A Q&A with TransLink’s Ian Jarvis (from just before he stepped down)

Ian Jarvis | BCBusiness

TransLink’s departing CEO on road pricing, transit-oriented development and the contentious upcoming referendum

Editor’s note: It was announced Wednesday afternoon that TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis had stepped down effective immediately. Journalist Rod Mickleburgh had interviewed Jarvis for an upcoming issue of BCBusiness, but in light of this development, we have decided to publish that interview early.

BCBusiness: You’ve been with TransLink for 15 years. With all its complexity, headaches and public criticism, what keeps you coming into work?

Jarvis: Sit in any coffee shop, looking out the window, and I would be very surprised if five minutes pass without you seeing a TransLink asset go by. What we do touches basically everyone—all ages, every business. Isn’t that a fabulous challenge?

After the Evergreen Line opens in 2016, Vancouver will have more subway lines per capita of any city in North America.

Kilometres of subway line per 100,000 people
Washington, D.C.: 2.9
Vancouver: 2.7
San Francisco: 2.3
Montreal: 2.0
New York City: 1.9
Chicago: 1.7
Boston: 1.3
Toronto: 1.1
Mexico City: 1.1
Philadelphia: 1.0
Miami: 0.7

On good days, maybe…

Well, my predecessor Tom Prendergast used to tell me: “You know, Jarvis, you’re only as good as your last rush hour.” It comes with the territory. I joke with employees that some of the headlines hurt and they’re tough to take, but why are we on the front page? It’s because what we do is important.

But don’t you think this waning confidence in TransLink is somewhat justified?

We took a pretty big hit on the SkyTrain outages last summer. But when I look at our metrics, I would say we have a pretty darned good track record. Are we perfect? Gosh, no. But if we don’t make mistakes, then we’re not doing anything. Every day, we have 1.2 million boardings and more than 100,000 crossings on our bridges. If one tenth of a percent of those don’t go quite right, there’s an opportunity for a story every day.

But transit ridership has been going down, too.

It’s explained by our fare increase. We had two fare increases over the rate of inflation in 2010 and 2013 to help balance the books. We hit a tipping point. We had not experienced that before, and we haven’t implemented a fare increase since. Ridership is now coming back.

TransLink not only looks after public transit, but also roads, infrastructure and bridges. Yet the better the road system, the more people stay in their cars. Doesn’t that conflict with the goals of public transit?

Obviously, when you build significant road capacity that encourages people to drive. So we need to be smart about how we do it. People are resistant to taxation, but everyone wants the services. Maybe we need to look at a different way of funding and charging for our services. Maybe we need to send a signal with respect to the concept of mobility pricing for using transportation services.

Are you talking some form of comprehensive road pricing? After all, why are there tolls on the Port Mann, but not on the Pattullo Bridge?

If we truly want to look at fairness and equity, that needs to be part of the conversation. As a transportation authority, it’s something we are supportive of. But we recognize and need to understand the constituents’ view of this and the political reality of it as well.

Yes, all those masters you have—the province, your board of directors, the mayors’ council, the public and transit users. Isn’t that an unworkable governance structure?

Well, you need all those different elements of governance, because the issues are complex. You can put all these boxes on a page to try to make it look orderly, but when it’s a matter of billion-dollar rapid transit projects, along with roads, bridges and transit, all those interests have to be represented.

During the first 9 months of 2014, ridership, particularly on buses and the West Coast Express, fell significantly below TransLink’s expectations. The corporation blamed ongoing resistance to recent fair increases.

2013 | 2014 actual | 2014 projected
Bus: 179 Mil. | 178 Mil. | 188 Mil.
West Coast Express: 2.07 Mil. | 1.97 Mil. | 2.14 Mil.
SkyTrain: 56.8 Mil. | 56.3 Mil. | 57.4 Mil.
Canada Line: 30.1 Mil. | 30.2 Mil. | 30.8 Mil.

Shouldn’t you be getting more return from all those developments going up along rapid transit lines?

We are getting smarter about that. For example, we want a new station in Richmond, but we don’t have the funding. So Richmond and developers [building in the area] agreed that every time the city approves a number of units, the developers will put dollars into a fund. Once that reaches $25 million, TransLink will build that station. These things add up.

Let’s turn to the referendum to fund future transit and road improvements with a small sales tax hike. Were you surprised the business community campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote?

Businesses are employers, so how their employees get to work concerns them. A lot of our economy also relates to the Port of Vancouver, so efficient movement of goods is important. In the service sector, if you’re a carpet cleaner or a plumber, time in traffic congestion is time you’re not making a service call. And in terms of making Metro Vancouver attractive to young professionals, a good transit and transportation system is part of the brand of a city and region. It’s a value proposition. You can either pay through increased congestion and less choice, or you can pay through additional revenue.  The ‘yes’ coalition looked at that and said: the benefits more than make up for the additional $125 per household.

If the referendum fails, what then?

The plebiscite is about dollars for expansion. We already have a fuel tax, property tax, and transit fares. So we will continue to operate the services that are there today. But it will have an impact on people who use the system, both in terms of congestion on our buses and congestion on the roads.