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Letter to the BC Government on Budget 2024

British Columbia Legislature building and fountain

The following letter was sent by a TABC member to their MLA, copied to the Premier and the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure.

I am writing following the release of the 2024 BC Budget, press coverage thereof, and the March 2, 2024 BC NDP News email and the associated web link touting the government’s Transit and Infrastructure investments. Unfortunately I believe this government is doing far too little to support the shift away from personal automobiles and inefficient land use that is needed in BC’s urban areas.  The response to the collapse of intercity bus service in the province has also been wholly inadequate. The government’s lack of investment in public transit also does not align well with legislating municipalities to zone for additional density near rapid transit, including high quality bus services. The quid pro quo to that has to be a commitment to support the investments in transit service needed to make the land use mandates successful. The Connecting BC: A Vision for Public Transit throughout BC proposal released by the BC Federation of Labour is a far more compelling vision, addressing the lack of service quality and connectivity in both urban and rural areas. 

Looking at the few of the items promoted in 10 ways we’re making it easier for you to get around in BC:

  • Removing bridge tolls (seven years ago now…) caused an immediate increase in congestion, decreased travel time reliability, and put a big revenue hole in the budget. Increasing congestion is now driving the latest $2.48 billion widening scheme for 13 km of Highway 1 in the Fraser Valley. While putting tolls on just two bridges might have been “unfair” it would have been far better to have expanded tolls (at lower rates) to all major crossings, such as the new Patullo and Massey crossings, to help recoup the costs of maintaining the highway system and providing for infrastructure renewal. Removing tolls helped flood neighbourhoods like Vancouver-Mount Pleasant with more polluting, collision causing traffic.

  • Expanding SkyTrain to Central Broadway and Langley is a laudable initiative. However, without improvements to the regional bus network, this investment can’t reach its full potential. TransLink has been forced to play a zero-sum game of reallocating bus service within the region due to lack of funding. Resources have been taken from the urban core to keep up with rapid growth in the southeastern suburbs, reducing frequencies to the point where ridership losses are inevitable due to the inconvenience. Major routes in Vancouver, such as those on Main and Fraser in Vancouver, now barely qualify under TransLink’s “Frequent Transit Network” standard of a bus every 15 minutes after having previously enjoyed service that was no worse than every 10 minutes at all major times of the day – a one-third cut in service. The R5 RapidBus on Hastings is down to a 15 minute service on weekends. The 2 bus on Macdonald south of 16th Avenue is now down to a bus every 24 minutes middays and weekends, when it was formerly never worse than every 15 minutes. This is all occurring because of a lack of funding sources, including first a freeze on fares and then increases capped at far below the rate of inflation and wage settlements. While there is no question that fares need to be kept affordable, if the service quality is not there, many of those who have the option will choose other, more polluting and congesting ways to get around. Further, the regional gas tax is not as solid a source as it once was thanks to electric cars (incidentally, incentivized by the Province) and the ease for some of filling up outside Metro Vancouver.  The “10 ways…” web page says the government has funded an increase of 40,000 transit service hours – that is a measly 0.7% of the bus service hours in TransLink’s 2024 Business Plan. Bus service is essentially stuck at 2019 levels while the regional population has grown by 12%.

  • Electric Vehicles are better than combustion engine vehicles for those trips where a car is needed but the government is going to need to figure out a way to modernize and replace the Provincial Gas Tax as well, so that the roadway system continues to have some semblance of a user pay system – ideally one that is is based on use (distance driven), rather than just the cost of entry (licence fees).

  • BC Bus North is a nice initiative to replace the Greyhound service lost, by both a lack of a coordinated Provincial non-automobile transportation plan and an unmotivated provider, but the most “frequent” routes provide only two trips a week each way! And online bookings need to be made at least 24 hours in advance. Then in the southern part of the province there is a patchwork of uncoordinated providers offering a very minimal service. The difficulty in getting around much of BC without boarding a plane or automobile is an embarrassment in a first world country. The Province really needs to step up and lead coordination of a provincial  ground and marine passenger transportation network. While much of this will rely on buses, the former BC Rail line to Prince George and the Island Corridor are two routes that are crying out for returns to passenger service. The former could support regional travel again and offers stunning scenery that would be great to market to Metro Vancouver residents fed up with being stuck in traffic jams and the inconvenience of modern air travel. The latter serves a continuous string of substantial settlements, including many First Nations communities, and bypasses the notorious congestion and weather chokepoint of the Malahat. 

So while I am glad to see investments in transit touted, there is still much to catch up on if we have any hope of reducing climate changing emissions, and avoiding the massive resource misallocation that assuming a switch to universal electric car use will cause. This government really needs to step up, like the Barrett government did in the 1970s, with visionary improvements to transit across the province. Don’t extend the stagnation caused by the BC Liberal’s disastrous 2015 transit referendum – their decimation in urban areas in the subsequent election was no doubt one of the fruits of that misguided process.

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