TransLink failing to grow ridership: internal report

Ex-CEO scolds bad decisions, 'hostile' politicians in core services review of Metro Vancouver transit authority

Former TransLink interim CEO Doug Allen led a core services review during his six months heading the transportation authority last year.

TransLink should hive off responsibility for roads and bridges so it can better concentrate on increasing transit ridership, which has recently declined instead of growing.

That’s one of the recommendations in a blunt internal report penned by recently departed interim CEO Doug Allen in August after serving six months.

The core services review ordered by Allen found a lack of focus on ridership by TransLink, partly because it’s also supposed to improve roads and certain bridges – it operates the Pattullo, Knight Street and Golden Ears crossings.

“It is also a conflicting mandate as the more efficiently the road and bridge system moves vehicles, the less appealing public transit becomes,” Allen states in his report, released this week through a freedom of information request.

Growing ridership is not a key priority with specific initiatives and strategies to achieve it, the review found, and recent decisions have been “counterproductive.”

They include a sudden large fare hike in 2013 – instead of more gradual hikes – that drove away some users.

And the review suggests TransLink charges drivers too much to use park-and-ride lots, which could draw more transit riders if underused lots were cheaper.

“Having a corporate objective to maximize revenue from park and ride lots, rather than maximizing the use of the lots to increase ridership can introduce a disincentive to taking transit.”

Allen says Metro Vancouver mayors and the province must publicly support transit and TransLink in the future and scolded them for being “openly hostile” at times, harming the beleaguered transit authority.

“Openly criticizing a public agency on a regular basis simply reinforces uninformed views, particularly if the party doing the criticizing is responsible for the creation of the agency in the first place,” he said, referring to the province.

Allen arrived just as the board and mayors had removed former CEO Ian Jarvis at the outset of last year’s failed plebiscite on a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax to fund transit expansion.

He said Metro mayors wanted TransLink to “keep quiet” even as it faced a growing barrage of criticism led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation rather than defend its “exemplary” record of efficiency and savings.

“Remaining silent was the worst possible approach, especially during the plebiscite,” he said, adding the public hears only critics if TransLink fails to tell its own story.

Allen said TransLink continues to battle a widely held if misguided perception that it’s “inefficient, wasteful and incompetent.”

He said some cities in the region fuel that when they “share the view that TransLink is a bloated bureaucracy, wasting dollars and not getting much done.”

The B.C. government has so far rejected further governance reforms at TransLink, but Allen’s report argues it’s needed because TransLink’s structure is “unduly complicated and confusing” and leaves the public with virtually no interest or understanding of who is accountable.

Allen suggested some mayors don’t publicly support TransLink because their aim is to turn it into a regional municipal utility.

He argues against giving mayors more control over TransLink, adding an independent commissioner should be reinstated to approve significant fare or tax hikes, rather than the the mayors, who should only direct regional planning and long-term investment, not operational decisions.

Allen said TransLink’s structure with multiple operating subsidiaries with their own boards of directors results in an “awkward” organization with extra costs and potential for confusion.

A small change won’t be enough to regain public trust, Allen predicted, adding the plebiscite result proved Premier Christy Clark’s requirement of voter approval for any new tax was doomed to fail.

“You cannot ask the public to impose a tax on itself, no matter how sound the investment plan.”

Peter Fassbender, the province’s minister for TransLink, rejects some of Allen’s assertions, including the call for further governance reform and removal of bridge and road authority.

Fassbender denied the province doesn’t vocally support TransLink or that there’s a lack of focus on increasing ridership, pointing to the construction of the Evergreen Line.

“I think his comments are ill-informed and I think he’s trying to pick at things which quite honestly don’t hold water,” Fassbender said.

“I agree we have to stop the finger pointing and the blame game because that does not help to build public confidence.”

He said the next CEO should review the number of layers and subsidiaries TransLink has with an eye to slimming the structure.