Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency

Let’s talk about TransLink and Inefficiency.

But first, I’m going to have to call into question whether we really know what “efficiency” is.

The big supporters of the “No TransLink Tax” campaign for the upcoming transit referendum have always relied on (and continue to establish) a perception that TransLink needs to improve its efficiency game. I think we’ve pretty much heard all the insults: TransLink is unaccountable, inefficient, doesn’t make good use of taxpayers’ money – and with every time we hear it from them, some sort of particular example is attached of money not being used as well as it could be.

(CTF gives TransLink waste award search result) - Look what I found on the news today! But, is anyone really surprised at this point? I'm not.
Look what I found on the news today! Is anyone really surprised at this point, though? Anyone?

The “No” campaign relies on many of these small-scale examples to feed their perception and drive their agenda. They can be real or manufactured: the examples may vary from a small TransLink funding contribution to the infamous “Main St. Poodle” public art display, free coffee for staff, or even a security failure in 2010 that would likely be best attributed to one or more people but not the entire organization.

There’s a whole list on the campaign website – and a new example gets published every day. It seems that “no” campaigners will look for any excuse: even relics from before TransLink’s creation – such as an upgrade that was denied to the SkyTrain system in the pre-TransLink, B.C. Transit era – are among the list of TransLink criticisms. Obviously, no one’s going to like the notion of a few hundred thousand dollars being dedicated to art when some SkyTrain stations don’t even have escalators. But at the end of the day, it really shouldn’t be too hard to notice that “No” critics have been only looking at the little picture while largely ignoring the big one.

Why does this matter?

When another blogger crunched the ‘TransLink Waste’ numbers featured on the No TransLink Tax website, he found that the primary “inefficiencies” amount to approximately $1.9 million in annual savings. Cutting those costs, no matter how (un)reasonable it would be to do so, would not give us enough money to run a new bus route for a year. In fact, it would provide less than 1% of the funding needed to provide the upcoming transit referendum’s outcome: a $7.5 billion investment plan for transit expansion and other transportation improvements over the next 10 years.

Look at the facts. The facts say that TransLink is already identifying inefficiencies, and there’s not much left to find. Even if all of the identified cruft and waste is trimmed (and that’s not realistic), that only gains you 0.13%, which is miniscule. Put it this way: if you make $25/hr, and you suddenly get a 0.13% raise, do you know how much you make? $25.03. An extra quarter a day.

Does that sound like an “extremely wasteful organization”?

Brad Cavanagh – “Referendum Myths: TransLink is Wasteful” on canspice.org

That’s not to say the “No” campaign hasn’t tried to look at some sort of “bigger picture” and reference it for their campaign. You may have noticed the occasional circulation of this chart, which comes from a TransLink efficiency review a couple of years back:

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting

It would be easy for someone to look at an image like this posted by an anti-TransLink source, come to a quick conclusion that TransLink is behind in the efficiency department, and leave with a negative impression of the organization. But, at the end of the day, the context is out of the picture.

This audit (read here) noted in its conclusion that it had found TransLink to be a “well run organization that manages its costs” – pointing to efficiencies that had already been performed before the audit took place. And inside it, on another page, cost-efficiency – as opposed to what this chart is about (cost-effectiveness) – is clearly defined as something else:

From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review
From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review, 2012

See also: Was TransLink Audited Correctly?

The unfavourable result of the above chart (cost-effectiveness) is most likely a result of TransLink being the only operator on the chart that services a multi-city, decentralized metropolitan region. The poor cost-effectiveness is not a result of any “waste” by TransLink, and is an inevitable problem we deal with, partly because of the way our region has been built out and how we have to get around it. Here’s a chart that shows what I mean:

Cost per boarding by service area - From TransLink's Annual System Performance report, available on their website
From TransLink’s Annual System Performance report, available on their website

Not having as many revenue passengers per bus is an inevitable result of the area serviced. For example: Vancouver scores as first, because it is laid out in a standard urban grid that was developed around transit corridors, and has had transit longer than any other city; all of this has proven advantageous for upkeep of the city’s transit cost-effectiveness. You shouldn’t expect the same kind of cost-effectiveness in South Delta – which is far away from any major city centres (resulting in longer, more expensive transit routes), and was not built around transit services.

Since “Yes” campaigners don’t seem to be that interested in answering the “No” campaign, we’ve been left with a situation where either side is allowed to believe what their campaigners say, and everyone can get away with lies. The “no” side has been let away with their over-use of the little things and their mess-up of the bigger picture. I don’t think this is a sound way to conduct a decision that will affect all of us for years to come all, and yet it shockingly is what it is.

See also: Referendum Myths – TransLink and Executive Pay

The missing link is a proper “big picture” context. There just isn’t one established yet that offers a proper, fair breakdown of how cost-efficient our transit system is. It’s not even a complicated matter: one would just need to take the amount of funding being put into our transit services (operating cost), and compare that with the actual amount of transit service provided (service hours).

It struck me that these numbers wouldn’t be hard to find – and when I realized that I had already collected most of the statistics I needed during research for my last “Referendum Myths” write-up (TransLink and Executive Pay), I decided to go right on ahead and put together the big picture myself.

This time, I’m comparing TransLink against all of Canada’s large metropolitan areas with established rapid transit systems. To keep things fair, I have compared all the given transit operators in a metro area and I have also dug into each operators’ financial reports and subtracted costs for amortization, or deprecation of capital assets. It’s not fair to compare these differing assets (many of the individual cities have not yet invested in rapid transit or are just starting to do so), plus it allows me to keep the focus on the efficiency of operations.

I hypothesized that given a proper context, TransLink’s actual “cost efficiency” wouldn’t be as bad as others have made it out to be. My expectations were far, far short of this:

image

Greater Montreal: $203.97
Greater Toronto: $157.77

Ottawa-Gatineau: $154.86
Calary: $145.97
Edmonton: $141.06
TransLink: $140.51

image (1)

Greater Montreal: 4903
Greater Toronto: 6338.5
Ottawa-Gatineau: 6457.5
Calgary: 6850.5
Edmonton: 7089
TransLink: 7117

Full spreadsheet data:

LINK to this spreadsheet

When compared against the 5 other metro areas, TransLink and Metro Vancouver come out as the most efficient operators. Or more simply said, believe it or not, TransLink is the most cost-efficient public transit operation for a Canadian metropolitan area.

For every $1 million in TransLink’s annual operating budget for transit, we get 7117 transit service hours. That means no matter how much money TransLink is “wasting” due to apparently bad spending decisions, we still get more transit per dollar here than at Canada’s 5 other largest cities. The other cities are just not there yet in terms of operating efficiency, when the metropolitan area average is considered. They just don’t provide as many service hours per dollar.

But that’s not all. In my research I made another important discovery…

image (2)

Greater Toronto: 2.1
Calgary: 2.35
Ottawa-Gatineau: 2.4
Greater Montreal: 2.43
Edmonton: 2.51
TransLink: 2.58

TransLink also comes out ahead in the “service hours per capita” metric – with Metro Vancouver getting 2.58 service hours per capita, versus an average of just 2.1 in Greater Toronto and 2.43 in Greater Montreal. TransLink isn’t just providing more transit for every dollar we spend – it provides more transit for every person living in our region, than any other region has in Canada. That, to me, says that we’re in the hands of a very, very efficient organization.

That’s not to say this is an excuse for us to stop expanding transit, because we’re above the average. There’s obviously still an imbalance in service levels in our region (I’m especially talking about the South of Fraser) and individual issues that we’ll need extra funding to sort out. If we can support the means to go further, I say we should do so and thus be leaders for other cities in Canada.

At the end of the day, congestion costs money, and remains an issue in every Canadian city. I’d like to see our region take the leap ahead and be the leader in this nation. We’ve taken the first steps, making it a lot less difficult to go the rest of the way.

In conclusion

What I think this goes to show is the success of Metro Vancouver’s public transit operations model.

Whereas cities like Toronto and Montreal do not have coherency and may have multiple transit operators servicing the metro area (Toronto has 9 different authorities, some of them with overlapping responsibilities), we have one and it has been this way throughout history.

The B.C. Electric Railway provided rail and bus service as a single operator – so did B.C. Hydro when they were in charge… and then B.C. Transit’s Greater Vancouver division when that was incorporated. TransLink has continued the same advantageous, simple model – but expanded it by not just taking charge of transit but also taking charge of regional roads, bridges, pedestrian and cycling facilities, and other infrastructure throughout our region.

Who knows what kind of superior efficiency in all aspects of transportation we’ve been having as a region with a single, regional authority like TransLink in charge. Unfortunately, no one is willing to either discuss it or launch some sort of proper comparison – and that’s disadvantageous when TransLink’s model gets put into the spotlight. We simply take our regional model for granted, and we really shouldn’t be when it’s uniquely advantageous.

While I think it’s imperative that the “Yes” vote prevails in this referendum, I do recognize that there are legitimate, understandable reasons you would want to vote “no” to a sales tax for transit. Maybe you don’t think it best done as a sales tax. Maybe you want to send a message to the provincial government for how they’ve handled the matter. Or perhaps you weren’t a fan of the idea of a referendum. An illegitimate basis on which to base your vote on, however, would be the one being pushed by the “No” campaign where your vote becomes a vote against TransLink.

First of all, TransLink isn’t on the referendum ballot and the money being raised is going to a decided referendum outcome, not TransLink. A “No” vote is not a vote against TransLink.

Secondly, as I just pointed out, the “No” side has got it all wrong on TransLink’s inefficiency – and they’re probably not going to apologize for the sheer consequences of this. They’re just too proud of how many people they have fooled for the sake of politics.

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Additional notes

Giving a “lifetime achievement award” for taxpayer waste and timing it to happen in the middle of the referendum campaign? Okay, that is seriously, seriously weak, Jordan.

To you out there reading this, now it’s time for you to do your part. If you managed to read this far and liked this, spread the word, SHARE this article. If you got here because someone told you to read this, spread it some more. E-mail your friends. Send this to the newspapers, TV stations, etc. Surely you’d agree that we shouldn’t allow the region’s transit future to be determined by a completely unjustified revenge vote based on rather false premises around inefficiency. If you have a couple of friends who want to vote no to vote against TransLink and you know it – now is the chance to turn them around.

I might have one or two more “Referendum Myths” articles up my sleeve, depending on whether some vague ideas in my head end up making sense written out. But, my blog posts from here onward will likely focus on transportation systems as well as my travel experiences in Japan. If you’ve got some cash to spare, I’d love a donation. As great and convenient the transit (particularly rail) systems in Japan are, they’re often not cheap (and I have a lot to say about that soon on this blog).