Black Press regional reporter Jeff Nagel interviewed former transportation ministers Kevin Falcon and Blair Lekstrom Nov. 6 and 7, asking them to reflect on TransLink issues. The following interviews are edited and condensed.
Falcon was Transportation Minister for five years from January 2004 until mid-2009, going on to serve as minister of health, then finance, as well as deputy premier. He ran for the BC Liberal leadership in 2011, losing to Christy Clark.Two days before this interview, Falcon criticized the referendum in a speech to the Surrey Board of Trade. You can read that at Falcon concerned about referendum delay for transit.
JN: You were a fan of direct democracy in your earlier years, weren’t you? (In 1999, Falcon launched the ‘Total Recall’ campaign that attempted to unseat NDP MLAs and topple the government.)
FALCON: I was – in my young and less informed years. But having seen the wreckage that has resulted in states in the United States like California I have to admit that I have refined my position to be less enamoured with referendums and the damage that they can do.
JN: Why are you concerned about the TransLink referendum?
FALCON: The biggest concern I have with the referendum on transit is that it delays the opportunity to actually get transit built. I always came from the school of let’s get on with building the things that people want. Something that’s going to delay it by a year if not more I just think it’s a bit unfortunate.
JN: It also brings the risk of defeat and a much longer delay.
FALCON: That is a very real risk obviously especially given the very, very tight timeframes. Given that the referendum has to be held by the end of March, December will be a complete write-off with Christmas, the same with early January.It doesn’t leave the mayors a lot of time to go out there and make the case for the additional revenues that they’re going to need not to mention having to identify them. Having said that, that is the reality now in front of everyone. I imagine they will do their very best to try and make that case.
JN: Did you ever consider a referendum requirement for new funding when you were restructuring TransLink?
FALCON: No. Never ever had I considered that. It just didn’t cross my mind. I always considered referendums a bit of a cop-out for politicians. It allows us to avoid making hard decisions that should be made and defended. That’s not always universally true but it’s my general bias.
JN: Would you campaign for the Yes side?
FALCON: I don’t know that I would honestly have time to be out campaigning. I think I’ve done my bit over 12 years. I think lots of others can help do that. If I’m asked, I suppose I could consider it, but it’s not something I’m thinking about at all.
JN: You fought for the HST referendum. Should senior government leaders campaign actively or be neutral on the transit referendum?
FALCON: I don’t see that as something the province needs to be doing. It’s very different from the HST. The HST was entirely a provincial initiative. Therefore it was a provincial responsibility to at least make sure the public had the facts in front of them in making the decision.
JN: Some say your reform of TransLink failed. Would you do it differently in hindsight?
FALCON: Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Is it a lot better than the old system? I would argue absolutely it is.There were some severe governance challenges in that structure as was pointed out by Auditor General and others who argued for a smaller board with more professionals that could avoid all the politicizations and apply straight forward good transit decision making.
JN: Will the province, perhaps reasonably, always keep one hand on the steering wheel?
FALCON: The province has to keep one hand on the wheel because they’re going to be major financial participants and they’re going to have to make the case for federal dollars to come to the table, which makes it more affordable for TransLink and local government.There’s great opportunity for the parties to work together but it does require people just trying to park the politics and say ‘lets get some stuff done here.’
JN: How would you characterize the different approaches of Premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark?
FALCON: Everyone has a different approach and different approaches are probably a good thing. But at the end of the day the public judges you on results. When they get get on the Evergreen Line and actually travel from the Tri Cities to the downtown core. Or get on the Canada Line and know you can be out to the airport or Richmond very very quickly. That’s the kind of results the public wants to see at the end of the day. They’re not interested in the bickering, the fighting, the positioning and all the rest of it. My strong encouragement to all the parties would be let’s try to get this rapid transit built and I think the public will be appreciative.
JN: You tolled the Port Mann Bridge. And you know the debate over road pricing or tolling reform that has ensued. Do you think the decision to toll that bridge put the region on an irreversible course to a radical solution?
FALCON: I don’t think there needs to be a radical solution. Tolling was the only way we would have been able to put that new 10 lane bridge in place to ease up and improve what was a very, very troubling traffic nightmare. Remember all the critics said that wouldn’t make a difference – the traffic wouldn’t improve, it would be just as full as it always was, we were foolish in doing it – that hasn’t been the case at all.
JN: It does give people the option. You can pay in cash instead of time.
FALCON: Exactly, you don’t have to pay through lost time, and there’s the economic cost of having trucks and people trying to get to work trapped hours a day sitting in traffic on that bridge. That was the right decision for sure.That doesn’t mean every new piece of infrastructure should be tolled. Remember the principles we operated under were that we would not toll existing infrastructure that had already long been paid for. And it would only be considered when it was new infrastructure where the benefits significantly outweighed the costs and there were free non-tolled alternatives available. If the government moves from those principles – and they certainly have the right to do that – then they will have to identify what new principles are going to govern tolling.
JN: How do you pay for the Massey tunnel and Pattullo Bridge replacements?
FALCON: The provincial government and federal government should play a role in that for sure. There should be money coming to the table from both parties.
JN: Was your directive to TransLink to build SkyTrain faregates along with the Compass card the right decision in hindsight?
FALCON: My number one reason was security on the platforms for women and younger kids. It keeps off aggressive panhandlers and low-level drug dealers who generally won’t pay to go harass people.Number two was the case of the subway bombings in London. The fact they had the gates, the cameras and their version of the Compass card they call the Oyster card was absolutely fundamental to solving that within 24 hours.Here in British Columbia we have a completely wide open system where people come and go whenever they want. I would hear lots of complaints from young women in particular about the harassment they would experience or their fear particularly at night of being on those platforms waiting for trains when anyone would come and go.And the final issue for me was the revenue boost they will get as a result of it. I believe it will be significantly more than they ever acknowledged they were losing. It stops the cheating and the free riders. I am a little frustrated to see it’s been delayed like this. But I hope whatever bugs they’ve got they will get ironed out and get this thing up and running. It will be a tremendous benefit.
Lekstrom was Transportation Minister from March 2011 to September 2012.
JN: Why is the relationship between the mayors and the province so seemingly toxic?
LEKSTROM: It really comes down to who funds it that’s the fundamental question. And the governance structure – mayors were certainly concerned about the changes early in our mandate and I’m not sure they have accepted that.
JN: The mayors say they can’t afford to raise property taxes higher, while the province says Metro Vancouver was absolved of paying regional hospital capital taxes when TransLink was created?
LEKSTROM: At the end of the day I think it’s going to be a combination of funding options. I have always said I think property taxes is going to have to be part of that. Nobody wants to pay more taxes for virtually anything but we all want more services.
JN: Is the problem the cities wear any increase in property taxes while the province feels blame may fall on it to use anything else?
LEKSTROM: There is some politics in there. Mayors or councils don’t want to be the ones to say we’re going to raise your taxes, regardless of what the service is they’re trying to deliver. I think there’s a way to find a solution to this by working together.
JN: What mistakes were made by the province in your view?
LEKSTROM: I’m not sure I would say mistakes. When the governance change occurred there were people who were very upset with that. There was a stalemate at the time.Do I think it’s extremely hard for an elected member to sit at a table and not have as much influence as they feel they should have – yeah I feel that’s an issue.
JN: The province directed a series of audits before considering any increase in funding. What’s your take on what was found?
LEKSTROM: I think they run a good organization. An audit was done there to find what kind of savings they thought might have been overlooked. What it showed is it’s being run quite reasonably well here.
JN: Is the TransLink referendum a good idea?
LEKSTROM: Its a tough one. If you’re going to ask people if they want to pay more in taxes I could give you the answer right now.Governing by referendum I think is always a difficult position. I’m a believer if you cast your ballot for someone, whether it’s for a three or four year term, I’m giving them the ability to make decisions on my behalf and I’ll judge their results later. I’m not a huge supporter of governing by referendum.
JN: Do you think the referendum will fail?
LEKSTROM: I think the minister’s got a tough job ahead of him. I do believe people recognize the amount of money needed in the years ahead to meet the demands of this system is huge. It’s going to take a lot of people coming to the table.
JN: What do you think of road pricing or tolling reform?
LEKSTROM: Personally I’m not a supporter of huge tolling operations. As a British Columbian, I would personally rather pay a little more in taxes to ensure our transportation infrastructure is sound.I think we could pay a little more in taxes overall to ensure sound transportation infrastructure throughout the province. It’s the backbone of our economy. Nothing means a thing if you can’t move product to market.
JN: Is that how you’d solve the cash crunch at BC Ferries as well?
LEKSTROM: We demand a lot of our ferry system. It comes back to ‘I want lower rates, I want better service.’ Unless somebody has a magic wand it’s just not possible. The minister’s in a tough spot.
JN: Would you have done anything differently on the TransLink file?
Explore our interactive timeline below of the history of TransLink’s financial challenges. Mobile users click here.