Today’s Transit, Tomorrow’s Pipeline: Connecting the dots between the headlines

The big story for yesterday was TransLink unveiling their draft 2013 base plan (which TransLink is bringing out for public consultation starting September 20). The gist of it is this: because Christy Clark’s BC government scuttled the Mayor’s Council proposals for drumming up the funds to maintain and expand existing transit services, TransLink is having to make the hard calls on what will go forward and what it can’t afford to grow or keep around. TransLink’s Buzzer blog, Stephen Rees, Civic Surrey and Vancouver Observer go into much greater depth on the implications of this plan. Thankfully, we’ll still see the Evergreen Line rapid transit being built in Coquitlam, and a B-Line express bus service (though much curtailed) will still make its way to Surrey.

Meanwhile, a story from today’s Globe and Mail: BC Poll finds staunch opposition to pair of pipelines, referring to the proposed Northern Gateway and TransMountain oil pipelines. Quote:

The poll found 60.3 per cent of those surveyed oppose Gateway, while 49.9 per cent oppose plans by Kinder Morgan to twin its Trans Mountain system, a half-century-old pipe that already carries substantial volumes of Alberta oil to Burnaby, B.C.

(A warning on nomenclature for any non-locals: the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposed oil pipeline should not be confused with the Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy, which sees the expansion of road capacity for Deltaport, the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, and the constructions of the South Fraser Perimeter Road. That bridge is not tangential to this discussion either, as Gordon Price blogged today regarding spending priorities.)

On the surface, these stories seem to have little to do with each other — even though the pipeline story has become a lightning rod for a whole host of issues, from the future of resource-based economy in BC, to the division of oil pipeline revenues versus who assumes the risk of handling potential oil spills, and the perceived meddling of the Federal government with environmental assessment and protection safeguards, climate policy and scientific due process. Isn’t the story of public transit being underfunded in Vancouver just this region catching up to the public transit story for pretty much all of North America?

Peter Ladner penned a piece for Business in Vancouver that hit the bullseye on the real meaning of the TransLink base plan announcement. From his article (long quote, but it’s a good one, I promise):

When will we reach the tipping point where it will be considered safe for a political leader to authorize sustainable funding for public transit? Or will we ever reach that point again?

For now, many are convinced we’re not there, hence the mania for auditing TransLink, as though that will miraculously yield enough bus loaves and fishes to feed transit to the multitudes. It’s not going to happen.

[...] TransLink needs to be more efficient. It needs to be policed by people who aren’t double-dipping. It needs to regain trust with voters. But after all that, it’s still going to need new funding to properly maintain, service and upgrade transportation infrastructure in Metro Vancouver.

Much of the public chatter about TransLink reminds me of the joke about what men really mean when talking to women.

“What kind of work do you do?” really means “I want to go to bed with you.” “Do you like hiking?” really means “I want to go to bed with you.” “You look terrific” really means “I want to go to bed with you.”

According to Langley-based Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (what is that, anyway?), most people think transit is a good idea for their friends and neighbours but not for them, so they don’t want to pay for it.

That’s the message that caused Premier Christy Clark to kick aside, without any consultation or negotiation, a painfully crafted proposal to approve a vehicle levy to keep transit moving and improving.

Here’s what I think is really going on: “We need to wait and see TransLink run more efficiently” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“TransLink is politically unaccountable” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“We’re being taxed to death” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“We have to wait until the economy recovers before investing in more rapid transit” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

The angle that ties these two things together is the one that considers the economics of generational shift. (Gordon Price has been keeping tabs on the issue of the generational shift at Price Tags.) Interestingly, the pipeline poll showed concerns about the pipeline to be second only to those about the economy. What is transit for or about if it’s not the economy? In the places where it works, transit costs about the same, in the long-term, if not less, than paying for a tonne of metal that depreciates the moment you take it off the lot, along with the gas, maintenancea and insurance it runs on. That means it frees up money for people to spend on goods, services and experiences — which often results in more jobs.

Decision-makers are framing problems according to concerns of the past, not problems of the present or future. Yesterday’s economy relied on people building cars and choosing to live in places that depended on them. The people buying houses don’t want to spend their lives in — or their livelihoods on — their cars. It’s well-documented that people across the continent are driving less, putting off getting their licenses, and choosing to live near transit. Go ahead and call us “The Cheapest Generation,” like the Atlantic Magazine did last month.

But dig a little deeper. Who will bear the ill effects of altered climate resulting in extreme weather events becoming more common? Those being born now, and their children. Who will have to live with the social effects of an underdeveloped transit system, congestion and sprawled development patterns? Youth and children. Thinking of the concerns about the pipeline, who would have to foot the long-term costs of restoring and pay the price of not being able to enjoy affected ecosystems, should oil spills damage BC’s coast? Taxpayers of the future. And don’t forget the realities of the demographic shift and its implications on income and pensions.

Cheap’s looking pretty smart for a whole bunch of good reasons.

This is a powerful transitional time on the local, national and international arenas, as the developed world comes to grips with our understanding of what we value and what we want out of the good life. We’re also in the awkward position of having to figure out how to correctly price the impact of a car-based lifestyle, while creating alternatives that actually work. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling — but will be even more so if it doesn’t happen at all.

Ladner still put it best in his closing paragraph:

[..T]he question becomes: When does “someone else’s transit” become “my transit, my way of getting around,” or something that benefits me – not just my friends and neighbours? When will enough voters view transit as being in their interest?

When will enough voters view transit as being part of their legacy?

One Comment

  1. Well said, Karen. I trust that your generation will turn the tide and help make public transit what it should be: a well funded and efficient system that will appeal to people to get out of their cars, reducing congestion and pollution.
    BC Ferries is still living in the dark ages, putting cars first. When arriving on the Queen of Capilano in Horseshoe Bay, passengers with bicycles or strollers or dogs have to endure fumes from disembarking vehicles before being allowed to walk off the ferry.

    Posted September 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

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