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In transit: T-Link boss on why she wanted the job and still does
“For the infamy,” jokes Nancy Olewiler, when asked why she ever wanted to be board chair at TransLink, always one of the hottest political hot potatoes in the province.
But even after 18 months at the helm of Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority during one of its most publicly scrutinized periods in history, Olewiler says there’s still nowhere else she’d rather be. And her actions back that up.
A director at BC Hydro subsidiary, Powertech, and a professor of economics and director of the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University, Olewiler doesn’t exactly need the work.
“My day job is studying public policy and transportation is key to sustainable cities,” the longtime Deep Cove resident told The Outlook while waiting on a SeaBus at Lonsdale Quay. “So my interest now is ‘How do I find sustainable funding for that?’”
It’s no secret that finding fair and sustainable funding for TransLink has become a lot of peoples’ interest lately. Not least of whom are those North Shore residents paying some of the highest property-tax fees to TransLink while receiving some of the lowest levels of service in the region.
In many parts of Metro Vancouver, property values get a big boost from being close to transit infrastructure like SkyTrain or rapid bus service. That can take some of the sting out property tax hikes going to pay for TransLink. But with the exception of maybe Lower Lonsdale, the same equation doesn’t apply to the still largely suburban North Shore.
“Every municipality thinks they pay more than the service they get,” Olewiler explains. “I live in Deep Cove and I have way better bus service than I deserve. I live in one of the lowest density parts of Vancouver and still I can take transit to the airport.”
“That said,” she adds. “We can’t just keep raising property taxes.”
Nor can the transit provider rely any more, Olewiler says, on revenues gleaned from its regional gas tax and provincial carbon tax, the latter of which rose another 1.1 cents on July 1
“Our gas tax revenue is way down,” the TransLink chair says. “The better our system works, the less tax revenue we get. We’re victims of our own success.”
Instead of the regional gas tax, Olewiler supports road tolls throughout Metro Vancouver — including on the Lions Gate and Second Narrows bridges — and a single province-wide tax on all carbon emissions across the board.
“People on the North Shore aren’t driving to Abbotsford to fill up their tanks [to avoid paying the Metro tax],” Olewiler says. “But people in Langley sure are.”
And while TransLink is currently under a provincial audit to find $30 million to pay for planned system improvements, chiefly south of the Fraser River, Olewiler is optimistic about TransLink’s future expansion on the North Shore.
West Vancouver’s Marine Drive was just recently classified a rapid-bus corridor, Olewiler says, and Lonsdale Avenue could soon follow suit if it maintains its current rate of densification. “Then as soon as we can afford it,” Olewiler says, “we’ll have a bus here every 15 minutes.”
Additional improvements on the horizon include rapid shuttle vans in less densely populated North Shore neighbourhoods, the elimination of the “outdated” fare-zone model and, Olewiler hopes, SeaBus service every 15 minutes, day and night.
“We’re in a vulnerable position here on the North Shore,” Olewiler admits, referencing the planned closure of TransLink’s North Vancouver bus depot in 2015 and the relocation of North Shore bus services across the Second Narrows Bridge in Burnaby.
“But despite what people say, other cities come here to look at us for ideas on how to do things. There are very few areas comparable to ours.”