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No 'silver bullet' as audit flags TransLink savings

The wait for SkyTrain may get longer at off-peak times if one of the proposed savings in a provincial audit is adopted. - File
The wait for SkyTrain may get longer at off-peak times if one of the proposed savings in a provincial audit is adopted.
— image credit: File

A provincial audit says TransLink could save an extra $41 million a year but even that is not expected to solve the transportation authority's current cash crunch or its need for new long-term funding to expand transit.

Some of the measures proposed are controversial because they would further degrade transit frequency, reversing TransLink's strategy of fostering new ridership in underserved areas.

The biggest area flagged for savings would see TransLink budget less conservatively and run with thinner financial reserves, even though cutting that too far could harm debt ratings and its ability to borrow cheaply.

The wait between off-peak SkyTrains should be one to two minutes longer, the review recommends.

And it says too many bus routes run with too few passengers, even at peak times, calling for 22 underused routes to be either scrapped, run at reduced frequency or converted to community shuttles.

The report found 43 per cent of bus routes run at less than half capacity, consuming $56 million a year. It also cites high operating costs and low productivity for community shuttles and HandyDart service.

"A balance must also be sought between service for users and efficiency of operations," the report said, noting TransLink sometimes bends to demands from cities or from community pressure rather than basing decisions on technical or financial merit.

The report also suggests $5 million a year could be saved by cutting Transit Police and security to pre-Olympic levels after SkyTrain fare gates are activated and fare evasion drops.

The audit was ordered last spring when Premier Christy Clark rejected area mayors' pleas for new funding sources for TransLink, saying a deeper search for internal savings was needed before considering contentious ideas like a vehicle levy or road tolling.

The audit's proposed savings are in addition to $98 million a year TransLink has already carved out of its new base plan.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak said the new options help but don't solve the need for sustainable funding, especially with Metro Vancouver's population rising by one million in the next two decades.

"We look for a silver bullet in these reports, but it isn't there," she said.

"While there are areas where TransLink can find efficiencies, areas where they can perform better, nevertheless it is, overall, a well-run organization.

"There is a need for more funding if we are to meet the needs of the region going forward."

Polak said she will work with the mayors to discuss new cash sources, provided they win public support.

TransLink must draw up a new 30-year vision for transit service by next August – after the May provincial election – but Polak said she wants to begin talks "as quickly as possible."

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, vice-chair of the mayors' council, said TransLink and mayors will have to carefully evaluate what further cuts to consider.

"The bottom line is there is not a pot of money that can overcome the gap that TransLink faces," he said.

Mayors are expected to debate Thursday whether they want TransLink to prepare a new negative supplement to rescind the previously approved time-limited property tax increase of $30 million for 2013 and 2014.

Such a move could trigger more transit service reductions and a formal vote early in the new year after extensive public consultations.

TransLink's current plan calls for the launch of the new Highway 1 RapidBus from Langley and a new King George B-Line in Surrey, but assumes the property tax hike will stay in place.

Fassbender said he hopes the mayors' council "takes a breath" and fully considers the audit rather than rashly chopping the tax.

"If we don't leave the property tax component there we will be cutting significant numbers of bus hours in the region," he warned.

A two-cent gas tax increase approved last year is covering TransLink's contribution to build the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam.

But the mayors last year approved the property tax hike on the expectation it would not actually be used and a different source, such as a vehicle levy, would substitute for it.

Long-term funding is needed not just for general bus service improvement but also more rapid transit lines now being planned to run through Surrey to Langley and White Rock and west in Vancouver along Broadway to UBC.

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler said management will consider what more can be adjusted based on the audit, but added route cuts would affect riders.

She said axing a bus route that runs only 30 per cent full now but is growing and could reach 65 per cent in five years could leave residents without a transit option, forcing them into cars.

Olewiler suggests the region needs to consider whether it's an acceptable trade-off to pay a bit more for some bus routes in order to ensure there's a broad network of usable bus service running often enough.

"There's not a lot of low-hanging fruit – given that they agree completely with us on the efficiencies we have already identified," she said of the audit.

"We are going to do everything possible to find both the long-term solution and keep our system whole."

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