British Columbia

'Bursting at seams' transit needs federal cash infusion, CEO says

Vancouver's transit heads have a plan but they need the federal promise of 50 per cent funding for it to come true.

'If people reject this then it's back to the drawing board ... there is no plan B'

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says he is working with municipalities to make B-Line buses run more efficiently. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Vancouver's transit heads have a plan to revive a system of crammed SkyTrains and overcrowded buses but they need the federal promise of 50 per cent funding for it to come true.

That promise would mean Ottawa would have to chip in billions to make the 10-Year Vision for Metro Vancouver a reality.

Even Phase 1 funding would be the first big boost the overtaxed system has seen since the Canada Line was built in 2009.

Seven-month CEO Kevin Desmond is short on cash but not clichés.

He​ says the system he's taken over is both "bursting at the seams" and "treading water."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says B.C. deserves a transit system that matches its economic footprint in Canada after creating most of Canada's job growth last year. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He's counting on a recent promise from Ottawa, one that came his third day on the job as head of the transit service.

"That was the catalyst that changed everything," said Desmond.

"We are talking big money," he said, unable to clarify yet exactly how much the federal government is being asked to provide.

The New Yorker graduated from taxis to New York subway planning and went on to manage Seattle's transit system, increasing ridership there 44 per cent.

If people want better transit in B.C., he says, now is the time.

TransLink garners most of its operating budget from fares but needs to do better when it comes to customer service, according to new CEO Kevin Desmond. (Roland Tanglao/Flickr)

"We don't have a Plan B," he said, if the federal government doesn't follow through on a pledge to match funding on transit projects at 50 per cent.

If he can get the mayors to sign on by November, agreeing to "pretty modest" tax hikes and fare increases, he promises consumers will see improved bus service as early as April 2017.

The increases amount to:

  • A five to 10-cent fare increase.
  • A $1 to $3 monthly fare increase.
  • A $3 increase on residential properties.
  • A $45 increase on commercial properties.

He knows the plan to get approval may not work.

"If people reject this, then it's back to the drawing board," he said, emphasizing that Ottawa's promise is also crucial to the success of the multi-phased project.

Desmond lauds TransLink for already garnering 52 per cent of operating costs from fares, while keeping those fares lower than most in North America.

He is promising to up Translink's game when it comes to customer service and to be transparent and really listen to riders.

"It's a no brainer," he said, describing the performance dashboard he plans to add to TransLink's website.

But even if he can get buy-in on fee increases and tax hikes, federal funding is not guaranteed.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is urging people to lobby Ottawa to give Vancouver the money needed for its 10-year plan. He says there is an economic argument, with B.C. producing the most jobs in the country.

"We need to get momentum," said Robertson. "We've let transit slip too long."

Vancouver's 10-year vision for transit would cost $7.5 billion in new capital spending. (Roland Tanglao/Flickr)

"We came through the valley of death, which was the transit referendum." he said.

Robertson admits it's going to be another fight.

Cities across Canada will be competing and Vancouver needs billions for its long-term plan.

"Certainly there are cross pressures and lots of competition. We want to make sure we are at the front of the line," said Vancouver's mayor.

Phase 1

In June, the Mayor's Council welcomed $616 million in new investment from the federal and provincial governments towards 14 new capital projects.

These would be completed as part of the first two to three years of a longer-term plan.

TransLink planned to match funding with another $125 million in regional capital investment.

Phase 1 priorities would include:

  • $345 million to modernize and expand rapid transit, adding 28 SkyTrain, 22 Canada Line and five West Coast Express cars as well as a third Sea Bus.
  • $157 million toward work on Broadway and south of the Fraser LRT projects.
  • $94 million to modernize and prepare bus and rail networks for key transit exchanges from North Vancouver to Surrey, B.C., to be completed in the 10-year plan.

Phase 2 and beyond would include:

  • $150 million for a new bus depot.
  • $765 million for Expo and Millennium Line upgrades.
  • $1,980 million for rapid transit along Vancouver's Broadway corridor to Arbutus.
  • $52 million for Canada Line upgrades.
The demand for more SkyTrain and bus service is ever growing in Vancouver and around the Lower Mainland. (Roland Tanglao/Flickr)

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