On Metro Vancouver’s transit referendum: Pondering the hows and ifs

By: Peter Ladner, Business in Vancouver columnist, former Vancouver City Councilor and TransLink board member.

To build underground parking for 700,000 cars at $40,000 a space would cost the equivalent of $3 billion a year for 30 years – enough to build a new Broadway-UBC line every year. Transportation guru Gordon Price has landed on the key question for the region’s future: will the upcoming referendum on transit funding ask if we want to fund transit maintenance and expansion or how we want to fund it?


Under the “if” option, “none of the above” would be on the ballot. And if it is, given the time, leadership and resources available to win a referendum in, say, spring 2015, the referendum would almost certainly fail.

A “no” vote on the referendum would trigger a gradual shrinking of our transit system, abandonment of decades of world-renowned success planning the region around complete, compact communities linked by rapid transit, and an impossible dependence on cars.

Lost in the background noise of faux populist TransLink-bashing is the transit authority’s remarkable success: an 84% increase in transit use in the region in the past decade; three times more transit trips per person than the second-ranked city of our size in North America and the third-highest number of transit trips per person per year among all cities in North America, behind only New York and Toronto.

Looking at the blithe acceptance of billions of dollars in spending for new bridges and roads for cars and trucks, the assumption has to be that maintaining and expanding our exceptional transit system is optional, because most of us can get in our cars, suck up $9,500 a year in owner expenses, put up with $7,000 a year per car in public subsidies and drive our way out of congestion.

With projected population increases over the next 30 years, if we kept owning cars at today’s rate, another 700,000 cars would have to be stuffed into the region. That would be the equivalent of a single line of cars from Horseshoe Bay to Sault St. Marie, Ontario. To move the same number of people by car that currently ride the SkyTrain Expo line would need 26 lanes of freeway. The day it opens, a Broadway rapid transit line will carry twice the (declining) number of people now crossing the new Port Mann Bridge.

To build underground parking for 700,000 cars at $40,000 a space would cost the equivalent of $3 billion a year for 30 years – enough to build a new Broadway-UBC line every year. This is simply out of the question. Well, actually, it would be built into the question if “none of the above” were an option.

The region’s mayors are currently huddling to meet the request of the minister of transportation that they agree on the next round of new transit improvements by June.

The mayors may be encouraged by the opinions of self-selected regional respondents to PlaceSpeak’s just-released online “Urban Futures Survey 2012.” They said that transportation was their No. 2 concern (after provision of health care), and that the No. 1 way to respond to congestion was “expanding the public transit system.” “Improving highway transportation” ranked No. 9. “Making better use of existing transit” ranked second – something that TransLink needs to heed. The mayors’ challenge will be to marry the big differences in support for transit spending among municipalities well laced with transit choices (Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, parts of Richmond) and the mostly car-dependent residents south of the Fraser. Support for the most preferred sources of new revenue in the survey (gas taxes, new tolls, parking fees and vehicle levies), was much stronger north of the Fraser than south. A successful referendum has to offer improvements to every part of the region.

More than that, it has to have the determined backing of the provincial government. The choice of the question – “if” or “how”– will reveal how seriously the province takes this region’s economic, environmental and social future.

This post originally appeared in Business in Vancouver on April 1, 2014.

(Feature photo courtesy of kzirkel/flickr)