Referendum Questions: Is TransLink inefficient?

By most transit performance measures, TransLink is not grossly worse than other systems, as detractors claim

Broken video monitors. A giant poodle sculpture. A study for a transit gondola up Burnaby Mountain.

The No campaign website lists example after example of spending it says adds up to “extreme waste” at TransLink.

Yes advocates argue the money involved is insignificant compared to the cost of transit operations, which consume two thirds of TransLink’s $1.4-billion annual budget.

So how does TransLink perform on broad measures of transit service efficiency against other transit systems? Do Metro Vancouver residents get enough for the dollars spent?

Comparisons are tricky because transit systems have different characteristics and there are many ways to gauge them.

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute says operating cost per passenger kilometre statistics show TransLink has “relatively good” cost efficiency, ranking about average among big Canadian cities and much better than most U.S. systems.

Cost recovery from fares, at around 55 per cent in 2013, was second only to Toronto in this country and much better than its peer U.S. cities, including Seattle and Portland, the latter often seen as a transit mecca for people north of the border.

The numbers Litman uses come from the Canadian Urban Transit Association or the American Public Transit Association.

“An excellent financial performer” with a low taxpayer subsidy and “good value” is how the International Bus Benchmarking Group described TransLink’s bus division earlier this year.

No campaign head Jordan Bateman dismisses all those agencies as industry clubs that do nothing to audit or verify TransLink-submitted data.

The only authority he trusts on TransLink performance is the 2012 report by Shirocca Consulting, commissioned as part of an audit by TransLink’s independent commissioner.

“They actually dug deep into TransLink’s own numbers,” Bateman said. “According to the Shirocca report, it’s grossly worse than other Canadian transit agencies.”

Well, not exactly.

“The organization is well run and manages its costs,” the report said in part.

The bus system is “well delivered and good quality” but has “generally higher costs and lower cost efficiency and effectiveness than most of its peers.”

That’s about as far as Shirocca went in damning TransLink while offering up a list of potential savings — and that report is three years old and based on data from five years ago.

And according to Litman, some of the comparisons the report relied on were unfair; for instance, TransLink’s performance in covering 1,800 square kilometres was stacked against just the Toronto Transit Commission, with a footprint one third as large, without including other Greater Toronto services in the suburbs.

As the Shirocca review was underway in 2012, as well as a second audit by the provincial government, TransLink had already launched a cost-cutting drive.

A major plank of that drive was the bus service optimization initiative, which shuffled service from underused routes to overcrowded ones where more money could be collected by accommodating more passengers.

A follow-up progress report issued by Shirocca eight months later in November 2012 found the moves, spearheaded by then-CEO Ian Jarvis, were working.

“There have been significant reductions in operating costs,” it said, citing $33 million in new annual savings already identified and more in the works, with much of the gains coming from tightening up the bus system.

Bus service optimization was yielding “significant savings without affecting service to the public,” it said, while flagging costs of the Compass card/faregates system as an area of concern.

New TransLink interim CEO Doug Allen says much has changed in the past three years.

“This is an efficient organization,” he stated in a report to the board March 30. “We provide more bus service today with fewer staff than five years ago and our cost per passenger boarding has dropped 30 per cent.”

TransLink counts $240 million in savings over the last three years and claims it now delivers each kilometre of service more cheaply than Toronto and Montreal, and the Canadian average.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone last week noted TransLink is widely recognized as “one of the best” systems in the world.

Still, Litman said it’s unsurprising that TransLink’s efficiency may still look bad by certain measures. For instance, wages that are higher than the Canadian average (TransLink’s top rate is $29.78 an hour for bus drivers) are not surprising with housing costs as high as they are in Metro Vancouver, he says.

“There are some good reasons why Vancouver’s costs should be higher than other areas,” he said.

Buses in other cities don’t generally have to cover the vast distances they do here to cross uninhabited farmland in Richmond or Delta where there are no fare-paying passengers.

Another reason is that, unlike more established cities, Metro Vancouver is growing rapidly, particularly in areas such as Surrey, Langley and the Tri-Cities. Adding new bus routes to serve emerging neighbourhoods drives up costs, particularly when there aren’t yet enough residents to support frequent service. And near-empty buses rolling around are a prime target for auditors.

But it’s a chicken-and-egg problem because if the service isn’t offered at a deeper public subsidy, a generation of residents in newly developed areas will grow up driving, more cars will be bought and housing developments won’t be designed with transit in mind.

As well, a blinkered focus on minimizing costs runs the risk of rolling back service south of the Fraser River instead of increasing it, and fundamentally changing how those areas develop in the future.

“I think there is a danger of going too far,” Litman said of the bus route optimizing that auditors championed in 2012. “If you simply ask where can we cut service that has low ridership, one of the first things you would do is eliminate late night service and service to the suburbs.”

Ironically, infrequent service is one of the prime reasons many residents south of the Fraser have listed for voting No in the referendum.

Bateman, meanwhile, is unpersuaded by the latest efficiency statistics or observations that it was the province that mandated the Compass card/faregates system and funded the empty South Surrey park-and-ride.

“If TransLink was running so efficiently and wonderfully, why did they dump their CEO? I’m not sure how they can have it both ways.”

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.