TransLink boss maps out transit surge option

Quick relief for crowded buses possible – if Metro Vancouver mayors and B.C. government can make a deal to deliver more money

Chronic overcrowding is a problem not just in Vancouver but on several routes in Surrey

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond is quietly crafting a plan to quickly put many more buses on Metro Vancouver’s heavily congested transit routes – provided area mayors and the province can strike a deal this fall to deliver more money.

Desmond told Black Press a 10 per cent increase in bus service hours could start to flow in as little as five months – early 2017 – if the extra operating money can be found in the next few months.

It would be the fastest-ever service increase in TransLink’s history and it would come by keeping old buses slated for retirement this winter on the road a few years longer and treating the new buses that will soon arrive to replace them as an expansion of the fleet instead.

“If we can figure out a way to get this program funded we can get service out really, really fast,” Desmond said.

He also envisions an even faster increase to off-peak SkyTrain frequency, along with a third SeaBus and another West Coast Express train over the next two to three years.

“My priority is, given the needs of this region, let’s get it out as fast as possible. The big if is what those funding sources would be and when they can come on line.”

Desmond made the comments Wednesday as TransLink released its 2015 Transit Service Performance Review, which paints a stark picture of crowding on transit, with passengers increasingly being passed up as demand outstrips even population growth.

“We are slowly but surely falling behind,” he said.

Desmond declined to spell out more details yet on the cost of the service lift he’s proposing or how it might be funded – citing talks underway between the mayors and the province.

But the new review is likely to increase the pressure on local and provincial politicans to finally solve the funding puzzle.

‘CHRONIC OVERCROWDING’

According to the new report, transit ridership is steadily growing – up 2.1 per cent overall and up five per cent on buses South of the Fraser from 2014 to 2015.

Without new funding sources sought by mayors, transit service hours per capita have fallen steadily since 2010.

One TransLink map (see below) shows bus routes with “chronic overcrowding” on major corridors throughout most of the region. South of the Fraser, the heavily congested routes include Fraser Highway, despite buses running there every six minutes, as well as 104 Avenue and Scott Road in Surrey, the 555 from Langley over the Port Mann Bridge, and the 351 from South Surrey to the Canada Line.

“We need to be adding a bunch of service south of that river,” Desmond said. “That’s where the population growth is and that’s where our network needs to be improved. We’re under-serving that part of the region.”

SkyTrain use has also been steadily growing but TransLink is maxed out for now on the number of cars it can run at peak times until it expands its fleet.

That’s created major bottlenecks around areas like Broadway/Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

Crowding on transit has also worsened at off-peak times, like weekday evenings and weekends.

Intense development around many transit stations such as Marine Gateway is driving much of the growth in transit use, along with a steadily growing population and a strong B.C. economy.

For years, TransLink planners have been “optimizing” service by sacrificing bus frequency on some less-used routes in order to add capacity on the most overcrowded routes and thereby carry more riders.

But Desmond says they’re running out of ability to wring more performance from the system.

“You reach a point where there’s no more low-hanging fruit,” he said. “It’s getting close to the time we need to start putting resources into the system across the board.”

One of the headwinds TransLink has faced is increasing traffic on the roads.

Average bus speeds have declined for three straight years, and that translates into longer trip times, less predictable schedules, more delay for passengers and higher costs to pay drivers.

The opening early next year of the Evergreen Line through Port Moody to Coquitlam will free up buses that now run on a B-Line there but those buses are being kept in the northeast sector to ensure there’s good bus service connecting to the new SkyTrain stations.

DECISION FOR MAYORS

TransLink has been stymied in its search for a new local funding source since the referendum defeat last summer of a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax for transit.

The Trudeau Liberals in Ottawa have pledged to cover half of new transit capital projects instead of the old formula of one-third from each level of government.

That’s helped close the gap, leaving the Metro mayors to raise 17 per cent, assuming the provincial government continues to provide one third of major capital, which would include the proposed light rail lines in Surrey and a Broadway subway in Vancouver.

Reduced fare evasion since SkyTrain faregates closed in April has also helped.

Desmond estimates fare revenue is up eight to nine per cent, which translates into as much as $30 million a year that mayors won’t have to raise through a potential new source like a vehicle levy or higher TransLink property taxes.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said many of the regional mayors want to get some more buses on the road next year under an accelerated plan of the sort Desmond is preparing.

But they’re also torn, in part because the federal government is offering its funding in stages, with $370 million available now for capital projects here and more expected at a later date.

Coté predicted some mayors will want to wait for the federal and provincial governments to fully commit to the mayors council’s entire 10-year vision before they okay a new local funding source for the regional share.

“We never wanted to do it in a piecemeal fashion,” Coté said. “The mayors are trying to decide in the meantime do they wait and hold out for that final agreement on the entire plan or do we take any actions to better utilize phase one funding.”

Michelle Babiuk, TransLink’s manager of transit network management, points to routes in Surrey where bus boardings have risen dramatically with new development and increased rider demand.