Mayors revolt against TransLink, want control back

At first, the issue raised by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts seemed odd, even petty. TransLink, the billion-dollar regional transit authority, was surveying stakeholders to improve its communications strategy. Each of the 170 stakeholders who took part in the survey would be eligible for a $100 gift to their favourite charity. The total awards would apparently be capped at $5,000.

It's an amount that probably wouldn't even cover the cost of new doors on a bus. But here was one of the region's most powerful politicians setting her hair on fire. She was-once again-demanding an external audit either by the provincial auditor or the newly created office of municipal auditor over this relatively miniscule sum.

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There was no way, she said, she would agree to put another nickel of property tax into TransLink's coffers until that happened: "Before we go back to the public with our hand out again, we'd better have that measure in place."

It turns out Watts was not alone. In fact, she is leading a revolt by the region's mayors. And it's not just about a few thousand dollars.

According to North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton, the chair of the so-called mayor's committee of TransLink, this revolt goes back a lot longer and runs much deeper than this recent quibble.

The "genesis," he says, was in 2007. That's when Liberal Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, acting as the front man for then-premier Gordon Campbell, stripped the region's mayors of their political power over transit. Walton says he was "dumfounded" by the move.

Falcon used, as his excuse, the reaction to the strong-arm tactics from Victoria that put the Canada Line at the head of the queue and ahead of the regional priority, the Evergreen Line to service the north-east sector of the region.

A highly controversial series of motions dictated primarily by Victoria finally passed by the slimmest of majorities. But TransLink, Falcon declared, was "dysfunctional."

And he set about changing the governance structure to what we have today. The operation is run by an appointed board, albeit approved by the mayors. (Although Walton says if the mayors didn't approve the appointments, Victoria would just appoint them anyway.) And the mayors have a humiliating back seat with no control over the operating budget and little else to do but approve major projects that give them the unsavoury task of jacking up property taxes.

Meanwhile, the province and Kevin Falcon continued to use TransLink as their personal playground. Falcon return from a trip a few years ago to Europe to announce TransLink would be on the hook for its share of a $100 million plan to install turnstiles and gates.

And please note: even when the mayors agree to jack up taxes, as they did a few months back in a deal cut with the current Liberal Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom in exchange for TransLink getting a bigger cut of the gas tax, they find themselves humiliated: Premier Christy Clark stumbled into the issue and declared the mayors were causing harm to families. It wasn't until Lekstrom took her aside to sort her out that she backed off.

Then there was, says Walton, the most recent bit of TransLink waste: the decision to spend $30,000 on a feasibility study to look at running a gondola up to Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. In your dreams.

Walton, Watts and the rest are hoping this uprising will lead to Victoria finally agreeing to a change that will restore power to them over transit decisions. Whether it does, the larger question still remains. Will putting the mayors in charge again significantly improve the region's public transit?

The current regional tug of war, by the way, is deciding whether the next big transit investment will improve services to Surrey or put a new line through Vancouver's West Side out to UBC.

agarr@vancourier.com

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