Wed, 19 Dec 2012

Claire Havens
Carbon Talks

Many residents in the Lower Mainland eagerly awaited news of future transit service to their communities as the City of Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 plan passed unanimously through council at the end of October. Significant and concentrated population growth in the region has made the design of urban spaces that are walkable, accessible by bike, and well-served by rapid transit critical to the long-term health of our economy. Unfortunately, convincing commuters who live in neighbouring municipalities with lower densities to support such transportation initiatives is often a challenge. Resolving these difficulties and finding solutions that can work on a regional scale requires political will at all levels of government – particularly the provincial level.

Our regional economy relies on effective and efficient transportation of goods and people. Ships, trains, planes and trucks import goods and export our products. Buses, cars, skytrains, bicycles and walkable streets facilitate commercial, social and cultural activities. When that movement is slowed by traffic and congestion, or is made more expensive and unreliable as a result of fluctuating fuel prices, our economy suffers. Transportation infrastructure must be ready to support a shift: increasingly to rail to carry goods; and to buses, fast trains, cycling and walking routes to move people. These modes are less carbon-intensive but equally efficient as conventional means of transportation at maintaining our quality of life. Indeed, the region has already seen that growth can be decoupled from carbon output. Preliminary studies on the effects of the BC carbon tax show that over the past four years our GDP has risen while our fuel consumption has dropped 15 per cent.

The continued economic success of this province over the next ten years hinges on the ability to evolve our urban centres with layered public transportation and strengthened connections to increasingly populous suburban communities. Reducing the number of vehicles on roads will open them up for goods movement, while improving affordability of our neighbourhoods and the health of city dwellers. Such a shift in development and transportation priorities must be incentivized, and government is in a strong position to do so.

We need to move beyond one-off projects and band-aid solutions. While construction has begun on the Evergreen Line, a project that will create over 8,000 direct and indirect jobs and move 70,000 people a day, little has been accomplished south of the Fraser and along the Broadway corridor – the former where future jobs will be located, and the latter where province’s second most concentrated area of employment and ridership is today. The City of Vancouver estimates that jobs and residents along Broadway will increase 30% by 2041; currently 85,000 people and 100,000 jobs are located along this corridor, which also boasts the province’s largest hospital and university. A Broadway subway line has been proposed for that route, while Surrey’s plan to build three light rail lines is a priority project for the transportation authority and a key part of the city’s sustainable development.

So why the lack of action on these and other regional projects? The reality is that all big public transit initiatives are difficult to pass and potentially unpopular to implement. There are inevitably huge redistributive implications of investing in infrastructure; every project has winners and losers. It is no secret that many rural and suburban dwellers see investment in urban transportation as an unfair use of tax revenues. This cultural and geo-political gap is an unfortunate challenge for any government. A focus on this gap, however, ignores the long-term tax benefits of economic success among the province’s major cities – dollars that can be reinvested in rural communities. Provincial officials should strive to work towards long-term,  sustainable funding for public transit and recognize that the economic future of the region relies on our ability to move goods and people in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

Get OnBoard BC, a new solutions-based coalition, recently proposed three potential sources for long-term funding. The first is allocating a portion of future revenues from carbon tax increases to mass transit. This is an idea that has also been endorsed by numerous environmental organizations including the Pembina Institute and Sustainable Prosperity. The second and third sources are the implementation of smart road pricing and smart vehicle levies that will take into account the distance driven, the time of day, and the size of the car, among other things. Implementing any of these funding strategies would be a major step in the right direction, but will require provincial intervention – Vancouver, Surrey and Translink can’t go it alone. While numerous other municipalities, including Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam, Port Moody and Port Coquitlam understand the economic benefits of public transit, provincial leadership is crucial to bring about regional cooperation in order to get us all moving, working and living at our best.