The BC NDP promised to ensure full implementation of the Mayors’ Transit Plan if elected in next Spring’s provincial election. They plan to do this by raising the provincial contribution from 33 to 40 per cent of capital costs, eliminating the need for Metro Vancouver municipalities to impose a regional sales tax (or raise property taxes) to fund their portion of the costs, the subject of last year’s failed transit referendum.
The plan would create 4,300 jobs annually and extend transit services significantly—adding 400 new buses, building a subway line along the congested Broadway corridor, most of the way to UBC, and establishing light rail lines in Surrey, along with many other minor improvements. This is a capital spending project that would significantly improve access to transit services for working class people in Metro Vancouver while creating thousands of green jobs.
Liberal Minister responsible for Translink, Peter Fassbender, responded to the announcement with predictable contempt, arguing that local Mayors and their working class constituents need to “suck it up” and fund the plan through increases to property taxes and other measures that would drive up the already sky high cost of living in Vancouver. Fassbender questioned how the NDP would find the money without apparent irony at the same time as the Liberals are pushing the massive $3.5 Billion Massey Bridge boondoggle. The Massey is an unneeded toll bridge aimed at expanding fossil fuel infrastructure at the Port of Vancouver while doing nothing to alleviate traffic congestion and destroying significant tracks of farmland.
It was the Liberals who engineered the failed transit referendum in 2015 by pushing local mayors to raise additional funds through an unprecedented regional sales tax and forcing them to get approval for it through a mail in plebiscite. Since then transit services have continued to deteriorate with service hours dropping from 2.71 hours per capita to just over 2.4—an 11.5 per cent decrease. A stagnating system has been forced to carry a heavier and heavier burden with ridership increasing 2.2% last year alone. This has led to more bus pass ups, longer wait times for the Skytrain and longer travel times as overcrowded buses are forced to stop more often and for longer. In addition, service on routes with less than full ridership has been cut so that more buses could be moved to a small number of high density corridors. This in turn has spurred increasing development along these corridors which only exacerbates the problem and drives up rents and housing prices near main transit routes. Overcrowding has increased even during off peak hours with 34 per cent of buses overcrowded compared to 55 per cent during peak hours.
The NDP’s promise is welcome news to everyone who depends on transit services. It’s something that every working person should support. However, after last year’s failed transit referendum it is clear that the Mayor’s plan falls far short of addressing the root of the crisis in the transit system and working class people are well aware of it. While the Liberals designed the referendum to fail, it was never necessary for the Yes side to play by the Liberals’ rules. By accepting that already overburdened municipalities had to carry an unfair portion of the costs they allowed themselves to be forced into pushing an unpopular flat tax while defending or dismissing criticism of what is widely seen as a corrupt Translink board and a mismanaged transit service.
The mayors and especially Unifor, which represents transit workers, could have rejected this Faustian deal and demanded that the provincial government fulfill its responsibility to adequately fund Translink services and pay its fair share of the capital costs for the Mayor’s plan. Instead they chose to ally themselves with sections of the business community, in particular the Vancouver Board of Trade, who stood to profit handsomely from the plan while offloading the costs onto the backs of working class taxpayers and consumers. The Yes campaign fizzled in a few short weeks as it became apparent that voters were far from convinced and the Yes side had no way to convince them.
Many on the Yes side blamed the influence of the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation and right wing pundits like Ezra Levant for mounting an insidious No campaign. The truth however is that these forces were weak on the ground and could easily have been countered by a well organized grassroots Yes campaign. Much of the opposition appeared to be spontaneous. In the end many on the Yes side, who should have known better, ultimately blamed the failure of the campaign on the ignorance of working class voters instead of listening to what those voters were really trying to tell them. While the CTF was relating to worker’s anger over rising taxes and user fees to build the NO side, the Yes side was left trying to defend a tax they never supported in the first place.
Translink underfunding and overpolicing
The problem from the outset was that Unifor and the mayors were promoting a plan and a tax that while providing a much needed short term band-aid, doesn’t address the deeper long term crisis at Translink and would in fact make this crisis worse. The root of this crisis is chronic underfunding of Translink’s operating budget by the provincial government, forcing Translink to squeeze services and raise fares to make up the shortfall. This has been exacerbated greatly by the offloading of responsibility for roads and bridges, courtesy of the NDP government back in ’99 when Translink was created. Translink has never received adequate funding to cover the costs of road and bridge maintenance allowing fossil fuel infrastructure to sap funds from the public transit system.
With increased fares have also come more and more transit police to harass poor and working class transit users who can’t afford them. In 2014 this harassment resulted in the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, an undocumented migrant hotel worker, who was racially profiled, arrested for fare evasion and died 8 days later in a holding cell at Vancouver International Airport after being handed off to Canadian Border Services. A subsequent Transportation Not Deportation campaign led by activists at No One Is Illegal revealed that racial profiling and cooperation with CBSA were official policy and forced Transit Police to promise to end the practice. This year, after extensive delays, Translink put in place Compass Card fare gates that cost more to install and implement than they will ever recover in unpaid fares. The system was so poorly designed that bus riders couldn’t reliably swipe out when exiting buses, inadvertently forcing them to eliminate fare zone boundaries for bus trips. Fare zones are deeply unfair to people who have moved further out to find affordable housing but have to commute into downtown to work so this is a minor, if pyrrhic, victory.
Vancouver is a city of bridges. For the many people who have to drive, toll bridges have also made life more and more unaffordable. One third of the transit plan is consumed by spending on roads and bridges. The replacement of the rapidly aging, perennially under repair, Patullo bridge that links the working class suburbs of Surrey and Langley to downtown Vancouver, takes up most of this portion of the Mayors’ plan. It is one of the rapidly disappearing non-toll bridges in the city which is why many drivers often tack an extra 20 or 30 minutes onto their drive just to use it. It is slated to be replaced with a P3 that will also charge tolls once it is completed. For many in Surrey and Langley it means the only result they will see from the plan is an additional toll since transit improvements in the plan don’t go nearly far enough to make it convenient to take transit instead of driving.
What this all shows is that public spending on new infrastructure does not necessarily lead to expanded or strengthened public services. In the case of the Mayors’ plan in many ways it leads in the opposite direction towards privatization or de facto privatization. All of the major projects proposed would be Public Private Partnerships. P3s allow the private sector to profit from public spending projects while forcing working class taxpayers and consumers to shoulder the cost through user fees. A telling but rarely discussed section of the Mayors’ plan projects that debt servicing costs would rise from the current 3 pre cent of Translink’s operating budget to a whopping 17 per cent by the end of the ten year plan. This is largely because the money will be borrowed privately at much higher interest rates than what the government could get by borrowing directly, leaving drivers and transit users to pay for the Banks’ profits. This guarantees that Translink will be in deeper financial crisis by the end of the ten year plan, forced to jack up fares and tolls, further harass riders, and cut services to make up the shortfall, not to mention the pressure this puts on wages and conditions of transit workers. It will also help to further undermine confidence in a public transit service opening the door to outright privatization.
It’s also the case that P3s directly threaten union jobs. SNC Lavalin, one of Canada’s largest and most corrupt corporations, is slated to build the Broadway subway, largely based on a plan they developed, and reviewed by consultants they hired. In 2010 they brought in temporary foreign workers from Latin America, most of whom didn’t speak English, and initially paid them less than $4 per hour to do back breaking tunneling work on the Canada Line, often for 60 or 70 hours a week, while European workers doing exactly the same work were paid more than 5 times as much and treated far better. These workers are still fighting to be paid. These may have been green jobs but they were not the kind of jobs with justice that climate justice activists are fighting for.
Many on the yes side during the referendum complained that No voters’ anger was misdirected at Liberal appointed fat cats on the Translink board and their mismanagement of the transit service rather than at the provincial Liberals who were really behind it. But if this anger was misdirected it was largely because the Yes side itself had already accepted that they couldn’t do anything to challenge this state of affairs. The anger of working class voters was no less justified because of this and dismissing or downplaying it only served to delegitimize the Yes position even further.
Build a movement for public transit
While the NPD and the mayors should be supported in their call for expanding public transit services and creating green jobs, the failure of last year’s transit referendum and the many problems in the Mayor’s ten year plan show that transit workers and working class transit users can’t rely on them to deliver an affordable and accessible public transit service without building their own independent movement.
One example of how we can build a more effective movement comes from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. A mass door knocking campaign to stop cuts to Door to Door Delivery ultimately led to the Liberals halting the cuts. Working together with Friends of Public Services and building People For Posties groups was able to counter Canada Post’s efforts to impose a lockout on Postal Workers in August. The Delivering Community Power Campaign has inspired many with its visions of an expanded, green postal service that addresses social justice and climate change. Campaigns that unite public sector workers with working class people who depend on the services they provide can help to build the kind of movement we need to defend and restore our public transit system.