Thursday, March 12, 2015

TransLink rant-2 -- Public health and the "idea" of TransLink

An excellent article in the Victoria Times-Colonist offers another reason to approve funding for transportation improvements in Metro Vancouver. I'd touched on the topic of public health in my previous post (see previous post), but this report (which doesn't mention TransLink at all) goes into it in great detail.

The award for Dumbest Comment So Far in the non-debate over the TransLink referendum goes to the chap who wrote a comment on Facebook that supporters of the "Yes" side should "prove to me that a No vote means No Transit Improvements". Well, I can't say there will be no transit improvements, but the things Metro Vancouver needs in order to maintain livability require a major cash infusion, otherwise, they would have been done by now and TransLink wouldn't have been in "Service Optimization Mode" for the past 4 years. 

Sadly, it appears that the "No" side is firmly entrenched in its view: that TransLink is evil in and of itself, is poorly managed and wastes money. Well, as I've mentioned before, Dominion Bond Rating Service would not give a AA bond rating, and bond-market managers would not invest over half a billion dollars in a poorly-managed organization. And you can look at BC Ferries and BC Hydro if you want real examples of wasting money. In the meantime, TransLink has been audited over and over, deficiencies identified and dealt with, and the belt has been tightened so much, the organization was suffering constriction of the spine when I left it just over 2 years ago.

Is TransLink evil? Far from it. The "idea" of TransLink is that, in a region as vast and varied as Metro Vancouver -- from the flatland of the Aldergrove to the mountains of the North Shore, with people needing to commute to and from Downtown Vancouver and more and more people staying within their sub-regions -- like the South of Fraser Area -- to live and work, public transportation needs to be integrated and mesh together. Major roads and bridges, pedestrian and cycling amenities, need to be part of that mix, too. The objective? To maintain livability -- so coveted by those who live there -- and to reduce mankind's impact on the environment, not just in the immediate area, but in surrounding regions and ultimately on the earth.

As I point out in my book, A Very Convenient Truth -- or, Jesus Told Us There'd Be Days Like These, so Stop Worrying About the Planet and Get With His Program!*, that is exactly the role God calls humans to perform. We are to be the caretakers, the custodians of His Creation, to "replenish the earth and subdue it" -- i.e. to enjoy what He has given us, but to make sure that our enjoyment does not overpower our ability to replenish.

The "idea" of TransLink is part of that calling. Maybe that's why it's come under such bizarre and often self-serving attack over the years.

*Available as an e-book through Chapters, Barnes & Noble, PaperPlus (in New Zealand), among others.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


(A slight departure today, from my usual themes in this blog.)

First, full disclosure: I’m no longer employed by TransLink – haven’t been for the past two years, 1 month, 2 days and 23 hours and 51 minutes, as of this writing (not that I’m keeping track). TransLink took care of me when I was let go, but aside from that and the fact they helped feed my children and a whole lot of people on the Downtown East Side during that time*; I still believe in what the organization stands for and I have a lot of friends there, who have been working really hard to maintain the region's transportation system -- and, by extension, its livability. Other than that, I have no skin in this game.

The Sunday before last, I had to take the first ferry to Victoria – leaving Tsawwassen at 7am – so I got up at 4:30, caught the Canada Line SkyTrain at 5:15 and made it to Bridgeport Station in plenty of time to catch the #620 Tsawwassen Ferry bus. Had I missed one train, there would have been another six to 10 minutes later.

Less than 10 years ago, when I had to visit my father in Victoria, I would have had to catch the 98 B-Line from Granville and Broadway in order to connect with the #620 in Richmond. If I missed that one trip of the 98 B-Line, I was hooped: at that time of the morning, the next 98 B-Line bus would be 15 to 20 minutes later, and I would have missed that connection in Richmond. There was another time when I waited in vain for the one bus from downtown that would have connected me with the #620 at Ladner Exchange, because that one trip had been cancelled – probably a mechanical problem; there was no spare bus available and no way of communicating the cancellation to customers.

My point? First, that TransLink service has expanded to the point where we take it for granted that public transit will get us to where we need to go, pretty much any time we need to go there; second, in the couple of years before I left TransLink, some of the services people were taking for granted were already getting clawed back, as the budget tightened: one should think, then, about what the region might look like if the referendum is defeated.

And that's something that's been lost in this debate over the upcoming referendum on transportation improvements for the region. People against the tax increase have been portraying it as a referendum on TransLink itself -- its governance structure, in particular -- as if a "no" vote will mean the organization will get blown to bits.

It won't. A "no" vote will mean needed transportation improvements for the region will not happen. End of discussion. The vaunted livability of our region is at stake, but the "no" side -- with a BIG assist from many commentators, chasing the low-hanging fruit -- has reduced the polemic to the sheep's chant in George Orwell's Animal Farm: "Four legs good! Two legs bad!"

Am I "blaming the media"? Well, you do the math: recently, a Vancouver Sun columnist wrote that “TransLink can’t get the message right” (in the headline) and then cited the fact that the Dominion Bond Rating Service had confirmed TransLink’s “AA” bond rating; the implication was that TransLink didn’t publicize a "good news" story that could have helped its cause.

In fact, the information was sent out from TransLink: in July 2012, I wrote and issued a news release about the DBRS bond rating; the release also noted that TransLink had raised a total of $500 million in long and ultra-long bond issues in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

As far as I remember, and a Google search appears to back that up, there was no pickup by the media, except for the web publication, VancityBuzz.

What’s more, DBRS itself issued a news release last fall, re-confirming that credit rating. Again, a Google search turned up no media pickup, even though newsrooms must get DBRS releases, because if a government – say, the government of British Columbia or the City of Vancouver – gets a downgrade from DBRS, the media are all over it like a fat kid on a Smartie.

But a "good news" story from TransLink, handed on a silver platter appeared to stall at assignment desks around Metro Vancouver.

One of the claims by the "no" side is that TransLink is fiscally irresponsible. I doubt that a bond-rating service would give high grades to a "fiscally irresponsible" agency or that bond-market investors would trust their clients' funds to one, either.

It's worth noting that the DBRS assessment also cited TransLink’s governance structure as one of the reasons for its positive assessment. Evidently, DBRS sees something positive about a billion-plus-dollar organization being run by an apolitical board whose mandate is to act in the best interests of the regional transportation system as a whole. You might want to read the description of what’s required of the directors.

The "no" forces have also been very keen to point out that public money is being used to promote the "yes" side in the referendum. Former Vancouver City Councillor Peter Ladner (my former editor at Monday Magazine, by the way) wrote a very eloquent rebuttal to that, which I'll quote here (with his permission):

"The mayors' council is using public money-- apparently $4 million. My response is if the overwhelming majority of elected officials at the regional and provincial level, all the medical health officers, all the planners and most municipal councils see a yes vote as vital for the region's economy, health, environment, livability and social equity, it's their responsibility to ensure a positive outcome. They didn't ask for a referendum. None of them like spending public money persuading people to pay more tax. But they're being forced to fight it. How could they justify not spending money on it if it's that important? Selling reasoned arguments is far more costly than tossing out juicy, glib, misleading sound bites to an overstretched media.

"As for the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, we have been spending only what money has been donated by organizations, corporations, individuals, unions, etc. Amounts still TBD as the funding is currently being raised." 

One more thing: this referendum is horribly unnecessary. The people of Metro Vancouver have already spoken and said what they wanted for a regional transportation network and how they were prepared to pay for it. In 2009, TransLink held extensive public consultation sessions, which included a table-top exercise in showing what services were available and what existing and potential funding options could be used. You can read about it on the TransLink website or, if you don't feel like reading the whole report, check out the column Gary Mason wrote in the Globe and Mail when talk of a referendum was bubbling up in 2013. 

Another canard gets shot out of the sky -- the one about TransLink’s “wish list”, it’s actually the people’s wish list, and we need to remember that.

More importantly, we need to think of traffic congestion, crowded buses and trains, at least one bridge that will no longer be safe to use, pollution (much of which gets blown into the Fraser Valley, affecting the health of the people there, not to mention much of our food supply).

Those are the real stakes. You have to wonder why anyone would try to divert people's attention from that.

*My earnings helped support the work of Gospel Mission (not Union Gospel), where I was assistant pastor for a while; my flexible work hours allowed me to deal with Mission business as it came up.