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Regional politicians want say on Translink plan

BURNABY - Top executives at Translink met with Metro Vancouver's regional planning committee this morning to present the results of their public consultation on the future of the region's transportation system. Committee members, however, were concerned about the lack of consultation with their own organization.

Translink must present options for a ten-year system plan to its political oversight board, the Mayor's Council on Regional Transportation, by the end of July. However, that body has no say in the development of the plans, and the politicians who are responsible for regional planning expressed frustration at not having any input in the process.

“We need to really, really integrate transportation and land use planning,” said North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto. “Right now, Translink is trying to guess where the region is going... and the region is trying to guess where Translink will go.”

This is the first time Translink will present planning options to the Mayor's Council since the organization's governance was overhauled in 2007. Last year, Translink focused on developing its 30-year long-term plan -- Transport 2040 -- which set broad goals for reducing greenhouse gases and increasing the use of transit, walking and cycling.

The ten-year plan is supposed to outline specific actions to implement those goals, and how to pay for them. To achieve the system envisaged by Transport 2040, Translink says it needs $450 million in new funding, approximately a 50 per cent increase in its current revenue level.

If no new funding is approved, the “base plan” being proposed by Translink involves significant service cuts. The organization is currently using reserves to cover expenses, and expects that money to run out by the end of 2011.

The Mayor's Council -- a board made of regional mayors or their representatives, whose sole responsibilities are to appoint members of the Translink Board (from candidates previously identified by a screening panel) and to approve or disapprove any 10-year plan that requests new funds -- has already publicly declared its support for more transportation funding.

But some of those mayors who also sit on the regional planning committee say they don't even have enough details to understand the impact of Translink's proposals.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who chairs the planning committee and who chaired B.C. Transit for three years during the 1990s, called it a “wish list of projects” with “no meat on the bones.”

“It's very difficult for us to say whether or not it does meet the objectives of our livable region strategy or our sustainability strategy, because we really don't have much idea of what they intend to do or when they intend to do it,” he said.

Mussatto, the committee's vice-chair, said “we need to be more involved in [the detailed planning] -- to help them set their priorities,” for example to decide where new transit funding should be allocated.

In response to the committee's concerns, Translink CEO Thomas Prendergast promised to improve coordination in the future. “I wish we could have done a better job this time ... I'm taking this as a lessons learned point going forward,” he said.

Prendergast also promised to respect Metro Vancouver's planning process. The regional planning committee is in the midst of developing a regional growth strategy which will guide all zoning and development decisions by municipalities in the region.

“If you have a regional growth strategy... it's our responsibility to respect that,” said Prendergast.

But Corrigan was skeptical about whether that would happen.

“Pendergast is working simply off the legislation,” he said. “If the legislation says do it, that's what he does, if the legislation doesn't say do it, he doesn't do it.”

Mussatto echoed that concern. “The way the legislation is set up there really isn't a good communication process between the region and Translink,” he said. He would like the legislation to require the involvement of elected politicians in the planning process.

“All that planning is being done by that appointed committee [the Translink Board of Directors],” he said. “Granted, there are some very good people there, but they're not elected, they're appointed.”

Both mayors support transit expanision in line with the Transport 2040 plan, but when it comes to funding, they and the rest of the Mayor's Council are strongly opposed to using new property taxes for Translink.

“As mayors, we know there has been so much pressure on our municipal property taxes, they cannot carry that burden for the $450 million,” said Mussatto.

Other funding options available to Translink include an annual fee on all vehicles registered in the region and a three cent increase in the gas tax.

According to Translink, those sources combined with a property tax increase would only be enough to maintain the existing standard of transportation in a growing region. Other funding options, such as tolls on freight traffic passing through the region, would require changes to provincial legislation.

The option being promoted by regional mayors is to use money being collected through the carbon tax money for transit instead of using it for other tax reductions.

Corrigan suggested that, if the province does not find alternative ways to fund transit, the Mayor's Council might “walk away” and not approve Translink's plans.

“The mayors are not going to accept responsibility for funding this system,” he said. If provincial politicians are not willing to give control of transportation back to local politicians, he says, they should turn it back into a provincial government agency.

“They've clearly indicated they don't have faith in the municipalities, and they believe that somehow a private sector board will do a better job, so why doesn't the government simply take it back and instead of behind-the-scenes instructing the board, be up front about instructing that board -- and take responsibility from the public for how that transit system either succeeds or fails.”

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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