In his third term as chairman of the Mayors’ Council on regional transportation, Richard Walton’s top priority will be gridlock, and not just the kind that plagues the morning commute.
The District of North Vancouver mayor, newly reappointed to the position by acclamation, wants to use his third year at the helm to end the political impasse that he says has prevented the Lower Mainland’s transit system from growing to meet demand.
“In the two years I’ve been chairing it, we’ve been treading water,” said Walton. “We haven’t made any significant progress, except to continue to . . . work as well as we can within the existing governance structure.”
While transit ridership has been growing by leaps and bounds, said Walton, the level of service hasn’t been rising to match, leaving all parts of the region underserved, and some parts — notably southern and eastern communities and the Broadway corridor to UBC — hopelessly so.
That’s because TransLink’s efforts to secure adequate funding over the long term have been derailed by what he sees as a broken governance structure, he said. Under the current system, the council of mayors, who represent the 21 municipalities served by the transit authority, essentially play an advisory role, said Walton, while TransLink’s appointed board of directors sets the budget and calls the shots.
“Those of us who are elected to steward the public purse don’t have any say at all in the day-to-day operations of TransLink and what the priorities are,” he said.
Walton estimated the fare box only pays for about 25 to 40 per cent of any given transit ride, meaning the bulk of the system’s funding has to come from tax. TransLink’s main revenue source — property tax — has been tapped out in his view, so the authority needs to find money elsewhere. Some form of distance pricing, whereby drivers pay a fee that’s proportional to the burden they place on the road network, is popular with the mayors, but they lack the power to bring the idea to fruition.
“The current model . . . allows the province to step back and pass all the very difficult political decisions down to local government,” said Walton. “But it doesn’t give us the funding levers to follow through.”
The power structure also creates a critical disconnect between those who do the land planning at the municipal level, and those who shape the transit system, he said.
“You’ve got completely different silos for two functions that need to be considered together,” said Walton.
The mayor doesn’t want to see the governance model revert to the old system, where decisions lay entirely with municipal leaders; rather, he advocates for a kind of middle ground.
“I (think) more of a hybrid board, where you’ve got industry experts and academics with provincial representatives and a good representation from elected local officials, can probably work very closely together and share the political risk, if you will,” he said.
Whether or not change takes place may depend on who’s in power after May’s provincial election, however.
“I would suspect that the NDP government may be more inclined to look at it, but I’m not politically naïve either,” said Walton. “Despite what promises and inclination might have been made . . . from a provincial perspective, it’s probably easier to sit in Victoria with the current system, when you control all the levers.”
He vowed to work with whatever party gets elected, however.
“I think, ultimately, it takes a lot of trust and a lot of patience to effect these changes,” said Walton. “That’s why I’m back.”