With ridership still well below pre-pandemic levels, TransLink looks for 'long-term revenue solutions'
Metro Vancouver's public transit system will be dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come, according to recent funding and ridership announcements by TransLink.
It's unclear when the transit system's ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels, and that uncertainty brings with it uncertainty over TransLink's future revenue and its ability to maintain and expand existing service.
In terms of ridership, system-wide boardings remain substantially lower than what they were in 2019. As of this month, TransLink ridership stood at roughly 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
CTV News asked the agency if it had a forecast for when it expects to see boardings reach or surpass the totals seen in 2019. The organization's emailed response read, in part:
"We continue to experience significant impacts brought on by the pandemic. While we are seeing promising signs of ridership bouncing back, we do not anticipate that ridership will reach pre-COVID levels in 2022 or 2023."
Of course, TransLink is not alone in its pandemic-induced struggles. Transit systems across North America saw sharp declines in ridership as much of society shut down in response to the coronavirus in spring 2020.
As things reopened and restrictions changed later that year and through 2021, transit use recovered slowly, reflecting many past users' continued preference for remote work, as well as continued apprehension from some about exposure to the coronavirus on transit.
In Metro Vancouver, this dynamic has manifested itself as higher ridership recovery rates in TransLink's Southeast region – which includes Surrey and Langley – where people were less likely (or less able) to work from home.
It can also be seen in the dismal recovery numbers for the West Coast Express commuter train route. While system-wide boardings reached 59 per cent of pre-pandemic levels between September and December 2021, the West Coast Express saw just 29 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership during that period.
Compared to other transit systems across the continent, TransLink's ridership recovery has been strong, exceeding the average recovery rates of transit systems in Montreal, Toronto, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco in 2021.
The agency's service performance review estimates that 2.2 million unique customers used TransLink's system in 2021, a total equivalent to roughly 84 per cent of Metro Vancouver's overall population.
Still, continued lower ridership – even if it's higher than that of other transit systems in North America – means continued lower revenues for TransLink.
"TransLink has maintained service at or near pre-pandemic levels despite the challenges of the pandemic," the agency said in its statement to CTV News.
"This is thanks to support from the provincial and federal governments, who provided relief funding for operations, which has allowed us to maintain service. That is temporary emergency relief funding and is not expected to continue. We are in talks with senior levels of government and the Mayors’ Council on long-term revenue solutions."
TransLink's 10-year investment plan, released Thursday, provides few details as to what those "long-term revenue solutions" might look like.
The plan notes the "significant adverse financial impact" of the pandemic on both transit fare and fuel tax revenue, and indicates a two-step approach to stabilizing funding in the coming years.
"The first step, in this 2022 Investment Plan, is to keep TransLink financially stable for the next three years until there is more certainty with the return of ridership and revenue for the development of the next investment plan," the document reads.
TransLink proposes to maintain its financial stability by implementing cost-saving measures, "maximizing non-taxation revenues," and increasing property taxes by 1.15 per cent annually and fares by 2.3 per cent annually.
The agency also held a news conference with the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy on Friday to reiterate the province's $2.4-billion commitment to funding TransLink capital projects, including the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain extension.
Speaking to reporters at the event, TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn described the agency as being in an enviable position compared to other transit systems in North America.
"This is a great place to be, to sit here and say, 'We've stabilized our finances for three years. We're able to stabilize our service levels.' That's fantastic. I don't know any other system that's able to say that," Quinn said.
He acknowledged that there's "more work to do," however.
The investment plan notes that – though TransLink will be financially stable for three years – the current approach "is not sufficient to completely solve the long-term funding gap caused by the COVID-19 pandemic."
"The additional unfunded amount required to balance the remainder of the 2022 Investment Plan (for years 2026 – 2031) ranges anywhere from $30 million to $295 million annually, depending mainly on the pace of ridership recovery and, to a lesser extent, on the pace of electric vehicle adoption (which reduces fuel tax revenue)," the report reads.
That's where the plan's "second step" comes in, though the report provides little information as to what that step will look like, saying only that it will occur in the next investment plan, to be proposed by 2025.
"We'll be working with the province, with the federal government on additional revenue sources, but for the short term, right now, we want to see what happens with ridership return," Quinn said.
"This pandemic has had a lot of ups and downs, as we all know. And so we want to see what happens with that and, in the short term, this three-year plan is excellent. It keeps us stable. In the long run, there's certainly more work to do."
The report says the Mayors' Council and the provincial government will work to "enable new, sustainable revenue sources," in the next investment plan. It doesn't provide any suggestion as to what those new revenue sources might be, however.
"This second step is critical, as without additional revenue to fill the remaining funding gap, TransLink would need to implement significant reductions to transit service in 2026 to balance the plan," the document reads.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's St. John Alexander
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