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TransLink secret meetings derailed

February 11, 2008
TransLink secret meetings derailed
Metro Vancouver's public transit system and roads are managed by a government organization called TransLink. The legislation that lays out how TransLink is governed changed recently, and so far, the results have been discouraging. Before the change, TransLink's board of directors was made up from local mayors and councilors who met openly to hear from the public during its transportation planning process for the Metro Vancouver region.

The new board is made up entirely of political appointees. In January during a news conference, its chair Dale Parker said the once-public meetings would now be held in private. He justified the decision to have secret meetings by saying Crown Corporations have their meetings in secret. He neglected to mention that TransLink is not a Crown Corporation.

TransLink is structured more like a municipality; it has the power to both tax and spend on local transportation. Right now, public debate on TransLink's plans is vital. TransLink will implement the provinces' recently announced $14 billion Cadillac transit spending plan for the Lower Mainland. Moreover, the board is empowered to come up with almost $3 billion - read new taxes - to help pay for it. The possibility of significant tax hikes from an unelected group means it's time for more public input, not less.

During the board's inaugural closed-door meeting on February 5, it approved a 500% increase in meeting fees, a 150% increase in the retainer paid to the Chair, and the establishment of a $25,000 retainer paid to each director when none existed before. The cost to the taxpayer for TransLink's new Board of Directors will be a minimum of $437,200 for 2008, more than three and a half times the 2006 cost. If this is any indication of the size of TransLink's future property and gasoline tax hikes, hold on to your wallets!

TransLink collected $554 million in tax revenue in 2006, up from $500 million in 2005. That's an 11% increase in TransLink's tax take at a time when inflation in B.C. went up by only 1.8%. Can you say tax grab

TransLink collects gasoline, property, parking, and - oddly enough - hydro taxes. It uses these funds to pay for public transit operations and road maintenance. TransLink collected a total of $264 million in gasoline tax revenue in 2006, up from $255 million in 2005. Translink collected $241 million in property taxes in 2006, up from $217 in 2005. It also collected $20 million in a parking site tax, $17.2 million in hydro taxes and $11.5 million in parking sales taxes in 2006. A successful Park the Tax campaign snuffed out the parking site tax, but unfortunately for property taxpayers, it was simply converted into a property tax.

The new legislation leaves TransLink with these funding sources and creates the possibility of a new three cent gasoline tax in Metro Vancouver.

All of those taxes help pay for TransLink operations because fares do not. TransLink collected $300 million in transit fare revenue in 2006, covering about half of their expenses (excluding road maintenance). Expanding the transit system by $14 billion will mean higher operating costs and even higher taxes because even by TransLink's own estimates, ridership is expected to increase by only 5% by 2020.

Meeting the transportation challenges of the region is no easy task, but we can all agree that it should be done cost effectively, transparently, and be above all, accountable to those that have to pick up the tab - the taxpayers. The provincial government's attempt to do this with the new governance structure is off to a shaky start. One way to enhance accountability would be for the provincial government to follow through on a 2001 election platform commitment to hold a referendum before imposing any new TransLink taxes or levies. Transportation decisions must be made under the spotlight of public scrutiny, not rubber stamped in secret meetings.

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