Vancouver’s New Year’s Resolution to encourage transit use
On a day when millions of people around the world were making New Years resolutions about shrinking their waistlines, Vancouver quietly saw a policy enter into action that may end up seriously shrinking the city’s carbon footprint. Effective January 1st, gasoline taxes will rise in Greater Vancouver by three cents per litre, and the parking sales tax will rise by 300%. While the taxes come amid fiscal turmoil at the region’s transportation agency Translink, they are good policies that will help build a better city. If only Vancouverites knew how lucky they are. . .
When I first read the Vancouver Sun article, I was shocked to learn that Translink had all those powers. I knew they weren’t your average transportation agency, but granting them the ability to implement gasoline taxes and parking taxes shows extreme foresight. I say this as a Torontonian hesitant to inflate Vancouver’s already atmospheric ego, but credit must be given where it is due. When one agency is able to manage roads, transit and parking, it allows them to take a long view and shape exactly the transportation system that they want, rather than getting bogged down in jurisdictional squabbles.
The Greater Toronto Area, on the other hand, has almost been immobilized by ill-conceived governance systems. We have eight transit authorities, all of which have incompatible fare systems. We have Metrolinx, a provincial agency tasked with making sense of the mess, but struggling to rise above provincial political machinations to provide anything of real value. One example of this is Presto, a region-wide farecard currently in the testing phase. Every one of the systems is unequivocally on board (even Ottawa is enthusiastic) except for the Toronto Transit Commission, the only system that could make or break the initiative. They’ve only committed to putting Presto readers at a handful of their 69 subway stations, and in none of their buses or streetcars. Instead, they are putting pressure on the province to fund rolling out the readers to the rest of the city’s transit infrastructure. Even if they were successful in extracting the money from Queens Park, the farecards would not entirely sort out the fare jumble of the Greater Toronto Area. Travelling from Sheppard Station to Thornhill, a relatively short trip, would still involve paying $3 to the TTC and $3.25 to York Region Transit.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Metro Vancouverites have in Translink a single transit system that stretches beyond the urban fringe. They also have the power to impose on themselves a gasoline tax and a parking sales tax which are far more equitable ways of funding transit than property taxes. Transit offers drivers value for their gas tax dollar by reducing road congestion. With these measures in places, potentially scarier measures like road tolling or congestion charges might not be as necessary. According to the Wikipedia page, Translink is also permitted to coordinate land use planning around stations, allowing that land to be more densely populated which translates into increased ridership.
But all is not well in Vancity. Transit fares will be rising on April 1st, 2010. To make matters worse, the Province of British Columbia’s new Harmonized Sales Tax comes into effect on July 1st, swallowing up preexisting sales taxes, including Translink’s parking tax. BC does seem to have a plan to return lost revenue to Translink, but cheaper parking will still incentivize driving. Not being familiar with the new HST laws, I don’t know what other funding options are available to Translink. Rather than a sales tax on parking, how about a fixed levy per space? This would also disincentivise free parking and would encourage land owners of all stripes to intensify urban development by building on parking lots.