Opinion: Civic infrastructure funding essential
Make investment in transit affordable, and democratically implemented
By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun October 3, 2015
JULY 2 2015. Transit troubles in Vancouver, B.C. on July 3, 2015. The vote is no for the proposed money for transit. Traffic congestion on Oak street. (Steve Bosch / PNG staff photo) 00037682A [PNG Merlin Archive] Photograph by: Steve Bosch , Vancouver Sun
Civic infrastructure has become a federal election issue and it’s about time. Only seven per cent of the tax base goes to cities even though their citizens are primary contributors to the GDP. There is a huge civic infrastructure deficit neglected by senior governments.
Public transit funding has been proposed by all the federal parties, with the Liberals offering the most ambitious plan. However, as we already learned from the failed transportation plebiscite in Vancouver, conditions on a number of fronts need to be met before transit is funded:
accountability, sustainable funding models, and a democratically-created affordable plan.
One of the main concerns in the Vancouver metro region is the accountability of TransLink. Ever since the province altered regional authority for transit by replacing municipal elected officials on the board with a provincially appointed board in the early 2000s, there has arisen significant controversy over TransLink’s governance.
After the plebiscite failed last spring, it was made clear that changes were needed. But instead of returning to the regional governance model of elected members, the province has again filled the board with appointments. This is going in the wrong direction.
As previously reported in The Vancouver Sun, the provincial NDP’s TransLink critic George Heyman has said the appointments don’t address the issue of accountability on the TransLink Board because more elected officials are needed.
Of further concern is that one of the new appointees, former Police Chief, Jim Chu, is employed by a major local development firm. He has been named vice-president of special projects and partnerships for Aquilini Investment Group. Heyman has also raised the issue of conflict of interest: discussions that would happen at the TransLink board about future transit plans will certainly affect land values and development plans.
To be effective, TransLink needs more local elected regional governance and less provincial interference.
The choice of appropriate funding models is another issue needing to be resolved. Public Private Partnerships (P3s) are sometimes used for public infrastructure. P3s may keep some debts off the governments books, but the public is paying for them nonetheless. Governments can generally raise capital debt financing at a lower rate than the private sector, so P3s provide no public cost benefits.
Another problematic funding model is what TransLink refers to as the “Hong Kong model”, where development is used to fund transit.
This means that rather than developers paying the city Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) towards civic amenities to service the increased population (such as community centres, parks, daycare, etc.), funding from CACs would go instead to the province to pay for transit which is the responsibility of senior governments. This is a form of the downloading of financial responsibilities to cities. It also means that large Metrotown-scale tower developments may be imposed as density bonuses for transit oriented development in established neighbourhoods without addressing compatibility with their community character or plans.
Which brings us to my last point; we need affordable transit solutions with plans that are democratically supported by the public and compatible with local community planning. One of the reasons the transit plebiscite failed was that the plan was not supported by the public. The plebiscite even failed in Vancouver where the main project was a subway on Broadway that would have brought in large scale tower development in Grandview, Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano and West Point Grey, while most of the region would continue with inadequate transit service.
The Jericho Lands in West Point Grey are soon to be planned for redevelopment. There are opportunities here to create ground oriented family housing that the city has identified as a priority. Row houses, townhouses, larger sized suites in low-rise walk-up apartments, with possibly some mid-rise as well, would be a good fit here. It could be sensitively planned to retain mature trees and forested park areas, sustainable energy such as solar and geothermal, with community amenities.
The West Point Grey Community Vision was approved in 2010. It provided strong community support for heritage and character house retention throughout the neighbourhood with incentives including multi-family conversion dwellings, laneway houses, and secondary suites. Possibly this could be accommodated in the surrounding neighbourhood through the heritage action plan. Jericho Lands redevelopment into new housing types as suggested above could provide additional growth while taking development pressure off established housing.
But if TransLink’s Hong Kong model of Metrotown-scale towers is used to fund a subway, the Jericho Lands would become a concrete jungle of density-bonused towers that feed the foreign luxury condo commodities market.
Already throughout Vancouver excessive rezoning is supporting the kind of land speculation that makes housing less affordable. Large infusions of foreign capital investment disconnect the real estate market from the local economy that prices local people out of the market. The creation of these housing forms that treat housing as a commodity rather than as a community contributes heavily to this.
Transit needs to be about servicing communities, whereas these problematic development models treat our transit system as a subsidy for the development industry to justify out of scale unsustainable development at station nodes.
Vancouver was designed as a transit-oriented city before the common use of the automobile. Most locations in the city are within a five to 10 minute walk of an arterial where there used to be a streetcar system. This has been replaced by an electric trolley bus system that can easily be expanded to eliminate diesel buses and provide more frequent rapid electric trolley bus or streetcar service throughout the entire network grid.
The transit network needs to be made more affordable and coverage made more extensive throughout the region rather than servicing only a few very expensive transit corridors.
Once these issues are resolved, the transit system will need to be fully funded. This should be debated at the federal level, with the funding raised no matter who wins the election. But the money alone, however, without a proper plan that has democratic local support, would create even more problems.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun October 3, 2015 print edition, Page H5:
Groundwork needed to make transit funding work
Accountability, sustainable funding models, a democratically-created plan key