Cities, Transit get too small a piece of tax dollar pie

Cities, Transit get too small a piece of tax dollar pie

Cities, Transit get too small a piece of tax dollar pie
Photo: Translink

Many people think of Canada as a landscape of forests, mountains, water and ice, but the Canadian experience is fast becoming focused on glass and concrete. Our 2011 census revealed that 81 per cent of us now live in cities. And despite taking up less land space, our environmental impact continues to grow. As the UN notes, cities cover only two per cent of the world’s land area but produce 60 per cent of CO2 emissions — including a significant proportion from urban transportation, as people commute to school and work on increasingly crowded roads and transit networks.

Transit drives healthy cities

Changing the way we move through cities is a critical step in reducing carbon emissions. The most direct way to accomplish this is to provide urbanites with reliable alternatives to automobile travel. By investing in walkways, cycling networks and efficient public transportation — including rapid rail and bus systems — cities can promote healthy lifestyles while protecting the environment. A two-car household that replaces one vehicle with alternative transportation can cut its annual emissions by 10 per cent.

Building balanced transportation systems and improving transit reduces reliance on private vehicles, cuts traffic congestion and leads to better public health by keeping pollutants linked to asthma and cardiovascular disease out of the air. It can also help curb North America’s obesity epidemic, which is leading to diseases like diabetes and sending health care costs skyrocketing.

Cut the cars, cut the fat

Recent research on the relationship between health and transit use in Metro Vancouver by University of British Columbia urban planning and public health professor Lawrence Frank and two health authorities reveals that residents of areas with above average public transportation use are 26 per cent less likely to be obese and 49 per cent more likely to walk for at least 30 minutes a day than people living in low transit use areas.

Plebiscite puts transit support to test

Vancouver is a good case study for the future of Canadian urban public transit. Metro residents are voting on a plebiscite to fund regional transit and transportation expansion with a 0.5 per cent provincial sales tax increase. Many groups in the region — including business, labour, environmental, health and student — are setting aside political differences and joining the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition to support it.

Cities left to solve transit problems

With only eight cents of every tax dollar going to Canadian municipalities, cities across the country are looking for ways to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Canada is also the only major industrialized country without a national transit funding strategy. Provincial governments, such as Ontario’s, have had some success in securing funding for transit improvements, but across the country the issue is largely in the hands of local leaders.

Although Metro Vancouver’s transit ridership has increased dramatically in recent years, road congestion is still a problem, costing the regional economy up to $1.2 billion per year. To combat similar issues, cities around the world, including London, Milan and Stockholm, have introduced congestion charges for drivers who use city streets during peak hours, funnelling monies raised to into transit improvements. By comparison, a Vancouver sales tax increase would spread the cost out to include transit users, cyclists, walkers and visitors.

Denver Seattle failed before passing transit referenda

North American cities often have a more difficult time than European municipalities convincing residents to support transit funding. Denver, Colorado, has had two transit funding referendums, one that failed and a more recent one that passed. In 2014, Seattle residents took part in two votes, agreeing to a 0.1 per cent sales tax increase and a $60 vehicle levy to improve transit only after bus service faced severe cuts following a “No” vote on transit funding earlier in the year.

Metro vote raises important questions

Canadians aren’t often invited to directly participate in policy-making. The vote in Metro Vancouver is the first of its kind nationally and will likely set off a heated debate about how transportation funding is discussed in this country. While the outcome remains uncertain, one thing is clear: People with realistic transit options have a daily choice to support or degrade the environment. When faced with that choice, history has shown more people opt to leave their cars in the garage. We need to think seriously about how we keep our cities moving into the future.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Climate and Clean Energy Communications and Research Specialist Steve Kux.


About Dr. David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

6 thoughts on “Cities, Transit get too small a piece of tax dollar pie

  1. Just to add to my comment below: A 1/2% increase in sales tax will not obtain the objective the Mayors have set for themselves and the region and they know it. This plebiscite and cap in hand or shall I say cup in hand by Translink is yet one more dance with the region’s wallets and purses. There will be more and well before the 10 year mark.

    If this was truly a realistic, cost effective and equitable plan to reduce the region’s roadways of single occupancy vehicles by 50% it would take at least a 1% increase in the provincial sales tax but that wouldn’t sell this ill-conceived and politically self-serving plan by the Mayors and their financial backers any better than 1/2%.

    Not one mention from Suzuki about governance and transparency and accountability, why? Are these concerns not valid and wouldn’t his foundation make sure it had good governance before it began to ask for people’s money?

  2. Canada Line cost $2.4 billion for a two car subway system, is this what Suzuki believes will solve our transportation issues. Transit boardings from Richmond and South Delta have decreased since the Canada Line became operational. Imagine what that $2.4 billion could have done to provide conventional transit service throughout the region. Instead of 7,000 boardings per hour on Canada Line we could have had the capacity for 100,000 more if the money vehicle drivers, property owners and transit users was used wisely. Hoodwinked into a plebiscite, the regional Mayors and Suzuki decided what’s best for the region as long as it fits their pet development projects along the way. I’m surprised Suzuki sides with the growth merchants of this town but perhaps his foundation received a nice boost from the those who will have the public assume the debt while they profit. Humbug, vote NO!

  3. Mr. Suzuki, your arguments and reasoning on this issue seem too narrow and perhaps even naive considering who the players are and who stands to benefit.
    I’m sure the government and translink appreciate your input, as it is, as pro yes on the referendum. You make it sound as if they are being so open and gracious in seeking the public’s involvement when the opposite is true that they are shirking their responsibility and avoiding what they are supposed to do… make decisions.
    The government is also highly addicted to the taxes at the pump. Forty seven cents on every dollar according to the last I heard. They are also highly addicted to ICBC money that comes from guess where?
    It is sort of a dilemma for governments this talk of the environment.
    There is only one pig trough and only one section of society expected to keep all the pigs fed. It all falls to the taxpayer. Someone needs to look to the pigs themselves now, Translink Execs., their spending policies etc. too see if maybe they are overfeeding.
    While I understand your taking an opportunity to place the blame of all our environmental woes on the little guy and his car again, I would only ask that you pay attention as to who is promoting the YES vote and where their motives may lie.
    Enabling those that mismanage our already stretched to the limit tax dollar won’t solve any problems. It will only create more.

  4. Taxes never go away, they only go up. Remember Income Tax,(a temporary war measure) it has become permanent and we all know which way that was going. The .5% would only be the beginning and before you know it 5% will not be out of the question. Once you give Government permission to impose any tax, they will go wild and there is nothing you can do about it.

  5. I dont think most people would begrudge a 1/2 % tax increase for Transit to reduce traffic congestion or pollution.
    If they knew the money would be well spent…..OR that the tax would ALWAYS stay at 0.5%.
    Unfortunately politicians have the credibility of a skunk that promises their farts wont stink….
    There in lies the crux of the problem.
    Translink’s incredible mismanagment of:
    Financial( $200,000,000.00 spent on a Passcard system that is 3 years overdue and still nonfunctioning….$430,000.00 for a former CEO to twiddle his thumbs while another CEO earning the same money does his job……$4,000,000.00 for a Park and Ride that 1.5 years later ….no one uses. Changing the name of BC Transit to Translink?Why? Was BC (The Best place on Earth) Transit too ‘provincial’? What did changing the entire organizations name, letterhead, email addresses, uniforms, signs etc cost? The buses and skytrain still ran….No one cares what the name on the side says as long as they get where they are going. BC Ferries take note.
    And on and on and on).
    Infrastructure failures( how many breakdowns occurred last year? 5? 10?. I’m absolutely amazed no one was electrocuted when passengers, stuck for hours, broke out and walked the tracks). And the system is getting older as we speak.
    Public Relations Failures;
    The new Translink Police being paid more than VPD, and RCMP because of obligatory overtime. ALL while the original Translink Security guards remained..( many years ago a BC Transit official was asked why there were no Police on the Skytrain, ” We have no multijurisdictional police force in the Lower Mainland’. I listened to that absurd bs on the radio while an RCMP cruiser drove past my office……).

    Voters/taxpayers dont trust politicians and the lickspittle beaurocrats appointed to do their bidding.
    This referendum will fail and fail miserably.
    I fully expect a “user fee ” of some sort to be implemented by the govt.
    Whether is through a property tax increase or another ICBC “shakedown”. It doesnt really matter. The govt will not be denied its taxpayer “pound of flesh”
    The good side?
    Voters will not forgive or forget the politician that implements a new Transit tax…………..

  6. Oh so simple Suzy, the trouble is, you politely ignore the other side of the coin. Cities squander transit on vanity transit projects, subways in particular.

    The taxpayer has invested over $9 billion on three light metro lines that cost about three times or more more to build than modern LRT; even thought the three mini-metros are driverless, they cost about 60% more to operate than modern LRT and despite the hype and hoopla, actually have less potential capacity than modern LRT.

    They were built strictly as vanity projects, because they were not modern LRT.

    Here is the crunch, in 1991, the subsidy for SkyTrain was $157 million, of which the province paid $120 million annually. Te debt repayment for just the Expo Line as built in 1986 was to take 40 years, so the province is paying that subsidy until 2026. but wait, TransLink has built two more light-metro lines and a third is nearing completion, this means the province is paying over $300 million annually to subsidize our light-metro lines.

    This is why TransLink is in the financial glue, the province is already paying over $300 million annually to fund just the light metro and nothing else.

    But there is more, the province in 1991, subsidized transit in the Metro Vancouver area by a total of $197 million (not including property, gas, Hydro Levy, non-resident proerty tax an property taxes), of which $120 million went to SkyTrain!

    Extrapolated for 2015 and one can see why the province is shy in giving TransLink any more money, they are already spending massive mounts to keep the system operating.

    So Susy, if you didn’t sleep through your math classes in school, you can see that by building SkyTrain, especially in subways, actually contributes to congestion and pollution because the region cannot afford to build the transit network that would actually attract the motorist from the car!

    If you have problems with the numbers, as you seem to do, don’t blame me, because they come from the GVRD’s Cost of Transporting People in the BC Lower Mainland.

    By supporting the YES side Susy, you are supporting gridlock, pollution and all the negatives you claim that voting NO will bring.

    Supporting Moonbean’s vnaity subway will only make transit worse in the long run because there is a massive finacial iceberg on the horizon, Suzy, as the mini-metro system must be renovated because it is nearly life expired. The cost for mid life renovations and an increase in capacity? Well count your fingers and count your toes Susy, because the cost estimate for that is $2 billion to $3 billion. More if Bombardier Inc. abandons the ART Skytrain mini-metro system because no one has built one in a decade.

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