TransLink should have scrapped its historic practice of occasionally giving lifetime transit passes to select recipients instead of formalizing it in a new policy, says the chair of Metro Vancouver’s mayors council.
North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton said the optics of some people getting lifetime passes is unfortunate as TransLink has recently undergone audits to cut costs and is now seeking controversial new revenue sources.
“I don’t think it’s particularly wise,” Walton said. “Given where we are right now with intense scrutiny on TransLink’s accountability and cost control, I think the messaging is terrible.”
He said he had no idea the passes existed until this week.
“I don’t think it’s good policy going forward,” he said. “People are looking through a fairness lens at TransLink that is very, very intense.”
The policy passed in February now requires a resolution of TransLink’s appointed board to create new lifetime passes, which are a special thank-you reserved for distinguished service.
TransLink spokesperson Jiana Ling said 80 lifetime transit passes exist and most were handed out in the 1980s and 1990s prior to TransLink’s formation in 1999.
Only eight were given out since 1999 and none of the golden tickets have been created in the past year or two.
“It’s very rare that we do provide these but it’s there if we want to thank someone for their contribution,” Ling said.
TransLink’s new policy says recipients can include board directors, mayors,and directors who serve on the Transit Police board or on other TransLink subsidiary boards.
In theory they can be used for unlimited travel anywhere on TransLink’s system.
But Ling suggested many holders – including a Vancouver Island man who was the last recipient – keep their passes framed in their offices as they would other honours, not in their wallet to get free trips.
There is no formal criteria to decide who’s worthy.
“If they made a significant change to the organization, if they had some marvellous idea that changed the system drastically and improved our organization and made it better – that would be considered a major contribution where we want to thank them and reward them,” she said.
Ling said four of the passes issued since TransLink was created went to past board chairs – two professional appointees who have served since 2009 and two elected officials who served previously.
One of them is George Puil, a former TransLink board chair and Vancouver city councillor.
And former Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum – who served as TransLink board chair from 2002-2005 – confirmed he also has one that he uses to get to meetings in Vancouver.
“I think the program is worthwhile, I do use it a lot,” the South Surrey resident said. “Whenever I do go to Vancouver I do use it. I try not to use my car and to use public transportation.”
McCallum says his lifetime pass is similar to his driver’s licence, bearing his picture, but with no expiry date.
“I think the policy of the board long before I was on the board was that past chairmen would get passes,” he said.
Asked about criticism the passes are an excessive perk, he said: “I think if people feel that they don’t need to give it to me.”
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who was also a past board chair of TransLink and was critical of the change to a board of professional appointees in 2009, said he did not receive a pass.
Walton said he understands the desire to honour certain individuals.
He said provincial law has for decades allowed municipalities to give a “Freedom of the City” award that lets the recipient vote in perpetuity in municipal elections even if they no longer live in that city.
But Walton noted there’s no financial benefit of that award, unlike TransLink lifetime passes, which saves the bearer $2,040 a year (the annual cost of a three-zone monthly pass.)
He suggested TransLink instead create a different non-financial honour – perhaps by naming SkyTrain cars after those deemed worthy.
Other TransLink freebies now gone
TransLink has been eliminating a number of other free passes under legacy programs.
Police officers, firefighters and some other government workers – including fisheries officers – are no longer eligible for free employer passes as of July 1.
TransLink says the old passes have been eliminated to cut costs and simplify the pass structure as it prepares to roll out new Compass smart cards.
Ling said since TransLink now has its own Transit Police there’s no need to provide free access to the transit system for other police forces or emergency responders.
Transit Police officers won’t have to pay to buy a pass.
They’re among the 6,600 TransLink employees who will continue to get free transit passes as part of their employment.
Existing TransLink board and mayors’ council members also get free transit passes.
“That’s for them to experience the system firsthand so they know what works, what doesn’t and what needs to be improved,” Ling said.
Former Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum was TransLink board chair from 2002-2005 and is one of the holders of a lifetime transit pass handed out by TransLink. He’s been active in recent years advocating on behalf of the standardbred horse racing industry. Black Press file photo.