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November 6, 2009

Transportation Governance and Controversies

In her news release on the day she made Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland's Report on Review of Transportation Governance Models public, Transportation Minister Shirley Bond said: "This review is timely, as it's been six years since BC Ferries was restructured and two years since TransLink was reorganized." She neglected to say that the Campbell government is solely responsible for how BC Ferries and Translink are governed, and for the problems that have resulted from the legislative changes they imposed.

The Campbell government excluded BC Ferries from Freedom of Information. The Comptroller General recommended that BC Ferry Services and the BC Ferry Authority be made subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, something the NDP has been demanding since the Coastal Ferry Act restructured BC Ferries in 2003.

Immediate news coverage of the Comptroller General's report focused on executive salaries at BC Ferries, but a much more fundamental observation is that the government hasn't exercised its responsibility by setting clear expectations for BC Ferries. The report puts it this way:

"... short term decisions, focused on maximizing profit to the operator, could compromise the public service goals of the ferry system by not considering fully the interests of users of the ferry system, local communities and taxpayers."
"To ensure appropriate attention is placed on all intended objectives the province should clarify its expectations, communicate them publicly, and ensure they are incorporated clearly in the BC Ferries governance framework and corresponding legislation."

If that doesn't make the government's neglect of the public interest clear enough, the Comptroller General goes on to say: "The Commission's role as defined in the Act and interpreted by the Commission is not broad enough to adequately protect the public service mandate of the ferry system." She noted that the guiding principles in the Act for the Commission (the regulator) don't even mention the customers!

TransLink, established in 1999, was restructured under the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Amendment Act in 2007 after then Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon expressed his discontent with the authority's reluctance to rubber stamp proposals for the RAV Line, later renamed the Canada Line. The restructuring put control of transportation in the hands of an unaccountable and never elected board. How ironic it is to hear the Comptroller-General recommend that "... the Mayors' Council/Transit Authority should be more fully given responsibility for Board appointments, setting Board remuneration and overseeing the Board, while not assuming management's role." She also recommends that the renamed Transit Authority be reduced in size to 11 or 12 members. Given the greater power a revamped Authority would have, there would likely be loud complaints from municipalities not represented in its decision making.

The report offers no suggestions on how to resolve the dilemma of taxation for transit without representation; nevertheless, it recommends that "existing revenue streams are maximized before exploring alternative sources of revenue". Furthermore, the report said the transit portion of property tax and utility charges collected from Vancouver property owners is $115 compared to between $131 and $446 in other Canadian cities on an average single family home. The report sets the stage for much more debate on how much to put on property taxes for transit, and it puts the responsibility for resolving that debate on the provincial government. Since successive provincial governments saddled the Lower Mainland with one of the most expensive rapid transit technologies, not everyone will agree that property taxation should be maxed out to pay for those decisions.

The government will find it difficult not to implement the Comptroller General's recommendations since they will be used to flog it on criticisms it has chosen to ignore, but local governments, transit users and property tax payers will also take their punishment if all of the report's recommendations are implemented.


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