I have been paying a tiny bit of attention to the campaign to fund the Lower Mainland’s transit needs with a .5% increase in the Sales Tax. Now the votes have been counted and the measure has been rejected. Resoundlingly. The great and the good in Mainstream media – well Pete McMartin – point out that there is no Plan B. Translink was committed to the 7.5 billion dollar plan and it lost. The “now what?” is “nothing”.
I happen to like public transit. Admittedly I live in the country but we have a very useable community bus service. In Vancouver I think the Skytrain system is a huge value add for the region. $5.00 to the Airport is unmatched in major world cities. But I also think Translink – the entity charged with providing public transit – bit off far more than it could chew with its Plan. Here’s the problem; Translink is not just about Skytrain and buses, it is also about roads and bridges and bike lanes and a whole lot of other bits of transport infrastructure. McMartin thinks the winner of the plebiscite was the car. Which he sees as a bad thing. It isn’t but it demonstrates the sort of thinking which pretty much ensures that these sorts of initiatives will usually fail.
Transportation and infrastructure debates are not either/or situations. Rather they are about allocating resources to meet current and projected demand. Getting into downtown Vancouver or out to UBC by car during rush hour is a painful experience. As the pain level increases demand for public transit will increase. Or, and this is what to a degree is happening in the Lower Mainland, the attractiveness of putting businesses in downtown or attending school at the end of the point, will fall and those businesses and institutions will move further out. SFU has a gorgeous building right in the middle of the bustling City of Surrey. Tech parks, shipping operations, law firms and all manner of other businesses do not need to be downtown. As the commute gets worse the incentive to bypass it all together becomes greater.
Meanwhile, pace McMartin, there is always a Plan B. For example, the much touted Broadway corridor to UBC could be built by Vancouver itself with Federal and Provincial money and a small hike in municipal taxes. It does not have to be paid for all at once. The Surrey Light Rail Project could also be done on a go it alone basis.
For good reason voters are sceptical about the sort of mega project thinking which Translink was trying to get them to buy; but that does not mean that incremental improvements to public transit cannot be undertaken. It is a bit messier but the outcome is likely to be as good or better than the joys of central planning.