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Restore elected control of TransLink, review urges

Mayors
Mayors' Council chair Richard Walton, left, is mayor of the District of North Vancouver. Kevin Falcon, right, was B.C.'s Transportation Minister in 2008 when TransLink's elected board was replaced with an appointed one.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

TransLink's disjointed and unaccountable governance system should be rebuilt, with elected representatives put back in charge.

That's the main finding of a new report commissioned by the Metro Vancouver regional mayors' council, which has repeatedly called on the province to make reforms.

The TransLink governance review, led by consultants Acuere Consulting, doesn't recommend one specific model, but examined practices in 13 cities around the world.

It concludes TransLink's structure with an appointed board of directors in control of all decisions except major revenue increases is an anomaly worldwide, while other jurisdictions invariably have elected representatives in charge who answer democratically to the people being served.

The report found accountability is "almost completely missing" from TransLink's current structure and it's "less than ideal" on transparency, responsiveness, clarity of purpose, advocacy and productive relationships.

"The province has exercised a dominant interest, feeling free to impose its priorities on the region and reluctant to provide a role in transit for local government institutions it did not directly or indirectly control," it says.

The release of the report, which cost $74,000, comes just ahead of the provincial election and mayors hope the province will immediately agree to explore options, perhaps in concert with university academics and other experts.

"There has to be an elected person or persons at the top who are responsible," said Mayors Council chair Richard Walton. "I'm hoping this will elevate the level of conversation considerably."

TransLink used to have a board of directors consisting of elected mayors and city councillors, chosen via the Metro Vancouver regional district board.

Former Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon scrapped that system in 2008, calling it a "disaster circus" of infighting by local politicians, who nearly refused to build the Canada Line ahead of the 2010 Olympics.

In their place came the unelected "professional" board consisting of corporate directors with expertise in areas like finance, real estate and engineering.

The Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation was set up where mayors appointed the board directors, but could only choose from a tight short list vetted mainly by business groups allied with the province.

The main role left to the mayors council was to approve or reject any significant fare or tax increases to fund expansion projects that the board proposed.

The result, mayors charge, has been a system where they are left shouldering the blame for the increased bill to drivers, transit users and property owners, but without any control over the actual priorities.

"It's not clear at all to the public which elected people are responsible," Walton said.

"As for the appointed board, for the most part nobody knows who they are and they're not accountable to the public. All the business is done in-camera, in private."

The 2008 reform was an attempt by the province to hand over and deflect responsibility for the challenges at TransLink, Walton said, but he noted the province remains an integral player because any new capital funding needs Victoria's approval.

The challenges will persist, he said, no matter which party is in government after the May 14 election.

The review said logical reform options include:

- Assigning transportation governance to Metro Vancouver's board or a committee.

- Giving full control of TransLink policy to the mayors' council.

- Creating a new TransLink oversight board appointed by either the Metro Vancouver board or mayors' council from among their members.

A management-level board would still be needed to oversee day-to-day operations, the report says.

It wouldn't be a perfect solution to the accountability issue.

Politicians picked by their cities to represent them at Metro Vancouver and then subsequently selected for TransLink duty would still face the same criticism as the old board – that they're at best indirectly elected and not directly accountable to voters for what happens at TransLink.

Stockholm and London – the two cities whose models scored best in the review – can't be easily replicated here because their transport representatives are directly elected regionally, unlike Metro's system.

Some observers noted to the reviewers that Metro Vancouver has trouble dealing with divisive issues, usually deferring to a local city's wishes rather than resolutely enforcing a regional perspective when needed.

Their fear is that any restructured TransLink board that's a subset of Metro's board may have the same problem.

One key consideration stressed in the report and by Walton is that the resulting system needs to not just effectively plan transportation for a rapidly growing, underserved region, but ensure that's well coordinated with land-use planning and economic development and not working at cross-purposes.

Another facet of TransLink governance is its independent commissioner, who advises the mayors on plans proposed by the board and has some power of his own to veto unreasonable fare increases.

The review said there are mixed opinions on the commissioner's value, with most players close to TransLink doubting it improves decision-making or accountability.

 

Reform options considered

- Reverting back to the pre-2008 system
- Eliminating TransLink as it now exists in favour of a provincial government department with the Transportation Minister responsible.
- A Toronto-style model with an appointed board that is more broadly based to better reflect the community.
- A Stockholm model where Metro Vancouver's board acts as a policy board governing TransLink.
- A London-style model where a TransLink board is reformulated with mayors and directors appointed by Metro Vancouver to set major strategic policies, while retaining a management level board of the current appointed directors plus more to reflect the community and control operational decisions.

Other observations

- Mixed provincial/TransLink responsibility for major bridges, highways is confusing.
- The province's original aim of extending TransLink's boundaries east to Hope and north to Pemberton are illogical and lacking support of those areas.
- Provincial policy on tolling inappropriately limits TransLink's options on use of road or bridge tolls.

TransLink Governance Review by Jeff Nagel

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