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TransLink express bus plan rests on mayors

TransLink
TransLink's draft 2013 plan calls for it to launch B-Line express bus service in Surrey on 104 Avenue to Guildford and down King George Boulevard to Newton – but a further leg south to White Rock would be on hold until a future extension.
— image credit: File

TransLink says cost cutting should allow it to roll out a phased launch of the new Highway 1 Rapid Bus over the Port Mann Bridge and promised B-Line express buses on King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue in Surrey.

But that vision may quickly unravel if area mayors continue to be at loggerheads with the province over transit funding.

The draft 2013 base plan unveiled Monday hinges on mayors letting TransLink levy a previously approved $30 million property tax increase over the next two years.

Most mayors voted once already in the spring to withdraw the tax hike after the province refused to grant new TransLink funding sources, but a new vote to formally amend the plan is required to be legally binding.

If the mayors hold their ground and no further savings are uncovered in a soon-to-report provincial audit, TransLink would be forced to chop parts of the plan.

TransLink vice-president Bob Paddon wouldn't say which elements would be likeliest to go if the mayors axe the property tax lift of $23 per average home.

"If that money is not there we're going to have to reconsider just what we can deliver on," he said.

As it is, a big hit in gas tax revenue has forced TransLink to drastically pare back the service expansion it had hoped to provide.

Rapid Bus service that was to be every 10 minutes all day over the Port Mann would only run that often at peak hours and be cut to every 30 minutes at off-peak times, according to the plan. And it will only go from Langley to Braid Station – the full run to Lougheed Station is on hold.

The King George B-Line bus service won't go all the way to White Rock as previously promised either. That's to be left as a future extension for the service running every eight minutes from Guildford to Newton.

In all, the plan promises an extra 109,000 service hours for buses, about a third of what TransLink previously hoped to add.

Upgrades to several Expo Line SkyTrain stations are also still on track, particularly since the key hub at Commercial/Broadway must be upgraded to handle extra passengers once the Evergreen Line from Coquitlam opens.

But TransLink will shelve a move to more frequent SeaBus sailings every 15 minutes on Sundays and holidays, year round.

TransLink says it's found $98 million over three years in efficiencies so far and has continued to reallocate bus service to routes where demand is higher.

Paddon said that could mean cuts in frequency on some routes – some underused evening runs could go from every 30 minutes to every hour.

The plan also pares the amount of money going to regional roads and cycling infrastructure.

Bus drivers will also be under pressure to deliver the same service with less recovery time at the end of each run and Coast Mountain Bus will run with fewer spares, so a bus breakdown will be more likely to derail service on a route.

"There will be an impact to our customers," Paddon said.

TransLink will have $472 million less over the next three years than it previously assumed because of a drop in the gas tax it collects, the deferred sale of its Oakridge property, less fare revenue due to a rejected fare increase, less toll revenue from the Golden Ears Bridge and the expected cancellation of the property tax lift by the mayors.

The new three-year base plan goes out to consultation this fall.

North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, chair of the mayors' council, said area mayors are frustrated the province has blocked new revenue sources, such as a vehicle levy or road tolling, and oppose any heavier use of TransLink's property tax, which rises two per cent a year automatically and costs the average home $225 a year.

"It's maxed out," he said. "We've been saying that for the past couple of years."

He said many mayors are likely to oppose the property tax hike and wait for more productive talks with Victoria – either from this government or the next one.

The impasse was much the same a year ago, he said, except then the Evergreen Line was at risk of being scrapped if federal contributions were lost.

Mayors were persuaded to support the SkyTrain extension – TransLink's share was funded by a two-cent hike in the gas tax – on the government's promise to consider new funding sources.

But there may be less pressure on cities to cut a deal this time and less willingness to trust the government again.

"Provincial leadership is needed," Walton said.

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler said it's still possible the province could agree to a new revenue source – or the provincial audit will uncover more savings.

"If they find something we haven't found, we'll look at that," she said.

"This issue is not going to go away," Olewiler added. "We need a long-term funding source."

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