A transit referendum underway in Metro Vancouver is asking voters to raise sales taxes to fund a huge range of transit improvements that are inevitably needed in such a dense and densifying region. Polls are suggesting that one of the most transit-dependent regions in North America is going to vote no.
There is plenty of room for argument about whether sales taxes are too regressive, or whether transit measures should go to the voters while highway measures are considered essential Provincial spending. All those debates are happening. I also suggested, here, some principles for deciding how to vote on transit funding measures in general.
But I want to intervene on one point. The no campaign has managed to spin a lot of anecdotes to suggest that TransLink is a wildly inefficient or incompetent agency.
TransLink is a major agency that does many things at once, answers to many masters with conflicting agendas, and certainly makes mistakes. But the core of any transit agency budget is its operating budget — what it spends to run service and what it achieves in return. That's the only budget that goes on and on forever, so it dominates the total budget picture. The numbers confirm that Metro Vancouver is getting excellent value for its transit dollar. Todd Litman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute recently put these numbers together.
First, subsidy per passenger-kilometre (one passenger moving one km on transit). What do regional taxpayers pay to move the massive numbers of people they move every day? Less than 20 cents per passenger-km, which is right on the Canadian average and far better than what's achieved in the US, Australia, or New Zealand.
And what do Metro Vancouver taxpayers get for these 20 cents per ride? Quite simply, a network that makes the regional economy possible, by allowing economic activity to grow despite the limits of the road network.
One measure of this is passenger-kilometers per capita. How much personal transit does Vancouver provide? How many people can travel, and how far, to access jobs and opportunities without contributing to traffic congestion?
Metro Vancouver's TransLink is a leader among similar sized regions, matched only by the older metro area of Montreal. (Toronto does better than TransLink if you look only at the city [TTC in this chart], but the fairer comparison is with the whole metro area [GTHA in this chart], as TransLink covers all of Metro Vancouver.)
Metro Vancouver has reached a level of transit reliance that is unprecedented for a young North American city. Only centuries-old northeastern cities come close. That reliance means that the region can add jobs and housing without adding traffic congestion. Todd's paper provides some other excellent analysis to put these benefits in perspective, and explains why the sales tax is vastly cheaper than not having a good transit system.
There are lots of reasons for Canadians to be unhappy about the Transit Referendum, including why it is happening at all. And there will always be plenty of anecdotes about any agency that does so many different things at once.
But if you're voting no because you think your transit agency is fundamentally wasteful, that's just not true.