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TransLink surplus doesn't end hunt for new taxes

TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis. - Jeff Nagel / Black Press
TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

More cost cutting strengthened TransLink's finances last year, but officials say it's a blip that doesn't alter the need for new revenue sources to fund expansion in the face of Metro Vancouver's growth.

The transportation authority reported a $36.8 million surplus for 2013 – boosting its reserve fund up to $126 million – at its Wednesday annual general meeting.

But critics there said the savings have come at a cost in reduced access to transit, including reduced SkyTrain frequency on weekends and ongoing bus service "optimization" that shifts resources from underperforming routes to others with unmet demand.

TransLink board chair Marcella Szel acknowledged the frustration already felt on congested transit lines and said directors are particularly concerned about the system's ability to keep pace with demand, as 30,000 to 40,000 new residents arrive each year.

"There are communities being planned around transit and transit is not there," Szel said. "So people are using their cars when they probably would have chosen not to use one."

TransLink officials say they'll continue working to build demand on routes slated for rapid transit – such as the new 96 B-Line down King George Boulevard in Surrey – and will be prepared to launch an expansion swiftly if approved by voters in an expected referendum next year.

Szel said executive pay has been frozen at 2012 levels, all bonuses have been eliminated and the number of executives across all branches of TransLink has been cut from 30 to 19 since 2009.

"We're doing everything we can to provide continuity of the service we have today," CEO Ian Jarvis said. "But saving your way to expansion is just not feasible."

The various cuts – $14 million worth last year – were coupled with a continued search for new revenue on multiple fronts.

New fees were approved at previously free park-and-ride lots and strategies are being pursued to to make developers pay more around transit stations and add more revenue-generating retail outlets.

Jarvis said he's even open to business proposals on naming rights for new stations to raise cash.

TransLink's current plan counts on the sale of the Oakridge Transit Centre to generate more money for operations – something both Jarvis and Metro mayors agree is not financially responsible.

Metro Vancouver mayors meet June 12 to debate and perhaps unveil a plan for TransLink expansion and proposed new taxes to fund it.

If mayors sign off, it will be up to the province to decide if the package goes to a referendum of Metro voters.

Potential revenue options range from an annual vehicle levy to a regional sales tax.

Mayors council chair Richard Walton said he's hoping for consensus and said a deal is close.

"It's probably 99.8 per cent," Walton said, but added there's critical wording still in flux.

"We don't want to have a community that refuses to support it on grounds of four lines in it. It's that level of detail we're down to."

Compass card wait

There's still no firm word on when TransLink's already delayed Compass card will fully roll out.

Officials say they're moving slowly and waiting for provider Cubic Systems to fix some problems, such as unacceptably slow times for electronic readers to detect the cards.

West Coast Express commuter rail passengers could be next in line to start using the new smart card in late summer.

TransLink's administration costs climbed 15.5 per cent last year to $28.2 million, mainly as a result of higher costs for technology, marketing and communications related to the Compass card project.

Most of the transportation authority's $1.4-billion annual budget goes directly to transit service.

Ridership dropped two per cent to 234 million passengers in 2013, following a hike in transit fares.

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