basics: should I vote for a transit tax?

Note:  This popular post is being continuously updated with useful links and comments.  Come back and it may be improved!

In the United States, but occasionally in Canada too, voters are sometimes asked to decide whether to raise taxes to fund transit improvements.  I’m often asked whether I support these things.  I don’t like telling people how to vote, but I can point out some predictable patterns in the arguments, and some universal facts about transit that you need to keep in mind.  

1.  In growing urban areas, transit needs grow faster than tax revenues.

This problem is mathematically inevitable.

As cities grow, and especially as they grow denser, the need for transit generally rises faster than population, at least in the range of densities that is common in North America.  This is completely obvious if you think about it, and I stepped through it in more detail in Chapter 10 of Human Transit.  In brief: Suppose a particular square mile of the city doubles in population.  Transit demand would double because there are twice as many people for whom transit is competing.  But independently of that, if density is higher, each person is likely to find transit more useful, because (a) density creates more disincentives to driving and car ownership while (b) density makes it easier for transit agencies to provide abundant and useful service.   Those two separate impacts of density on transit, multiplied together, mean that transit demand is rising faster than population. Again, go to my book for a more extended and thorough argument.

However, existing revenue sources are usually growing, on average, no faster than population.  The various tax streams that support transit have a range of differences, but they are not going to grow massively faster than the population is growing.

So if the city is growing denser, transit needs are growing faster than transit revenues.  This is nobody’s fault.  It’s a mathematical fact about the geometry of transit and density.

If transit and roads were thought about together, you would not see this exponential growth in total transportation spending, because as populations grow denser, they need fewer highway lanes per capita — precisely because they’re using transit, walking, and cycling so much more.  But we usually don’t think about those things together, unfortunately.

2.  As transit demand grows, you sometimes need a major project.

As transit demand grows in a growing city, it hits crisis points where the current infrastructure is no longer adequate to serve the number of people who want to travel.  Several major subway projects now in development are the result of transit’s overwhelming success using buses.  I’m thinking, for example, of Second Avenue in New York, Eglinton in Toronto, Wilshire in Los Angeles,  Broadway in Vancouver, and Stockton-Columbus in San Francisco.

Broadway, for example, has local buses running alongside express buses, coming as often as every 3 minutes peak hours, and they are all packed.  In that situation, you’ve done just about everything you can with buses, so the case for a rail project is pretty airtight.   In all of the cases I mention, the rail project usually has to be a subway, because once an area is that dense, it is difficult to commandeer enough surface street space, and we tend to have strong aesthetic objections to elevated lines in these contexts.

These big projects require huge lumps of money.  So as transit demand grows, its revenue needs don’t just grow faster, they grow in a lumpier way, with big chunks of money needed at once.

3.  Not all rail projects are about improving transit.

Note, however, that not all rail projects are intended to solve capacity problems and increase the mobility of large numbers of people.  Some are designed to stimulate development.  (Many do a mixture of both, but the degree of mixture matters because the reasons to support them are so different.)  For example, a proposed transit line may connect major destinations, or it may head off into an area where few people live now, solely to trigger development that will put more people there in the future.

Stimulating urban development can be a very good thing, but when you see those arguments you may want to ask these things:

  • Do we really need this project, or would development happen anyway?  The claim that rail is needed for development is impossible to test and extremely debatable.  What’s more, because it’s a claim about current attitudes in the real estate market, the right answer yesterday may not be the right answer tomorrow.
  • If developers and landowners are making big money off of this rail line that doesn’t seem to be serving the existing city very well, are they also contributing to the cost?  Sometimes they are, though various kinds of local assessment districts.
  • Does the proposed development have enough affordable housing that it will help build a diverse and complete city, or will it only attract the wealthy?  If low-income people will be priced out, and forced to live in suburban areas where transit is much more difficult to provide, then the project could even have a net negative impact on the overall usefulness of transit in the city.  You may also be forcing low-income people to buy more cars, which is bad for the city and also helps keep them poor.

Again, these questions apply only to a big project whose evident purpose is predominantly to stimulate development, rather than to serve the city as it is.

4.  Who is for and against? (But don’t overreact!)

Everyone looks at this, and it’s a big source of hysteria.

All tax measures will have opposition from the political right.  In most US contexts, for example, you can write off anywhere from 25% to 40% of the vote if you are proposing taxes for anything at all.

You will also hear lots of dark tales about the supporters.  Your proposed measure is probably supported by engineering firms, urban real estate interests, transit labor unions, and anyone else who’s going to be personally enriched if the measure passes.  This is normal and boring and should not affect your vote.  Never vote no on a measure just because people are supporting it for partly selfish reasons.  Those motives are in play in any campaign for anything.

Likewise, you should never vote one way or another because of how you feel about the campaign.  Campaigns are thrown together quickly, work under immense time pressure, and usually make mistakes.  The campaign will be over soon, but the effects of your vote will last much longer.

But here is one thing to watch for.  You should be alarmed if there is a significant argument against the measure coming from people who usually support transit taxes.  Opposition by environmentalist or progressive transportation policy groups should be a yellow flag.  Unlike the political right, these people really want measures they can vote yes on, so if they’re voting no there is probably something wrong.

I don’t mean, of course, to give every self-proclaimed transit advocate a veto.  As in any business, some of them are crackpots.  But this opposition should be concerning.  Notice it if it exists, or if it doesn’t.

5.  But the transit agency looks so wasteful …

This is a tough one, because I can’t promise it isn’t true.

But be suspicious of what the anti-tax folks point out.  Many things that look like waste make sense in another light.  Your transit agency may also have tried something that didn’t work out well — they make mistakes, like anyone.  They’ve probably spent money on things that are easy to ridicule from certain quarters, like public art or maybe driver restrooms that someone thinks are too grand, though often these are the result of complex agreements that help get a transit project built.

6.  But the managers have such big salaries!

You’d better hope they do.  These are complex jobs with appalling responsibilities.   Many of the people in them could go to the private sector and make ten times as much.  The best of them are in this business because they believe in it.

People expect transit executives to do impossible things every day — like run buses on time in wildly variable congestion, or cut labor costs without setting off rebellion in the workforce, or run service wherever anyone feels entitled to it no matter what the cost.  The political pressures on them are off the charts.   Not every transit executive deserves that compensation, but in those cases the problem is usually the executive, not the compensation.

In any case, executive compensation is trivial in the context of transit agency budgets.  It’s the compensation and management of the whole labor force, especially bus and train drivers and mechanics, that determines how efficient the agency is, and how much service you’ll have.   I am not defending every executive perk or unnecessary management position; I’ve seen plenty of waste in my career.  But cutting executive wages will not unlock much money for better service.

My own view is that transit executives — indeed, all transit staffs — should be paid very well and should face very high expectations, especially for clarity about what the real issues are.  You have a right to clear and transparent communication from your transit agency that helps everyone understand the choices are facing your community, how they’re being addressed, and what to do if you disagree.

Maybe your transit agency isn’t like that.  Maybe you’re really mad at them.

Well, if you don’t like the management of your water department, does that mean you don’t need water?

Voting no on urgently needed things is a poor way to protest waste and inefficiency in government.  Instead, get involved in fighting those issues.   Send your elected officials a letter saying “Don’t you dare read my vote for this as support for that!”   Find other ways to keep up pressure if you think it’s warranted.  These communications always have more impact than most voters realize.

7.  Will transit reduce congestion?

Advocates of car-dependence often object that transit doesn’t reduce car congestion, and that car congestion is higher in transit-rich cities.   To respond, see here.  To understand the exclusionary attitudes behind the transit-doesn’t-fix-congestion argument, see here.

8.  If you’re still confused, vote yes.

Why?  Because most people do the opposite.  They vote no if they don’t understand, which is why it’s hard to get anything done.  If you vote yes, you’re no more likely to be wrong than the no-voter is, and in a world where government often can’t seem to do anything, you’re voting for doing something.  That sends an important signal in itself.

As a transit advocate, I’ve voted no on a couple of transit measures in my time, always with great regret as well as frustration.  But usually, even if the plan contained something I object to, I’ve voted yes.  Even a project that achieves its outcomes  inefficiently usually achieves something.  Even a project that’s solely designed to trigger condos for the very rich will at least get more rich people into the inner city, where they will then start caring about transit and supporting the kinds of transit a rich and vibrant city really needs.  And while the failure of a ballot measure may be because of public objections to how the money was to be spent, lazy journalists and elected officials often treats it as a no to transit itself, so it often takes years to get another measure going.

So if you’re still confused, it comes down to this:

All the other confused people are voting no.  So vote yes.  

25 Responses to basics: should I vote for a transit tax?

  1. Ben Ross January 24, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    One more question to ask: Is it really a transit tax? Sometimes packages that are basically highway-building will be advertised as transit. For example, toll lanes added to expressways are called transit because buses will use them, even though the bus ridership will be minimal.

  2. david vartanoff January 25, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Ben Ross is spot on. The bonds/tax measures are dressed up with transit projects but then funds are “reprogrammed” by the MPO’s and we get a fourth tunnel for a freeway to enable reverse auto commuting while the mass transit directly adjacent has unused capacity. The sad reality is that public works/infrastructure is primarily a method of wealth transfer from the politically weak who are regressively taxed to the overly wealthy bribing classes who mostly don’t pay taxes.

  3. Ben January 25, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Ben Ross: Metro Vancouver’s proposed .5% increase in the PST (which I suspect Walker was thinking about when he wrote this blog) is definitely a transit tax. It entails some road and bridge maintenance (such as a replacement for the Pattullo Bridge), but otherwise almost all of the new construction is public transit, such as a subway along broadway, three light-rail lines in Surrey, and several new B-line, high-frequency express buses around the region.
    A common complaint about the tax is that it is regressive. However, one could argue that lower income people will benefit more from the improvements, since they are among the biggest users of public transit. Middle income people will also have more options under the plan, such as doing with one car instead of two, or doing without a car altogether. Aside from that, where else is the money supposed to come from? The Mayors’ Council initially suggested that money from the carbon tax be redirected to fund transit improvements, but the Provincial Government rejected it. They have also rejected higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Would people prefer that these improvements not be made at all, than through a small increase in the sales tax? Rejecting a plan that will dramatically improve public access to public transit, simply because the funding mechanism is not perfect, seems penny wise and pound foolish.

  4. Voony January 25, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    Do you see a difference between a binding referendum (people vote on a bill of law, e.g Los Angeles measure R in 2008), and a “non binding” one (people answer a question one would see more or less vague)?
    French have seen a couple of non binding vote on tramway projects (referendum are municipal, hence include only urban area. The question is on a specific transit line and technology, and don’t involve tax increase, at least not directly) .
    Usually participation is very low (by French standard). Results are as below:
    -Brest (1990): “no to a tram” at 80% (it has been built later one thought)
    -Caen (1996): “no to a rubber-tyred tram” at 70% (it has been built, but never worked properly, and now is converted to a steel rail tram).
    In the above cases, the transit investment was supported by the municipality organizing the referendum, what eventually leads to some cynicism, since legally they didn’t need a referendum to move forward.
    Grenoble is an exception:
    in 1983, the municipality (Dubedout, left), was wanting to build a tram in Grenoble …but at the March 83 election, the opposition (Carignon, right) got elected on the promise to put the the project to referendum (“codeword” for opposition to the project).
    It was no modern tram in France at this time: for people of the time, a tram was a pre-war streetcar (and that was not flattering at all…)
    The referendum occurred in June 83 and got 53% approval. So Grenoble got its tramway, in despite of virtually no institutional support.
    Some Grenoble people sometimes remember it as a popular referendum, what was eventually looking like but was not (but one can see a causality relation between the referendum and the introduction of the low floor tram: Grenoble was the world first…in those day the benefit of it was not understood by engineers, but it was not lost by the “voters”).
    A real People initiative referendum occurred in Zurich, to counter referendum to build a Subway touted to “relieve city congestion” (this idea has been defeated in 2 referendums, in 62 and 73). The “Transit first” 1973 referendum was to put trams and bus in transit lane only, and other low cost measure. The ballot wording was including the municipal parliament recommendation to vote “no” to it (“it was going to increase congestion and all other sort of calamities”). It passed in a watershed and in fact the policy worked very well. The S-bahn later on became a no-brainer (address the demand).
    Of the European examples above, what is interesting is that they show that referendum can be win
    (1) against institutional opposition
    (2) By clearly putting Transit in the front seat (and that inferred full closure of streets to motorists).
    …and as far as France is concerned, that seems to be a requirement to win a referendum. France has little of them, but very heated discussions on the role and integration of Transit in the city, which tend to frame municipal elections when cities are at a crossroad (see my post here)
    Vancouver gonna have a “transportation Plebiscite”, It is unclear where the Vancouver people sit in regard of Transit. They have probably a more “educated” and positive one than the one seen in most of the USA cities (bashing at a transit agency, can be seen as a sign people care about their transit system, and have healthy high expectation on it, the Vancouver problem is that the bashing is largely fueled by the Mayors which are at the helm of the local transit agency, Translink).
    However It is not Europe either. In any case, the “yes” Vancouver campaign is geared at “improving congestion” (!?!) this at the price of some painful contortions on the claims to. support that.

  5. Justin January 25, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    It’s not really a funding problem as much as a transparency one.
    We’re a whole lot more pro-transit than the States; everybody agrees that we need the Broadway line, LRT for Surrey, the Patullo Bridge upgrade and the B-Lines. What the “No” side is concerned about is whether or not the money’ll be spent wisely.
    Granted, Translink is pretty much the Mayors’ scapegoat (because they all want control of it to spend on their own pet projects), and the company still does what they can with what they have. But the CEOs are appointed by the provincial government (keeps saying no to transit funding, and also distrusted), so there’s already a perceived lack of accountability.
    Add the unusually-high bonuses, 300k annual cups of board meeting coffee (tax-funded, drivers have to buy their own), a lot of spending on things that don’t seem to work, even more spending on contractors that keep screwing things up… bottom line, nobody here trusts anybody up top to run a hot dog stand.
    There’s other non-tax ways to fund this one – land developer fees, setting aside future revenue growth, etc. I’m somewhat on the “Yes” side, but I understand why few Vancouverites want to throw money down what looks like a sinkhole.

  6. Colin Stewart January 25, 2015 at 5:12 pm #

    Great post, Jarrett. I particularly appreciated your first and last points.

  7. Ben January 25, 2015 at 7:35 pm #

    Justin: Translink’s inefficiency is overstated, and it’s a tactic used by Jordan Bateman and the CTF to confuse the issue, rather than offer a serious funding solution for Metro Vancouver’s transportation needs. Brad Cavanagh does a good analysis of the CTF’s misleading claims on his blog: http://canspice.org/2015/01/15/referendum-myths-translink-is-wasteful/
    Aside from that, Translink gets a lot of flak for decisions that were foisted on it by the Provincial government, like fare gates and the transit police – which ironically were promoted by the same people who are now pushing the “no” vote. People like Bateman act like you can build subways and new LRT lines just by cracking down on fare cheats and overpaid bureaucrats. It’s a silly argument on the face of it, and it doesn’t deserve the serious attention it receives.

  8. Justin January 26, 2015 at 2:37 am #

    No arguments here, Ben – just saying that it’s hard to defend Translink’s integrity when the company itself is doing its best to undermine it (once again, 300k annual coffee cups).

  9. Neil21 January 26, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    @Justin What do you think would be a good number of coffees, or a better bonus level, to attract better-than-hot-dog-stand organisers?

  10. Justin January 26, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    Like I said, I have no personal issue with Translink.
    The average Vancouverite however, usually waits 25 minutes for a bus, and twice that time for said bus to get where s/he wants to go. With that level of service, plus the recent Canada Line breakdown, every article about “excessive” waste is another nail in Translink’s coffin. Doesn’t help that the board members are appointed by the provincial government – which isn’t popular either.

  11. Al Dimond January 26, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

    If you’re looking at development (or redevelopment) it’s probably worth thinking about how proposed transit improvements would affect development as much as whether they would. Since the auto age began in earnest we’ve been growing our cities in offramp settlements and strip malls, leaving transit to chase them with little hope of effectiveness. Even infill has been a race to remake cities for car commuters, as in inner cities driving hasn’t just competed with transit for users and political support, but has actually made transit worse through traffic congestion. In the race for usage and support around new development transit has barely even run!
    Most of the places that support transit best in the world predate the auto age (in some significant way), but it doesn’t have to be that way. Transit has to be more about our future than our past! So if there’s something more than a promise to encourage development, if there’s a plausible vision to shape development, that’s worth supporting. Even if you’re a streetcar-fad skeptic or a rail-to-sprawl skeptic (I certainly am), if you hold any hope for the future of new-world cities you’ve got to believe in transit getting out in front of development again!

  12. M1EK January 27, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Thanks for this. I hope that #4 refers to Austin’s ill-fated rail project with:
    “Opposition by environmentalist or progressive transportation policy groups should be a yellow flag. Unlike the political right, these people really want measures they can vote yes on, so if they’re voting no there is probably something wrong.”
    and not with:
    “I don’t mean, of course, to give every self-proclaimed transit advocate a veto. As in any business, some of them are crackpots.”
    although as always, I am self-aware enough to view both as possible.

  13. Meredith Botta January 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    Justin, I know where you’re coming from. But your argument is remarkably similar to the anti-tax No side comments posted on a couple of notable local urban blogs that are doing their damnedest to turn a financing plebiscite into a referendum on the entire “horribly inefficient” organization called TransLink.
    One in particular drew attention to the Fat Cat board salaries and more than once said that TransLink should be modelled on Singapore’s supposedly better-managed private transport companies, and therein exposed his/her motive. Could it be they want to see TransLink, a much manipulated public institution that represents local control over local transport, dissolved as part of a private sector opportunity ploy to grab market share?
    Well, I located the 2013 annual report by SBS Transport, one of Singapore’s most important transportation companies, online and found the annual salaries of seven of ten board members were between $S250,000-$S800,000*, roughly equivalent in total to TransLink’s.
    *The Singapore dollar is the equivalent of $0.90 Canadian.
    But the real difference was in the hundreds of thousands of shares each director owns in the company that employs them, not to mention the multiple of directorships they occupy in other companies, several of which that do direct business with SBS. If a similar model was imposed here in Vancouver, a huge set of conflict of interest issues would arise that would never be tolerated, and certainly exceeds the overall “Fat Cat” remuneration of the TransLink board by orders of magnitude.
    Many of us would prefer to have an elected regional government and TransLink board … as well as much better funding participation by the federal government.
    Moreover, the overtly critical 2012 BC government audit of TransLink found that it was overall quite an efficiently-run company that in 2012 and 2013 garnered a collective surplus of $C48 million. But they did find room for improvement notably in the myriad of benefits … probably including the coffee fund.
    The Yes side must bring this campaign back to the basic financing question and underline the flaws of the No side views, and point out that their motives are not that honourable when self-interest may be an underlying factor.

  14. Kisai January 28, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    #2 – Sounds like Broadway, and the only opposition I hear about it are from “crackpots” that only want to see streetcars on rails/light rail… down already congested roads?
    #3 – Sounds like Surrey’s proposed Light Rail project. There are so many red and yellow flags about this project that it’s causing point #4, people who normally support transit to turn against the project. Even notorious “light rail” supporters won’t back it. Only converting bus riders, irreversibly damage the bus network (see Canada Line), or it’s being used attempt push development in a way that the Skytrain was successful at. However all these points miss what makes the Skytrain successful at all. The automated grade-separated metro is something people actually want to use, because it gets them to places faster and cheaper than a car or bus can (once you take into account parking costs for cars at least.) Light Rail doesn’t do this. A lot of the opposition to the technology choice comes from people who love to use skytrain, and are indecisive about the transit plebiscite, because they don’t want to see the Surrey to Langley (skytrain) segment wrecked by Surrey city council’s greed.
    “It’s about economic investment in our own city,” Rasode said. “We don’t want mass rapid transit running right out of the city every time. We don’t want people to just be transported straight out to Langley.”
    Aldergrove Star, March 14, 2013
    But then again, the most vocal people on the internet, probably aren’t even being heard because the CTF prefers to direct all the media attention to itself.
    If the Yes side wants to see more success, it needs to steer the conversation away from it being about “Translink being poorly run” which is unproven. You do see this in the facebook comments of Vancouver Sun/Province/24hrs/straight/tyee types of sites, where there will be a 4:1 ratio of people repeating the CTF’s comments versus people who clearly know the province pushed these wasteful projects on Translink in the first place, which increases the perceived waste in the additional administration costs.

  15. Jay Blazek Crossley January 28, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    M1EK – I too was trying to figure out if he meant Houston or Austin as the example of good or bad on that one.

  16. Dexter Wong January 29, 2015 at 2:39 am #

    Very good article, Jarrett. In Honolulu, the current rail project has come under some steep cost overruns leading people to question the project’s validity. The mayor wants an extension for the rail sales tax and the legislature wants his demand put under a microscope before they agree. There are those who would cut back on the project’s goals only to discover that the federal funding requirements demand the whole project be created on time or risk returning the money to the feds as penalty.

  17. Book February 1, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    Hi Jarret, great post. thanks for share it

  18. EngineerScotty February 3, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    If only road projects were subject to the same level of scrutiny!
    But roads somehow often just get built–with no referenda, no special tax assessments, and little public debate.

  19. BCN February 22, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    Great job, Jarrett. I particularly appreciated your last point.

  20. Dan Chiribela March 6, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    NO is the target! Yes is to let those guys to raise Taxes for more benefits for them. How can you explain …. more population, pay gas top in North America, more bridges with toll, and prices are rise and rise to the sky.So many managers doing nothing are being top pay in Trans Link.What is going on in Vancouver?Ask IFM for money to be more controlled not Jimmy Pattison who is Billionaire, and he does not care anymore.We don’t trust him, An average people cannot became billionaire because so much taxes already. Revenue Canada leave you naked.So send them to work not to expect make more high salary from our taxes.

  21. Brian March 12, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

    Thanks Jarrett. Excellent input.
    @Justin: The average Vancouverite does not wait 25 minutes for a bus. The frequency for most routes, most of the day is 10 – 12 minutes, less where there is very heavy use, such as Broadway, the West End, any route that runs through downtown. That is better than most transit systems across the continent and a far cry from your assertion of 25 minutes.
    Now, if you care to talk about those who use the system who are not specifically Vancouverites, you might have a case. The question is how do you increase service hours for bus service in the outlying areas without having a negative impact on the rest of the system? You have to increase funding. And that’s the whole point of this article.
    The Canada Line broke down? For how long? For what reason? How often does that happen? Are you able to accept that machines break down because they’re machines? Let’s say you own a car and the water pump packs it in with no warning, the car overheats and you find yourself calling for a tow truck. Is that your fault? I hope you don’t think so.
    And if you think that there needs to be more preventative maintenance (and there is plenty already- and preventative maintenance is expensive because you’re replacing parts that still have useful life in them) I might add that there are some out there who are going to vote no because the SkyTrain doesn’t run all night as well as all day. Show me one single rapid train line on the planet that runs 24/7/365. You can’t because they don’t. Maintenance happens on these lines at night- most nights.
    While I’m at it, regarding the compass system, when you go buy a car and find that it’s a lemon, is it your fault as the purchaser that you bought it, or the manufacturer who sold you a bill of goods? Translink was about to roll out the system when we all started to hear about the law suits popping up in Chicago because people were being charged multiple times with the same technology. Would you rather that Translink continued to ramp up the system knowing it was faulty or put the brakes on the program until it was fixed? Why people are blaming Translink for Cubic’s technology issues is beyond me.
    Meanwhile, are you aware that trains nationwide in the UK stop between stations because of leaves on the power rail, because of the snow on the power rail, and most recently because of sun on the power rail? It’s a regular occurrence, and has been for decades. Is the solution to take money out of the system or re-invest to overcome those obstacles?
    Translink is not perfect. But if people paid attention to transit issues elsewhere, they’d discover that we have it really, really good here.
    You may still want to vote no, but at least vote no for the right reasons- at the very minimum, with correct facts.

  22. Ali As March 12, 2015 at 7:55 pm #

    Could not have been written better by a paid shill. The defense of executive compensation was particularly amusing. Way to grab that bull by the horns. Sorry but you remind me more than anything of the monorail salesman on the Simpsons.

  23. Frank Rapport March 15, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    There are always efficiencies to be had within a system. There is always waste on various levels from top to bottom. Comparing similar size cities is a popular pastime as is pointing to shining examples with greener grass. It’s called confirmation bias. These things do not map exactly to our situation. There are political, cultural and financial differences that are then dwarfed by our geography. Our situation is extremely complex with thousands of moving parts.
    Translink is the name of the political football that has never had consistent funding since BC Hydro let its transit arm be hived off into a separate entity.
    One period of time in the last thirty years did have funding at all levels of government. The GVRD as a region received massive amounts of federal funding for infrastructure which we call SkyTrain. SkyTrain opened concurrently with Expo 86 which also saw massive increases in service levels for transit for a six month period.
    The human condition, iterative improvements coupled with self interested parties carving out their piece of the action made sure that some plans went one way instead of another. And one is never far from the well beaten path of unintended consequences with each and every decision made.
    A hundred yard difference in path made Station Station into Main Street Station. Three percent more spent on the guideway would have given it some 10% more capacity allowing it to be upgraded to full light rail in the distant future ala London’s now hundreds of years old system. Track heaters were dropped from the rails due to risk analysis downplaying heavy winters only to have massive disruptions to the morning commute when icy conditions occurred.
    Entire communities had their bus service re-routed from traditional E/W to N/S to feed into the new train’s daily body count. Once it was extended over the Fraser River ridership grew so quickly that service had to be increased and massaged with inline tricks.
    The transit vote is simply asking for the ability to have proper funding much like U.S. cities have. Proper funding allows for proper planning. Proper planning allows for timely provision of services and upgrades like left and right turn lanes which involve street widening and signal co-ordination. It involves opening a waterway like the Fraser to heavier marine commerce by removing the 12 meter draught limit the tunnel imposes. From there it becomes time to replace the last impediment up in New Westminster. What would be an appropriate time frame to start dredging the Fraser again and who does that affect? Who grants those contracts and who owns the land where new enterprises can be set up and then who builds the infrastructure to facilitate transport of goods to existing or new rail heads or trucking depots?
    That’s not too much to ask of the inhabitants of a major and growing metropolis that the lower mainland has been built up to. On the other side of the ledger is the need for transparency and accountability for public funds without the shield of public private enterprise hiding waste, deficit, slush and patronage. Inside information is money in someone’s pocket. If the game is already fixed like a brand new highway route ten years in the future it’s not the public who wins. Those who stand to profit should pay their share and not make the public bear their costs entirely.
    The government exists to provide the common needs. It also needs to be held accountable at all levels for its decisions. British Columbia has had good governments which built infrastructure and institutions that benefit the entire population to this day. Other administrations have chipped away and sold off these advantages for short term gain.

  24. Novacek March 25, 2015 at 6:27 am #

    @M1EK
    The Austin prop 1 was endorsed by:
    the Sierra Club
    Texas League of Conservation Voters
    Clean Water Action
    Austin Environmental Democrats
    etc.
    https://texas2.sierraclub.org/austin/content/city-council-endorsements
    http://progresstexas.org/blog/five-reasons-we-support-austins-prop-1
    It was opposed by a “transportation policy group” invented for that purpose, and joined in that opposition by the car dealerships and the opposition was bankrolled by anti-any-rail Jim Skaggs.

  25. Rick Rybeck May 31, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    Regarding Point #3 – Sometimes transit projects are more about real estate development than transit.

    This is a good point. A well-designed and well-executed transit project may increase land values by more than the cost of the transit project. If this transit-created land value went back to the transit agency, the project could be financially self-sustaining. But typically, 80% to 90% of the increase in publicly-created land value ends up as a windfall profit to those who own the best-served land. This is the fuel for land speculation — a parasitic activity that inflates land prices until a speculative bubble creates a crash. Typical residents and businesses don’t profit from this boom-and-bust roller coaster economy.

    Fortunately, there’s a solution. Property taxes can be improved by reducing the tax rate applied to privately-created building values while increasing the tax rate applied to publicly-created land values. The lower tax on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. This is good for residents and businesses alike. Surprisingly, the higher tax on land values helps keep land prices more affordable by reducing the profit from land speculation and thereby reducing the speculative demand for land.

    As a bonus, this reform encourages infill development on high-value sites near urban infrastructure amenities (like transit). Thus, it creates a more compact land use pattern that is more conducive to walking, biking and transit while conserving rural areas for agriculture, conservation and recreation. Reducing sprawl is also a financial benefit — allowing more people to use (and pay for) existing infrastructure.

    This “value capture” approach has been used successfully in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark and several cities in Pennsylvania.

Leave a Reply