SkyTrain – Social service or free-loader haven?
Okay, first I should explain why I thought this a topic for our show. I have been having an on-again off-again discussion/debate with a number of my friends about the way I feel vilified by TransLink. Most of these discussions have been heated and hollow. By hollow I mean relying on anecdotal evidence, vague impression about authority and the absence of hard information. So I thought I would attempt to rectify my ignorance…and I suspect a number of our listeners…on the issue about TransLink and what has been called “Fare Theft”…yes, double meaning intended.
There has been a lot of changes to our regional mass transit system. Due to some criminal instances on SkyTrain, there was the introduction of the Transit Police, complete with hand guns. This was to make the transit system safer for passengers because there would be a dedicated security force to protect the ridership.
Now it is true that there have been some horrific crimes in the past, in 2009, they were responsible for the enforcement of 28,000 incidences…A lot. However, when you factor in that almost 25,000 “crimes” were for ‘fare evasion’, it seems…well, really? They spend most of their time checking tickets? Of the other crimes less than half, a noteworthy number none the less, were for ‘violent’ crimes…although most of these were theft.
The Transit police came under fire this year after it was revealed that they are expected to issue at least eight violation tickets per shift as part of “reasonable performance” measures.
Now the Transit cops cost of our system anywhere from 20-40 million depending on your accountant. Let’s assume the lower figure – 21million. Let’s assume that they catch their quota of 8 and that in turn they discourage ten times that number…there are 161 officers…do the math…carry the 1…so they save/recoup for TransLink less than $50,000. Let’s add a fudge factor in an order of magnitude…to let’s say they recoup $5 million…again let’s do the math…that’s a net loss of at least $15 million a year. In a year where TransLink says it has a $45 million shortfall on the horizon.
We all noticed that in the lead up to the Olympics “Green Shirts” appeared at the SkyTrain stations to “help tourists” navigate the city. We also notice that they, with the assistance of “transit cops”, their primary duty seems to be ensuring no-one commits the immoral sin of ‘hitching’ a free ride. In the infinite wisdom of our rulers, they have decided to add ‘turnstiles’ or “fare-gates” and all SkyTrain Stations.
The project, which is currently underway, will cost the fare payer and taxpayer (most of the money is coming from the provincial and federal government)…it will cost us $171 million not including upkeep. The gates are to be up and running next year and will ‘save/recoup’ TransLink $7 million a year in lost fares.
Pause for effect…Okay, maybe you missed that. They are spending $171 million to save $7 million. Assuming they get the return they expect….which is unlikely, turnstiles in London and other cities usually reduce ‘truant’ ridership by only half that amount…but let’s be optimistic, at 171 and 7 we can expect the system to pay for itself in 25 years…and that is assuming the system will not need replacement due to age before that date.
This strikes me as the classic case as penny wise and pound foolish…TransLink also claims it will make the station safer because as we know, criminals…are allergic to turnstiles. Okay, I may keep vagrants out of some stations (never a problem when I ride, and I ride and pay daily) and perhaps prove to be impossible for the very drunk…who can be a nuisance on occasion. However, for the drug dealers and petty criminals, the $2.50 will just be a minor cost of doing business.
And of course the big ‘foolish’ assumption is that the people who don’t pay CAN but choose not to…I assume our rulers believe them morally evil people. Well, the truth is a notable number of the ‘fare-cheats’ are the homeless or working poor who literally cannot pay the fare and often still NEED to use the transit system.
Now there is an issue that needs to be dealt with…I don’t think this the effective way, but I mentioned it earlier, TransLink is expected to have a budget shortfall of $45 million in 2013. A significant amount of that is to pay for increased service; notably rapid buses for Surrey, Langley and Cloverdale and a bus along Port Mann Bridge. Put on hold are also an additional 600,000 hours of transit service across they lower mainland.
Let us remember why we have a mass transit system itself. First, the original idea is that a significant number of citizens cannot afford personal transit…i.e. a car. They are not only expensive to buy but to licence, insure and maintain…not to mention the cost of gas. Mass transit provides a cost effective way for the middle class and working poor mobility and to get to work.
Of course another reason mass transit exists is its efficiency; which can be measured in at least three ways. First, there are fewer cars on the road meaning less traffic. For those who think traffic is bad now, imagine a 100,000 more people on the road in their own cars?
It’s efficient environmentally as well. We have a hybrid system of electric and fossil fueled busses, but even if they were all diesel, less pollutants (including the global killing CO2) are emitted. There are fewer particles to irritate allergies or asthmatics…less smog…and it’s just easier to breathe.
It’s also efficient for when we do wise up as a civilization and goes completely carbon free, it will be easier to replace a thousand busses than a million cars.
Now, TransLink needs funding. We could jail people attempting to sneak a ride, but ultimately, as we have just discussed, that cost more than it gains. We could raise fares, however that would only serve to lower ridership…thus lowering revenue and you start a spiral downward where eventually the system is allowed to wither away.
There have been some wise suggestions though. There could be a relatively small levy applied to every vehicle sold in the GVRD. This could raise, upwards, to a $30 million a year. A minor increase on property taxes…1-3% would be enough…for a property worth $800,000 that would be an extra $50 a year. There could also be a small surtax on gas, which would not only help TransLinks budget, it would encourage more ridership and reduce our CO2 footprint. As little as a 2% increase…that’s less than $2 a tank-fill would cover the costs.
I guess ultimately my point is I hate feeling like a potential criminal every time I take the SkyTrain. Of all the great injustices that occur in our great city ‘fare-jumpers’ do not seem to warrant a dedicated security force…it does not warrant implementing a police state. What it does do is distract us from the real issues regarding public transit…that it needs to be expanded, access increased and adiquite and reliable funding provided by society. Vilifying the ridership over pennies missed will not garner the real money the system needs and deserves.