TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler.

TransLink board leery of audit’s proposed savings

Chair seeks to calm fears of deep bus service cuts

It’s starting to look like TransLink will say thanks but no thanks to most of the suggested savings identified this fall by provincial auditors.

TransLink’s board debated the finance ministry audit findings Oct. 24 and board chair Nancy Olewiler said she and other directors are reluctant to act on many of the suggestions for cutting a further $41 million from the budget.

“These are recommendations, not requirements,” she said, adding the auditors were not transit experts and did not fully understand the potential damage to service from some of their proposals.

Olewiler sought to ease concern TransLink will slash or greatly reduce bus frequency on runs where few riders are on board, adding some of those routes are critical to ensuring the system is usable across the region.

“We run an integrated transportation service,” she said. “Just because a particular service isn’t working at full capacity doesn’t mean we eliminate it or reduce it.”

The audit suggested TransLink scrap or downgrade 22 underused routes.

That’s heightened fears in some of Metro Vancouver’s fast-growing suburbs that TransLink won’t keep promises to improve transit service in underserved neighbourhoods and offer a more viable alternative to car use.

“We’re building not just for current use but also future use,” Olewiler said, adding good transit can shape future development.

The audit flagged a total of $11 million in service cuts, including reduced SkyTrain frequency at off-peak times.

But the bulk of the proposed savings – $30 million – would come by running thinner financial reserves and other less conservative budgeting methods.

Olewiler said the board is uncomfortable with the idea TransLink operate with much lower surpluses that could leave it more vulnerable to fluctuations in revenue.

“If a shock happened to us – something unexpected and beyond our control – we wouldn’t have the money to sustain the service,” she said.

Had thinner reserves been in place when TransLink’s gas tax revenues suddenly dropped over the last year, she said, it would have been harder to avoid immediate service cuts.

She noted the board believes in prudent fiscal management, which is also supported by bond rating agencies and results in TransLink being able to borrow more cheaply than if it took greater risks.

“To shift to a much less conservative level – I think the board would have a very hard time with that.”

The audit endorsed the cost-control efforts TransLink is adopting through its 2013 base plan.

The $98 million in savings already approved include shelving most of a previously planned transit expansion, as well as further efforts to restructure existing bus service, less frequent weekend SkyTrain service and new or higher parking fees at park-and-rides.

Olewiler said she’s optimistic the mayors’ council and the province can reach an agreement on a replacement revenue source for TransLink by the end of February, eliminating the need for a $30 million property tax increase.

The mayors set the deadline last month, saying they intend to rescind the property tax hike no matter what and leave the province to deliver an alternate source to prevent deep transit cuts.

Olewiler said TransLink has not yet begun preparing a list of possible cuts to balance the budget if those talks fail.

“We’re going to cross that bridge when we come to it.”