COLUMN: TransLink not broken, but not accountable

Minister Peter Fassbender brings experience to contentious TransLink

Peter Fassbender ran for the BC Liberals in 2013 because he wanted to get things done. He believed the party could win an election that pollsters and most members of the public thought would be a cakewalk for the NDP.

He was right. He won his Surrey-Fleetwood seat, which had been held by the NDP’s Jagrup Brar, by 200 votes – with that narrow margin of victory likely due to an intensive door-knocking effort in the final weeks of the campaign. He talked with voters about jobs, growth and issues that mattered to them.

He served as mayor of Langley City for eight years until his election as an MLA. During that time, he served for a period as chair of the mayors’ council – which has limited oversight powers over TransLink. He lost that position, which is voted on by other mayors, because some of them felt he was too close to the provincial government.

Fassbender has long believed in a long-term vision for transportation in the Lower Mainland, one which would see the province, TransLink and municipalities co-ordinating their planning efforts.

He is now in an ideal position to help bring that vision to fruition as the community, sport and cultural development minister, in charge of TransLink.

TransLink is not broken. It actually does a pretty good job of operating rapid transit, buses, roads and bridges. It is short of funds to take on ambitious new projects, and the recent defeat of a plebiscite to add a half point to the sales tax to give it more funds has focused a great deal of attention on it.

TransLink has not been accountable to taxpayers. Its private board has closed meetings. It has other subsidiaries with their own private boards. Directors pay themselves handsomely, and they pay top staff handsomely as well. Mayors have minimal oversight powers, yet under the TransLink legislation, they are the only elected officials with responsibility for the tax dollars it collects – other than the provincial minister in charge.

It also needs to do a better job of communicating with its customers, particularly when there are major breakdowns and disruptions, such as when SkyTrain is shut down for hours.

Fassbender has seen it from a mayor’s perspective, and now he will see it from a provincial perspective. As a Surrey MLA and former Langley City mayor, he also knows the critical need to expand TransLink services in the fast-growing South Fraser region.

Knowing all these perspectives well is a huge benefit. He will make changes, and hopefully they will help TransLink to do an even better job. He has promised there will be significant changes by the end of the year, and has called on the board to suspend its search for a new CEO until the future direction has been made plain.

Hopefully, long-term planning will be co-ordinated so that plans for a Deas Island bridge, more universal (and lower-priced) tolling, new rapid transit projects and bus service expansion are all considered at the same time, and not by different government agencies ensconced in their silos.

After all, there is only one taxpayer.

Fassbender was given the education minister’s job when elected. His mandate there was to reach a bargained contract with the BC Teachers Federation. It was a tough task, and he endured a lot of name-calling and pressure as the teachers’ strike dragged on. But he hung in there, and to his credit (and the BCTF’s), they managed to reach a contract at the bargaining table – a rarity in B.C. education labour relations.

That won him a lot of credibility with his boss, Premier Christy Clark. Now he has a new task.

This new challenge won’t be easy. Some of the mayors won’t be happy that he will be overseeing TransLink. But he will ensure that the organization adopts the kind of change it needs to go forward, and he will not sidestep accountability.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for Peace Arch News. frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

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