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British Columbia Wrong question in TransLink referendum could spell disaster, officials say

TransLink has been grappling with frozen revenue streams and cutting or outsourcing services in order to make ends meet.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The future of transit funding for Metro Vancouver hinges largely on a referendum scheduled for next fall. However, with it comes the possibility of a vote to maintain the status quo – a system beleaguered with frozen revenue sources that has had to slash services to stay afloat.

Premier Christy Clark has vowed to work with TransLink and the Metro Vancouver Mayor's Council to address the region's complicated transit funding issues, but with the caveat that any possible solutions have to have taxpayer agreement. The B.C. Liberals' platform states: "Any new revenue sources would then be subject to a referendum to be held at the same time as the municipal elections in November 2014."

This will be TransLink's most pressing issue in the first meetings with the new government, said chief executive officer Ian Jarvis.

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"I understand what the objective is … but the devil is in what, exactly, the question will be," he said, speaking with media after TransLink's annual general meeting on Wednesday.

Some have expressed concern over a possible "none of the above" option, which would effectively leave the system as is.

"The region is growing," Mr. Jarvis said. "More people are coming, and more jobs will certainly put more demand on the transportation system and will eventually impact travel times and reliability of our services."

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said a referendum is not the best mechanism with which to collect public feedback on the complicated matter of funding.

"We're asking the public to make wise choices with cumbersome information. It's always a challenge for those kinds of complex questions, really detailed questions," he said. "I think we can take a lot of public input. The challenge with referenda is that the public gets a yes or no [option] and trying to simplify these questions down to a yes or no is almost impossible."

TransLink generated a total of $1.42-billion in revenue in 2012 and spent $1.43-billion, the general meeting heard. It had budgeted for a deficit of $48-million but ended up with a $9.4-million deficit for the year. The company saved money by reducing overtime and other labour costs, decreasing fuel usage with fuel-efficient vehicles and putting a hold on planned expansions, said Cathy McLay, TransLink's chief financial officer. "Yes, there was a deficit in 2012, but we planned for it," she said.

Meanwhile, TransLink recorded 239 million trips in 2012 – six million more than in 2011 – with boardings per service hour reaching the highest level in the past five years.

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Despite uncertainty about funding mechanisms, Mr. Jarvis told the meeting that TransLink is looking at options to replace the 75-year-old Pattullo Bridge and is currently upgrading SkyTrain stations and railbeds. The Compass Card electronic fare gate system, which was subject to a brief delay because of a software glitch, is expected to roll out in the fall.

TransLink's financial constraints were illustrated Wednesday when several employees working for HandyDART made impassioned pleas to executives, voicing their displeasure over cuts to the custom transit service. TransLink is shifting some of these trips – catered to those with physical or cognitive disabilities – over to taxis in an effort to provide more trips with limited resources.

Mark Beeching, a driver, instructor and trainer for the service, said up to 28 drivers will be laid off by June 22 as a result of moving 10,000 hours of service to taxis.

"This means that clients aren't going to be picked up by people who are trained and care about them," he said. "They are going to be put in jeopardy. This is not a solution."

Wait lists for the service had grown to several weeks – sometimes months – and 37,000 rides were denied in 2012, Mr. Beeching said.

Mr. Jarvis said the shift was the most viable option at the moment, based on audits and customer feedback, but that it would be reviewed if it is proven that customers are not able to get where they need to go in a safe, secure way.

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