Electric buses and washrooms: Mayors' Council approves TransLink's investment plan

May 26 2022, 10:39 pm

The Mayors’ Council approved TransLink’s new 2022 investment plan today, which outlines the public transit authority’s strategy over the next three years.

“Investing in transit improvements is critical for the future of this region,” said TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn. “In the short-term, this plan will also achieve key regional priorities like reducing carbon emissions, upgrading customer amenities, and building critical transportation infrastructure.”

This includes reaffirming its support for the 16-km, eight-station SkyTrain Expo Line extension from Surrey to Langley Centre, which is now a project being led by the provincial government, as well as acquiring about 500 additional electric-battery buses, implementing the new R6 RapidBus in Surrey and Delta, planning the new R7 RapidBus between Richmond-Brighouse Station and Metrotown Station, and increasing HandyDART service by 3%.

Existing bus service levels will be maintained until the next update on the investment plan in 2025, and cost-saving measures will be pursued by speeding up buses with new bus priority measures.

Other projects under the new investment plan include a major overhaul and technology update of the Compass fare system, which is subject to creating a favourable business case and further approvals. There would also be new public washrooms at six major transit hubs starting in 2024, and investments in regional roads and active transportation.

Amongst these various new projects, the most expensive is projected to be the $1.5 billion plan to replace 34% of the current diesel bus fleet with battery-electric buses and buses that use renewable natural gas, as well as the new Marpole bus depot for battery-electric buses in South Vancouver and charging infrastructure,

The aging fleet of trolley buses dating back from the 2000s will also be entirely replaced between 2024 and 2029 at a cost of $614 million.

The overhaul of the Compass system, including new and additional fare gates, and updated technology that enables the transition to a distance-travelled fare structure, is estimated to cost $216 million between 2024 and 2027.

In total, over the forthcoming 10-year period, and including previously committed projects, TransLink is currently expected to spend more than $6 billion on major capital projects, including the $905 million order of new generation Mark 5 SkyTrain cars for the Expo and Millennium lines — including replacing the entire old Mark I car fleet dating from the 1980s.

To fund these investments, TransLink is increasing its borrowing limit from the previous maximum of $5.5 billion to a new ceiling of $6.8 billion.

It is also increasing its regional portion of the property tax by 1.15%, which is equal to about $3 for an annual residential property starting in 2023. During today’s public meeting, some mayors expressed concern with TransLink’s continued dependence on raising its property tax as one of its revenue sources.

Annual fare hikes will continue to be limited at 2.3% until 2024 due to TransLink’s agreement earlier in the pandemic with the federal and provincial governments in exchange for Safe Operating Funding to keep fare increases low.

As well, additional revenues will come from expanded real estate development, retail, and advertising opportunities.

“When it comes to raising revenue and particularly taxes, it is always an extremely difficult decision. When I speak to people in my community, what I hear is ‘we don’t object to contributing, and we don’t object to paying our fair share. What we want to know is that you’re spending our money responsibly and that we’re going to see a tangible benefit based on the investment that is being made,'” said Port Coquitlam mayor Brad West.

“I think that really leads to my support for the investment plan because I think to a degree that we have not seen in the past, this plan will bring benefits to every part of the region. There has been a lot of discussion on regional equity, and I support it 110% and I think that is an important piece to highlight. Yes, everyone is being asked to contribute, but we’re going to see benefits to every part of the region. We won’t be solely concentrated in one city.”

But it is certain that the largest of these new investment plan projects will greatly depend on securing contributions from the federal and provincial governments.

The new investment plan’s first three years intend to continue TransLink’s revenue and ridership recovery from the pandemic’s prolonged impacts. As of this month, ridership has recovered to 70% of pre-pandemic volumes, amongst the highest recovery rate in North America. The plan also highlights the need to decrease TransLink’s dependence on its significant but shrinking fuel tax revenues, given the improved fuel efficiency of vehicles and the accelerating transition to battery-electric vehicles.

The Mayors’ Council 2022 investment plan approval should not be confused with the body’s forthcoming consideration of the first 10-year priorities under the 30-year Transport 2050 plan, which was approved by the body early this year. TransLink’s proposed 10-year priorities include 9 bus rapid transit (BRT) routes across the region, additional RapidBus routes, and building UBC SkyTrain and SFU Burnaby Mountain Gondola.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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