Monday, October 26, 2009

Translink 10 Year Financial Plan

On Friday, the Translink Mayors Council voted to accept a 'modest' supplemental option - the Funding Stabilization plan. The plan, which essentially holds transit services at current levels, requires $ 130 million in additional revenues. The revenues will be derived through an increase in fuel tax (additional 3 cents per litre) , fare box revenues (7 percent increase), parking tax (increase from 7% to 21%).

While service levels are essentially maintained at current levels, there will be no expansion (ie: Evergreen Line) and some reductions (ie: cycling improvements budget reduced from current $ 6 million per year to $ 1 million per year). Funding for the Major Road Network will remain at the current levels for existing and committed project - with no new projects (ie: Murray/Clarke connector) funded.

The Mayors Council was in, to say the least, a difficult position. Translink has identified the need for an additional $ 450 million per year to bring our regional transportation network into the 21st century and was seeking $ 275 million to at least 'get started' down that road. Many of the mayors have made comments about the competing priorities and what they might like to see done, or not done -however, they were given the option only of approving a base plan (current budget which would result in substantial service decreases), the $ 150 million dollar funding stabilization plan (close to maintaining current service levels but nothing new) or On Track to a sustainable region, $ 275 million dollar plan, which would have seen some growth in services, but still no major capital expansion. The $ 450 million dollar plan was not on the table as there was no funding mechanism.

Did they make the right decision ?

My thoughts: NO, and maybe. No, they did not make the right decision, they should have made the case for, and supported, funding a transportation authority that could move us into the future. At least they didn't decide to play extreme politics , as has been suggested in the media, and provide no funding (base plan). Sadly, this decision is a no win because the ground work hasn't been done prior to us getting to this point. So, I say maybe, because maybe this will jump start the conversation we need to be having.

We need to improve our transportation infrastructure, there is no doubt about that. We have spent far too many years in a sort of denial in this region - we continue to grow and expand but the infrastructure is sorely lacking - and nowhere is that more obvious than in Port Moody (well, I guess maybe you might argue it is even worse in Langley !)

I think Translink has done themselves an extreme dis-service in their budget process, and that was not getting the discussion and debate out in the public sooner - maybe years sooner ! I think a good argument can be made that the previous translink board, made up of municipal politicians, painted Translink into the corner they now find themselves in - if this discussion had happened years ago, then the increases could have been far less dramatic and the plan could have evolved with more input and discussion. Instead, at least according to the current Translink board, they were handed an organization without sustainable funding - services and equipment had been purchased and implemented that they did not have the dollars to operate.

You should probably go back even further, to the initial creation of Translink , and how their funding has evolved. Translink is now responsible for funding many operations and capital projects that were formerly the responsibility of the Provincial Ministry of Highways and Transportation. The province is now a 'partner' (30-50%) on funding capital and not funding operating costs at all - all of Translink's revenue sources have had to be 'created'. Is it a download ? Or a shift ? Sure it is - but remember a year ago municipalities asking the federal government to provide them with 1cent from the GST. The feds instead reduced the GST by 1cent. The municipalities could have stepped up at that point and asked the taxpayer to give that money to them for transportation needs. But they didn't .. because it is politically incorrect to suggest increasing taxes ! (even when its really just a shift ?!)

I think most people understand a few things about our transportation network:

- we are paying the price for many years of neglect of our road network expansion, particularly for the movement of goods in the region.
- we are lacking in appropriate transit options to give people options to get out of their cars
- we need money to fund the improvements that everyone agrees we need
- most people are not wanting to pay more tax

Yes - that last point is the problem, and certainly, becomes a big problem at the municipal level. Municipalities are not allowed to run deficit budgets, and we are not allowed to carry our capital projects separately from our operating budgets - we must balance capital and operations on the wallets of property tax payers every year. Municipalities are the 'closest to home' level of government and mayors and councillors tend to take more personal criticism for tax increases than MP's and MLA's. Municipalities also have their own local issues to address which can make them less sensitive to provincial, regional and sub-regional issues.

We need to turn this thing inside out, upside down, or whatever - we need to change the way we think about our region - we are not sustainable as a region and we are not heading in the right direction.

We need to evaluate our regional growth strategy:

- if we are not willing to fund transit and transportation improvements, then we need to stop adding people to the region - our infrastructure simply cannot support the population we have now ! (and its not only transportation infrastructure - look at the massive costs associated with our solid waste, liquid waste, drinking water, etc. in this region !)

- if we agree that regional growth is positive, necessary, or inevitable, then we need to be willing to recognize the costs associated with the growth and fund it.

If we are moving forward, then lets move forward, and quit with the politics and the 'blame game'. We need to remember , there is only one taxpayer - so saying that this should be funded provincially, federally , or otherwise, doesn't change the fact that the costs are born by taxpayers. If the province and the feds have decided that they are not going to fund these sorts of projects, then municipalities and their regional bodies need to step up and take responsibility for their planning/growth actions , and find the funding necessary to support the infrastructure required. There is nothing to be gained in levels of government blaming each other for problems - lets work together to find solutions.

We may need to completely re-examine municipal taxation models - currently municipalities have revenues from property tax and from services - there is no economic gain to a municipality based on economic growth in the economy. You make more money, you pay the feds and the province more money, but you still pay the city property tax based on the value of your property (and contrary to popular belief, your taxes DON'T go up because the value of your house goes up, your taxes go up ONLY if spending in your municipality goes up !).

If the mayors wanted to make an interesting stand on this issue, they would have found a way to support the $ 450 million dollar plan. Get the conversation, which is long overdue, started ! There needs to be some courage and some leadership shown at the municipal level as these decisions are crucial for our future - this can't happen in a vacuum, we need an educated citizenry and we need all of the information on the table to have rational debate and decision making.

Monday, October 5, 2009

MV Incineration 'expert', maybe not so much..

So, the front page of the Vancouver Sun catches my eye this morning with this headline:

Pro-incineration expert denied risks of second-hand smoke

(click to read the article)

Now, I heard rumblings of this a week ago, and a caller asked this question of MV CAO Johnny Carline on CKNW on Saturday... the response to this from MV has been, to say the least, under-whelming.

At considerable cost to the taxpayers of the Metro Vancouver region, the GVRD or Metro Vancouver has been hosting public information sessions regarding their 'Solid Wast Management Plan'. If you have attended these events, you know a few things about them:

1) They should be retitled "On the road to incineration", as this is the only topic discussed and is being touted as the only salvation for our garbage problem.

2) Their 'expert panel' consists only of waste to energy proponents - originaly there was a member of the Canadian Energy from Waste Coalition (commercial waste to energy companies), Mr. Bridges, and a consultant from a Waste to Energy consulting company in Denmark. When asked why there are no alternate opinions being expressed on the panel, Marvn Hunt, Metro Vancouver Waste Management committee chair said " If you have 5 people telling you the world is round, do you really need someone there to argue that it is flat ? "

3) Various members of Metro Vancouver board and committee, and staff have all made a point of saying that Metro Vancouver has made great strides in their waste reduction strategies. I have to wonder, what these would be ? (And, no, E-Waste collection via return-it depots is NOT a Metro Vancouver initiative, and if you look into it, is not a really good program) Are we talking about the cardboard ban in the waste stream ? Wasnt that about 15 years ago ??

Where are the construction waste policies, or the capture of the 50% or more of the waste stream made up of fibres and organics (paper, wood, etc) ??

In fact, the per capita output of waste (including disposed and diverted) continues to climb, excessive packaging is more prevalent than ever - and Metro Vancouver is waging a silly, and very expensive, war on bottled water producers.

So , when people are wary of Metro Vancouver, using a stacked panel with questionable credibility taking their roadshow around the region to justify what could be a $ 5 billion plus plan to build incinerators, which will rely on a sustainable waste stream (do you get the irony here) to run the burners and generate the energy revenue projected, CAN YOU BLAME THEM ?

If we put this kind of effort into a waste reduction plan, enhanced recycyling programs and public education programs, we could start to understand the definiation of sustainability !