’s going to vote for me?’”

Mr. Stewart supported the FCM congestion fund request even though he doubts it will come to fruition, and feels transit is still secondary to housing on Vancouver’s needs list. He lobbied for the FCM to launch a pre-election push on housing but lost because outside of Vancouver and Toronto, housing isn’t top of mind for most Canadian cities.

To be sure, transit is a key election issue in the Lower Mainland – total ridership increased by 7 per cent in 2018, to reach an all-time high. Mr. Stewart, himself a former NDP MP, is using this pre-election window to meet with all parties to stress how much Vancouverites depend on transit.

The parties have all been receptive, he says. However, the real work will come postelection to make sure promises are kept.

It would be nice if the money was delivered through a beefed-up congestion-relief fund. But it’s more likely that the politically motivated announcements will continue. And perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. Ultimately what counts is that transit investment continues so we can keep moving in ways that simultaneously reduce congestion and greenhouse gasses.

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