Moving the future in the Lower Mainland: Transportation builds the economy

The Lower Mainland’s traffic congestion is so serious it’s significantly affecting our economy. Unless we act soon, with more than 1.6 million new residents forecast to arrive in the next 30 years, the problem will only get worse.

What are the solutions?

Twenty key leaders from business and industry, transit boards, universities, trade unions and governments were invited to discuss and debate options and costs at the Moving the Future conference in Vancouver on October 31, 2013.

In the audience more than 500 stakeholders looking for answers included developers, REALTORS®, city planners, local and provincial elected officials, and others from organizations, business and industry.

“We are at a crucial crossroads and the transportation decisions that we make, or we refuse to make, will shape our region and have a profound impact on our economy and environment,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson in opening remarks.

“There’s an incredible amount of agreement about what we need to do,” explained Robertson. “We need to invest in more transit, we need to build more walkable communities in the high growth centres around the region, and we recognize that transportation is absolutely critical to growing our economy.”

Surrey Mayor Diane Watts agreed. “We have 28 major marine cargo terminals located in 16 cities in Metro Vancouver, as well as over a million trucks crossing the border annually carrying over $11 billion worth of goods each year. Congestion costs us $1.5 billion annually,” said Watts.

Learning from other’s successes

How Los Angeles is building transit

Sprawl was invented in Los Angeles, a city known for decades as North America’s car capital, according to Arthur Leahy, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), and a speaker at the Moving the Future conference.

By 2008, commutes of more than two hours each way were typical and the California air was so polluted, fog-like clouds hid the sunshine.

“That year, Los Angeles voters passed a ballot initiative to raise the sales tax by 0.5% to fund the biggest transit program in the US,” explained Leahy.

“This included a 30-year, $40 billion transportation plan to build 11 new rapid transit routes.”

How did Metro get the voters to approve a tax increase?
“There are 88 incorporated cities and 500 city councillors in the Los Angeles Metro Area,” said Leahy.“Elected officials went out and talked to businesses, organizations, chambers of commerce and residents in an appeal to voters that made sense.”

Voters passed the transit funding initiative by 68% in favour, after three years of planning and preparation by the transportation authority.

“There was a great deal of public input,” said Leahy. “Local taxpayers understood that the transit projects would employ local workers, stimulating the local economy and benefitting local businesses.”

Local counties are responsible for local tax measures and residents can see the projects being built and this builds confidence and trust.

The sales tax ensures funding is sustainable. As a result Los Angeles has made major investments in transit including buses, bus rapid transit, and light rapid transit.

This year Metro is buying $1 billion worth of rail cars and 550 clean air buses, all paid for by the taxpayers.

How New York solved its transit problems

A decade ago, New York City’s subways were dangerous, covered in graffiti and had relatively low ridership.
The system has since been revitalized so that in 2012, New York’s subways, buses, and railroads provided 2.62 billion trips to New Yorkers. It’s cleaner, infrastructure has been improved, and new equipment has been purchased. Riders returned in large numbers.

How did they turn the system around? “Tolls on bridges and tunnels,” said Tom Prendergast, Chair and CEO of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and former CEO of TransLink.

Also speaking at the Moving the Future conference, Prendergast explained that tolls have proven to be a sustainable funding mechanism. They contributed $950 million in 2012, income that his organization is using to fund the entire Metro system of subways, buses, bridges, tunnels, and commuter trains.

“There isn’t a major city in the world that expects to maintain its presence without making an investment in transit,” explained Prendergast.

Real estate development and transportation planning
MTA is the largest transportation system in North America. It serves the region’s 15 million residents, and of these, 8.5 million residents are regular transit users.

Ridership is way up because of careful planning.

“There is an intrinsic relationship between real estate development and transportation that cannot be understated,” said Prendergast, noting there is a close relationship between the New York City planning department and MTA.

“Every place in New York where you see density, there was a subway first,” said Prendergast.

The MTA also keeps up-to-date about transit user demographics, so that investments looking 10 to 15 years ahead can address changing demographics.

“Ridership used to be primarily those who worked 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and came in from outlying areas,” said Prendergast who went on to describe many current transit users as Millennials living downtown who don’t own cars and use public transit on a daily basis.

“It’s important to put people in places where transit infrastructure can support them.”

Voting on transit expansion and funding in the Lower Mainland

Premier Christy Clark made a campaign promise earlier this year to hold a transportation referendum in the Lower Mainland by November 2014.

The referendum is intended to give voters a say about how Metro Vancouver’s transit system expands and the options for financing which will likely include tolls, a vehicle levy and property tax increases. The actual question and options available have not yet been made public.

Although the date of the referendum hasn’t been set, it could be as early as Spring 2014 or as late as the municipal election in November 2014.

What happens if voters say no to transit expansion?
“The Broadway Corridor has one-quarter of all of Metro Vancouver’s tech jobs and 40% of all of the health care jobs,” said UBC President Stephen Toope, also a speaker at the Moving the Future conference.

If the referendum fails the proposed $3 billion UBC rapid transit line along the Broadway Corridor won’t be built.
The proposed $2 billion light rapid transit system to Surrey also won’t be built.

Potential home buyers may choose to move to other cities and potential businesses may set up shop where there is better transit and transportation available to workers.

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