Thursday, March 20, 2008

The New TransLink Funding Model: A Municipal Councillor's Perspective

Apologies for the Langley-centric consideration of this, but I am a Langley Township Councillor, after all:

In yesterday's Vancouver Sun, TransLink chairman Dale Parker outlined his board's plan to go to a new style of funding rapid transit. Basically, TransLink will decide a rapid transit route, plot out the stations, and quietly buy the land around them. Then they'll make the big announcement, get the zoning changed, and watch as property values around the station skyrocket. Then TransLink will flip the land (at a profit) to a private developer or enter a partnership with the private sector to build a station and other amenities.

This model has been used to great success in Hong Kong. I should also note that Get Moving BC is pleased with this announcement.

Money for transportation expansion has to come from somewhere. While some folks have floated the idea of a Portland-style payroll tax paid by any business or charity who employs a person, I prefer the Hong Kong model. One thing is certain: we need to find models to pay for transportation that don't include more property taxation. Property is the only way for municipalities to generate taxes, and other levels of government (I'm looking at you, TransLink, and you, Victoria!) should get their hands out of that pocket.

That being, said, blogger Rob Chipman raises some perfectly valid concerns about the model. There has to be a balance, as a community’s wishes--expressed through their duly-elected (and thoroughly accountable) Mayor and Council--must be taken into account.

The last thing we want to see happen is a battle between TransLink and municipalities as we work through routing issues. One concern I had with our high-rise bylaw was that we weren't precise enough with where to put towers, thus opening a lot of areas for TransLink to look at rapid transit lines. Furthermore, I, like most Langley residents (and the Mayor of Surrey, incidentally), prefer street-level light rail to the overhead guideways of SkyTrain. Density is a great negotiating tool, and may be the best chance municipalities have of guiding where these lines go--and what kind of rail technology we get.

Going forward, it will be important to negotiate carefully with TransLink on issues like this. Mayors and Councils will need to be clear and precise as to what our rapid transit priorities are (mine are street rail along 200th Street and commuter rail on the Interurban line), and where we see possibilities for densities. I'm also hopeful that TransLink will look at more than just building height when pondering density. You can get a lot of density with 4-6 storeys, done right. I am leery of having a 20-storey tower or two stuck in the middle of a sea of 4 storey buildings, looking out awkwardly.

I do wonder about one more thing: how will the Interurban alignment will stack up in this model? Look at Langley City for example: the area is chock-a-block full around the rail line. Where would TransLink squeeze in a station and high-density buildings? Where could they find enough land to make it worthwhile to put all that? How much space do they need to make a spot viable? I’m not worried about the 200th corridor, as running street-level rail north-south would provide TransLink with plenty of land options.

One last thing: take a look at this website for more on transit-oriented development. It's a great resource full of ideas and possibilities.

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