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With population rising and funding stagnant, trains will get more crowded on the Canada Line and other routes.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Suburban builders in the Lower Mainland are designing new housing developments that aim to be transit friendly, and buyers are enthusiastically snapping them up. But the region's financially beleaguered transit agency doesn't have the money to send any buses to them, its chief executive acknowledges.

"Communities are being developed with transit in mind and we're not able to provide that," Ian Jarvis said as he presented TransLink's annual report Wednesday.

That was just one of the many challenges that surfaced at the TransLink public meeting, where the agency's leaders anxiously emphasized the good service and financial management they are providing, outlined the limits they face and worried aloud about the outcome of the transit referendum to be held within a year.

The region is expecting 40,000 people to arrive annually for the next 30 years, as has happened for the past decade.

For now, TransLink gets money from fares, fuel taxes and property taxes to pay for the system that carried 234 million riders in 2013. But local mayors, the board and bureaucrats have said for years that if the agency is going to expand the system, those sources aren't enough.

They have lobbied for a new revenue source – a vehicle levy, a share of the carbon tax, a regional sales tax and congestion pricing, among others – but Premier Christy Clark has balked at all of those.

During last year's provincial election campaign, she promised that any new revenue source would have to be approved in a referendum.

If local voters say no in that ballot, things "will not go well" as TransLink tries to figure out how to accommodate that new population, said TransLink board chair Marcella Szel.

"If there is no new funding, it means what we have now is all there is. If we have to take money to provide new services, then there isn't the money for maintenance," she said.

Or if the agency uses its money for needed maintenance, it won't be able to expand the system for the anticipated one million new residents. Both options are grim.

Local mayors are planning to come up with a set of overall transit priorities for the region by June 12, in preparation for the referendum.

To do that, they need to balance Surrey's desire for three light-rail lines linking some of its town centres, Vancouver's call for a subway along Broadway and bus improvements for the rest of the always-expanding region.

TransLink officials also got an earful at the annual general meeting from people with disabilities and their advocates, who said the agency needs to put a lot more money into its services for them.

The agency, which has come under fire for the high rate of service denials that people with disabilities are getting, has said it will put $1-million more into taxi services for them in the coming year.

TransLink took in $1.44-billion in revenue last year – much less than it expected after having a request for fare increases turned down and a planned property-tax increase of $30-million a year rejected by mayors. It spent $1.4-billion, leaving a surplus of $36.8-million.

That was the result of some noticeable cost-cutting at the agency, which has been persistently criticized by the province and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for waste.

Ms. Szel emphasized that executive pay has been frozen at 2012 levels, bonuses have been eliminated and the number of executives reduced to 19 from 30.

The agency also cut costs by reducing bus service on less-travelled routes and clamping down on overtime.

For those reasons and others, TransLink saw its ridership dip slightly, for the first time in years, dropping from 239 million riders in 2012 to 234 million in 2013.