May 1, 2015

Sun Editorials: Prescription without Medicine

The Sun lead editorial today:

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Transit will be funded regardless of vote results

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Gregor Robertson said last week that Greater Vancouver could miss out on federal help from a new, $1-billion-ayear transportation infrastructure fund if people vote No in the transit plebiscite. Such a claim is misleading and, with just a month until voting on the plebiscite ends, Vancouver’s mayor is leaving himself open to charges he is scaremongering and panicking.

The transportation fund was announced as part of last week’s federal budget. The fund will launch with $250 million in 2017-2018 and ultimately grow to $1 billion a year by 2019-2020. It was welcomed by mayors across Canada.

They were not put off by the fact that the fund will not launch for several years because, as they point out, projects they envision are not yet shovel-ready. This, by the way, raises a question of why a 0.5-per-cent sales tax increase that Lower Mainlanders are now voting on would be collected starting in 2016 or thereabouts.

Robertson’s suggestion that the region would lose out on the benefits from the federal fund if voters do not approve the new sales tax — “If we do not have a Yes vote from the referendum, we don’t have funding locally to match the provincial and federal funds that are being promised” — was quickly refuted by federal Industry Minister James Moore, who said the region would definitely get its fair share.

Robertson’s statement relates to the fact that federal funding will be contingent on matching funds from municipalities.

But there is no specific federal requirement for municipal funding to derive from a sales tax hike, only that there be municipal money brought to the table.

While the Mayors’ Council was negligent in not outlining any Plan B alternative to voting Yes, logic dictates that if voters reject the sales tax increase, other means of finding necessary monies will be pursued.

Polls show a majority of No voters want municipal governments to find that money by reallocating existing revenues. Local mayors may not like that option, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be done, if it comes to that.

Surely, if the transportation plan is crucial, as mayors contend, citizens will expect them to find the resources to provide essential services and infrastructure.

Whenever politicians are unwilling or unable to do that, voters have a habit of turfing them from office in favour of politicians who can do the job.

Scaring voters into voting Yes is not a good strategy for the mayors. Nor should it be necessary given the mayors have had an overwhelming advantage in the plebiscite campaign, with $7 million of taxpayers’ money to spend, compared to the $40,000 raised and being spent by the No.

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A few points in response:

The transportation fund was announced as part of last week’s federal budget. …  This, by the way, raises a question of why a 0.5-per-cent sales tax increase that Lower Mainlanders are now voting on would be collected starting in 2016 or thereabouts.

The federal funds are meant for the large projects such as Surrey light rail and the Broadway subway, not the funding of much of the Mayors’ plan, notably the additional 400 buses, the express and rapid-bus lines, the funding for cycling, for the major road network – and importantly, for the additional operating funds to accommodate growth.  Rapid-transit lines on their own do not a comprehensive transportation system make.

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… other means of finding necessary monies will be pursued.

Please, some specifics.  Just what do you have in mind?  Vehicle levy?  Road pricing?  Carbon tax?  (Do not expect an answer.)

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Polls show a majority of No voters want municipal governments to find that money by reallocating existing revenues. Local mayors may not like that option, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be done, if it comes to that.

That does, however, mean some current expenditures must be reduced.  Again, specifics please.  What services should be cut sufficient to fund transit on the scale needed.  Minor cuts or reallocations won’t come close.

Behind the editorial, of course, is the real agenda: limit (preferably reduce) local government expenditures, even as more responsibilities are downloaded on to it.  From the senior government point of view, it’s worked for housing, now they’re trying transportation.

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 … citizens will expect them to find the resources to provide essential services and infrastructure.

When one sees the political pain the federal Conservatives have had to bear for the few hundred thousand dollars it has saved on the Kitsilano coast guard station, imagine that many times over in every municipality.  “We are closing your fire hall to pay for someone else’s bus service.”  Yeah, that should work.

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Then there’s unstated question of how a regional service will be funded by individual municipalities.  Would it be through an increase in property taxes individually approved in each municipality to fund TransLink?  How will that not be seen as a way around a No vote: a tax increase by other means.  That’s not likely in a post-HST environment.  And certainly not acceptable in high-assessment municipalities.

Behind the editorial The Sun is reinforcing the arguments of the Fraser Institute, the agenda of which is to limit government to 30 percent of the GDP and to reduce its debt and borrowing capacity – but without identifying significant services to be reduced or those not provided that produce a more equitable society, even as it’s expected local government will maintain existing levels of service, match or replace senior-government commitments and accommodate growth.

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  1. “Specifics Please.” The lack of specifics in the proposed transportation plans is precisely why people are voting “No” to the increase in sales tax referendum. The Sun editiorial cannot refer to the “specifics” because the mayors and Translink have not provided them, including no Plan B. It is unfair of you to target the editorial when it is the City and Province that have not outlined the details of the proposed transportation plans, including specific costs and accountability for those costs.

    1. The mayor’s plan is by far the most specific planning for transportation in decades. Voting no cause you think it’s too vague just guarantees more of what we’re currently doing, ad hock projects based on the whim of the province.

      Basically every argument I’ve heard for the no side is that the plan is too vague/too expensive/too whatever. But voting no just guarantees it will be nothing but even more vague/more expensive/etc. It’s crazy. Perfect is the enemy of good, as has been said before.

      1. Why is the plan good ?

        No de-congestion as there is no incentive to switch to slow wobbly buses as there is no LRT or subways on these important routes:

        a) downtown-Hastings-N-Burnaby to N-Shore
        b) Dunadarave – Park Royal – Lonsdale – to line a)
        c) along 41st Ave to Metrotown
        d) south on Burrard from downtown to Richmond
        e) to Stanley Park and west end to rid downtown & west of cars
        f) to S-Richmond and onto Delta
        g) train from W-Van to downtown to connect with b)

        ZERO proposed efficiencies in bloated MetroVan $5B+ budget, incl. Translink such as outsourcing or alignment of salaries+benefits to private sector norms, easily $500M – $1B in savings annually

        ZERO road tolls, increased car registration fees, increased gasoline taxes or vastly increased parking fees to induce non-use of cars. Charging $200/month for residential parking on 200,000 vehicles would be close to $500M a year. Combine this with efficiencies and there is plan B !

        it is a BAD plan that will not decongest. Therefore, it should fail.

      1. Yes, N, and P. Johnstone,

        The specifics/details that are needed and have not been provided include, for example, the total cost of just the Broadway subway (quote, builder, contingency and possible over-run costs and reasons, start and completion dates, impacts on businesses and residents in the construction zone and the specific plans to offset, minimize or compensate for those impacts, payment schedule for the project, design specifications, accounting perameters for the costs, etc).

        1. @Susan Smith

          You are being ridiculous. None of these things are available until you select a vendor IE gone through the RFP process. No vendor will go through the RFP process and then give dates until the money is available. The money is not available yet, ie we need to do this silly referendum so obviously the vendor has not been selected.

      1. Don’t forget to read the Appendices too. “F’ is important.

        “In the long-term, the Mayors’ Council has been consistent in identifying system-wide mobility pricing as having the greatest potential to achieve our shared vision for the region. Currently there is only a vague policy connection between what people drive, how far, when they go, and what the cost is. We cannot build our way out of congestion and, as a region, we must instead set pricing levels to improve the efficiency and fairness of the transportation system, while also raising revenue from users across the road and transit networks.
        As a funding source, mobility pricing offers the possibility of reducing, eliminating, or optimizing other taxes, in particular existing auto-based prices. For example, recent work in the US is looking at implementing a road usage charge as a replacement for the fuel tax. This is important for aligning policy objectives and also gaining public acceptability.”

        “Aligning policy objectives”. It’s not just about a few more buses and a subway, it’s about aligning policy objectives, which are not spelled out so have to be ascertained by reading between the lines.

        Shifting to road-pricing enables the transit authority to become a bona fide tax collector. Rather than receiving taxes from higher levels of government, the transit authority sets the rate and collects the money, using the same, or similar, technology and organization now used for the bridge toll.

        Some people call for national strategies. This is leading to a far more regional and local strategy. Tax rates being set and collected by unelected high rollers.

        It’s very clever. The “policy objectives” are becoming clearer and they have much more to do with steering the mobile behaviour of the public than simply building rail lines and buying buses. It will be a major coup if the proponents get the green light for their plan after selling it as a mere .5% sales tax hike.

        1. Indeed, cleverly worded. Personally I would support a higher PST hike if they actually built some decent RAPID transit (read subways) and curtailed their excessively paid civil servants’ salaries & benefits and introduced parking fees and mobility pricing, thus resulting in true de-congestion.

          But no to this band-aid more-wobbly-buses non-decongestion non-rapid transit plan with continued bloated bureaucracies !

        2. “Tax rates being set and collected by unelected high rollers.”
          You’re kidding right? In order for Translink to raise gas taxes, apply a parking tax, introduce a vehicle levy, etc. all require Provincial legislation. Yet road-pricing would be a free ticket to ride and the Province would completely delegate authority to Translink or the Mayors? In your dreams. Perhaps these “unelected high rollers” would be responsible for collecting the tax (although most likely that would fall on the Province or ICBC), they will never be given full authority to set tax rates (maybe recommend, but not set).
          If we’re encouraging Mayor Robertson to stop fear-mongering, I expect the same from others.

          And Thomas, I’m still as curious as ever, can you send me a photo of a regular bus vs. a “wobbly-bus”?

          1. You’re splitting hairs. As we clearly see in the Mayors’ Plan extensive calculations have already been undertaken by unelected high-rollers. The province has indicated its willingness to discuss road pricing and if the calculations are done, then it’s a baby step to implementation.

            What should be discussed are the policy objectives that the Mayors’ Plan mentions. Who’s policy objectives? What policy objectives? Where is the mandate for designing policy objectives? Is this a transit authority or a social behavioural organization, or are they inseparable?

            1. “As we clearly see in the Mayors’ Plan extensive calculations have already been undertaken by unelected high-rollers.”
              You do realize that Mayors are elected officials, correct?

              But agreed, we should focus on policy objectives…which have been laid out previously by both regional authorities in Metro Vancouver and supported by various levels of government:
              – Translink developed a long-term strategy in 2013 that includes policy objectives for the region for the next 30 years. Note that many goals involve improved air quality, reduced GHG emissions and improving mobility choices, and the associated actions to achieve those goals: http://www.translink.ca/en/Plans-and-Projects/Regional-Transportation-Strategy.aspx

              – Metro Vancouver has a number of strategies, including the Regional Growth Strategy with policies suggesting greater land use and transportation coordination to reduce auto use. Municipalities supported this Strategy and have been asked to demonstrate support with Community Plans. Metro also has an Air Quality & GHG plan, with actions/objectives that include reduced GHG’s from the transportation sector. This plan was developed in collaboration with Fraser Valley Region, and many of the targets are in line with Provincial air quality and GHG targets:
              http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/regional-planning/metro-vancouver-2040/about-metro-2040/Pages/default.aspx
              http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/air-quality/plans-reports/iaqggmp/Pages/default.aspx

              These strategies have received support from individual municipalities, regional agencies in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and support the targets established by the Provincial government. Generally consistent policies across three levels of government/authority speaks to a rather consistent strategy, but one that you appear not to support. No problem with that, just don’t pretend that since you don’t like it, it must be a conspiracy.

          2. Eric: For a start, Translink is not a transit authority. It is a regional transportation authority. The mandate includes transit, but also includes major regional roads and bridges. Even some regional cycling routes, shared with municipalities. And what they term Intelligent Transportation System programs.

          3. I ride along Broadway to UBC regularly. It is very wobbly and NOT an incentive, neither both quality nor time wise to switch from a non-wobbly car. Socialism in action catering to the lowest denominator.

        3. “The “policy objectives” are becoming clearer….”

          Instead of guessing at them, you may like to review Translink’s Transportation 2040 plan, which clearly outlines these goals. The plan has been around since 2008. It covers things like air quality, transportation mode share, economic growth and goods movement, and stable funding. The current referendum is just about the last one, the funding part, but whether or not it passes, the long term plan is the same. And it isn’t a secret.

          http://www.translink.ca/~/media/documents/plans_and_projects/regional_transportation_strategy/transport%202040/transport%202040.ashx

          You will note that in the above link, the policy objectives around air quality, GHG emissions, and so on are harmonized with the provincial and federal government targets for those same areas. It is hard to understand your claim that unelected officials are running amok.

          1. Amok. Maybe. With abandon, probably. I didn’t notice that this 2040 Plan is mentioned at all in the supporting documents of the Mayors’ Plan. Then again, I have work to do to feed my family and it’s not as though I can drop everything and wade through the 150 pages of justifying documents. My guess is that the mayor’s PR buddies suggest keeping the whole, massive scheme under the radar because it’s just too much for the average joe to digest. And, they know best anyway.

            What I did notice was that TransLink spent $10 million on the Cambie Line Bikeway, when there’s another water crossing just 350 metres to the west on the Oak Street Bridge.

            This kind of splurging is what gets TransLink into the bad books of a quite a few citizens.

            1. 1) 10 Million is nothing, the annual city of Vancouver budget is over a billion. That is less than 1%
              2) Referring to a 150 page document is not keeping things under the radar. In fact that is being transparent by having so many details. You can always use the table of contents or read the summaries.

          2. “TransLink spent $10 million on the Cambie Line Bikeway, when there’s another water crossing just 350 metres to the west on the Oak Street Bridge”

            The multi use path on the Canada Line bridge is approximately 4 metres wide. Just to be clear, are you advocating taking a northbound traffic lane out of service on the Oak St bridge, or a southbound lane? Or one of each?

            1. What we’re considering is relieving the truck and bus traffic on the Oak Street Bridge and shifting it over to the Cambie Line Bikeway Bridge. A small adjustment here and there should correct this extravagant waste and over-capacity. The bikes can revert to the Oak Street Bridge pathway, until the new multi-lane Oak Street Bridge is built.

              If the Bikeway bridge can’t take the load then we will just designate it for light-weight single occupant vehicles.

            2. “new multi-lane Oak Street Bridge is built.” That is a crazy idea????
              1)That will cost a lot more than 10 million. Something like 200 million
              2)That would just push the traffic to the intersections and just create a lineup on the bridge and not increase any traffic flow.

        4. Currently, more than 6 million dollars has not been collected, and won’t be collected, from individuals who use public transit regularly but do not pay. Bus drivers and Translink allow users to travel on public transportation without paying because they say that for their own safety, they do not want to confront these abusers of the system. Moreover, bus drivers claim that they “simply do not care” if people pay or not. How can a system pay for itself if users are permitted to use the services for free? I’m not going to continue voluntarily to fund this fundamentally flawed system.

          1. 6 Million dollars are you serious?
            The annual city budget of Vancouver is over a billion, that would make less than 1%. What do you want to do hire an army of security or cops to collect less than 1% of the budget.

            But then if that happened you would probably complain Translink is wasting money and you want to defund them.

            1. Waste is precisely the point; user-pay systems don’t work to pay for the costs of transportation infrastructure if users don’t have to pay. You are advocating the continuation of waste; that attitude when generalized across the board amounts to billions that are mismanaged without strict accounting.

            2. @ Susan Smith
              Advocating for enforcement which would cost more than the revenue potentially generated is an example of mismanagement and waste.

    2. “The lack of specifics in the proposed transportation plans is precisely why people are voting “No” to the increase in sales tax referendum…. It is unfair of you to target the editorial when it is the City and Province that have not outlined the details of the proposed transportation plans, including specific costs ”

      Did Jordan or somebody say this was the case and now others are just repeating it? I have heard a few people say it. The specific project and cost details and readily available in the immediately obvious places, and all of the marketing that has come from the Mayor’s Council and others has very specifically pointed to this information.

      http://mayorscouncil.ca/information-centre/

      1. Matt,

        Have you ever obtained a formal quote for construction, or do you just throw your dollars wildly at the contractor and tell him to spend whatever he wants? Where is the budget, quote, contract and balance sheet for any of the proposed transportation plans? The public wants to make sure that its tax dollars are not poorly allocated, as has been the case in the past.

        1. Susan,

          In order to obtain a formal quote for construction you need to have a 100% construction ready package of drawings prepared and be able to determine the precise material quantities required for construction. At that point you will tender your project and the potential contractors will talk to their suppliers and give you their exact bid prices. At this stage you must be prepared to enter into a legal agreement to begin paying the contractor to build the project.

          It will take years of costly design work to get to that stage, so it should be obvious that until you have the exact specifics of the projects that you will proceeding with you will be better off doing a higher level cost estimate. At this stage that probably includes itemized but somewhat rough estimates of material quantities for some things along with lump sum estimates for other components based on the prices of construction on previous projects. A great way to waste a lot of money would be to carry out a 100% detailed design on every project before the scope is properly defined.

          If you find this frustrating, then please direct your anger to every infrastructure project that has even been undertaken.

    1. Two pedestrians and a motorcyclist. One on a country road, another in a parking lot. More buses and subways will not stop these kinds of accidents.

      1. Sure…how about we look at the news for the next week or so and see how many more entirely needless deaths you can dismiss.

    2. The rate of such deaths per unit of population will probably drop as non-motor-vehicle mode share rises. Transit is a good alternative, and carries low hazard potential to peds and other vulnerable road users. A drop like this is a goal worth reaching for.

  2. The b line bus service increase can happen pretty quickly. Order the buses, hire new drivers etc. That could be ready in less than 4 years. The federal funds are for capital. They could be used to order buses but it couldn’t be used to pay for the drivers to drive them.

    1. And the B-line routes can build ridership which might make LRT or Skytrain feasible on those routes in the future.

  3. One must wonder if the Sun and Province are aware of the Fraser Institute agenda and, if they’re not, how they so freely support something that has caused so much structural damage to Canada’s economy and the ability of our governments to act for the common good?

    1. What structural damage ? Canada had one of the best performing economies of the world [ until last night, that is, as of course a raid by the NDP on Alberta’s oil wealth will result in an imploding economy there as well have major Canadian ramifications such as large debt]. Big government is always bad for your financial health.

  4. Sort of surprised no one has picked up on Minister’s Moore’s comments earlier in the week, prior to the Sun’s editorial:
    “Moore also indicated that Ottawa’s contribution isn’t tied to the transit megaprojects proposed in Surrey and Vancouver. The province can decide how to spend the money, he said, acknowledging it could be used to build roads and bridges, such as the proposed new Massey Bridge, though he said the B.C. government has not approached the federal government on this.”
    “Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said he expects B.C.’s share funding will likely go to roads projects, rather than transit, because “transit won’t buy any votes” for the provincial Liberals”

    It’s also convenient in that road projects don’t require a local match (or a pesky referendum for that matter) so the Province can make announcements to their hearts content.

    1. And there we have it. Guaranteed approval and money for roads. Referenda with strings attached for everything else.

      I may be switching from commuter cycling to a job that will require a lot of driving, but I don’t want to see any more money put into motordom. There would be plenty of road space available to those who absolutely must drive if there were viable alternatives for everyone else.

  5. ‘Jeff’ tells us that a grand plan has been around since 2008. ‘A’ tells us that a grand plan has been around since 2013. The mayors have agreed to the plan, with their planning.

    With all due respect, these are mostly gabfests and make-work projects for highly paid consultants. Official Community Plans are generally only good as long as the ruling council is in power. In Vancouver, and in other municipalities, spot zoning approvals that do not follow established community plans are as common as dandelions. Projecting 20 years ahead is probably a good idea but also somewhat futile. Patterns change and funding sources change, and people change too.

    I’m not against rapid transit. I’ve enjoyed riding on subways in more than fifteen cities around the world many hundreds, probably thousands of times.

    I can understand that generally TransLink performs adequately but I also can understand the criticism. The CEOs debacle was foot shooting of the highest order and that opened the box for public outrage. I wonder who put forward the motion to fire Ian Jarvis.

    1. “‘Jeff’ tells us that a grand plan has been around since 2008. ‘A’ tells us that a grand plan has been around since 2013. The mayors have agreed to the plan, with their planning.”

      If you look at the plans, you will see that the 2008 plan laid the groundwork, and the 2013 plan is an update. The Mayor’s Council took those plans, and prioritized a list of actions and projects in support of those long term plans. They then put a funding proposal on the table. To suggest that these broad plans are being hidden is ridiculous. What has happened is that like you, many people are busy. So we elect leaders to lead. They came up with a plan. They wouldn’t expect you to read hundreds of pages of background, so they put out a summary. And you promptly concluded that it must be a conspiracy.

      I think it is commendable that there is a plan. I also think it is commendable that so many of the mayors agreed on setting priorities.

      Yes, community plans will change. But these aren’t community plans relating to zoning or development, they are strategic plans for transportation. A long term vision is probably a good idea. You originally asked for the sources of the long term policy objectives that you just became aware of. Now you have them.

      1. Jeff,

        As you well know but do not admit to knowing, general plans for City improvements are merely proposals that are more often dismissed than implemented, usually because they are cost-prohibitive. Historically, the City of Vancouver and its suburbs abandoned plans for transportation systems that connected downtown Vancouver to outlying areas, choosing instead to isolate the suburbs as self-contained communities. These were short-sighted decisions, and it is oppressive and unfair to expect people today to pay for the gross mistakes of past City planners. Where is the accountability?

  6. My supposition is not at all ridiculous. Ask anyone, although I know you won’t, if they are aware that the Plan is to charge drivers of motor vehicles for the vast majority of the local portion to fund this plan. The Plan also calls for future reductions of gas taxes and etc., all primarily funded with road pricing. The Plan calls for mitigation of the road pricing expenses for the poor. This is a plan that would cause inflation since all commercial products for consumers will be transported by vehicles paying for traveling on the roads. This would only widen the gap between the poor and the wealthy. This is not being discussed. The only discussion is half of one percent sales tax. That’s dishonest because the proponents know that only a handful of people will read any part of the Plan.

    1. 1)All municipal roads are massively subsidized since they are all paid for through property taxes. Road pricing may reduce or eliminate this subsidy depending on the pricing. This would also pay for the externality of climate change, air pollution, inactivity and its related health care costs.

      2)If we put a tax on drivers and use it for better public transit that will be transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor since the poor are the least likely to drive since they can’t afford it. As apposed the present environment of transferring wealth from the poor to the rich through property taxes to subsidize car commuters.

      1. N,

        Please provide your balance sheet to prove your statement: “This would also pay for the externality of climate change, air pollution, inactivity and its related health care costs.” Also, what specifically do you mean by “better public transit?” This is a vacuous phrase if you do not define it: it sounds good but means nothing.

        1. @Susan Smith
          1) “This would also pay for the externality…..” It should be “This Could also pay for the externality…..” If the price is high enough it can cover the externalities.
          2) I define better public transit if we give more people the option of taking public transit rather than taking a car. So more buses, more subways, more skytrains etc.
          3) I don’t have a balance sheet for the value of pollution, climate change and inactivity. But we all know its very expensive for our societies.

          1. Thank you for acknowleding your actual uncertainty and guesswork; this is the crux of the matter — without certainty that a plan is cost-effective and generate the desired result, it is foolhardy both to fund and implement that plan. Further, all people already have “the option of taking public transit rather than taking a car,” so there is no need for “more buses, more subways, more skytrains etc.” if the “option” is your only definition for “better public transit.” Without improvements in efficiency, cost, funding, and accountability, the “YES” vote is just approving the same mismanaged, ineffective and tax-wasting transportation planning of the past (ie. the status quo). Vote “NO” to send the grossly over-due message to government that we are fed up with the failures in transportation spending of the past.

  7. N,

    Prove your claim that enforcement of users paying for the transportation services they use to prevent the waste in funding from them not paying would be more expensive than the revenue generated from them paying for transportation. Again, your statement is vacuous without a balance sheet. The manner of enforcement dictates the cost of enforcement, and depending on that manner, there is no question that it could be cost-efficient and would radically reduce waste.

    1. @Susan Smith
      I am going to use your logic. You say don’t spend money unless we know the true costs. Well we don’t know the true costs of eliminating fare evasion which represents 6 million or less than 1% of the city Vancouver budget. So therefor we should not do it. That’s what you said before don’t do anything until it is completely understood. You and I don’t know the cost of enforcement.

  8. @Susan Smith
    1) It is not an option for someone if it takes 4 hours to commute to work in public transit verses 45 minutes for a car. That is why we need more buses, skytrains and subways.
    2) Do you agree that cars are subsidized through roads paid for through property taxes?
    3) Are you saying we can not do things to reduce pollution, climate change and inactivity from transportation without knowing the true cost even though we know these things are very expensive to societies?

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