TransLink's Mayors' Council outlines funding requests to BC government

Jun 26 2020, 8:41 pm

TransLink’s Mayors’ Council is calling on the provincial government to provide an unprecedented level of support to the public transit authority in its upcoming budget.

In its submission to the 2021 BC Budget consultation process, the Mayors’ Council asked the provincial government to work with local governments to establish a set of principles for rebuilding ridership and restoring TransLink’s finances

This includes recognizing that public transit is an essential service, and avoiding downloading the costs of responding to and recovering from COVID-19 onto regressive revenue sources such as property tax or transit fares, which will hinder economic recovery and ridership.

Additionally, the provincial government, in collaboration with all levels of government, should directly help resolve the pandemic-related financial impacts on TransLink.

Another pillar is the development of a provincial rebuilding strategy for the public transit and transportation sector in 2021 to “support TransLink’s efforts to rebuild transit ridership and provide mobility alternatives to support an economically competitive, sustainable and livable Metro Vancouver region.”

The latest fiscal models forecast revenue losses of between $540 million and $1.4 billion, depending on the trajectory and duration of the pandemic and economic recovery, and the associated fluctuations in ridership.

Ridership is currently at about 33% of normal levels, reaching twice the levels experienced at the peak of the pandemic in early April. The recovery in ridership has been gradual each week, but TransLink previously stated COVID-19 could have a five-year impact on its ridership levels.

translink forecast june 2022

TransLink forecast, as of June 2020. (TransLink)

translink forecast june 2020

TransLink forecast, as of June 2020. (TransLink)

The public transit authority is still in the process of negotiating the level of emergency operating funding it will receive from the provincial government to ensure it can continue to operate service levels at near normal levels for the remainder of the pandemic response. These service levels are necessary to prevent crowding and allow for some physical distancing.

Assistance from the federal government is also being sought, but to date they have deferred the responsibility of funding the operation of public transit to the provincial level.

TransLink is aiming to have an answer from the provincial government by this fall, so that it can have a better understanding of its financial situation for operations in 2021, and adjust its 10-year transit expansion plan accordingly.

The $2.8-billion Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus Street is unaffected by TransLink’s fiscal crisis, as its funding is jointly covered by the provincial and federal governments. The major contractor will be chosen this summer, and construction will begin in early 2021 for a completion in 2025.

But the $1.4-billion Expo Line Fraser Highway Extension to Fleetwood depends on $1.1 billion from TransLink, and about $500 million from the federal government. The timeline for building this project was from 2022 to 2025, but given the large local funding share there is now some uncertainty with this project.

“Public transit is critical to keeping our economy functioning, limiting congestion, reducing GHG emissions and ensuring mobility for people who can’t afford other alternatives,” said Jonathan Cote, chair of the Mayors’ Council and the mayor of New Westminster, in a statement.

“The Premier has been clear in his commitment to ensure transit service will be available to British Columbians as our economy reopens and our communities begin to recover, and that will require working in partnership with us to put TransLink on a more sustainable financial footing – now and into the future.”

Prior to the pandemic, TransLink’s fare box recovery rate of 57% was the third highest in North America, just behind New York City and Toronto. This is the rate of fares covering the cost of operating services. In the North American context, most public transit systems are highly subsidized by other revenue sources, as fares do not come close to covering the full cost of operations.

Additionally, 25% of TransLink’s revenues come from the 18.5 cent per litre regional gas tax, which fell by 60% between March and May due to the drop in transportation demand. With the transition into electric-battery vehicles and fuel-efficient models over the next 20 years, the decline in gas tax revenue is expected to become far more pronounced.