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Vancouver facing some tough decisions

The excellent “Price Tags” blognotes something that came through pretty loud and clear when I was in Vancouver over the last couple of weeks and researching a bit into their transport situation (although I was mostly focusing on land-use initiatives, you can never quite separate the two) – there’s no money left in traditional funding sources to keep improving the system, should they hold back for a while (especially as a few roading projects seem to have snuck in recently) or does Vancouver need to find different ways of sourcing funds for important further improvements to its transport network?

The region is at a turning point: whether to proceed to shape growth around expanded transit in the fast-growing parts of Metro by raising local taxes, or forgeddaboudit – which is easy and tempting to do since all the expanded road capacity from Gateway, notably the Port Mann Bridge, Highway 1 and the South Fraser Perimeter Road, will be coming on stream. Once congestion disappears on Highway 1 in the short term, it will be tempting to say, who needs transit? And TransLink, having had its legs cut from under it by Martin Crilly, the TransLink Commissioner, doesn’t have much public credibility.

But the problems don’t go away – notably the decline in one existing revenue source, the gas tax (Stephen Rees discusses that here and here), and the increasing pressure on the Broadway corridor, already the busiest bus route on the continent. Students are planning a major education campaign-cum-protest in the Fall, the City of Vancouver needs a decision to move ahead on rapid-transit for the Broadway corridor, UBC at the west end of the route wants rail to support its expansion, both real-estate and academic, and the developers and realtors themselves understand how important transit has become for directing and shaping growth. That’s a powerful political constituency if they could combine forces.

But the mayors are faced with with a dysfunctional governance arrangement, no likelihood of provincial action until after the election, the prospect of raising property taxes or cutting services, and the requirement to make a decision within weeks.

It is very interesting the difference that comes from spending a while in a place, rather than just a few days – and also researching a bit more into the problems faced by a city that you’ve so often thought of as “having it sorted”.

In many ways though Vancouver’s problems mirror those of Auckland – or at least the problems Auckland is likely to face in a few years time. It seems that quite a lot of the funding pressures in Vancouver exist because they have a small number of very large transport projects either under way or relatively recently completed. The Port Mann Bridge project, spending up to $3.3 billion (including operations and maintenance), seems a project particularly ‘out of step’ with Vancouver’s general approach to transport in the past and has a number of parallels with the Additional Harbour Crossing project that has a likely cost which has ballooned out to over $5 billion. Looking forward into Auckland’s future, it is the Waitemata Harbour Crossing project which is just so expensive that it really threatens our ability to achieve much else. One wonders whether finding a cheaper alternative will become increasingly important as time goes on.

Of course there is still much to be jealous of Vancouver about – and in the form of the Evergreen Line the fantastic Skytrain system is being significantly expanded as we speak, but beyond that project, and even to keep up service levels without significantly raising fares, Vancouver is perhaps struggling a bit more than I thought and faces some really challenging choices over the next few years. With Auckland likely to go through the same processes, but over the next couple of decades most particularly, we’d do well to keep an eye on what happens in Vancouver.

7 comments to Vancouver facing some tough decisions

  • greenwelly

    Vancouver, is also going through the same E-ticketing process as Auckland,
    They are progressively gating the Skytrain and introducting a new tap on- tap off “compass” electronic smart card for all transit,

    Their simple paper ticket system will be gone by the end of 2013…..

    Just an aside why are all the big companies involved introducing electronic ticketing, subsidiaries of multinational defence contractors????
    In Auckland’s case Thales and in Vancouver’s case Cubic

    • obi

      “Just an aside why are all the big companies involved introducing electronic ticketing, subsidiaries of multinational defence contractors????”

      Target market for both being government? Selling to government tends to involve a lot of rules and processes and political issues that don’t apply when selling to the private sector.

  • I must agree with the commentary. Having recently checked out Vancouver PT, it is clear that they have made the most of building a modern city and designing a PT network to suit. Until now, the governance regime has enabled a level of relatively independent (of politics) development of PT, which aligns all forms of transport towards their regional spatial and economic development plans. We were impressed with the level of strategic alignment and the courage to make tough decisions towards their end goals. The sky train is a fantastic asset for the city and is a major contributor towards achieving their zonal development. PT is shaping growth.

    I also agree that there are challenging choices, and these are become more difficult as economic circumstances deteriorate. Vancouver benefits from a property tax based funding system for PT, which has significant advantages over a number of West Coast North American cities, which rely on payroll taxes and sales taxes to fund PT – the GFC has driven these revenue sources down substantially, driving even tougher short term choices. Do they cut services or do they defer investment and maintenance? Either choice is unpalatable.

    The Commissioner’s decision in Vancouver to decline a fare increase creates uncertainty and limits options. Fares are very simple and very low, which drives patronage growth, but curtails firebox recovery. To keep momentum with PT investment, the decision on fares is an odd one. They must continue to invest strategically, and continue to have faith that the investment will do what it has always done there – drive growth in the areas they want it. This is a valuable lesson for Auckland, which is already heading in the right direction through the development and implementation of the Auckland Plan. Balance the transport priorities, establish a clear hierarchy of transport modes, integrate as one network, develop all modes in parallel, and most of all recognize the funding constraints and options over the long term that each decision creates. :-)

    Scott Thorne
    GM Strategy
    NZ Bus

  • David Donald

    Following on from earlier comments from Zane Fulljames lauding the Vancouver trolley system, which he discovered on a recent trip,we now have comments from Scott Thorne.( also of NZBus) on the same topic. Did we send a whole ‘football team’ to find out a about a system, which does not have a lot of bearing on the comparatively tiny system, that NZBus has with GoWellington.Some 59 buses if they all were on the road together.

    I find it fascinating that suddenly with tender and re-negotiatiion rounds not too far away that the trolleys have suddenly been remembered by NZBus.
    Because the buses are owned by NZBus the, trolleys do give a point of difference for GoWgton even though the overhead is owned by Wellington City.
    But, with the trolleys not particularly favoured by the GWRC and Fran and Peter, dieselisation of the trolley routes, could well be considered by GWRC next time around, leaving GoWgton with a fleet of trolleys to be converted to another power source or being scrapped.
    Up until now the trolley service in Wellington has only had lip service paid to it, with night running inconcistent and weekend running non existent.
    The sudden renewed interest by NZBus can only be to ‘protect its patch’.

    And then there’s the issue of bikes and bike racks on trolley buses.When did this arise in Wellington? I certainly do not rememeber it being a priority. The Wellington Mayor rides a bike, but surely we can’t modify the fleet to accomodate her needs?
    Zane, a ‘wordsmith of waffle’ seems really excited about bikes on buses. Other cities in NZ have tried bike racks on buses with limited success and I believe those who invest in expensive bikes would not trust their handling on the front of a bus anyway. Especially when our buses appear so accident prone..

    Incidentally when I was last in Vancouver, the trolleys were on indefinite strike and that made a mockery of single modal transport in a major city.

    Interesting to note in Melbourne that five companies are listed to tender for their buses services including First from the UK, and Veolia from France
    Currently National/Ventura have the lion’s share of Melbourne.

    Under the new PTOM, NZ also, could be in for a shake up in competition.
    David Donald
    Wellington

    • Bryce

      I would say the GM of strategy and the CEO of NZ Bus are logical candidates to send on a fact finding mission about what challenges / opportunities / changes that may affect / enhance their business. NZ Bus, unlike Councils, are a business and their goal is to return an income on investment so the chances of frivolous spending are much lower.

    • The bus racks in Dunedin seem modestly well patronised, and I suspect one of the limits in uptake is the poor bike infrastructure around the city (which also seems to be a problem in Wellington).
      In a hilly city, there is a real advantage in biking down to work, and having the option of catching the bus back up the hill.
      As the owner of an ‘expensive’ bike, it’s not the one I take to work anyway – there is nowhere secure enough to park it, plus it is not exactly designed for commuting anyway.
      As an aside, LA has bike racks on their buses, and seem to have good uptake!

  • zane fulljames

    David,

    Thanks for the reference , unlike some however I prefer to use facts as a basis for commentary and suggest it might be enlightning for you to consider a similar approach.

    Warmest Regards
    Zane Fulljames
    CEO NZ BUS

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