There is much pessimism in the discourse over the future of public transit in car-dependent North America in the era and legacy of COVID-19.
However, when asked today during the Mayors’ Council’s meeting about the idea of the “death knell” of public transit, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says he believes Metro Vancouver could be an outlier.
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“I personally believe Metro Vancouver is a region in the world that is predisposed for a significant demand for public transportation,” he said.
“We all saw that with the explosion of ridership in recent years and our land uses, and a larger proportion of the population is well suited for transit.”
There have been suggestions that travel patterns could change, specifically peak hours with a large proportion of office workers staying put at home permanently, but he says it is too soon to determine whether any of these shifts will see longevity beyond the pandemic.
“I can’t imagine our region and other metropolitan regions without very healthy public transit systems. At the end of the day, as the economy returns, congestion will return,” said Desmond.
“We have a limited highway network as it is, here in Metro Vancouver. I personally remain very confident that once we’re out of this crisis, people will come back to public transportation, let us do their driving, and not have to be stuck in their car in traffic.”
With all that said, TransLink will not see the light at the end of the tunnel anytime soon. The public transit authority does not expect ridership to recover to pre-pandemic levels until there is a very effective treatment or vaccine, which could take at least another full year at minimum, according to health experts.
But all services are in the process of being ramped up to a level that is very close to their pre-pandemic levels to safely support BC’s restart plan, which will see the gradual reopening of businesses, services, and attractions.
TransLink has implemented enhanced health safety measures for both passengers and its sanitization procedures. This includes maintaining a certain degree of physical distancing on buses, with the capacity limits next week increased to 66% by opening up all seats to help meet the expected surge in demand.
On SeaBus, the ferries are seeing their capacities limited to 50%, managed by the turnstiles. Sailings are every 30 minutes.
The Expo and Millennium lines are now at 100% of their normal capacity, while the Canada Line is at 90%. Three shortened trains run in each peak direction on the West Coast Express.
“In a public transit environment, we can’t maintain the two-metre spacing as more people board our buses and trains. There are number of different steps we need to mitigate,” Desmond said.
Directional signage and floor decals guiding physical distancing are also being installed at SkyTrain stations — in the fare gate areas, passageways, and platforms. All stations will see this new information by June 19. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been placed at seven high-traffic stations, with possibly more to come. As well, key bus stops will also see decals.
“There is an enormous amount of back and forth on predictions and concerns. The key is restoring trust, the confidence of the travelling public that they are safe and that public transit is being extremely mindful of individuals’ safety,” he said.
“One could argue that as the economy slowly reopens, people will want to return to the system. We also know there are deep concerns the general public has here and based on surveys we’ve seen around the world, they are concerned for their own personal safety. It will be a personal decision for anyone on whether and when they want to return to public transportation [right now].”
Ever since the provincial government green lighted the economy’s restart, TransLink has seen an uptick in ridership, which is now up by 30% (317,000 boardings per day) compared to the low point in the pandemic a few weeks ago (240,000 boardings per day).
But this is still just 20% of the pre-pandemic ridership, when the public transit authority recorded 1.5 million daily boardings.
“We have a long way to go before ridership is restored to pre-COVID levels, and we fully expect this will take a very long time,” said Desmond.
With the severe drop in transportation demand, resulting in the collapse of fare, fuel tax, and parking tax revenues, TransLink states it will depend on assistance from federal and provincial governments to retain its service levels for the remainder the pandemic and forthcoming recovery period, and ensure its core capital projects can continue.
The public transit authority cancelled its sweeping service cuts and layoffs that were set to begin earlier this month with the assistance of the provincial government, but both entities are still working out the details on the precise level of financial support.
Geoff Cross, vice president of transportation planning and policy at TransLink, says the timing, magnitude, and composition of relief funding from both senior governments are major variables in its financial modelling.
One of the priorities, he says, is the financial stability of TransLink, as they are currently drawing on their capital reserves to keep its essential service operations going. These reserves were meant for the investments of the Mayors’ Council’s Phase Two infrastructure projects, including the SkyTrain Expo Line extension to Fleetwood.
They will need to replenish their reserves for the capital projects and protect their credit rating.
Another priority is utilizing funding from senior governments for existing planned projects that have not started, or new projects that “make sense in the post-COVID environment for stimulus and long-term mobility for the region.” He specifically noted the full 16-km-long Expo Line extension to Langley, beyond Fleetwood, and the low-carbon fleet strategy of shifting into using electric-battery buses.
If senior governments can cover the regional share of the cost of new infrastructure projects, TransLink will be in a better position to fill its operational fiscal gap.
For instance, the flagship project of the 7-km-long, four-station Expo Line extension to Fleetwood will cost $1.6 billion to build. TransLink’s share of the cost is an overwhelming $1.1 billion, while the federal share is about $500 million. Due to TransLink’s current financial predicament and the matter of the project business case that has yet to be approved by senior governments, this project could stall.
“We’re in a reasonable position right now to be able to weather through this for a few more months, but we do need urgent clarity on where senior governments will be so that [the Mayors’ Council] can begin to make some difficult decisions,” he said. He added that they will strive to avoid cuts to the capital program that support maintenance, as “you cannot sacrifice state of good repair or else reliability will decay and you will pay more later on.”
In a few months, when some of their revenues are likely to make some headway with rebounding, especially fuel and parking taxes, Cross says TransLink will be in a better position to develop an updated investment plan and determine which of the four COVID-19 fiscal scenarios is being realized.
The scenarios range from anywhere between a quick recovery with a full impact of $710 million on their revenues or a years-long, drawn-out scenario that results in up to $3.25 billion in losses.