|‘Otto pilot’ Part III
Never Trust a Smiling Corporation
(June 7, 2014)
As reinvented in 2007, the South Coast British Columbia Transit Authority (“TransLink”) is an autonomous political entity with the de facto authority of a ministry to make and execute public transit policy. Its appointed board can levy taxes and borrow money, yet it is unaccountable to the provincial legislature or the auditor general. This authority is contrary to any known provincial structure as defined by the Constitution Act 1982:
VI. DISTRIBUTION OF LEGISLATIVE POWERS
Powers of the Parliament
Exclusive Powers of Provincial Legislatures
92. In each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to…
2. Direct Taxation within the Province in order to the raising of a Revenue for Provincial Purposes.
3. The borrowing of Money on the sole Credit of the Province.…
The legislature may use its exclusivity to extend revenue-raising authority to civic governments and Crown corporations, but in each case legislative and public accountability is maintained. This condition does not apply to the new TransLink, which does not even appear in the list of provincial Crown corporations. Consequently, TransLink does not appear to have any constitutional basis from which to raise taxes or incur public debt for provincial purposes.
The fact that the B.C. government wrote legislation granting TransLink such authority is beside the point. Elected politicians, not appointed functionaries, make laws and raise money on the public’s behalf, so the alienation of legislative authority over any area of public policy amounts to disenfranchising the public and undermining the legislature. TransLink’s appointed governing structure, therefore, is unconstitutional.
Calls to the ministry of transportation to explain TransLink’s structure or transit policy were met mostly with cheerleading, obfuscation, and professions of political impotence, such as: “TransLink is responsible for Compass Cards so best for you to speak to them about the project”; and “TransLink is an independent regional transportation authority.”
The fact that I was told to talk to TransLink about transit policy confirmed that it is a governmental fiefdom. It also told me that whatever answers I might get would be little more than apologias and boilerplate designed to make a $171 million (now close to $200 million) economically wasteful, politically capricious boondoggle sound noble.
The cover story/advertising campaign that TransLink settled on ignores the government’s specious reasoning and reinvents Faregate/Compass Card as an act of corporate benevolence Of course, the idea that a corporate entity would spend $171 million of public funds for any reason other than its own self interest is implausible on its face, so TransLink needs to co-opt the public into not questioning press releases and official utterances. When TransLink spokesmen are forced to explain themselves, though, the disconnect between fact and fabrication becomes embarrassingly obvious.
In this score, the well-scripted dissembling I received from Vice-President Mike Madill exceeded expectations. The more he was pressed to defend the official TransLink cover story, the less defensible and more fraudulent the new TransLink proved to be.
For our own good
According to Madill, the rationale for imposing Faregate/Compass Card on the public amounts to this:
“The compass card system provides much more convenient ways to pay. Right now, you have to go down to a fare dealer store to acquire either your monthly pass of your faresavers, and with compass you’ll be able to do a lot of that online in terms of adding stored value to your card, and you can set it up to autoload. You can hook it up to your bank account, or your credit card. You can set it so that it automatically reloads your fare card so that when it gets down below a certain level.”
Is our transit payment system so user unfriendly that we had to allocate $171 million for a new, more convenient one? As it is, a person can simply buy a book of tickets or a monthly pass from a retailer. Why should people have to carry around a prepaid debit card that costs $6? Madill said it’s no big deal:
“You have to buy a monthly pass in advance, so that’s the same and the same thing with faresavers.”
He’s right, of course, but if this new payment system comes to pretty much the same thing as we have now, the great boast of improved convenience is hollow. So, again, why spend $171 million for a marginal improvement?
At this point, Madill realizes the convenience argument isn’t working so he takes the Faregate/Compass Card story in a new direction:
“The [paper] tickets get wet and jam in the [fare]box. This is a way to alleviate those types of problems. It’s a pretty decent-sized problem, but the benefits of going to a smart-card system is not limited to that. The bigger benefits are more to do with data about how some of our customers move around and better allocate resources and also it provides huge benefits to the customer in terms of convenience.”
Rider convenience, that great benevolent motive, is now shown to be an afterthought behind solving a mechanical problem, which in turn is minor compared to the need to co-opt the public into making TransLink’s life easier. Public convenience, far from being the prime motive, is really a derivative benefit of TransLink’s need to track transit users:
“We see saving money through using aggregated and anonymized data…to find where customers are getting on and off, and then better planning the system using our existing resources, like adding buses to deal with demands.”
On this score, Madill said that the public should not be concerned about invasion of privacy both because the information collected is anonymous and because TransLink must abide by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, recognizes the truth of Madill’s statement and TransLink’s legal obligations, but the idea of people leaving a digitized trail, especially when paying by credit card, still raises concerns. As Vonn said:
“We are concerned about the track record of the government. Regarding the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the government could pass amendments to make the impermissible legal. Privacy concerns have been flagged for some time.”
A federal example can serve to show just how impermanent legislative safeguards can be. In February 2013, public outrage forced Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to remove a section of a communications security bill that would have given numerous agencies the power to conduct warrantless surveillance of private communications. But Vonn and Steve Anderson, executive director for OpenMedia.ca, still have concerns that Harper could try to reintroduce this unconstitutional provision. “They have been pushing this agenda for a very long time,” Vonn told the Georgia Straight. “Every indication of political reality suggests that they’re simply going to try this through another track.”
Although there is no reason to disbelieve Madill when he says the data collected will be used anonymously, the Faregate/Compass Card system does have the potential for abuse, yet it’s a danger that need not exist. How many students, say, could have been hired for something less than $171 million to compile the data that TransLink claims it so desperately needs?
Money for what?
The subject of how much money TransLink borrowed and for what purpose led Madill to add yet another plot twist:
“Overall, the Compass Card and Faregate together are $171 million, and that includes renovations to the stations…We get funding from the B.C. government Ministry of Transportation for infrastructure and also the Government of Canada… $70 million altogether 40 from the province and 30 from the federal government.”
Madill’s inclusion of station renovations is exceedingly odd. If renovations are necessary—and they are—why not talk about it separately and borrow money for it separately? Slipping it in casually like this gives the appearance of using the fact of renovation to mitigate the system’s exorbitant expense and questionable ethics, as if to say, “Well, we had to spend much of the money anyway.” Unfortunately, the construction argument implodes.
On March 1, 2013, TransLink issued a press release about planned renovations to seven over-crowded, high-traffic stations due to be completed by 2016. The total cost is pegged at $164 million, a figure that includes $41 million from the federal government, $83 million from the provincial government, and $40 million from TransLink, itself. Clearly, these renovation costs are not part of the $171 million allocated for Faregate/Compass Card, where the federal and provincial contributions are $30 million and $40 million, respectively. (The Ministry of Transportation is only funding a portion of the Faregates but provides no funding for the Compass Card.)
You asked for it!
Because defensible political and financial reasons for Faregate/Compass Card don’t exist, TransLink needs “public convenience” to serve as rhetorical cover for its data-mining operation, as can be seen in this exchange:
MADILL: “The public has been asking for this kind of thing for some time. In terms of Faregate, there has been a debate that’s been ongoing over the years, but many of our customers have been asking for the system to be gated.”
ME: “How many, exactly? Do you have a figure? Do you have a percentage?”
MADILL: “I can’t…I haven’t surveyed all of our customers. I can’t tell you exactly how many, but I can tell you we have done focus groups and got feedback over the course of a number of years, and that’s all a matter of public record.”
Leaving aside the specifics of Madill’s claim for the moment, let’s consider the idea of focus groups determining provincial policy. Some people might not have a problem with it and might even praise it, but pandering to the masses in this way is subversive and an abdication of responsibility. Only members of the legislature, as the collective voice of the public, are empowered to make provincial policy, so by this cynical end-run TransLink shows itself to be undemocratic.
Madill’s inability to defend the claim of broad public support is understandable. Even granting that these focus groups took place, the idea that the public would ask for gated access to SkyTrain is refuted by publicly expressed opinion. The best example of this concerns the new double charging of bus riders.
The Faregates at SkyTrain stations and the SeaBus will not have the ability to accept paper bus transfers, so an estimated 6,000 cash-paying riders will have to pay twice. A groundswell of public anger exploded in TransLink’s face. Transit rider Glyn Lewis started a petition at change.org demanding that TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis put an end to the double transit fee. By the latest count, Lewis had registered 7,156 signatures, more than TransLink’s apocryphal 6,000, and Lewis’s is not the only petition.
Instead of rectifying the error, though, TransLink refuses to do anything about it. For his part, Madill again took cover behind a focus group:
“To put machines in the SkyTrain stations to accommodate this would cost $10-15 million. We did some research and we found that about 6,000 people each day pay cash on a bus and then transfer from bus to rail. We did a focus group with a sample of those folks and we asked them about that problem and they said, ‘Hey, don’t spend all that money on expensive machinery on us. Just give us lots of notice, and we’ll make the adjustment.”
TransLink’s Aug. 14, 2013, press release tells a rather different story: “We determined that converting bus fare boxes to issue passes that would access the Faregates would cost about $25 million, is not a cost-effective solution, and would take a long time to implement.”
This sentence is comprehensive and self-explanatory. What follows next is clearly a non sequitur designed to mislead:
“In focus groups, our customers told us they would prefer we not spend the money on replacing the fare boxes and instead focus on significant rider education in advance of the change being made in order to give customers plenty of time to get a Compass Card (that will facilitate the transfer to the rail system).”
The two citations have nothing to do with each other, and juxtaposing them in this way serves no purpose other than to delude the public into thinking that its opinion matters when no cause-and-effect relation exists.
This is not the only place where TransLink shows that its embrace of public opinion is instrumental, not genuine. For example, TransLink will not offer refunds or exchanges on previously bought passes, and it terminated employee discount passes and free family Sunday rides on a monthly pass. Madill said the cancellation is meant to “spread equity” because the idea that giving some people a benefit could be perceived as unfair to others.
In an interview, media spokesman Derek Zabel effectively undercut Madill when he admitted that these benefits were cut for financial reasons: they were incentives that were no longer needed to encourage people to use transit. public convenience notwithstanding.
Madill and Zabel both agree on one thing, though: these cuts have nothing to do with Faregates or the Compass Card. Despite this denial a connection does exist since Falcon used the same equality excuse to justify Faregates.
“Falcon engaged in populist pandering," said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan in an interview. “He claimed Faregates were needed because people who bought tickets could see others getting on transit and think they didn’t pay.” However, a Dec. 1, 2005, technical report on fare evasion, co-authored by TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis, determined that public perceptions of fare evasion are unreliable and exaggerated when compared to the actual fare evasion rate as determined by eNRG Research, which carried out a survey of 1600 local residents:
“Respondents estimate that 27% of SkyTrain riders are fare evaders, compared to 18% for bus and 22% for SeaBus, despite the significantly higher levels of fare inspection on these modes. When asked how they formulated their estimates, just under half (47%) of respondents indicated that they base their estimate on things they have seen while riding transit; 25% attribute it to media and 16% to family and friends.
“The public’s perception of fare evasion is clearly at odds with the results from the Fare Audit Survey… which shows fare evasion rates (as percentage of riders) for SkyTrain, Bus and SeaBus at 6.3%, 2.6% and 3.9% respectively, for a total system-wide evasion rate of 4.8%.”
Since he had to have known about Jarvis’s report, Falcon’s claim is bogus, and since TransLink is a self-governing, loyal governmental fiefdom, it is expected that Madill would play the same, lame, public-perception game.
But how serious is a fare evasion rate of 4.8%, anyway? Not very, as it turns out. A June 24, 2002, report to the TransLink board on the matter prepared by Jarvis when he was vice president for finance and administration, determined that even automated gating allowed for revenue losses of up to 4%. In short, Madill is in the position of having to justify the expenditure of nearly $200 million of public money to save a mere 0.8% in fare evasion and serve the farcical cause of “rider equity.”
End of the Line
When it began in 1986, SkyTrain had no passenger barriers of any kind because its designers did not want to impede the movement of passengers. In other words, gated access was expressly rejected, an attitude that persisted until December 2007, when the elected TransLink board was ousted in favour of nine pro-government appointees. Suddenly, fact became fiction, fiction became fact, and impeding access to SkyTrain became official policy. This about-face came about despite no refutation of the data that showed the installation of Faregates to be economically disastrous and counterproductive. In the Dec. 1, 2005, technical report, we find TransLink making the following observation:
“During the presentation on November 8, 2005, stakeholders came to the realization that the costs of installing faregates on the existing Expo and Millennium SkyTrain Lines and the Canada Line would not be recovered by an increase in revenue from lower fare evasion rates. The majority of stakeholders preferred an approach that looked for best value solutions. The majority of stakeholders felt that increasing staff would be effective at addressing both the fare evasion and safety and security issues and felt this would provide the best value solution. [Furthermore], the majority of stakeholders supported an increase in uniformed staff on the transit system to respond to safety and security concerns. They were not convinced that gates alone would be an effective deterrent.” (pp. 21, 14-15; my emphasis)
The following image gives graphic proof of why Faregates were rejected.
Nevertheless, Mike Madill, who joined TransLink in 2008 after the new regime was installed, makes no mention of these findings; in fact, he ignores them. Since it had been known for more than 10 years that gated transit access had no defensible economic or security rationale, the only one left to explain its sudden imposition is political. A willful disconnect exists between rhetoric and reality and between theory and practice, and all parties to this deceit—including Kevin Falcon, Ian Jarvis and Mike Madill—must be investigated for criminal fraud.