The painful process of getting a transit train wreck back on track

If we had to do this today, Ogden Nash would say: you can’t get there from here.

We have a long journey in a short time ahead to fix our public transit system. En route to the dollars we need a new dialogue.

We have to go from talking past each other to talking to each other, from a debate of the deaf to completing each other’s sentences and from an antagonistic opt-out to a compassionate buy-in.

It isn’t going to be easy when the foundation of the process involves such suspicion (no clear budget), such acrimony (no tolerance for tax), such rivalry (no love for Vancouver) and such arrogance (no Vancouver love for the driver). A fraught and fractious context seeks near-consensus in the near term.

How did it ever get to this? Who would have thought that an agreed-upon public imperative – for a deservedly modern and thorough public transit system, sustainably and fairly and least painfully financed – would require ceasefire, conciliation and even credibility?

What shambles we are in, having lacked a proper conversation for years on how we finance the grand plan of the regional mayors.

But make no mistake: eventually the train will come rolling down the track, the money will come from somewhere to pay for something – even with questions that cannot be answered as we are coaxed aboard.

Last week, the task of transportation peacemaking fell to an independent commission on “mobility pricing” to plot the road map by next spring.

Mobility pricing is a darling euphemism. It’s a surcharge for driving stacked on a cost for buying on a fee for insuring on an expense for maintaining on a tax for filling up.

No slight intended to the commission, because it is led admirably by former deputy minister Allan Seckel as chair and former cabinet minister Joy MacPhail as vice-chair. Daniel Firth, who helped bring mobility pricing to London and Stockholm, will serve as executive director. But let’s admit: this is one of the lousiest mop-ups imaginable.

Why? Municipal regimes didn’t plan for the dead obvious – for decades people were coming, roads were congesting, duh and double-duh – and chose to kick the can down the gridlocked road.

Now they want not to allocate cash from within but to ask for more cash – mainly from drivers, already pumping nearly $0.50 a litre into tax coffers.

Nice.

The needed and certain-to-be claimed cash involves billions over the next generation, but the exercise appears to be as much about social engineering as it about fiscal domineering. It wants to be the game-changer in getting us out of our cars. Trouble is, it needed to build before bilking.

The timetable for construction and financing could very easily put the cash before the cart before the horse.

How that builds public support – many moved from Vancouver when governments did nothing to stem housing prices and would now face more expense to drive back to the city they fled – is the stuff of charm-laden diplomacy.  It’s hard to get excited when you do not have adequate transit choice and are asked to trade cash for future considerations.

Vancouver’s particular ironies are rich. Our city frets about the environment but has made idling cars our newest greenhouse gas threat. It installs a bike counter at the bottom of the Burrard Bridge, but has stifled the overpass to vehicular traffic for more than two years. 

A better idea: build a great transit system out of funds that are going to be available as our communities grow, make it more irresistible as a system than what is even now planned, and then wait.

If you need to tax, do it once people like what they use and the mystery is out of what they’re financing.

Many of us have lived in cities like that. We may just be too far along to do it.

A bad idea: make this commission a punitive exercise of taking long before giving, of incessant congestion meantime with a driver-versus-cyclist distraction. We have lived this movie too long.

By all means, let’s get out of our cars. Just not angrily. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.

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