Monday, February 2, 2015

A camel is a horse...

Voters in Metro Vancouver are asked to approve a regional increase in provincial sales tax to generate an estimated $250 million a year for TransLink. The vote is an advisory one, not binding on the province but it fits the Liberal preference for regressive taxation so the province won't be an obstacle.

In December, politicians were saying the new tax "will be separate and distinct from PST" but in January, they were saying it would be fully harmonized with the provincial sales tax. This recalls a lesson we've learned before: political promises are valid from the time given only until they are deemed no longer valid. Keep that in mind when someone says, "It's only half a percentage point." It will be half a point, but only until it is not.

The list of projects promoted by the Mayor's Council is watermarked "to be updated" so little is certain. Some items will be available to promote a future reach into the pockets of taxpayers. By example, the 2015 promise to increase peak frequency of SeaBus to every 10 minutes was first made in 2005 when TransLink was promising an expanded marine transportation system, including downtown passenger ferry service from Bowen Island and West Vancouver.

A Pattullo bridge replacement is featured but, of course, the crossing will be financed with tolls. Not included is a budget for replacement of Skytrain control and power systems, which are now using outdated technology with failures resulting in painful service shutdowns.

The sales tax proposal would be a large transit tax grab but TransLink has been steadily increasing its take. Since the referendum ask is not even sufficient to pay interest on proposed capital expenditures, there are other shoes that must drop to satisfy funding needs.

The vote would be useful if it encouraged a frank discussion of transit planning and management but I'm not sure that is happening. It seems municipal officials have only one solution in mind and that is to throw more money at problems. First, we ought to be asking if the existing sums are well spent. The answer, quite obviously, is no. Translink's passenger counts have been flat and it's costs are rising. This suggests need for circumspection and re-examination.

When I look at the organization of Translink, I recall the cautionary aphorism, "A camel is a horse designed by committee." The referendum is about giving substantially more money to the committee.


A 2012 consultants report was prepared for consideration of TransLink’s 2013 10-year plan. Some excerpts:
[TransLink] continues to lag other systems in cost efficiency, cost effectiveness and service productivity. with similar population densities appear to be attracting more riders per unit of service than TransLink. This observation is relatively unchanged over the past five years in spite of the large increase in rail rapid transit...

TransLink’s performance relative to the four Canadian transit peer systems has also deteriorated. The declines are across the board in all indicators. As a result, a costly service has become even more expensive. Cost increases have more than offset increased revenues from the fare increase and cost recovery remains low...

...Internal trends reflect increasing costs and declining productivity in both labour and equipment utilization as well as high overhead. Internal change in how service is delivered has not kept pace with external changes in customer demand and rail system expansion as well as technological advances in vehicles and equipment.

...analysis shows TransLink’s [bus] boarding per hour have dropped to the lowest level in 20 years. ...As a result, cost efficiency and effectiveness have both declined. Labour utilization declined and unproductive time remains high. Both stand out as areas needing improvement...

The analysis has revealed that TransLink and CMBC corporate overhead costs are high relative to other Canadian peer systems. Internal analysis has also shown that their rates of growth have exceeded service hour growth and that TransLink’s corporate overhead cost as a percentage of total revenue has risen...

Compared to Canadian peers, TransLink exhibits an abundance of equipment and staffing levels that help to explain its generally higher costs and lower cost efficiency and effectiveness than most of the peers, even after taking into account the challenges of its large service area. Internal trends reflect increasing costs and declining productivity in both labour and equipment utilization as well as high overhead...

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  1. The changes that have been made in one month give both sides the ability to blame the other if this thing fails. I would though, call failure a success.

    I do hope they all get a reminder to not stick their hand in our cage.

    Like the HST, which I agreed with in principle but voted against, I look at the Transit Tax similarly and will be voting against it as well. I just don’t like the process and the propaganda we are being fed with a $40 million ad campaign using our own money.

    I am also angry with the manipulative misrepresentation by the “Yes” side and their insistence that a “no” vote would mean traffic gridlock, strangulation and chaos for decades.

    Transportation infrastructure will change, regardless. There will eventually be a funding formula, perhaps a forced one we dislike even more. If only they could be honest with us.

    Last year, after a failed spring referendum, a new no-nonsense plan was put before the people of Seattle. Details of each project and cost were laid out before the vote; how many new buses, new routes, now and into the future. The people knew quite specifically what they were being asked to approve and this time voted in favour.

    Here, we are being sold snake oil. The Government has already changed the wording to ensure the tax will go into general revenue so it becomes more difficult to follow. And just watch, since the Province and Feds are “expected” to each kick in an additional 250 million per year, there will be another tax or increase to an existing one. After all, Christy keeps reminding us the Government just doesn’t have that kind of money.

    Again, I ask, where is the NDP on this?

    1. " Again, I ask, where is the NDP on this? " Do you actually believe the MSM in this Province will ask John Horgan for his reaction. Will they print the news releases sent to the MSM ? NO because the MSM in BC is made up from a bunch of Liberal loving mouth pieces for the party they support.

      So what did the NDP say ?

      " Government regulators repeatedly approved the raising of the tailings dam incrementally with little long-term planning or execution;
      Government regulators did not require Imperial Metals to establish a well-developed tailings beach. This oversight “…violated the fundamental premise of the design as a tailings dam, not a water storage dam.”;
      Government’s decision to allow Imperial Metals to significantly increase the storage of water in the Mount Polley tailings storage facility exacerbated the size of the breach and the environmental impact of the spill; "

      etc. etc. ( )

      Now in case they do report the NDP reaction... it will be later when the story dies off.

      Guy in Victoria

  2. Thanks for this Norm.

    The real problem for TransLink is the proprietary SkyTrain system and the Canada Line, which is not, what we call SkyTrain.

    SkyTrain is a proprietary railway, which technical patents are owned by Bombardier Inc and the engineering patents are owned by SNC Lavalin. No other company produces SkyTrain compatible cars and no other company can underbid SNC Lavalin, so when one builds with, what we call SkyTrain, no other company can economically bid against Bombardier and SNC for a SkyTrain extension! This is called the "Gotcha Factor". Most cities understand this and most cities build with a "generic" transit mode.

    Today, there are only 7 SkyTrain type systems in operation (this is not to be confused by cities calling their own elevated transit system SkyTrain and even the venerable DC-3 is called SkyTrain) and only 3 (soon to be 2) are seriously used for urban transit, with the remaining being either demonstration lines or airport/theme park people movers.

    SkyTrain's chief competitor is modern LRT, which over 200 new systems have been built or under construction since SkyTrain was first marketed in the late 1970's

    What has deterred sales of Skytrain are:

    1) it costs more to build, than its chief competitor LRT.
    2) it costs more to maintain, than LRT.
    3) it costs more to operate than LRT.
    4) it has less capacity than LRT.

    Now, the then provincial government which forced SkyTrain upon us, was warned by experts of the day that the large costs for building and operating SkyTrain would come back to haunt us in the future and that day has now arrived.

    Now a word about the Canada Line. The Canada Line was supposed to be Gordon Campbell showcase P-3, but it was impossible for SkyTrain to compete in a P-3, so the Liberals invented an anti-LRT criteria for the Canada line and kicked both Siemens and Astolm from the bidding because they insisted using light rail vehicles and the Canada Line bidding was between SNC/Lavalin ROTEM, bidding against SNC Lavalin Bombardier! The presiding Judge in the Susan Heyes lawsuit against TransLink called the bidding process a charade.

    The Canada Line, is a heavy rail metro, built as a light-metro and because of escalating construction costs, the scope of the project was so reduced that the Canada Line has less capacity than a simple, yet much, much cheaper streetcar.

    All this costs a lot money.

    In 1993, the GVRD released a study that refuted the political spin that; "because SkyTrain is driverless it costs less to operate than LRT", or "SkyTrain pays its own operating costs"; by showing the SkyTrain subsidy for 1991 was a whopping $157 million annually! By comparison, the cost to operate the entire Tri-Met transit system in Portland Ore. in 1993, including their new LRT line was $114 million!

    Over the years this subsidy, mostly paid via hidden tax sources, through the province, has steadily increased with each new SkyTrain line built, to a now almost $300 million annually. This does not include the Canada Line costs, which a recent FOI has shown to be around $145 million annually!

    Even UBC's Sauder School Business has put the total cost of light-metro to the taxpayer at over $9 billion so far.

  3. Part 2

    So here is the real problem no politician, TransLink, or the tax and spend 'Happy gang", supporting the YES side will touch with a 10 foot pole, SkyTrain has all but bankrupted TransLink and with the province shelling out so much cash to pay for light-metro's capital costs, there is none left to give to improve transit service.

    The "happy-gang's" answer, build more SkyTrain, in even more expensive subways!

    TransLink (read the provincial government) does not want to build with light rail because the current thought is that there is no electoral purchase from simple, cheaper LRT compared to votes garnered by building with a flashy and very expensive subway.

    TransLink (read the City of Vancouver) wants SkyTrain to inflate property values along SkyTrain routes to make big profits for political friends.

    TransLink (read bombardier & SNC) want SkyTrain, because no other damned fools build with it and regional politicians are acting like carnival suckers buying snake oil as a cure all.

    So the real problem is light-metro, hemorrhaging hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the budget, but none of it goes for improving transit and no one wants to talk about that.


    Not just SNC.?

  5. 1. Expanding the transit infrastructure requires a growing population in order to fund it.
    2. A growing population requires more transit infrastructure.
    3. Go to #1.

  6. It is I think deliberate that you have a chart of taxation revenue over the last twelve years but say nothing about the increase in transit use in the same years

    Year Translink system trips
    2001 95,711,413 the year of the strike so not exactly fair comparison
    2003 143,627,321
    2005 159,715,533
    2007 172,069,507
    2009 187,912,227
    2011 231,873,458
    2013 232,553,282

    Your statement "Translink's passenger counts have been flat" is simply not true.

    Translink gets about half its revenues from fares, the rest from taxation. The increase in use alone is enough to explain need for the increase in revenue. Or is it still a "cash grab" if it buys more buses and trains, pays wages, fuel costs and so on?

    Similarly you choose to put in chart of operating costs but only for rail. Which of course tells less than half the story and ignores the expansion of the system by the addition of the Canada Line in 2009. Now if you had pointed to the really poor deal taxpayers got over that P3 contract, I would agree with you.

    The SkyTrain power rail replacement project has actually been underway for some time and has been responsible for some of the recent incidents. But one was the result of a decision to "save" money by not buying a very necessary software upgrade, in deference to demands that Translink stop "wasting" money. That lead to a much prolong and otherwise quite needless system shutdown. The new software would have made a restart much faster.

    Of course nothing is ever certain. Most of the projected expansion projects anticipate both federal and provincial support. That's a hostage to fortune if ever I saw one.

    But equally the current funding sources are not adequate to keep up with rising demand: fuel tax for instance declines as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, but also as driving mode share shifts to other modes - walking, cycling and yes transit. We also can be pretty sure that there will indeed be another million people here within the timeframe of the Plan. And those people will need to get around somehow. In the absence of the increased funding needed just to keep up with current demand, what do you think those people are going to do Norm?

    1. Assertion: "Translink gets about half its revenues from fares, the rest from taxation."

      Fact: Since 2001, Translink has had $1.63 in tax revenue for each $1.00 in fare revenue.

      Assertion: "Your statement "Translink's passenger counts have been flat" is simply not true."

      Certainly has been true recently. By TransLink numbers, passengers carried declined by almost one million between 2011 and 2013. In addition, while full numbers for 2014 are not published, in the first three quarters, passenger counts are down compared to the prior year. That suggests two straight years with decreased ridership for bus and rail. Translink reports it is almost 12 million rides below budgeted numbers in the most recent financial performance report. Yet, Translink's tax revenues are up each year.

      A fundamental reason for upgrades being unavailable is that the Metro Vancouver is stuck with an automated transit system that no other place has replicated. Almost everything that could be done to improve the electronics and controls of Skytrain is costly because the system is unique. Even the Canada Line is different.

      The decision making on transportation in Metro Vancouver is fundamentally flawed. Fault lies originally with the provincial government but today's regional politicians give it life. Drivers from the Guildford area of Surrey are expected to pay tolls while people who live 5 miles north can drive into the city, much of the way on new roadway, and pay nothing. People who live in Richmond or on the North Shore can enter the city without paying tolls.

      I fail to understand why bridges should trigger tolls but building causeways should not. Part of Highway 1 in Burnaby is built over bog that raised construction costs significantly. Why does one form of crossing from A to B result in a toll while another does not?

      I am not against public transit. On the contrary, I favour it. But, only when delivered with maximum efficiency. Translink management, even with flat passenger counts and mounting costs, rewarded themselves with extra pay. (Numbers remunerated more than $100K grew by 15% in 2013.) Almost 1/3 of transit police earned six figure incomes.

      A person I know who lives elsewhere was bemused by the vote we are soon to have. I paraphrase the conversation,

      "Why are you voting on a tax that collects $250 million and not voting on the $10 billion they want to spend? Isn't that like your wife choosing a new house but letting you select the paint colour of the garage?"

    2. Your readers should be aware that Stephen Rees is a former planner at Translink. He might be sensitive about statements implying arrogance or incompetence of former colleagues.

      Nevertheless, he's a voice of reason and we should listen to his opinions. I prefer to hear arguments based on fact rather than the hollow puff pieces issued by people who are protecting their own financial interests or, even worse, public relations shape shifters who are hired with public money to convince us to give them a bigger pot of treasure.

    3. By TransLink numbers, passengers carried declined by almost one million between 2011 and 2013.

      Passenger trips (all sources) 2011: 231,873,458
      Passenger trips (all sources) 2013: 232,553,282

      Source [PDF]

      This is basically the same as saying 2013 was slightly cooler than 2012, therefore climate change is false, when the long-term trend is going up. As you can see from the stats 1989-2013, passenger trips have increased 52%.

      Translink governance and executive pay will not be fixed with a "No" vote. But it will hurt the public transit system, it's users, and the region's economic health as a whole. We don't defund the healthcare system because there's trouble at Vancouver Coastal Health.

      You can rightly point out that trips in 2012 were 237,456,370. You should ask yourself if the rise in fares that occurred that year had an effect.

    4. “We don't defund the healthcare system because there's trouble at Vancouver Coastal Health.”

      Why not? We do it when there’s trouble at Fraser Health.

      “Translink governance and executive pay will not be fixed with a "No" vote.”

      The issue is whether you can you assure us they will be fixed with a “Yes” vote.

    5. You can criticise Translink all you like, as far as I am concerned. If anything I try to keep my comments factual in case resentment of the way I was treated back in 2004 colours my perceptions.

      But we also need to keep in mind that the problems there stem from the way it has been controlled by the provincial government. The decision to build the Golden Ears Bridge has also cost them dearly since the P3 contractor bears no revenue risk. So money that should have gone to support the transit system has gone into the pockets of private sector investors.

      Voony deals well with Translink's cost issues at
      The staggering figure is the number of buses: "With more than 1500 buses, the Translink bus fleet is oversized. At peak hour, only ~1000 buses are in revenue service:"

      How can that be? Well it is driven by a federal government that has a programme to help buy new equipment for transit based on the federal gas tax. But that supports only capital spending. Provincial interference means that Translink does not have the operating funds to run these buses. The Translink Commissioner refused to allow a fare increase. Much time and effort has been wasted chasing after "waste" that did not produce much in the way of savings.

      But as the commenters above point out none of this gets solved by voting NO, and none of it gets addressed by reciting CTF speaking points.

    6. I checked the pdf file and came up with this.

      PASSENGER TRIPS counts riders on the system by mode where the fare was paid (i.e. number of system users).

      Total 2012: 237,456,370
      2013: 232,553,282

      Also remember that the regions population steadily increased during this period and the proliferation of the $1 a day U-pass, giving unlimited travel on TransLink (unlimited transfers), with over 110,000 issued in 2013.

      TransLink is mortally wounded trying to be all things to all people and with accountants in charge, who are very adept in giving pleasing numbers to politicians and voting YES will only prolong the fiscal agony TransLink finds itself in.

      Forget the scare tactics by the "happy gang" who desperately want a YES vote, if a No vote prevails, the buses will run, SkyTrain will still run, the Seabus will still run. What will happen is that fiscal responsibility will reign where unproductive routes will be cut and expensive gold-plated rapid transit projects will be shelved.

    7. "Why are you voting on a tax that collects $250 million and not voting on the $10 billion they want to spend? Isn't that like your wife choosing a new house but letting you select the paint colour of the garage?"

      No, it is more like giving you the choice of whether you'll pay the mortgage payment from your savings account or your chequing account. You get no say is what's being bought, just how you'll pay for it.

  7. CBC News report from January 2001:
    “TransLink Chair George Puil accuses the NDP government of trying to distance itself from the controversial vehicle levy because of the approaching provincial election.
    Puil says the government has reneged on a June 18, 1998 memo of understanding signed by cabinet minister Joy MacPhail that he says promised the province would help collect the money.

    The memo states that both the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the province agree to, ‘collaboratively implement an effective mechanism for enforcement of fees.’
    The memo also states ‘the province recognizes that ongoing legal entitlement to revenue sources is essential for the GVTA to discharge its responsibilities.’
    Puil says minister responsible for TransLink Mike Farnworth's refusal to sign an order-in-council to help collect the levy is an about-face. ‘The province has refused to respect an agreement they made,’ he says. ‘They're reneging on an agreement which is quite implicit, and they're running scared.’ Puil warns that without the money from the levy, there will be drastic cuts to transit service in the Lower Mainland. ‘We'll just have to cut back,’ he says, ‘and the cutbacks in 2002, in particular, would be horrendous.’

    TransLink officials warn there could be bus service cuts of up to 25%, and delays in road improvements. The leading opponent of the tax, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, accuses TransLink officials of using scare tactics.”

    Only the players change. I well remember the photo-op when Joy met George to publicly hand over the keys to regional transit. I thought she did well to get out of the room without breaking into uncontrollable laughter punctuated by energetic fist pumping. George soon found out the keys were attached to the tail of a tiger he couldn’t control, and meddling by successive provincial governments combined with an ineffective and unaccountable hand at the controls brings us to the state of today’s system.

    The bus has been driven into a dead-end alley, out of gas, and with the reverse gear in the transmission blown. Nobody will admit to driving it there, or failing to maintain it, but those previously spotted in the diver’s seat promise that it will never happen again if we just hand over more money. This without any proof that nothing but a lack of cash put that bus in the alley, or that there are no other problems to solve.

    Usually a drug addict has to hit rock bottom and admit there’s a problem before recovery can be achieved. Sometimes things have to get really bad before the disease, rather than just its symptoms, is treated. This Mayor’s Council was maneuvered into submission by Christy Clark, and rather than handing the burning bag of dog turds right back to her, through weakness and self-interest they are begging us instead for another fix and a box of band-aids. We have to decide whether we’re funding a cure or enabling an addiction.

    1. In charge of our of our Metro band,
      Moonbeam is here at hand,
      With a higher PST, mistook by me,
      While pleading for a congestion fee.
      Shall we their fond referendum see?
      Lord, what fools these mortals be!

  8. On your addendum, Stephen Rees - whose informed blog everyone with an interest in public transit should read - wrote a detailed post on that in 2012:

  9. Reading the defects listed in the consultants report from 2012, I have to ask how did the Translink bosses manage to earn their big salary increases and bonuses? I guess this is another case of insiders setting their can't-miss performance measures.

  10. exile - do you know where I could get an 8x10 signed glossy of Stephen Rees....or would you sell me one of yours?

  11. Gawd, Norm, there's a high quality of comment on your site!

    - Zalm

  12. TransLink has been adept at creating numbers for every occasion and deliberately tries to confuse the already confused.

    Former West Vancouver Coun. Victor Durman, chair of the GVRD finance committee, once complained that TransLink had never produced a consistent set of numbers for agency.

    "“The problem with TransLink is that you can never believe what it says; TransLink never produces a report based on the same set of assumptions.”

    So here we have the Transportation Authority, producing all sorts of nonsense and saying "pick one and it is true"

    In 1980, Bob Abrams; former official in the U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Agency, in a Senate committee hearing; SkyTrain is terribly complicated and not really well designed."

    Also commenting on Vancouver's opting for the UTDC ICTS/ALRT mini-metro; Norman Thompson; CBE, FCA, AMCA, English transit consultant and builder of the then world's busiest subway; "Vancouver is adopting a non-commercial approach....... I hope they have lots of money."

    Yet BC Transit and now TransLink keep on building with SkyTrain, now renamed ART. Only 7 such systems have been built, of which only three are seriously used for urban transit (with one to be torn down in a few years); one is a demonstration line and two are airport people movers and one, the Yonguin ART used as a theme park people mover, with the operating authority in litigation with Bombardier.

    No city has copied Vancouver's Transit planning and no city has copied Vancouver's penchant for light-metro and/or SkyTrain.

    Now TransLink wants more money or dire results will happen, so says the YES side.

    The current plebiscite is non binding, nor will it, if approved, bring about all the wonderful transit promises being made by the YES side.

    What I see TransLink doing is continuing to do the same thing over and over again, trying to convince local and provincial politicans to expect different results.

    It won't, but by the time the current lot of politicos and the "happy gang" realize this, those who perpetuated this folly will be long into retirement with those huge taxpayer subsidized pension plans.

    Vancouver wants a subway, not to reduce congestion, because it won't, rather to make Vancouver a "world class" city as everyone knows that subways make cities world class.

    Surrey want LRT, not that the planned LRT will reduce congestion, because it wants rapid transit too and SkyTrain is too expensive.

    BRT is planned everywhere despite the fact BRT has not been successful in reducing ridership, but very successful in increasing operating costs.

    And of course we are going to get 400 new buses in operation, not to mention that Mr. Rees has already pointed out that there is about 500 buses not in use during peak hours, when they are really needed, and one can assume that TransLink does not have the personnel to operate them. So, TransLink needs a minimum of 1,500 new operators, management and maintenance staff just to operate the 500 buses on hand but not in service. One needs at least 3 people to drive, manage and maintain each bus operated (info from TriMet in Portland).

    Yes, this plebiscite is shrouded in deliberate confusion,to hide the fact that TransLink needs taxpayers money just to operate the current transit system, because TransLink's senior management have deluded themselves that they could operate the transit agency economically and by doing that, have deluded regional politicians into supporting the plebiscite.

  13. Safari cookies try always allow

  14. Tickets bought more accurate?monthly pas is 60 rides.?

    BCL LNG fail?etc?

  15. I believe the current thinking about transit is too restricted. I deal with numerous clients that work downtown, yet they have no need to have offices downtown. They never have to deal with the public. We should be looking at moving numerous ministries and corporation out of the downtown core. Build business centers in locations where people live. Add restaurants and park areas.

    Its time for the thinking to change. There has to be one mayor that can say "come to my municipality to work. Many of you already live here." The current discussions are ludicrous. Giving more money to the same people will not give a different result. We all know this.

    The downtown core will survive and improve. We don't need more money. We need people who can think outside the box.

    John L



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