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Political process makes for a slow commute

There's nothing fun about running a transit system. It's one of those no-win propositions: the more the public uses it, the more reasons it finds to complain about it.

A customer-satisfaction survey filled out after someone's commute has taken an hour longer than usual is going to be skewed by the experience. Use public transit long enough and you can assemble an evening's worth of horror stories to entertain friends and family alike.

This is by way of introducing today's topic – TransLink: Our Embattled Transit Provider.

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B.C.'s transportation agency has been in the news recently, linked to a report by provincial transit commissioner Martin Crilly that suggested its bureaucracy was bloated and that funds needed for near-term improvement projects could be found by taking a scalpel to unnecessary office fat. The commissioner flatly rejected a planned 12.5-per-cent fare hike.

And then there was word that eight executives, plus CEO Ian Jarvis, were splitting a pot of about $300,000 in bonuses. You can imagine how that went over with Joe the Welder on the same day that he was late for work because the bus he was on broke down.

On Tuesday, Mr. Jarvis held a news conference to say the bonus system for this year was now under review. And he announced that those system improvements scheduled for over-burdened areas of the region were officially on hold until stable sources could be found to finance them.

That was the right move. It now shifts the burden of finding a funding solution to the politicians. Fact is, TransLink has limited options when it comes to raising capital itself. It can't even impose rate hikes it deems necessary.

It's difficult not to feel some empathy for B.C.'s transit authority. Metro Vancouver has an extremely good transportation system. It's not perfect. None are. But the hundreds of thousands of visitors who descended on the region for the 2010 Olympics raved about it. There are jurisdictions such as Brisbane, Australia, making changes to their transit system based on what they've seen here.

There are definitely some prickly issues with the governance model around TransLink, but that's not the agency's fault. That's a problem of the political realm.

TransLink was set up five years ago to be run more like a true business entity, in the same way that B.C. Ferries and the Vancouver International Airport Authority are. They must compete with the private sector for workers to fill their ranks, including executives. At that level, it often means offering some type of executive incentive plan.

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If the public doesn't believe bonuses are proper and insists the government do away with them, that's fine. It just shouldn't complain when these same agencies, which are incredibly complex to run, are consistently beat out for the top talent. Like many things in life, you get what you pay for.

The biggest problem with TransLink is not the agency itself but the decision-making process inherent to its structure.

The fact is Metro Vancouver mayors have never stopped fuming over the Liberal government's decision in 2007 to strip away the control they once had over regional transportation decisions. They seethed when that power was put solely in the hands of an independently structured transit authority.

Mayors such as Surrey's Dianne Watts now believe TransLink operates without any checks and balances. And she may have a point. The mayors take all the political heat for measures introduced to fund transit – like raising property taxes – and yet have little to no say about the decisions being taken.

Many mayors, for instance, believe the tolling strategy for new bridges in the region is horribly flawed. (The rates are too expensive, which is driving commuters to free bridges and creating new traffic jams.) But their voices are ignored because TransLink is supposed to be an independent body. Still, there does seem to be something inherently wrong in that.

Just as there is in the provincial government's decision to give the mayors the legislative authority to raise funds for transit improvements through mechanisms such as a vehicle levy but then arbitrarily prevent them from using it.

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Some mayors believe that recent decision had more to do with politics than anything else. The Liberals are trailing badly in the polls and didn't want to be associated with an unpopular fee increase. "So we'll make the mayors raise [property]taxes so they can take the hit for everything," said Ms. Watts.

The B.C. government needs to tweak the governance model around transit to give mayors more input and establish a sustainable funding policy to allow for coherent long-term planning.

Meantime, we shouldn't forget that Metro Vancouver has a transit system that is the envy of many parts of the world. And TransLink deserves a lot of credit for it.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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