For bus passengers battling crowded conditions, the impasse over funding for TransLink means transit congestion won’t improve anytime soon.
And some advocates predict it could worsen.
SFU City Program director Gordon Price said the pressure now on the transportation authority to find savings may translate into buses running less frequently, closer to full and increasingly driving past people waiting at stops because they’re already packed.
“I don’t see how that’s not going to be a consequence of this,” he said.
“Sure you can make cuts. But what someone calls efficiency someone else is going to call overcrowding or an absence of service at all.”
Price joked would-be riders who are passed up in the rain can remind themselves ”Ah, that’s just TransLink being more efficient.”
TransLink Commissioner Martin Crilly last month rejected a proposed fare increase and directed officials to instead find $20 million a year in savings.
Crilly had projected the savings can be found without cutting existing service levels.
He did not factor into his findings the fact TransLink is also being pushed to find a further $30 million a year in savings to revive a now-frozen transit expansion, which includes the King George B Line in Surrey and RapidBus service over the Port Mann Bridge.
The province has dispatched internal auditors to help to find that money.
Price said the pressure to cut could also play out in other trade-offs other than direct service, like a return to more use of diesel buses rather than electric trolleys or hybrids, or other decisions that sacrifice environmental or other objectives to cut costs.
So far officials have said they will resist pressure to cut service levels, particularly to areas such as the HandyDart custom service for the elderly and disabled.
But Price said the discussion inevitably leads towards cuts to lightly used routes in suburban areas in the name of efficiency, clouding the long-term vision for smarter civic design.
“Why would anyone shape growth around an expansion of transit that is not likely?” he asked.
Price noted the South of Fraser area is already getting hammered because major upgrades there are now frozen.
Paul Hillsdon, a transit and urban issues advocate in Surrey, agreed Crilly seems too focused on bus service productivity.
He said a failure to grow or maybe even maintain bus service in high-growth suburban neighbourhoods risks entrenching development patterns based on driving rather than transit.
“It’s a slippery slope to start looking at these issues through only one lens,” Hillsdon said.
“It takes time to attract riders. If we don’t allow time for the ridership to get there we’re never going to have the service or the infrastructure.”
Jordan Bateman, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, said those fears are overblown.
“TransLink are the masters of threatening service cuts over any kind of efficiency review,” he said.
Bateman said savings should first be sought in administration, policing and other areas that don’t directly affect passengers.
“Before we give TransLink another nickel of financing tools we need to make sure they’re as efficient as possible.”
Crilly has said some of the money could come from shortening the layover at the end of routes, although TransLink officials cautioned those recovery times have already been cut 3.5 per cent and are important to ensure runs stay on schedule through the day.
TransLink officials also say they’ve already been “optimizing” the bus system, by reallocating service from less-used routes and times to ones where more people will ride and more money will be generated.
Crilly suggested that could continue but the money could be carved away as savings instead of being reinvested.
His report also urged TransLink to carefully review its Frequent Transit Network – a map that shows routes where buses are guaranteed at least every 15 minutes most of the day – to ensure it’s not being expanded too rapidly, locking in service lifts that can’t be supported.