Plebiscite: Boston and Miami should serve as cautionary examples for Vancouver voters.
This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.
Vancouverites should think twice before voting Yes in the TransLink plebiscite. They should think twice not because of a predetermined no-to-all-taxes mentality, but because other cities that have enacted similar policies have neither tamed congestion nor built a modern, self-sustaining transit network.
Instead, the money from a sales tax was used to either fund un-economic expansions that acted as a further drain on a transit agency’s finances, leaving it with little money to perform routine maintenance and keep the lights on, or it was used to offset budget deficits and prop up money-losing transit agencies. In either case, traffic jams have only become more severe.
Take Boston as an example, whose transit agency, the MBTA, has received 20 per cent of all of Massachusetts sales taxes since 2000. This past winter, the aging and rundown transit agency collapsed. At the height of its troubles, its 1.3 million daily customers were warned it could take as many as 30 days to get everything working in proper order — leaving commuters stranded in the bitter cold. The breakdown came after years of putting off the kind of maintenance needed to keep the transit system in a state of good repair.
Since the sales tax was first introduced, it has delivered billions in revenue to the MBTA, but hasn’t been enough to offset the cost of the agency’s dramatic expansion plans. The MBTA kicked off a two-decade-long expansion plan beginning in the 1990s and has, over that time, grown more than any other American city.
The push to expand the MBTA at all costs left it unable to maintain its system to a high standard and saw it having to issue debt to pay for its maintenance and modernization programs. The more than $2.2 billion in debt that the agency has incurred to pay for routine maintenance has failed to keep its trains and buses in good working order.
The most recent official estimate of the maintenance backlog as part of the agency’s State of Good Repair policy is $3 billion, but some estimates say that figure has more than doubled to $6 billion. This year’s brutal winter will only add to it.
The sales tax proposal was supposed to give the agency a firm, reliable source of revenue that would ultimately see it produce an operating surplus. But since that time, the MBTA’s deficits have only increased and it has failed to maintain its system to a high standard. Transit customers have literally been left out in the cold.
Meanwhile, congestion in Boston is nearly as bad as it ever was. Commuters currently spend 53 hours a year stuck in traffic jams — up from 33 in 1990.
Boston is not alone. In Miami, voters in 2002 approved a half-cent sales tax that would fund new transit and help ease congestion in the growing city. The proposal promised voters 88 new miles of Metrorail, 635 new buses and an independent body to make sure the money was spent wisely.
A review of the program done 10 years later showed the agency had only built one 2.4-mile rail extension to the airport, and its current bus fleet is actually smaller than it was a decade ago. Transit officials and political leaders now admit that they over-promised. One critic called the sales tax a classic bait and switch, pointing out that much of the sales tax money has been used to fund existing operations.
The transit funding has done little to alter the commuting landscape. The percentage of commuters across Miami-Dade County who use transit has remained the same since 2005 and has actually declined within Miami itself. Congestion in the city is no better.
Both Boston and Miami provide ample warning to Vancouverites before they mail in their ballots. If residents are looking for real solutions to ease congestion and build sustainable transit, a sales tax is not the answer.
Brady Yauch is executive director at the Consumer Policy Institute, a Toronto-based research organization that is part of Energy Probe.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:
Anti-transit tax piece slammed
Re: Transit tax won’t ease congestion, Opinion, April 8
The Sun’s recently published opinion column by Brady Yauch is lacking any of the needed context to make a valid comparison between Metro Vancouver’s plebiscite and those of Miami and Boston.
Yauch’s op-ed argues that because two jurisdictions who approved a sales tax increase have not seen improvements in their transit and transportation system, this would also be the outcome here in Metro Vancouver. This is frankly a ridiculous statement.
The public would have been served by being told that since 2000, voters in about 150 cities or counties in the U.S. have approved the use of a sales tax to fund transit and transportation investment. The author would have been better to have focused on the many other places that have used sales tax to successfully and repeatedly build out expansion plans, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, L.A. County or Puget Sound. Indeed, the Bay Area has had successful outcomes in numerous referendums, purely because they have shown that investments lead to real improvements in transit and transportation — just as it will here in Metro Vancouver.
The author shows a significant ignorance about the mayors’ plan. The mayors’ plan is a fully costed plan that will provide essential new service to address the one million new residents coming to Metro Vancouver. Almost a quarter of the funds are dedicated to maintenance and upgrades. These funds will be legally required to go directly to the projects in the mayors’ plan — another key distinction missed by the author.
While it may not be popular opinion, TransLink also has an incredibly strong record of delivering new service on time and on budget. Between 1999 and 2010 we saw billions of dollars invested in expanding the system. These investments have been delivered on budget and have led to an unprecedented 55 per cent increase in transit ridership.
We need to continue investing to maintain Metro Vancouver’s enviable reputation as a world-class place to live, work, and do business.
President and CEO, the Vancouver Board of Trade; co-chair, Better Transit and Transportation Coalition
There are well run transit systems and poorly run ones. They are publicly funded, as are roads and sewage systems and other infrastructure systems. Taxes pay for infrastructure. It doesn’t matter how the tax is collected. It can be used wisely or wasted. Brady Yauch’s article suggesting otherwise is so ludicrous I had to suspect this was another snow job funded by oil or the auto industry.
Yauch’s organization is part of Energy Probe. This is what Wikipedia says about the group: “Energy Probe is a non-governmental environmental policy organization based in Toronto and best known for its role in opposing nuclear power and as a subsidized free-market lobbyist for fossil fuels and well known Canadian proponent of climate change denial.”
This information should be useful to Sun readers.
The photo accompanying Brady Yauch’s article shows Miami traffic in highway gridlock — and each vehicle holds a single occupant. Congestion will remain until rush hour vehicles are limited to two occupants or more.
Re: Anti-transit piece slammed, Letters, April 16
Iain Black references the San Francisco Bay Area, L.A. County and Puget Sound as cities that Vancouver should look to as positive examples for its sales tax referendum. Yet, L.A. and San Francisco have both experienced a decline in recent years in the percentage of commuters using transit to get to work, while Seattle’s figure has remained flat. He also highlights TransLink’s “incredibly strong record of delivering new service on time and on budget”, but fails to mention the cost overruns and delays associated with the rollout of its electronic fare card system.
Doug Simpson mentions that I work for Energy Probe and that we are “funded by oil or the auto industry.” Our organization has never accepted any such funding. While some of my co-workers have taken controversial views, our overall philosophy is that the true costs of all forms of energy and transit should be present to consumers and that subsidies lead to waste and over-consumption. I currently walk or ride my bike to work and support a congestion charge and tolls on roads, which would both be far more effective in taming congestion.
Executive Director, Consumer Policy Institute (an affiliate of Energy Probe)