How Vancouver's traffic nightmares hurt all of B.C.

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With expanding ports and increasing population putting tremendous strain on our roads, pressure mounts for more public transit investment. And while debate rages about who should pay for all that, one thing is clear: the Lower Mainland’s traffic nightmare is no longer an issue for just latte-sipping city slickers to lose sleep over

Dan Williams reaches the crest of the Pattullo Bridge on a brilliant, sunny morning at exactly 7:34, well under half an hour since he pulled his five-tonne truck away from the loading dock at Argus Carriers in Burnaby. So far, traffic has been relatively light for him and it continues to look good as he coasts down the south side of the bridge toward Surrey, his truck loaded with a television, a furnace, a case of saw blades for cutting steel, stacks of boxes filled with packing tape that are shrink-wrapped to a wooden pallet, packs of flattened cardboard boxes and more.

The other way, though, is not so pastoral or free. In the stream of barely moving bug-like sedans and SUVs, the big tractor trailers, cube vans and flatbeds stacked with lumber sit like boulders, vibrating slightly as their engines idle. This isn’t the only or worst traffic snarl this morning. Williams’s radio emits constantly updated reports about slow traffic northbound on the Alex Fraser, because of an earlier accident, and traffic slowed to a crawl on Highway 1 around Mount Lehman, also because of a crash.

"It's rush hour all day long now, 24 hours a day,” says Williams, 58, a compact, sandy-haired man who’s been driving trucks for 23 years. It wasn’t the job he planned to do when he was young, growing up in North Van, but here he is, still doing it all these years later, in his dark-green Argus uniform and a sheaf of papers that lay out his delivery route for the morning. He doesn’t see the driving ever getting any better, not the way everyone keeps building. Giant condo towers, malls, office buildings—all adding more traffic all the time, always with worse drivers every year. The new Port Mann has helped a bit, but if you have to go much farther into the valley, it just starts backing up there. Abbotsford, Aldergrove: “It’s nuts out there now. It’s the urban sprawl thing.”

As Williams inches down No. 3 Road later that afternoon, en route from the FedEx distribution centre in Surrey to a no-name operation in an industrial mall near Capstan Way, the concrete shelf of the Canada Line hovers above his truck. He barely glances at it, this once-controversial line that many predicted would be a dismal failure but now carries about 122,000 riders a day, its toy-like cars gliding noiselessly above the traffic. Transit, he says, has nothing to do with his job. Doesn’t help him do his work. There are still as many people on the roads as there have always been. “You’ll never get people out of their cars. Only people without money take the bus.”

A brief history of TransLink

TransLink is praised around the world as an agency that allows local politicians to have control over transit in their own region. By critics, it’s painted as an entity that is living off the fat of local taxpayers, running a system that’s actually awash in money if only it were run efficiently...

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His opinion is not an uncommon one in British Columbia, though it’s expressed in different ways. The general subtext of the naysayers: transit in dense Vancouver is something that only a rarefied group of people use—city slickers who think they should get whisked around town on billion-dollar subway lines. It’s an indulgence for them, but we need money for roads because the real economy of the province happens on the roads, not some dinky monorail.

It’s the kind of thinking that creeps into what feels like never-ending political tussles with the province over how to pay for the major new transit projects that the region’s mayors and its regional transportation authority, TransLink, have been begging for going on five years now. One transportation minister after another has floated across the stage, scolding the mayors, reminding them that it’s not up to the good people of Prince George or Kelowna to pay for transit in the Lower Mainland. It’s not the only argument that the province has used over the years, as its ministers have shot down vehicle levies, road-pricing plans and, in the most recent go-round this spring, a conversion of carbon-tax revenue to transit funding. But the “it’s not fair for you city people to take money from the hard workers elsewhere” argument has appeared with regularity.

The good people of Prince George and Kelowna echo that in various ways, although with more nuance and explanation of the other side of the question. Heather Oland, the CEO of Initiatives Prince George, agrees Vancouver needs better transit. “At the same time, over 80 per cent of the products B.C. exports come from the rural land base. Yet Highway 16 west, from Prince George to Prince Rupert, is predominantly a two-lane road. There is $140 billion in resource development here. There’s a lot of movement along these highways.” In Kelowna, Mayor Walter Gray also acknowledges that the big city needs good transit to function. But so does Kelowna. “We can’t be the ones that fund the increased costs of transit. We have our own challenges. Transit’s starting to get some legitimacy in Kelowna.” So he needs money too.

That first pass at outlining the debate makes it sound like a zero-sum game: if Vancouver wins, some other region loses. But there are plenty of people looking at the whole picture from 30,000 feet who say that a robust transit system in the Lower Mainland has benefits that extend to Chilliwack, to Hope, to Kelowna, to Fort St. John, to Kitimat. One of the biggest reasons: Vancouver is, condos and latte joints notwithstanding, primarily a port city, with Port Metro Vancouver now the fourth-largest tonnage port in North America. The lives of port cities depend on efficient distribution inside that urban engine. And just more roads can’t produce that. At some point, cities that need to get trucks around have to find a way to get some cars off the road.

As John Winters, CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, observes with restraint, the argument that the rural areas don’t need to be concerned about bus-riders in the Lower Mainland might wash except for one little fact: “Vancouver is a primary distribution centre for the whole provincial economy. You minimize the costs (of moving goods around inside the city) and it benefits the entire province.”

Why Truckers Must Learn to Love Transit

Dan Williams’s day of delivering bits and pieces of stuff all over the Lower Mainland is an increasingly common sight. More than 22,000 tractor-trailer rigs are licensed for the Lower Mainland, 2,000 of which access the region’s ports, with another 50,000 trucks over five tonnes and 19,000 lighter trucks used for local deliveries. Add to that all the visitors—trucks from Oregon, Kentucky, Fort St. John, Calgary, Montreal and Dallas—and it’s clear that truck traffic is a booming piece of the movement pie in this sprawling metropolis, as local and world economies morph into new patterns.

The port plays a large part in that traffic, with a third of the 27 million tonnes of stuff that arrived here last year getting trucked to a warehouse somewhere, unpacked, re-sorted and then trucked away—some of it delivered locally, some put onto a railcar for a trip across the continent, some delivered out of the Lower Mainland to a nearby destination. But even without port-related activity, Vancouver is a critical hub for millions of products passing through from Whistler to Kamloops or from Cranbrook to Vancouver Island. While Williams is weaving his way through Surrey’s industrial zone, for instance, a large pile of stuff at the Argus warehouse is waiting to go to the Interior: a moulded plastic raincatcher on its way to a gas bar in Fort Nelson, an empty drum being delivered to the City of Vernon, Harley Davidson parts off to Kelowna.

And then there are changes to the very nature of business that are putting more trucks on the road. Those local retailers who still operate storefronts are choosing to limit the amount of expensive space they rent in places like Vancouver and Surrey; rather than having a lot of stock delivered at once and stored on site, they get only small amounts brought to their outlets as needed. This morning, Williams delivered a single television to the Visions on King George Boulevard, a single pallet of poly bags and plastic film to Cosmeceutical Research on 129th Avenue, a small load of paint to the Dulux store on Main near Broadway. And for those who operate in the new universe of online sales, there’s no retail outlet at all—just a truck somewhere with our stuff in it, being deployed from a distribution warehouse on the edge of the region.

So all kinds of people, from those dispatching the trucks to the people who have a province-wide view, see rapid transit in the Lower Mainland as a key part of the way the provincial economy physically operates. “Any vehicle off the road is going to help us,” says Derek Warnock, the operations manager for Phoenix Truck and Crane in Vancouver, whose company, similar to Argus, delivers stuff, some of it from B.C.’s Interior, all over the region. At the Business Council of B.C., chief economist Ken Peacock takes a broader perspective. “The direct benefit [of good Lower Mainland transit] for someone living in Prince George is negligible. But having less congestion does benefit other parts of the province. The resources come from the north, but having great infrastructure and a good transit system is critical to B.C.”

How a Broadway Subway Connects to Kitimat and Chilliwack

There’s another argument for how efficient transit in the Lower Mainland benefits people in B.C.—and while it’s not as tangible as trucks, it’s even more important, argues one advocate.

“The premier keeps talking about the wonders of LNG but if you don’t have the lawyers and the accountants and the engineers and the architects in Vancouver to make that work, you won’t get anywhere,” says Michael Goldberg, professor emeritus with UBC’s Sauder School of Business. He almost explodes with impatience at the argument that most of the tonnage of B.C.’s exports comes from outside the Lower Mainland. “The tonnes of stuff shipped is only one part of the value. The notion that tonnage is equivalent to our wealth is a very simplistic one.”

For him, an equal part of the wealth is the province’s human capital, much of it concentrated in its largest metropolis. And if the people in that city can’t get together easily, can’t schedule multiple meetings within a few hours, can’t teleport themselves out to the airport on rapid transit and fly into Terrace or Cranbrook for a day of consultations—then the economy slows down as inevitably as if someone poured molasses into the engine. That’s why the rural-urban politicking over transit funding enrages him. “If we want to be congested and expensive to do business in, keep on doing what we’re doing.”

Out in Chilliwack, amid the farms and mountains that close in at the eastern end of the Fraser Valley, Mayor Sharon Gaetz is just as concerned about having a strong provincial and local economy as anyone else. But she’s got an additional reason for loving good transit in the Lower Mainland, even though Chilliwack is outside the TransLink borders and has no aspiration to ever be within them. “We’re thrilled when people in Vancouver get on alternate transportation,” says Gaetz. “Fifty per cent of the pollutants in our air come from Metro Vancouver. And those same air pollutants come and land on our agriculture.” Like Mayor Gray in Kelowna, she’s got her own transit demands. In once-rural Chilliwack, almost half a million trips now get made by bus and there’s demand for more. But she’s all for spending more on transit in the Lower Mainland. “There’s no quibble from me. Metro needs to lead the way. It’s a good investment of money.”

Alas, although Gaetz and Goldberg (along with all the mayors in the Lower Mainland and more than a few transit fanatics) are of that opinion, it’s still a challenge to make the case to the rest of the province that it’s a good investment. That’s partly because of the very nature of the way different groups of people think about transit.

“People who live at different densities just have fundamentally different attitudes,” says Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant currently based in Portland, Oregon. “In a downtown, transit is essential infrastructure without which the economy doesn’t function. It’s like water or sewers. The higher the density, the more transit you need and the less asphalt.” In rural areas, transit is not an essential service. It’s more like a social service, a benefit to people who can’t get around by car for some reason: too poor, too disabled, too something. The farther people live from the urban densities that are the mark of economically healthy cities, the more they’re likely to see transit as just a social-services benefit, not a necessity.

The transit numbers in B.C. reinforce that picture. Even though there is some form of transit in about 130 cities in B.C., 80 per cent of all transit trips happen in the Lower Mainland, home to half of B.C.’s population; out of the 385 million transit trips in the province last year, only 50 million were made by people in the rest of B.C.

Who Foots the Transit Bill?

But even that fundamental disconnect could be reduced if people actually understood who is getting what. At the moment, they don’t—allowing almost everyone to feel aggrieved, resentful and ripped off. Provincial ministers say that Vancouver shouldn’t be asking for favours from the hinterland. That, of course, puzzles those who understand how transportation is funded overall.

“I could point out that it’s my tax dollars that are helping pay for Kicking Horse Canyon,” says Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, who spent the first half of 2014 overseeing the committee that developed the 10-year plan for transit expansion (which includes a subway on Broadway to Arbutus, three light-rail lines in Surrey and a new Pattullo Bridge) that people in the Lower Mainland are supposed to approve (or not approve) the funding for next year in a transit referendum.

Every time the question of money for transit comes up, it sets off a pitched battle over who is getting what. But there is never a clear answer because of the very mixed bag of funding regimes.

When it comes to roads all over the province—from the South Fraser Perimeter Road in the Lower Mainland to the Highway 97 widening in the Okanagan—all B.C. taxpayers pay the bills. Since people in the Lower Mainland pay slightly more than half of all the taxes in B.C., they’re paying for northern highways every day.

With transit, there’s a two-track system. Outside the Lower Mainland, transit in the 130 cities and towns where it operates is paid for through fares, local property taxes and provincial grants—about an even three-way split. (That last source, again, comes partly from Lower Mainland taxpayers, since it’s from general revenue.) Inside the Lower Mainland, approximately a third of TransLink’s $1.4-billion cost comes from fares, a quarter from property taxes, a quarter from fuel taxes and the remainder from other sources.

Whenever mayors and the province start a new round of bun-throwing over transit funding, with mayors saying they need another source of money in addition to those three—something like, say, a regional sales tax, a vehicle levy, road pricing or, most recently, the carbon-tax revenue—provincial transportation ministers, dutifully briefed by their staff, bring up the dreaded hospital-tax issue as a way of driving home the point, one more time, that the Lower Mainland is getting an unfair advantage over the regions.

That issue, in a nutshell: back in 1999, when TransLink was created in the laboratory (like Frankenstein’s monster or Adam and Eve, take your pick), the province gave the region the power to run its own system. And it said, “We will stop assessing your residents and businesses a tax for part of the cost of major hospital projects, the way we do everywhere else. That will give you enough room to charge extra for transit. Then you decide what you want to do and how much you want to pay for it.”

Since the long-suffering taxpayers in the rest of B.C. paid the not-insignificant amount of $383 million in hospital taxes in 2013, while Lower Mainland taxpayers paid not one dime for hospital-building projects, that seems to be a fair point. But there’s a little sleight of hand there, point out transit officials. Yes, the transit tax in the Lower Mainland was about $240 per household in 2012 while the luckless residents of Victoria paid $280 for transit and hospitals combined (numbers from the province’s most recent passive-aggressive attack, the 2012 TransLink review). But those calculations never take into account the fact that people in the Lower Mainland don’t just pay for transit through their property taxes; they also pay through their higher fuel taxes, which are 17 cents more per litre in the Lower Mainland than outside it. So someone in Langley who drives 20,000 kilometres a year—2,000 litres of gas a year for a relatively fuel-efficient car—is paying an extra $340 every year toward transit as well as property taxes.

As a person’s calculator starts smoking with all these numbers, it’s easy to see why no one really has a handle on who is paying for what. Indeed, it may seem pointless, all these calculations—except, perhaps, to set a benchmark of how much a state or province is spending overall per capita on all forms of transportation, so that people get some comfort from seeing that, ultimately, the $1.6-billion Canada Line does balance out against this highway or that one. What would work better is if the people in charge stuck to the message that different parts of a big economy need different things. Cities need big transit projects; rural areas need highways.

Unfortunately, most states or provinces tend to tilt one way or the other, says transportation consultant Jarrett Walker. Jurisdictions dominated by cities, like California, tend to set up political fights and tax regimes that benefit cities. States and provinces that see themselves as primarily rural, like Indiana, set up barriers and fights that benefit the rural areas—as B.C. seems to be doing. And both engage in unproductive squabbles about unchangeable realities. “Any time we spend on a province-wide argument, it is going to devolve into whether cities are a good thing,” says Walker. “That is pointless.”

One observer on the other side of the country, in a region involved in its own fractious disputes over transit spending, worries the pointlessness is not deterring anyone. “I’m seeing political disputes accelerate because it’s good exploitation,” says Steve Munro, a Toronto transit advocate and frequent public commentator who helped fight to preserve that city’s streetcar system decades ago. His province recently went through a provincial election campaign, where the Progressive Conservative leader—battling an incumbent premier who promised $740 million a year for transit through new aviation and tobacco taxes—told Ottawa residents at one point that “you don’t have to pay for transit in Toronto.”

Munro says that’s discouraging and he’s not sure why it’s happening. “Maybe it’s because we’re moving away from a social philosophy of ‘We’re all in this together.’ But the resentment of ‘He’s getting some and I’m not’ is pretty generic.” Then again, Premier Kathleen Wynne triumphed in Ontario—new taxes, transit funding for the cities, and all. So maybe it’s possible for peace to break out in B.C., too.

 



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