The glaring imbalance in Metro Vancouver’s transit plebiscite
The current transit plebiscite, conducted by mail-in ballot across Metro Vancouver, asks whether residents are willing to support a 0.5 percentage point increase to the Provincial Sales Tax, which would generate an extra $250 million to help fund $7.5 billion worth of transportation projects tabled by the Mayors’ Council.
But according to the plan, not all residents in the region are created equal. If you’re a motorist, for instance, you won’t get much love.
More than three-quarters of the total value of the proposed capital projects are for public transit, with the rest divided between bike paths, sidewalks, major roads, and the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge. So the plan is mainly about providing a large-scale expansion in public transit (rail, buses, etc.) in return for higher taxes on everyone.
Is this a fair balance? According to Statistics Canada, three-quarters of work commutes in Metro Vancouver do not involve public transit, and most are made by car. Meanwhile, the proposed tax hike—on everything from toothpaste to televisions—would apply to all residents in the region. In other words, drivers and non-transit users will shoulder most of the extra costs while benefitting the least from the proposed projects.
Drivers will see an indirect benefit, plan proponents will claim, through improved travel times due to less congestion. This is far from certain. Research by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner published in the prestigious American Economic Review journal concluded that “extensions to public transit are not appropriate policies with which to combat traffic congestion.”
Proponents will also claim that the new bus and rail infrastructure will increase transit ridership as a share of total commutes in Metro Vancouver. But evidence from other costly transit projects suggests otherwise. Consider a 2010 study by Randal O’Toole, a transportation expert in the U.S., which analyzed transit ridership in major American cities. The study concluded that "fewer than one out of four rail regions can honestly argue that new rail transit lines generated significant new riders."
More recently, a 2015 report by the American Public Transportation Association found that overall ridership of Washington, D.C.’s Metro system decreased despite its newly-minted, multibillion-dollar Silver Line. And again, even if TransLink significantly increased its share of commuters (which is unlikely), the cost of the proposed projects would still be disproportionately borne by people who don’t use transit.
The imbalance is most stark when we consider a particular initiative in the plan: the Pattullo Bridge replacement (or rehabilitation). Here, not only are drivers expected to help fund the $892 million allocated for the bridge, but they will also pay a toll to use it. This double squeeze on drivers traversing the Fraser River magnifies the gap between those paying for the proposed projects and those benefitting. It also creates a regional imbalance, in terms of costs and benefits, between commuters in different parts of Metro Vancouver.
The bottom line: the overwhelming majority of Metro Vancouverites do not use public transit but are expected to subsidize it with higher taxes on many of their day-to-day expenses. This represents a clear imbalance between those who would pay for the proposed plan and those who would benefit.