The provincial government is piling nearly $500 million into the system that runs buses and SkyTrain across 21 municipalities in the Lower Mainland. But not everybody is happy with the additional support.
Premier David Eby said $479 million in provincial money will help TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority, keep fares stable and avoid service cuts.
“Failing to act now would lead to higher fares, fewer buses on the road, and reduced service across the board. We won’t let that happen,” Eby said, adding that TransLink’s financial needs must be addressed right now. He said the money is coming from B.C.’s surplus.
The announcement made at Skytrain’s Waterfront Station comes as TransLink grapples with urgent financial needs. While ridership levels reached 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in December 2022, TransLink is not generating enough revenue.
At the same time, TransLink has to service a growing population while managing several major expansion projects.
A 10-year-plan estimated to cost $20 billion and approved last summer foresees the expansion of bus service by 50 per cent, new rapid services to the University of B.C. and the building a gondola to Simon Fraser University.
But experts have said that the current funding formula won’t allow TransLink to both manage the current system and expand it. On March 14, TransLink formally asked the federal government for $250 million in emergency funding and Wednesday’s announcement further underscores the financial situation facing TransLink, whose 2023 budget projects at debt of $4.1 billion.
With Wednesday’s announcement, the province responded to calls for financial help from TransLink and Eby did not miss a chance to criticize the federal government for its absence.
“The issue of sustainable transit funding in major metro areas is an issue across Canada,” Eby said. “We have certainly brought it to the attention of the federal government. I’m disappointed, frankly, that they are not here with us today. But we expect those conversations to continue.”
If Eby slammed the federal government, his government faced criticism from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
“Eby is using the last of the surplus on big bailouts for TransLink,” said Carson Binda, B.C. Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “We need to see plans to pay down the provincial debt, instead of more waste.”
Binda pointed to past provincial support. In 2020, TransLink received $644 million, Binda said, adding that TransLink received $167 million in 2022.
“The government keeps giving TransLink more money and it keeps needing more bailouts,” Binda said. “They’ve shown us that they are far too wasteful to trusted with another dime from taxpayer’s pocketbooks.”
Local reactions in Metro Vancouver to the provincial money were more friendly.
Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, who chairs TransLink’s Mayors’ Council, welcomed the funding because it paves the way for governments to work together over the next year to begin expanding the transit system to keep pace with record-setting population growth, improve affordability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Had the provincial government not stepped up in the way that it has, TransLink was facing transit service cuts and fare increases — the hallmarks of a death spiral that too many other cities are falling into,” he said. “Instead, this significant funding package allows TransLink to move forward, delivering high-frequency, reliable and affordable transit services for the people of our region.”
TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn said the provincial funding provides certainty to nearly 400,000 people who depend on the system every day.
“This significant funding package will allow us to maintain our transit service levels for the immediate future,” Quinn said. “We will continue our important work to secure new sources of long-term revenue and investment for much-needed expansion projects outlined in the mayors’ council’s 10-year priorities.”
Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said the province will continue discussions with the federal government on a potential funding partnership for the 1o-year-plan.
“However, given TransLink’s significant and immediate needs, the (province) is taking action with this funding stabilization to address TransLink’s short-term operating funding needs, preventing layoffs and maintaining transit services that will create jobs and reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, which benefits residents and visitors to Metro Vancouver,” he said.
He added that the funding will also indirectly help the concurrent Broadway and Surrey-Langley Skytrain expansions projects. “Those two projects combined represent a 27 per cent expansion to the built Skytrain network in this region and it’s important that we didn’t let progress on those projects be compromised with the funding difficulties that TransLink has experienced because of the pandemic.”