TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on what we’re planning to build for you

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on what we’re planning to build for you

A mockup of Metro Vancouver's future in 2050

We also reveal what it takes to transform an idea into a SkyTrain line or bus route that you can ride. Plus, what are we talking about when we playfully say the 99 Tree-Line?


HOST JAWN JANG: Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we’re going to explore some of the exciting new projects we’re planning to build.

SABRINA LAU TEXIER: I will mention, though, some of us are secretly rooting for it to be called the 99 Tree line.

JAWN: What could that be all about? Let’s find out and tap in to What’s the T.


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: The SeaBus, SkyTrain, all the busses, West Coast Express, HandyDART. This is the TransLink fleet. And you already see them all over Metro Vancouver. Hopefully we’re part of your daily commute, but this is what we already have. So, what do we have planned for the future? To put it simply, a lot.

[Harder, Better Faster, Stronger by Daft Punk plays]

TRANSLINK CEO KEVIN QUINN: I think what’s really going to be key is how is TransLink serving the needs of the region? You know, our measure of success is really how nimble and we be in adjusting service to meet the demand that’s out there today. And again, I think it’s going to be all about how is TransLink meeting the needs of the region? We’re going to make sure that it is.

[Harder, Better Faster, Stronger by Daft Punk continues playing]

JAWN: That is TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn laying out his vision. The public transit equation, if you will, is simple but true. Higher demand requires higher supply. And part of building up that supply is building new projects to improve our service. And as Metro Vancouver continues to grow every year, our system needs to expand so that we can continue to provide reliable transportation. And I’ll be honest with you that is where the fun begins.

SABRINA LAU TEXIER: We know where we want to get to. We have an idea how we want to get there. We then have to figure out how we pay for that. And so that’s really what I do in my job. I spend a lot of time working with the mayors, with the governments of British Columbia and the government of Canada in order to help us pay for building and running all of those services.

JAWN: This is Sabrina Lau Texier. And at the time during this conversation, Sabrina was the senior manager for investment plan and funding strategy at TransLink. Basically, it was her job to figure out how TransLink makes money and where TransLink spends money. And to that end, let’s do a quick overview of Transport 2050, TransLink’s 30 year transportation strategy for Metro Vancouver.

FEMALE VOICEOVER: Imagine a future where everything you need is within a 15 minute walk, where the streets are quiet and safe for you to walk, bike roll or something else. Where better transit and on demand choices mean we don’t have to rely so heavily on cars where the air is clean and transportation doesn’t create pollution. A future where we spend less time in traffic and more time doing the things we love.

FEMALE VOICEOVER: You shared your vision for the future. Now we’re sharing ideas that’ll get us there.

SABRINA: So for me, the most astonishing part of Transport 2050 is its ambition. It dives into some of the most pressing issues of our time, uh, climate change, affordability, rapid technological advances and reconciliation, social equity, resiliency important in our region of earthquakes, for example, increase access for everyone through a series of hundred different actions. That is a project or service or a policy that we need to put into place over the next 30 years to achieve those goals and targets that we set out for ourselves.

JAWN: What are some of the most ambitious plans that you’re excited about or the ones that people really should get excited about?

SABRINA: Okay, that’s a great question. Now, 100 actions, 30-year time frame, that’s all a little bit overwhelming. So last year we created this document called the Transport 2050 10-Year Priorities. It’s kind of all there in the title, which projects in Transport 2050 do we need to focus on funding and delivering over the next ten year period? In that document, it talks really about the fact that it’s a bus-based approach, and that’s the way that we can get the fastest amount of service out to people in the hopefully shortest amount of time possible so we can meet that urgency.

There’s a sense of urgency with this plan. Another little-known fact about T2050 is we spent a lot of time working with the equity-seeking focus groups, trying to make sure when we were really approaching the development of that plan with an equity lens. And one of my biggest takeaways from that process was the need to improve comfort and safety in all of our transit stops and stations.

It wasn’t necessarily about the shiniest projects, it was about that basic bread and butter. How do I feel as I’m waiting for my bus? And this is a theme which continues to resonate today.

JAWN: When are we getting the SkyTrain extension to UBC? Arbutus is a great start and for a lot of people that’s a huge victory. But for UBC students, especially those that might be using the SkyTrain anyways as part of their commute, they’d love to see that extension all the way up to campus. How do we make that possible and what’s the timeline looking like for something like this?

SABRINA: Well, it’s a great question, Jawn, and it really does take a very long time to get a big project off the ground. I’m going to start to, I’m going to back that up a little bit. But the UBC project has been we’ve been working on it for a very long time. These projects are significant investments, and it takes time to get it right.

And so, all the way back to, for example, the importance of the regional transportation strategy, the lines that we’re building today all had their original genesis in a regional transportation strategy. So, some of these projects that have opened in the recent past, the Canada line, Millennium Line, the Evergreen Extension, all these RapidBuses and even the Broadway Subway and Surrey-Newton, uh, Surrey–Langley, SkyTrain, all of those started off 30 years ago in 1993, when the region adopted Transport 2021.

And so some of the reasons why it can take so long, the project needs several stages of development. Maybe your first stage is to figure out what is the problem that we’re trying to solve, what are the ranges of alternatives? Maybe the second stage is figuring out what those promising alternatives look like, doing some early consultation with affected groups. Your third stage could look like selecting a preferred alternative to advance for more detailed development in something like a business case. And then your fourth stage would be to make that detailed business case. We want to make sure that the estimate, the, the cost that we’re allocating to build that is as accurate as possible. So, it could have some early engineering works making sure that all of those things are about as well-known as possible.

Then the final, once that business case is approved at the federal and the provincial level, the final piece of the puzzle is the region share not only for building it, but also our share of operating that new project for the duration of its lifecycle. Once all of that is approved, I describe it as the tap turns on and we can go to procurement, we can find someone to build that and I was really excited to see that happen in the Phase Two Investment Plan when we quote unquote turned on the tap for that Millennium Line Broadway Extension or the UBC project out to Arbutus. The rest of that extension out to UBC, we identified some planning study money for that back in 2018. So maybe steps two or three of what I just described. And I know that there’s a very brilliant team currently working hard on step four in order to get that detailed business case that would get us to the stage where the project has been defined enough that we can turn on funding for that project. It really is up to the region’s mayors to figure out the timing and the prioritization of projects. And so that part of the process is still, still happening.

JAWN: One thing that I’m curious about, it’s the Gondola Project at Burnaby Mountain and the role that TransLink will play within that. Maybe just walk us through your sort of excitement for this one, because when I think gondola, I think beautiful scenery and maybe like, you know, the North Shore Mountains, I would never have imagined a gondola, the kind of like in our backyard in a way.

SABRINA: Can you imagine taking a gondola every day to get to school? That sounds pretty neat, right? You know, New York City has an urban gondola. It goes from Manhattan over to Roosevelt Island, but it still kind of reads as a little bit like a quaint tourist attraction. But you pay for it with your MetroCard. So, the gondolas are very new, It’ll be a very new technology to this region.

It has a very strong business case in terms of being able to move bus operating dollars away from busses and over towards the gondola, similar to how we described it, the UBC project, it’s going through its own series of business cases. And so, we’re looking forward to when that project has developed enough in order to turn on some funding, in order to get that get that built. But I will mention, though, some of us are secretly rooting for it to be called the “99 Tree-Line”.

JAWN: And a strategy for the next 30 years.

SABRINA: That’s right. Transport 2050 itself hasn’t been costed out, but the 10-Year Priorities that first ten year priorities, it has a very preliminary early estimate back of the envelope, guess, of about $21 billion. I might have mumbled out a bit.

JAWN: I think the knee jerk reaction from most people who might just be the average customer taking the SkyTrain maybe a few times a week, they might go, “Whoa, that’s that’s a big number! Am I going to have to pay more? Because TransLink has all these ambitious projects”, like how does that all work into the into the equation?

SABRINA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It is a very big number. It is something that requires a little bit of a rethink about how we fund our services in this region. Transit’s being called on to respond to a wider range of national and provincial interests than ever has before. It’s no longer just about mobility, about getting people from home to school, for example.

Now they’re, they need to be, they’re being called on to support record setting population growth, whether that’s normally through immigration really. It’s also being recognized as essential for bold action on climate change. And finally, it’s critical to ensuring that there’s some affordability and supporting new housing starts so people don’t actually have to be in their car to, to get everywhere that they have some options where they live, where the new housing is going to be constructed.

So on one hand, there’s this temptation to either cut costs in times of fiscal pressure and uncertainty. But as we know, in order to meet these bold challenges, this is something that requires a certain level of service, a certain role for transit to play in supporting that. And so that’s one of the things that we’re looking at with our provincial and to a lesser degree our federal partners, is what is that funding mix looking like?

How do we make sure that transit is fit for purpose and is serving those regions? And in a lot of other cases, those you fuel sales tax, which is approximately 20 per cent, and then property tax, which is 23 per cent. All of our other sources are much, much smaller. Our hydro levy is small. People often ask me about advertising that’s about 0.8 per cent of our revenue budget there, and there are limitations to how much we can increase all three of those major sources.

You can’t really increase fares without disproportionately having impacting people that can’t necessarily pay more for those fares. And then you’re also driving people towards cars. You can’t really increase that fuel sales tax. Before the pandemic, one of our biggest issues was ‘fuel sales leakage’. Once you leave Metro Vancouver, you put less tax on fuel. You can also go over, could go over the border.

But now the biggest issue really for that source is the rapid adoption of EVs. And Vancouver has a really robust uptake on electric vehicles. You can see that in the long wait times list too in order to get one. And so, it’s one of those things where we’re kind of a victim of our own success in the sense that we’re trying to get people away from using internal combustion engines. And that makes the fuel sales tax a really risky source to depend on.

JAWN: Let’s hold there for a moment and just dive a little bit deeper on that. Sabrina laid out the three general sources of income for TransLink. That’s fares, the fuel tax and property taxes. I mean, yes, there are other smaller sources of income, but those are the most prominent. So how does that compare with transit agencies in other parts of the world?

Let’s find out with another Scoop with Coop. Here’s our friend David Cooper from Leading Mobility Consulting.

DAVID COOPER: So, the TransLink model is actually very ambitious for other transit agencies. I’ve done a lot of work on funding tools the last few years, and when you look at the funding model of transit agencies, I’ll pick on Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa and the funding tools that they have for the day to day operations is extremely limited.

The funding tools are very much about transit fares and property tax. TransLink has the most diversified set of policy and funding tools in the country right now. You get 18 and a half cents a liter on a gas tax for day to day operations for transit. That’s unheard of on the rest of the country. You get parking tax not just for on city streets but also on, on private lands.

That’s unheard of. There is a hydro levy. There’s development cost charges. You have the ability to implement a benefit area tax in your legislation, if you choose to do so. Other agencies don’t have those tools at their disposal in order to get those tools, they usually require a lot of regulatory changes with their respective provincial governments. One of the challenges that TransLink will have is the fuel tax.

So right now you’re getting hundreds of thousands of hours of transit service a year off of the eight and a half cents fuel tax. But the problem is that we’re getting vehicles that are becoming more efficient, too. We’re getting vehicles that are electric, and your ability to raise revenue was very constrained, especially at the end of the pandemic. But also it’s going to sunset over time and something will have to transition to fill that gap if you want to maintain the services that you have today.

JAWN: Now, I do want to make it clear having more electric or fuel efficient vehicles on the road is an objectively good thing for the environment. It should be celebrated. Unfortunately for us, that social shift is directly impacting the way we operate.

We’re certainly not going to figure out how we’re going to address that issue in this podcast episode alone. But it’s something that our experts are constantly researching and planning for. All right. Now let’s get back to Sabrina.

If this was a private sector enterprise, maybe things would be easier, maybe be like faster and maybe more money would be involved. But that’s not the way we operate. We do answer to the public. It’s our role as the Transportation authority of Metro Vancouver and this region of B.C. How does that play into all of this? Because really we need to get feedback from people that are not just going to benefit from the services, which would be great. It’s all positive remarks, but there are sometimes concerns from people who might not view it that way.

SABRINA: You’re absolutely correct. There are other models of transportation deliveries, but in particular the Asian model. It tends to be a private company and a lot of the large Asian metropolises that run, that are developers actually. So they’re developing housing or retail or whatever those think those things are around transit hubs. And then the transit services provided as like an add on to that.

We don’t operate in that manner. We are primarily a public transit operator that’s run with public funds. We absolutely have a duty to consult with individuals at every stage of that development because as you mentioned, there are people that will support a project, that there are people that will maybe support the objectives of the project, but depends on the details, depends on the alignment and, and other details and working through that in a organized fashion to make sure that the project at the end of the day is, is the best fit for that particular context.

That’s one of the reasons why the consultation is really important. And another part that adds to the length of time in terms of getting a project from conception all the way to being built and, and ready.

JAWN: The bus route or SkyTrain car a customer is riding on right now, how does TransLink pay for that?

SABRINA: I’m going to break that down just a little bit. TransLink much like your local government, has two types of money, is capital and operating. And in your question, the bus route would be operating and that SkyTrain car would be capital. But capital money is what we use to build a new widget. We use it to buy that bus or maybe dig a big hole to put a SkyTrain line, build a depot to store and maintain our vehicles. That type of that type of expense. Now operating is a little bit different. It’s that yearly expenditure that we need to put out to run or maintain what it is that we bought or rebuilt. So, the lion’s share for us of this is operator salaries for the busses obviously, but also SkyTrain attendants. That number also operating also includes things like rent and other, other overhead. Capital money is significantly easier for us to come by.

First of all, we can borrow for it, but we also get a lot of partnerships with the province and the federal government. They partner with us to the order of 40 per cent from this particular this current federal government for capital costs, 40 per cent from the province, and then 20 per cent from us to provide most of those dollars that we need to buy or build something.

There’s a number of reasons why, reasons why capital is a little bit easier for us. It’s a one time cost. It can be borrowed it at discounted government rates. Operating funds are a little bit less glamorous and they’re much harder to come by. Those are usually entirely the responsibility of local or regional governments. And so, if we bought a new SkyTrain line and we are only paying 20 per cent, the region’s only paying 20 per cent of the capital costs, we are paying 100 per cent of the operating costs for the duration of that asset for the whole lifecycle.

So, it’s kind of a big deal. And so those tools, we only just have a handful of them, this, those talking about earlier fares are about one third, fuel sales taxes are another third, and property tax are another third. So, if we need more of that operating money, those are the only the major three area levers that we can pull. And there is really big limitations to all of them. As you mentioned earlier, fuel sales tax, for example, people are shifting to EV vehicles. So, if we moved that number even higher, then more people would shift to EV vehicles and we would, we wouldn’t be any further ahead in terms of total revenue dollars.

JAWN: SkyTrain extensions, new RapidBus lines, gondolas, and faster performance. Increased service or improved technology really depends on one thing: funding. But it’s important to know that all of these projects are designed to improve your way of life, to get you from point A to point B faster and more reliably than ever before, allowing us to continue building connections across communities and to deliver tomorrow what we’re planning today.

My thanks to Sabrina Lau Texier for her time and expertise, David Cooper for another Scoop with Coop, producer Allen Tung for his tireless work on this podcast, and to you for listening and subscribing. Now don’t forget to leave us a review. We love your five-star ratings and want to know what else we should talk about on this podcast.

Email us at any time with your ideas I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang. And until next time, have a safe trip!