This literature review will give an overview of arguments for public transportation as a public good; outline the need for more transit funding in Metro Vancouver; discuss different options for transportation funding; summarize findings from other transportation funding ballot measures; and give some consideration to concerns about covering a referendum as an objective journalist.
Public transit as a public good
Investment in public transportation benefits not only those who use public transit, as it is a public good that incurs a wide range of advantages to the environment and public health, alongside social benefits and even economic payoffs.
Roseland (2012), in a book on building sustainable communities, argues that car-oriented development is not sustainable, and that encouraging transit use is a way of moving away from car dependency and building more livable communities. Starting from the post-war years, North America has seen decades of transportation planning centred around moving cars efficiently, but now that’s changing, as planners embrace ideals of mobility and accessibility for all users (Roseland, 2012).
Public transit improvements such as development of rapid transit systems are partly designed to expand transit’s user base from captive users, who are dependent on public transit, and attract more discretionary users, or choice users, who have access to alternatives such as a car (Litman, 2010). There is ample evidence to suggest that improved public transit increases ridership numbers at a higher rate than population growth (UTTF, 2010). This is particularly true for fast and efficient rail-based rapid transit, such as light rail or SkyTrain, as buses are slower and appeal less to those who can afford to drive instead (Litman, 2012). The average transit commute in Canada takes almost twice as long as the average car commute, so narrowing this gap is important for attracting more people to transit (Statistics Canada, 2011). Increasing the ridership then improves the system’s operational efficiency (Litman, 2010).
Litman (2010) argues that investment in transit is becoming increasingly important because of an aging population that has less access to cars, rising fuel prices globally, growing congestion in urban areas, and an increased awareness about the myriad benefits of transit in terms of health, safety and environmental impact.
Environmental arguments for transit investment
Cities with extensive and well-used transit systems are more environmentally sustainable than those more oriented around cars (Suzuki, Cervero, & Iuchi, 2013). Their residents drive less and own fewer cars than they would in more car-oriented areas (Litman, 2013). Metro Vancouver has identified rapid transit expansion, particularly in Surrey and along the Broadway corridor, as being important for their goals of containing urban development and protecting the environment, while the City of Vancouver has highlighted improving public transit and reducing vehicle kilometres traveled as ways of meeting their “Greenest City 2020” environmental goals (City of Vancouver, 2012; Metro Vancouver, 2013).
Air pollution from both vehicle emissions and the associated costs of fossil fuel extraction constitute the most salient form of pollution from car travel. Vehicle emissions encapsulate a broad range of pollutants hazardous to both human health and the natural environment. The emissions of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change are a well-publicized concern, while other noxious chemicals from cars include nitrogen oxides (including nitrogen dioxide), particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, ozone and others (Campbell et al., 2007).
Taking public transit generally involves a reduction in greenhouse gas impact. The U.S. Department of Transportation calculates that the average transit trip emits 47 per cent of the carbon dioxide per passenger mile of a single occupant personal vehicle, and rail-based systems are even better than average among transit modes (Hodges, 2010). The American Public Transit Association (APTA, which represents Canada as well) estimates in a 2008 report that one person who switches their daily commute (for a 20-mile, or 32.2-km round trip) from car to public transit can reduce their annual CO2 emissions by 4,800 lbs. (2,177.2 kg) per year, which is equivalent to a 10 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for a typical two-car household. By getting rid of one car altogether, the same household can reduce their CO2 emissions by up to 30 per cent (APTA, 2008). On the community scale, a one per cent increase in transit mode share (as a reduction in car use, that is) reduces GHG emissions by 25,000 tonnes per year in Ontario (Ontario Minister of Infrastructure, 2011).
A study in Los Angeles conducted before and after a new light rail line was built (the Expo Line, built as a part of a transit package approved by voters as Measure R) found a causal link between transit development and a reduction in CO2 emissions (Boarnet et al., 2013). Those living near the transit stations decreased both vehicle miles travelled and household CO2 emissions after the line was built, while those living in a comparable adjacent neighbourhood, without a light rail line, did not. The effect was more pronounced in areas with good bus service, and weaker in areas with wide streets (which could be less appealing to pedestrians), suggesting that rapid transit is especially effective at attracting new riders when in conjunction with bus service and a good walking environment.
Water pollution and habitat loss are also concerns of a car-oriented urban environment. A reduction in car reliance could benefit water environments by reducing the amount of road surfaces, which pollute water bodies with oil-stained rain runoff (Suzuki, Cervero, & Iuchi, 2013). A related problem is that of urban sprawl, exacerbated by car-oriented development, which infringes on the surrounding natural environment. This can pose a risk to sources of clean water, and reduce green spaces in the region (Frumkin, Frank, & Jackson, 2004). Roads and highways are a significant cause of habitat loss and fragmentation for wildlife (Eigenbrod, Hecnar, & Fahrig, 2007). Cars themselves are also an environmental hazard when they are disposed of at the end of their life span; many of their parts are expensive to dispose of properly, and often leach harmful chemicals into groundwater from landfills (Konz, 2009).
Public health benefits of transit investment
There is extensive evidence to suggest that moving away from car reliance and promoting public transit as an alternative incurs numerous public health benefits, including reductions in air pollution and traffic accidents, and the promotion of less sedentary lifestyles. Some researchers and public health professionals argue that there should be more collaboration between experts in public health and transportation planning to shape our cities into more health-promoting environments (Sallis, Frank, Saelens & Kraft, 2004).
Substantial car use across a region leads to higher levels of air pollution, which can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, elevated cancer rates in the population, and impaired pre-natal development (Frumkin et al., 2004; Campbell et al., 2007). One study in Toronto found that emissions from traffic are responsible for more than a quarter of deaths from air pollution, at 440 out of 1,700 (Campbell et al., 2007). The report of that study recommended improving Toronto’s public transit service as a way of reducing the health impact of car emissions. As for Vancouver, its air quality is comparable to that of Toronto, depending on the measure (Environment Canada, 2014; Wood, 2012). The harmful effects of air pollution are particularly felt by certain vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, as well as people who work and live on and around roadways (Campbell et al. 2007).
More indirectly, car emissions can also contribute to deleterious health outcomes from climate change. The Lower Mainland could see more than 300 additional deaths per year attributable to climate change related to heat and air quality by 2050 (NRTEE, 2011). Reduction of road surfaces could also reduce the urban heat island effect, which, coupled with a warming climate, can cause hospitalizations and even deaths on hot summer days, and heighten the impact of poor air quality (Suzuki, Cervero, & Iuchi, 2013).
Traffic accidents are also a very clear public health impact of car reliance. Increasing traffic volumes can lead to more traffic fatalities and injuries, in addition to property damage. Collisions are dangerous both between automobile users and with pedestrians and cyclists; automobile crashes are the leading cause of death of young Americans (Frumkin et al., 2004). Just over 2,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in Canada in 2011, at a rate of 5.8 per 100,000 populations, while there were over 160,000 injuries (Transport Canada, 2013).
Using public transit instead of a car is widely seen as a more health-promoting behaviour, largely because of the physical activity inherent to taking public transportation. Walking is more likely to be a part of a transit-based trip than a car-based trip – transit and walking are synergistic modes of transportation – so researchers have found that taking more transit trips increases the chance of someone meeting recommended amounts of physical activity (Morency, Trépanier & Demers, 2011; Lachapelle & Frank, 2009). One study found that people who commuted by train took 30 per cent more steps in their day than car commuters, and were four times more likely to get the 10,000 steps per day that many health professionals recommend (Wener & Evans, 2007). Another study found that one in three transit users got their recommended 30 minutes per day of physical activity purely from walking to and from transit (Besser & Dannenburg, 2005).
Walking is a good form of physical activity, which can reduce the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle. There are myriad health benefits to moderate physical activity, such as improved cardiovascular health, and reduced risk of hypertension, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even early death (Frank, Engelke, & Schmid, 2003; AHRQ & CDC, 2002; Nelson et al., 2007; Iwane et al., 2000; Tremblay et al., 2011). An added benefit to older adults is that walking can improve strength and flexibility, thus enabling seniors to live more independently – which transit accessibility would also enhance (Kerr, Rosenberg & Frank 2012).
On the other hand, Hankey, Marshall and Brauer (2012) write that the benefits of physical activity in walkable (and transit-oriented) communities might be offset by the negative impact of air pollution. However, efforts to combat air pollution can in fact work hand in hand with efforts to promote walking behaviours, as a reduction in driving can lead to both goals.
Driving a car can be seen as harmful to one’s health in that it’s a very sedentary activity. One study found that an extra hour per day in a car makes a person six per cent more likely to be obese, while every kilometre walked reduced the obesity risk by 4.8 per cent (Frank, Andresen, & Schmid, 2004). Two other studies found that a one per cent decrease in car travel, at the population level, reduces obesity risk by 0.4 per cent (which they found to be statistically significant), and decreased the prevalence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart attacks (Samimi, Mohammadian & Madanizadeh, 2009; Samimi & Mohammadian, 2010).
Walking and taking transit instead of driving can also be beneficial to mental health. Driving in congestion can lead to stress, while walking has positive effects on mental health and community social capital (Ewing et al., 2011). Recent research has also suggested that physical activity may help older adults with improved cognitive functions and delayed onset of dementia (Angevaren, Aufdemkampe, Verhaar, Aleman, & Vanhees, 2008; Lautenschlager, Cox, & Flicker, 2008).
The aforementioned Los Angeles study investigating the impact of a new light rail line found that people living near Expo Line stations who were not very active increased their amount of physical activity after the line was built, as did people who started taking transit more often (Boarnet et al., 2013). Another study undertaken before and after the construction of a light rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that people who started taking the new train reduced their BMI (body mass index); the researchers found the weight reduction to be in line with what could be expected for someone who added daily walks to and from transit to their routine (MacDonald, Stokes, Cohen, Kofner, & Ridgeway, 2010).
Social impact of transit investment
Many people choose not to own a car, but many people don’t have the option to drive because of reasons that can include health conditions such as blindness or epilepsy (B.C. O.S.M.V., 2009; Sacks & Rosenblum, 2006), women whose husbands drive the family’s only car (Dobbs, 2005), the elderly, the young, and people who cannot afford a car. Even in high-income countries, a substantial part of the population doesn’t have access to a car (Martin, Jordan & Roderick, 2008).
Living without a car in most parts of North America can be very challenging, particularly for certain types of trips; for example, service workers in suburban workplaces can struggle getting home from late shifts, and might not even be able to take certain shifts, because of buses not running in off-peak hours (Mavoa et al., 2012). Even non-drivers living and working in areas well-served by transit can face challenges when they need to get places without such good transit, such as many suburban areas (Dobbs, 2005). Access to health care and employment opportunities can also be more challenging for non-drivers who live far away from important health care providers and job sites (Deka, 2004; Dobbs, 2005).
Many people give up their cars once they hit a certain age, as they are either less comfortable or less capable of driving. Giving up driving can increase the risk of depression (Fonda, Wallace, & Herzog, 2001), and the need to move into a nursing home (Freeman, Gange, Munoz, & Wet, 2006). Having a good public transit system could help alleviate such problems (Freeman et al., 2006). Neighbourhoods with more transportation options than just cars, particularly if amenable to walking, increases opportunities for social connectedness and can reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults (Kerr et al., 2012; Richard, Gauvin, Gosselin & Laforest, 2009).
Public transit investment can be seen as more equitable than road and highway funding; improving regional accessibility to everyone, regardless of the ability to afford a car, enables less-privileged segments of society a better chance at upward mobility (Suzuki, Cervero, & Iuchi, 2013). Some researchers say that North American transport systems give inferior access to non-drivers, so adapting it to their needs enhances social equity (Agrawal, Blumenberg, Abel, Pierce, & Darrah, 2011; Litman & Brenman, 2012). Equity can be evaluated in two ways, and different transit funding options will be evaluated as such later in this literature review. Horizontal equity refers to equity amongst people of similar wealth, needs and ability, while vertical equity refers to equity between people who differ in wealth, needs and ability (Litman, 2013). Vertical equity assumes that costs should be smaller and benefits should be greater to people who are disadvantaged socially, economically or physically.
Economic implications of transit investment
Transit investment is clearly expensive, as TransLink expects operations costs to surpass $1 billion per year for rapid transit alone within the next decade, without even including new lines that could get built in Surrey and along Broadway (TransLink, 2013a). But there are also many economic benefits contributing to a return on the investment, such as reductions in vehicle and road costs, congestion costs, health care costs, and climate change costs. Litman (2012) argues that many critiques of economic arguments for transit investments fail to account for externalities such as pollution costs, accident costs and parking costs, as well as mobility and accessibility impacts for people who cannot or should not drive.
One obvious economic benefit is that improved transit allows more people to live without a car, or have one fewer car in their household. North Americans are spending more and more of their income on transportation (Muller, 2004). A report on the cost of urban sprawl in Canada cites a Globe and Mail article that estimates the average car costs its owner in the range of $10,000 per year (Cato, 2010 in Thompson, 2013), while an American estimate suggested household car expenses are in the range of $3,500 per capita (Litman, 2010). Residents of areas with high-quality public transportation systems tend to spend less on transport than they would in more car-oriented communities (Litman, 2013). Litman (2010) writes that transit expenditures yield an excellent return on investment, as upgrading from a basic level of transit service to high-quality transit with a rapid transit backbone “requires residents to pay $268 in annual subsidies and $108 in additional fares, but saves about $1,040 in vehicle, parking and roadway costs, providing 277% annual return on investment.”
Subsidizing transportation is nothing new; in fact, commuting by car has traditionally been subsidized through free or cheap parking (Block-Schachter & Attanucci, 2008). Many costs have been externalized and are not counted in the perceived costs of roads (Thompson, 2013). Hidden subsidies also include not charging extra for developing outlying greenfield land, and utility pricing that’s the same regardless of location (Thompson, 2013). Governments in Canada spend $29 billion yearly on roads and highways – more than on all other transportation modes combined, and nearly four times as much as they spend on public transit (Thompson, 2013, Transport Canada, 2012). Less than half of that cost ($13 billion) is covered by driver-specific expenses, such as fuel taxes, license fees and other vehicle payments (Thompson, 2013; Transport Canada, 2012).
Planners, officials and academics are increasingly realizing the extent that car reliance and sprawl are subsidized (Thompson, 2013). Thompson (2013) writes that the indirect costs of car traffic, such as pollution, health and injury costs, and congestion costs are comparable to the direct cost, at $27 billion, citing Transport Canada figures. A more recent Transport Canada report estimates the social cost of road transportation to have been $39.8 billion in 2006, accounting for accidents, congestion, air pollution and greenhouse gas impact (Jacques, 2011). Parking costs are in the range of tens of billions per year in Canada, as estimated by Thompson (2013) based on American comparisons.
Providing public transportation is a way of managing traffic congestion by reducing demand. Transportation demand management is more efficient than continually providing more supply, and urban freeways have been shown to poorly address congestion problems as they attract more traffic (Muller, 2004; Thompson, 2013). Congestion has become increasingly problematic over the past few decades in North American cities because of polycentric growth patterns wherein jobs and housing are more widely dispersed across entire urban areas (Muller, 2004). Dense cities yield plenty of benefits of urban scale economies, such as labour market pooling, efficient provision of services cooperation, competition, and cost-effective consumer amenities; congestion is an associated cost of this (Dachis, 2013). One report found that, in the United States, the costs of delays and extra fuel incurred by congestion is $121 billion annually (Schrank, Eisele, & Lomax, 2012).
According to Statistics Canada, 25 per cent of Canadian workers get stuck in traffic on a daily basis (Turcotte, 2011). The costs of such congestion are extensive, but hard to fully evaluate. The cost from lost time and contingency costs from dealing with congestion have been estimated at $0.9 billion for Metro Vancouver, but could be more than twice as high because of transportation costs to businesses and the need to pay workers more for long commutes – plus, transit can improve employment rates (Lindsey, 2009, cited in Dachis, 2011). Public transit can reduce unemployment by facilitating the match between labour market and supply (Gill, Iacobacci, & Owusu, 2011). Wasted fuel is also costly: Transport Canada has estimated that up to 100 million litres of fuel are wasted yearly in the Vancouver area due to congestion, in a 2006 report using data from 2002.
The public health benefits, detailed above, would also yield a reduction in health care costs. One study estimated that at least 2.6 per cent of health care costs in Canada come from the negative impact of physical inactivity (Katzmarzyk & Janssen, 2004).
Investing in more energy-efficient public transit could help mitigate the cost of climate change. One study by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimated in 2011 that the economic costs of climate change in Canada could be at $5 billion in 2020, and between $21 billion and $43 billion in the 2050s. British Columbia is expected to bear a disproportionately high portion of this cost, as rising sea levels will put coastal areas such as Richmond and Delta at high risk of flooding, while the province’s timber industry will likely suffer (NRTEE, 2011). While climate change impacts are caused by global forces, a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of decreasing car use could help reduce the Lower Mainland’s share of the blame.
Transit investments can also boost local economies by raising land values. Multiple studies have found that the introduction of rail-based rapid transit raises land values near the stations (Debrezion et al., 2007; Hess & Almeida, 2007). One study in Charlotte, North Carolina found the increase in land value along a light-rail transit line was 22 per cent of the total construction cost of the line (Billings, 2011). Freeways, on the other hand, are more likely to lower land values adjacent to the highway (Kang & Cervero, 2009). But that argument might not hold as much sway in Vancouver, where housing prices are already notoriously high and affordable housing is a prominent concern.
Investment in transit can also create jobs. Both construction and operations are labour-intensive, so 1 million dollars invested in public transit can yield 20 person-years of employment (Thompson, 2013).
Raising taxes or other user fees can also put strain on people’s budgets in various ways, so increased transit investment can also hurt individual taxpayers. Higher taxes can affect spending decisions both for consumers and businesses; for example, some firms may hire fewer employees if taxes raise their costs (Dachis, 2013).
The case for new funding sources for TransLink
TransLink claims to need new funding sources not only for expansion of new routes, but also to maintain their existing level of service. The transit authority reports that increases in transit services have been overtaken by population growth, as their revenue sources are not keeping pace; by 2016, service levels will be back down to 2007 levels and continue dropping (TransLink, 2013a). Metro Vancouver’s population is projected to increase by almost a million people over the next two decades (BC Stats, 2013). Surrey is expected to take in roughly a quarter of that increase, despite not having any new rapid transit infrastructure since 1994 (Metro Vancouver, 2013).
TransLink’s second-largest revenue source (after transit fares) is fuel taxes, which are forecast to decline in total value in the coming years, because of more fuel-efficient vehicles, changing driving habits, and cross-border fuel purchases (TransLink 2013a). Fuel tax revenues increased at less than half the rate at which transit fare revenues increased from 2007 to 2011; fuel volumes have been declining since 2007, so the revenue increase was because of a tax hike (Ministry of Finance, 2012). Fuel taxes are applied by the litre, so it’s the volume of fuel sold, and not the selling price, that makes the difference for TransLink’s revenue (Ministry of Finance, 2012).
Their third-largest revenue source is property taxes, which TransLink sought to raise in 2012, but the Mayors’ Council voted against the measure; the change only would have been for two years and could have raised $30 million (TransLink, 2013c).
One possible reason why funding decisions have come to a stand-off between the province and the municipalities is that federally, Canada does not have a predictable and dedicated funding source for transit, unlike all other central governments in the G7, according to a paper advocating the development of such an investment (Hjartason et al., 2012). The authors also point to a lack of coordination between different levels of government on transit matters.
Some of the spending priorities of TransLink include rapid transit on the Broadway corridor, and light rail lines in Surrey. The existing SkyTrain lines are also in need of new funding for additional rail cars, as they have been operating at capacity during peak hours for several years (Ministry of Finance, 2012).
Investigation of options for funding
Asking the public to vote on how to fund transit is nothing new. Lyons (2013) asserts that the most significant American trend in funding public transit is the adoption of Local Option Transportation Taxes. Such designated funding sources are advantageous in that they are not competing with other services for tax revenue, nor are they subject to year-to-year fluctuations as part of a general budget (Lyons, 2013).
TransLink’s Mayors’ Council endorsed a list of five possible funding sources to expand the revenue base (TransLink, 2013b). They prioritized a vehicle registration fee, with rates varying depending on emissions or engine size to encourage low-polluting and efficient vehicles; a regional sales tax; a regional carbon tax, which could either be a reallocation of funds generated in the region from the existing provincial carbon tax, or a new regional carbon tax; land value capture, such as new development fees, designed to capture the increased land value in areas served by improved transportation infrastructure; and road pricing, which could include bridge tolls, tolls in regional centres, or full network pricing (TransLink, 2013b).
The most common form of regional transportation tax in the United States is a sales tax increase (Lyons, 2013). A key advantage is its ability to raise a large amount of money for a relatively small increase in the tax rate (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). It is also more palatable to voters than raising other taxes such as property taxes, because it is paid in small increments throughout the year instead of as one large lump sum, and is less “visible” than other charges because it’s a part of another transaction (Goldman & Wachs, 2003; Johnson, 2011; Litman, 2013). Another advantage is its horizontal equity, as everyone pays it at the same rate, regardless of their transportation habits; however, a disadvantage is that low-income people will feel the burden more profoundly (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). That being said, if BC’s provincial sales tax (PST) is raised, the impact on low-income people will be lessened in that some necessities such as groceries and children’s clothing are exempt from the PST. Another advantage of a transportation sales tax is that it impacts not only residents, but also visitors, who might otherwise be using local transportation without having paid for it through their own taxes (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). A potential disadvantage is the revenue instability of sales taxes, as retail sales tend to decline more rapidly than gasoline consumption in a recession (Goldman & Wachs, 2003).
Road pricing can take many forms: tolling a bridge or particular section of a road; tolling an entire area like how London, UK, charges money for all vehicles entire the downtown area; congestion pricing which could vary depending on time of day and location to mitigate congestion in problem areas; or High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes that are like HOV lanes but also allow low-occupancy vehicles if they pay a toll (Thompson, 2013). Road pricing is generally not especially popular with voters, and if tolls are applied only to certain areas or bridges, then they are perceived as unfair (Litman, 2013). They tend to reduce car use in affected areas, and when strategic congestion prices are applied, they tend to alleviate congestion (Litman, 2013).
Complete network pricing, in the style of charging motorists for every kilometre travelled, has not been implemented anywhere in the world other than for freight trucks in Germany and Switzerland, where larger trucks with higher emissions pay higher rates (Litman, 2013; VPTI, 2013). It would be expensive to implement, as it would require monitoring devices on every vehicle, and challenging to devise an untested system, but it could be seen as more fair than only tolling certain bridges or downtown areas (Litman, 2013). A similar example is pay-as-you-drive insurance pricing, which is available in Oregon and Texas (VTPI, 2013). Many new cars record odometer data in the engine’s computer, which can be transmitted wirelessly to an insurance company; another option is odometer audits (VTPI, 2013).
One well-noted example of extensive road pricing is that of Stockholm, as detailed in a 2009 report by Eliasson, Hultkrantz, Nerhagen, and Rosqvist. Motorists are charged for entering the downtown area on weekdays, with tolls that vary depending on time of day. The tolled zone has a population of about 300,000, and an area of about 30 km2 – for comparison, that’s half the City of Vancouver’s population, in just over one third of the area (Statistics Canada, 2012). The road pricing system was introduced in 2006 on a trial basis, and public support grew steadily as public transit services improved, as did traffic conditions for drivers. The program was put to a vote in 2007, and 53 percent of Stockholm residents elected to make the road pricing trial permanent. Within two years, traffic in the cordoned zone dropped by 16 per cent, while CO2 emissions fell 14 per cent (and fell two to three per cent in the urban area as a whole, while smaller reductions of nitrogen oxides were also reported). The yearly tax revenue from the tolling system, after deducting for operations costs, was roughly 500-600 million Swedish Krona as of 2009, equivalent to $70-90 million CAD (based off 2009 exchange rates from Bank of Canada data). Some revenue was initially used for transit services, as transit was upgraded to coincide with the trial period, but since the referendum, funds have mostly been used for the road system.
London and Singapore also apply congestion tolls on urban roads during peak periods. London has a cordoned downtown zone smaller than that of Stockholm; drivers pre-pay at a flat rate to drive in it on weekdays, and video cameras detect license plates of cars that have not paid (Leape, 2006). Singapore drivers have to pay to enter the central business district and certain high-traffic areas, and they pay tolls with pre-paid cards and dashboard-mounted devices which automatically communicate with overhead gantries at entry points to the zone (Goh, 2002).
Vehicle taxes, which can include licensing, registration or purchase fees, are widespread, although rarely used for transit funding (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). Most vehicle levies are in the range of $20-$60 per vehicle annually, which wouldn’t translate to a particularly large amount of funding for transit, as a larger levy could motivate vehicle owners to register their cars outside of Metro Vancouver (Litman, 2013). As vehicles fees do not reflect their actual use, they don’t reflect the external costs imposed by each driver as well as fuel taxes do (Litman, 2013). Like fuel taxes, they tend to be politically unpopular (Litman, 2013).
While the Lower Mainland has higher fuel taxes than most of the country, Canada’s fuel taxes are actually among the lowest in the developed world (Lane, 2013; Thompson, 2013). Fuel taxes combined with transit improvements can be seen as equitable in that car traffic inflicts costs on non-drivers, and fuel taxes account for such costs (Litman, 2013). While low-income car owners may bear a particularly heavy financial burden, coupling fuel tax increases with transit improvements helps out many low-income transit users, and enables people to give up their cars (Litman, 2013).
One disadvantage is that fuel tax revenue may decline over time because of changes in consumer prices and other economic forces relating to fuel sales (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). Another problem is that fuel taxes tend to be politically unpopular (Litman, 2013). Furthermore, if increased locally, a fuel tax increase can encourage drivers to buy gas in neighbouring region, which could reduce the tax revenue (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). Concerns about people buying gas in either Abbotsford or across the American border to avoid TransLink’s gas surcharges get extensive press coverage, although an informal comparison of American border crossing data, traffic volume data and price increases by Pachal (2013) suggests that such evasion makes very little difference to gas tax revenues.
Carbon tax revenue
B.C.’s current carbon tax applies to the sale of fuels, and varies in rate depending on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted when each type of fuel is burned (Ministry of Finance, 2013). Revenues currently go towards general provincial funds to enable other tax reductions (Ministry of Finance, 2013). It covers more than just vehicle fuels, and differs from gas taxes in that the rate is based on volume, not sales price (Ministry of Finance, 2013). Many of the arguments about fuel taxes would also apply to the carbon tax.
Land value capture
Modifying development fees to account for the land value boost that transit improvements engender allows governments to capture some of the economic benefits, and is a way to make developers pay for infrastructure that helps them financially (Litman, 2013). One problem, particularly in the context of Vancouver, is that it could raise housing prices in a region already known for unaffordable housing (Litman, 2013). Further, if development in areas benefiting from new public transit infrastructure gets charged extra, that could discourage transit-oriented development and lead to more sprawling, car-oriented development, going against the region’s stated development goals; on the other hand, it could encourage more intensive development around transit nodes to make up for slimmer profit margins because of the added tax (Litman, 2013; Metro Vancouver, 2013). Land value capture tends to have relatively high public support (Litman, 2013).
Property taxes are already TransLink’s third largest revenue source, but substantial increases are not among the priorities outlined by the Mayors’ Council (TransLink, 2013b). Property tax increases tend to be politically unpopular, particularly if they’re large enough to raise the amount of funding needed to major transit infrastructure (Litman, 2013). They are relatively equitable, particularly as residents along new rapid transit routes will bear more of the cost as their land value increases while also benefiting from the new infrastructure (Litman, 2013).
Fares are already TransLink’s largest revenue source, and an increase is not among their prioritized list of ways to close their revenue gap (TransLink, 2013b). Fare increases are limited in their earning power, as a 10 per cent increase in fares may result in a five to eight per cent increase in fare revenue over the short run, but only a one to four per cent gain in the long run, because it will discourage people from choosing public transit (Litman, 2013). The fact that it could reduce public transit use makes it run against planning goals of increasing ridership and reducing emissions from car travel (Litman, 2013). While it’s horizontally equitable in that users pay for what they get, it’s less vertically equitable because transit users are more likely to be low-income, so a fare increase would be a hefty burden on their travel budget (Litman, 2013).
Comparison with other referendums
In the United States, ballot measures for transit funding are becoming increasingly common, which some have called a threat to the power of regional bodies to make decisions for transportation planning (CFTE, 2006; Lyons, 2013). Metro Vancouver is clearly not unique in its need for new funding sources for public transportation. In the Canadian context, Toronto’s transit expansion plan, The Big Move, is bolstered by a promised $11.5 billion from the provincial government, announced in 2007 (Metrolinx, 2012). Metrolinx’s plan for the Toronto and Hamilton area is not exclusively public transit-focused, but does involve tripling the length of the existing rapid transit network.
The Center for Transportation Excellence, an American pro-transit research group, published a paper in 2006 comparing such ballot measures, and found the following:
- In 2000-2005, 70 per cent of them were successful, out of 202 ballot measures – 80 per cent of which dealt with financing; that being said, many of those were extensions or increases of existing taxes.
- Measures proposing a new tax were approved 65 per cent of the time, while those increasing an existing charge were approved 54 per cent of the time.
- Initiatives – questions put to the ballot by citizens – tended to fare better than referendums, which are put to the ballot by legislatures; while Metro Vancouver is expecting a referendum, perhaps a more citizen-led campaign could be more successful than one spearheaded by lawmakers.
- A sales tax was the most common type of financing proposed – usually as a dedicated one-quarter or half-cent levy for a fixed period of time. 54 per cent of such votes passed – which may be brought down by the high number of sales tax measures in California, which requires a supermajority (2/3 vote) to win.
- Property taxes were the second most common type, and most successful, as 80 per cent of them passed.
- Other financing measures include gas tax hikes, the dedication of existing revenue sources to transit, or vehicle fees tied to licensing, registration or purchase.
Another paper by the CFTE, in 2005, had the following suggestions:
- Their report, entitled, the Guide for Successful Transit Initiatives, devotes multiple pages to highlight the importance of devising a clear, unbiased question, that’s transparent in its purposes and appeals to a broad range of voters.
- Involving the public early on in order to build consensus around a particular funding option or priorities of where the funding will go is important as it can give voters a sense of ownership of the issue; this is a challenge for the Metro Vancouver context as the referendum date approaches.
- Most large campaigns begin 18 months prior to the vote itself, while some spend years working up to a referendum. Such a time commitment requires the development of a strong campaign team very early in the process – something which has yet to be put together in Metro Vancouver.
- Being clear on what will be gained is important when asking for a new tax to be levied; voters are more inclined to approve a new tax to go towards specific projects than a general demand for more revenue.
A master’s thesis by Lydia Rainville in 2012 reviewed numerous ballot measures and found that successful ones tended to have: finite periods of implementation, specific project and expenditure plans, local control of decision-making, inclusion of citizen oversight committees, varied plans including more than just transit, appeals to social justice promoting mobility for all, and the perception that transit improvements will be distributed fairly across the region and across different modes. Rainville also found that ballot measures often detailed large-scale plans for expansion, while sometimes neglecting much-needed operations and maintenance expenses.
Hannay and Wachs (2006) found that the closer voters lived to planned transportation improvements, the greater their support, in a comparison of transportation sales tax measures in Sonoma County, California. The measures they looked at were mostly focused on road and highway funding, but they suggest that having funding for transit and non-motorized travel helped the final measure succeed, along with the inclusion of a specific list of projects so that voters had a clear sense of the benefits and how the improvements were to be spread across the entire region. Their findings suggest voters want to see clearly how a new tax will benefit them personally.
Fixed terms and expiration dates of tax measure increases support, according to a survey of voters who participated in a 2004 ballot measure seeking a sales tax increase to fund transportation in Ventura County, California (Hamideh et al., 2008). The study also found that the wording of the question is important. In addition, voters who perceived current transportation conditions to be poor were more likely to support increased tax funding.
Case study: Los Angeles County Measure R, 2008
Measure R was a ballot measure in Los Angeles County in 2008, pushing for a half-cent increase to the local sales tax in order to fund transportation improvements, in a plan that projected $40 billion worth of investment (Metro, 2013). Measure R needed a two-thirds majority, which it managed with just over 67 per cent of the vote. The money is earmarked for light rail lines, a new subway line, and other projects for both public transit and roads (Lascher, 2009); as described earlier in this literature review, its transit developments have already been shown to increase transit use, lower CO2 emissions and increase physical activity from walking among neighbourhood residents (Boarnet et al., 2013).
In the Los Angeles case, there was conflict even among pro-transit groups, as the Bus Riders’ Union actually pushed for a rejection of the referendum, saying the measure would divert funds away from vital bus infrastructure and towards rail systems that wouldn’t be seen for years to come – a point that’s debatable as Measure R promised $8 billion (20 per cent of the new funding) for the bus system (Lascher, 2009; Metro, 2008).
Measure R is commonly touted as a success story for transit funding referendums, particularly given its setting in Los Angeles, with its reputation as a city where cars reign supreme. Lascher (2009), in a journalism thesis about Los Angeles moving beyond Measure R, contends that Los Angeles’ reputation as a car mecca is overblown. But he acknowledges that car ownership rates there are above average for an American city, as are vehicle miles travelled, and that many studies have called its congestion the nation’s worst – which may well have been the secret to the ballot’s success as voters sought anything to alleviate their traffic woes.
Case study: Denver FasTracks, 2004 (Source: CFTE, 2006)
Another example of a successful transit funding referendum took place in Denver’s regional transportation district in 2004. Voters approved a 0.4 per cent sales tax increase to fund new light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit routes, and improved bus service across the region. It improved on a 1999 initiative which did not pass by providing a more specific plan, while incorporating clear maps of the plan with all campaign materials. The campaigners also had more time to educate voters, in a year-and-a-half long campaign, a profited from a strong coalition of business leaders and the support of all 31 mayors in the affected region.
Comparison to HST referendum
Some comparisons can be drawn between the upcoming referendum and the B.C.-wide referendum on the Harmonized Sales Tax that took place in 2011. The campaign to get rid of the tax and revert to the old system of GST and PST happened over a longer time frame than the expected transit referendum: Bill Vander Zalm began campaigning two years before referendum took place (CBC News, 2011). The other obvious comparison is that it was an example of local voters going against a tax measure, but it wasn’t strictly an increase in tax, and criticism over how the tax was brought in played a big part in the province-wide debate. The issue of voters not approving of how the tax was brought in, and criticisms of the Liberal government itself, may relate to the impact of TransLink’s public image in the planned transit referendum.
Public image of transit authority
The CFTE (2005) advises that improving the public image of the transit agency is important to a successful referendum. TransLink’s public image is shaky despite a recent audit which found some, but not a ton, of room for improvement.
TransLink was the subject of a provincially-mandated audit in 2012, which found $41 million of possible savings by becoming more efficient (to reduce a total budget of close to $1.4 billion), but was not especially critical of the organization (Ministry of Finance, 2012). Some of their suggested efficiencies involve lowering the level of service. While there are frequent public accusations that TransLink’s salaries are too high, the audit found them to be “reasonable” for an organization of its size. Executive salaries are often criticized, but the total executive compensation actually decreased from 2009 to 2011 by reducing the size of the executive team; executive salaries per person rose, while other salaries remained stable, but executive salaries still make up less than 10 per cent of the total payroll. The audit also suggested that rising costs could partially be attributed to TransLink’s overarching commitment to customer service, and advised TransLink to balance that with respecting the financial contribution of taxpayers.
TransLink’s poor public image is partly due to debates over its governance structure, which is often criticized as inefficient and unaccountable; its structure has already changed substantially twice in the decade and a half. TransLink was formed in 1999, ending a period of regional transportation being governed by the province-wide BC Transit, and its board consisted of regional mayors and some of the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s directors (Acuere Consulting, 2013). In 2007, the governance structure changed, as mandated by the province, with a mayors’ council to decide on long-range plans, and a non-political TransLink board of directors responsible for planning, constructing and operation the region’s transportation system (Acuere Consulting, 2013).
The mayors’ council recently commissioned a review of TransLink’s governance, the report of which was released in 2013 by Acuere Consulting. The review was complimentary of TransLink’s achievements with the region’s transport system, including how transit and roads are integrated into the same organization, but found TransLink’s governance structure to be particularly complex. They found it was sometimes unclear as to who is responsible for what, as policy decisions are influenced by the provincial government, the mayors, and the unelected board and commissioner. They called the governance structure “less than ideal,” particularly in terms of accountability to the population it serves, adding that the governance structure is unique in the world, “and not in a good way.” The authors suggested elected representatives should be responsible for key policy decisions. A change in TransLink’s governance structure could help improve its popularity, as its public image might have an impact on the referendum’s outcome.
Political coverage of a referendum
As I am completing my article well in advance of the referendum, I have the luxury of time to thoroughly research the issues, which will prepare me to write more well-informed pieces closer to the referendum itself. Most media coverage of referendums tends to be within four weeks of the referendum itself, so many reporters would not have time to do as much research (de Vreese & Semetko, 2004, p. 65-66). Media coverage also tends to prominently feature opinion polls as part of a “horse race” focus, instead of more in-depth analysis of the issues at stake – although possibly not quite as much for a referendum as for an election (de Vreese & Semetko, 2004, p. 66). De Vreese and Semetko point out that the combative tone of election coverage, often framing the campaign as a game with different camps vying for victory, and rife with negative cues about the people involved, can sometimes lead to public distrust of political actors as people see them as seeking personal gain instead of serving the public (p. 120-121). In my reporting, I am seeking to explain the motives of certain people involved in the campaign as stemming from more than just a personal stake.
De Vreese and Semetko also point out challenges in unbiased, balanced reporting if more actors involved in the campaign support one side over the other (p. 84-91). If equal numbers of leaders, organizations and public figures support the yes and the no sides, then it makes sense to give them equal coverage, but if one side has much more support among thought leaders and decision-makers, then it would be reasonable to give that side more coverage. De Vreese and Semetko find that minority views can get amplified at times in order for reporting to appear balanced. In my reporting on the referendum issue, I have found that more politicians, experts and citizen campaigners seem to support increasing transit funding (although there is certainly debate as to how it should be increased and what should be done with the money), so I feel comfortable with my article focussing more on the proponents of transit funding. Furthermore, the authors point out that many editors agreed balance was more important when looking at multiple stories instead of each individual piece.
Ethical considerations of objectivity
As this piece is about a topic that particularly interests me, I have given careful consideration to how I can be suitably objective as a journalist. Objectivity has long been one of the central tenets of journalism, although it has always been the subject of debate, and challenged as being not entirely realistic (Ward, 2009). Many journalists would agree that a certain amount of interpretation is necessary for our work. If a journalist has researched a topic extensively, then they are in a position to help the public understand not just what the issues are, but how to assess the different arguments. Broersma (2010) writes that journalists can help their audience “make sense of a complicated and confusing social reality.” Similarly, Singer (2008) argues that we cannot simply present facts without interpreting them; journalists need to find “the truth behind the facts.” Having undertaken this literature review, in addition to all the reporting I’ve done for this project and other related pieces, and the urban planning classes I’ve taken, I feel I am in a strong position to give some of my own interpretations.
Ward (2004) presents the notion of “pragmatic objectivity,” arguing that since absolute objectivity is unattainable, a modicum of interpretation is necessary. He writes that it’s important to have values, but that truth-seeking should trump all other values. As long as my main commitment is to the truth, it’s reasonable for me to favour one interpretation over another, if I have made every effort to judge the interpretations objectively and accurately. As a journalist, it’s reasonable to have opinions, as long as I am committed to truth-seeking and objective inquiry, so that my opinions are backed up by strong arguments, and can withstand rational criticism and debate.
I see my duty as an objective journalist as one of seeking the truth, and presenting the fruits of my extensive research to the public. Part of the purpose of this literature review has been to test the claims that the subjects of my article have been making, in addition to testing my own judgments on the subject. I am choosing what to include in my piece based off of my research, and based on which elements of the story have not been appropriately featured in the public discourse. All journalists make decisions about what to include, what to critique, and what to omit; this literature review has given me the tools to make more educated judgments that are based on fact and not just my own values or presuppositions.
Researching and writing this literature review has put me in a privileged position as a journalist, as I now have a deep understanding of my article’s subject matter from an academic standpoint. It has allowed me to create a work of journalism focussing more on proponents of increased transit funding than its detractors, as I have reviewed extensive evidence to support such a position. The literature review also supports many of the claims made in the journalistic feature that are too complex to be fully explained, with references cited, in the article.
There is ample evidence that public transit is a public good that benefits the community at large by improving the natural environment, public health and equity. Rapid transit investments can also partly pay for themselves as they attract new riders, and can reduce the costs of road infrastructure, congestion, sprawl, and health care. Expanding public transit in Metro Vancouver would be in the public interest, and current funding sources are clearly insufficient. While taking the issue to a vote is unorthodox in the Canadian context, transportation tax ballot measures are much more common in the United States, and are often successful.
This literature review was invaluable for informing my reporting as I put together the following work of journalism: a written feature article, complete with informational sidebars, and an accompanying video.
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