TransLink’s budget red ink turns to black

Finances stable but expansion plans frozen

TransLink hopes to determine if a discount on Golden Ears Bridge tolls now underway will attract more users. The six-week pilot project runs to May 27.

TransLink hopes to determine if a discount on Golden Ears Bridge tolls now underway will attract more users. The six-week pilot project runs to May 27.

TransLink recorded a small surplus of $15.6 million for 2010, instead of the $84-million budget deficit that had been projected.

Officials credit a combination of cost cutting, reduced debt costs and higher parking tax revenues after the pay parking tax in the region was tripled to 21 per cent in early 2010.

Those gains more than offset shortfalls in transit fares, fuel taxes and tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge, which fewer motorists are using than had been expected.

TransLink had been running a sizable deficit and was steadily drawing down its accumulated reserves, which now sit at $328 million, until the regional mayors council approved a $130-million annual increase in taxes for 2010 to stabilize the transportation authority’s finances.

It was a stop-gap measure while local and provincial politicians try to agree on new revenue sources for TransLink to help fund future rapid transit expansions, including the Evergreen Line to Coquitlam and new lines in the Surrey area and Vancouver’s Broadway corridor.

CEO Ian Jarvis warned the “funding stabilization” supplement passed by the mayors in late 2009 averted the need for drastic transit service cuts, but also means further expansion is frozen while demand continues to grow.

“We need to flag this because not investing in our road, transit and cycling network as growth continues will have a long term, substantially negative impact on the livability of our region,” Jarvis said.

The mayors last fall rejected a proposal to jack property taxes to pay for the Evergreen Line, opting to continue talks with Victoria on options like a vehicle levy or road pricing.

Also underway since last year has been a new initiative to optimize bus service across the region.

TransLink aims to shuffle 4.5 per cent of total bus service hours from routes and times with lower ridership to ones where more riders can be served.

Spokesman Ken Hardie said while some routes are being cut, TransLink is trying to reinvest the money saved in other routes in the same community.

Hardie said the service changes so far have been “fairly modest” with more to be phased in for the rest of 2011 and into 2012.

The South of Fraser area will enjoy a net increase in service as a result, he said, but denied that means other cities, like Vancouver, will see a net decrease.

“We don’t want people to be worried that there will be winners and losers here,” Hardie said. “Everybody will be a winner because the network is going to work better.”

There’s no net change in the transit budget due to service optimization, but TransLink projects it will collect about two per cent more fare revenue because more riders will be carried.

While TransLink continued to contribute $20 million in 2010 towards improvements to the Major Road Network that are coordinated with local cities, that amount will be slashed in half in 2011.

TransLink is also cutting its support for the cycling network from $6 million to $3 million this year.

Tolls on the Golden Ears Bridge have been chopped by 30 per cent on evenings and weekends for a six-week test period ending May 27.

Hardie said it’s expected the sale will generate more traffic, but said variable pricing can also help ease congestion if it encourages more rush hour commuters to shift their travel to off-peak times.

Motorists paid $29 million in Golden Ears tolls in 2010, far short of the bridge’s more than $70 million annual costs in capital repayments, operating costs and debt servicing.

The region’s first toll bridge wasn’t expected to break even for several years, and officials hope the picture will change once tolls go on the new Port Mann Bridge and make it much more difficult to use a free alternative.