Recently, we the people were granted the privilege of witnessing TransLink’s Board of Directors in action. After eight years of meeting behind closed doors, on September 25 the public was allowed to observe the first two hours of what are normally six to seven-hour quarterly meetings. Future meetings will also be partly open to the public. Barry Forbes, the new chair of the Board, explained things like this: “What’s changed is the board has recognized it’s the people’s transportation system.”
While his nod to democratic ideals is touching, it will take much more than some open-door meetings to give TransLink to the people. Currently, corporate interest groups appoint the majority of Board members, and those they choose are overwhelmingly corporate directors, corporate lawyers, and business owners.
This appointment system, and the legislation that allows TransLink’s Board to meet in secret, was imposed by the provincial government in 2007 in response to concerted opposition by grassroots activists and some municipal politicians to the province’s plans to deliver transit via public-private partnerships. To put it simply, TransLink’s governance structure was expressly set up to reduce the ability of “the people” to make decisions about transit. But more on that below.
Before looking at how corporate elites came to run our transit system, let’s first look at what exactly they have been doing these last eight years. Sure, they’ve been meeting behind closed doors, but the BC Liberals insisted when they set up TransLink’s current governance structure back in 2007 that secret meetings were no impediment to transparency: “They’re still required to publish all the minutes of their board meetings, including any committee meetings they may have. All that has to be made available to the public.” So let’s see what this Board has been up to.
The “confidential” activities of TransLink’s Board of Directors
The most recent minutes posted on TransLink’s website are from a board meeting on February 16, 2015. After receiving a report on the referendum communications plan and voting to spend $6 million promoting the “Yes” side, the Board turned to discussing the “Compass Card and Faregate Project.” Here, perhaps, we can see the efficiency and business acumen of these “professional” directors as they exert oversight on a major project that has encountered numerous technical difficulties, budget overruns, and delays. Instead, we see 15 lines of blackened text. The entire item has been redacted from the minutes.
In fact, looking further back, TransLink’s Board of Directors has discussed the Compass Card in eight separate meetings since March of 2014, almost all of which is significantly redacted from the minutes. The few lines that make it through the corporate censors refer to such feel-good stories as the “Successful roll-over from 2014 to 2015 of the BC Buss [sic] Pass program, with new passes automatically reloaded onto the Compass Cards of users.”
I asked TransLink’s Media Relations Officer why these parts of the minutes are not available for public scrutiny, but the only response I received was a quote from the Board Governance Manual, which states that “Any information deemed confidential by the Board Chair will not be published on the website or circulated to Mayors’ Council members.” Media Relations did not mention, however, that this manual is written by the Board itself since provincial legislation gives the Board the power to establish its own “rules of procedure for the conduct of meetings.” This means that while TransLink’s Board may have become marginally more open by allowing the public into some portions of some meetings, it is still entirely the Board’s prerogative to determine what is discussed in public and what is not.
In addition to the “confidential” Compass Card discussions, the Board has redacted many other parts of their meeting minutes, including discussions around fare increases. This secrecy is an affront to the transit riders who are deeply affected by the decisions of TransLink’s board. Fare increases far in excess of the rate of inflation and wage growth, from a top rate of $3.50 in 2000 to $5.50 today, have made transit unaffordable for many residents and have reduced ridership on the system. And the Compass Card is an integral part of the fare gate system that will further reduce access to transit for those who cannot afford fares. The Compass system will also allow police to track the location of transit users, furthering the securitization of transit that endangers transit riders and, especially, marginalized residents of Vancouver.
Access to information helps transit activism
Understanding the details of how these programs work can be an important part of activist efforts to make the transit system less oppressive. Recently, organizers from the Transportation Not Deportation campaign were able to uncover a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between transit police and the Canadian Border Services Agency through a freedom of information request, a document that transit police had previously said did not exist.
The MOU detailed a program whereby the CBSA would assist transit police in enforcing the Immigration Act and states that “success of the program will be measured by the number of reports or arrests.” This program has had tragic consequences. In 2013, transit police conducting a fare check became suspicious of Lucia Vega Jimenez’s immigration status, in part, because of her accent and appearance. She later committed suicide in custody while awaiting deportation after transit police turned her over to the CBSA.
The CBSA subsequently made a concerted effort to withhold information and suppress any news coverage of her death. The exposure of how racist policing practices are institutionalized, along with protests at transit stations and at transit police board meetings (which are mostly open to the public), led to the cancellation of the MOU and a commitment to change policing procedures that will (hopefully) make transit a safer place for migrants.
Before the doors were closed in 2008, protests at TransLink’s Board meetings were a part of successful activist campaigns to make the system more oriented to serving transit-dependent people. In the early 2000s, the Bus Riders Union staged multiple demonstrations at Board meetings and shut down some meetings to protest fare hikes.
This pressure resulted in victories for transit riders, including the restoration of late night bus service. By barring the public from meetings and restricting the flow of potentially sensitive information, TransLink’s Board has reduced the possibilities for activists to effectively challenge TransLink’s policies and programs.
Who controls transit in Vancouver?
As Aiyanas Ormond, a former organizer with the Bus Riders Union, described in a recent piece in The Mainlander, the transit referendum campaign saw some on the left rally behind a regressive tax in the name of increased transit service with little attention paid to the distribution of power within the transit system. Currently, much of that power is vested in corporate interest groups who have the privilege to decide who sits on TransLink’s Board of Directors.
Though a few articles have done a decent job describing the appointment process, media have commonly misrepresented how it works, claiming that TransLink’s board is “provincially appointed” (e.g., articles in the Straight, Vancouver Sun, and 24hrs) or stating that most of the board is “appointed by the Mayors’ Council” without further elaboration (e.g., articles in The Province and Straight). The latter distortion is actually contained in a recent provincial government news release. As well, TransLink’s main web page describing its governance structure omits key details about how Board members are appointed.
I’ll get into the details of how appointments work below, but to understand why this system was set up, and how such a radical shift to corporate control was defended, we have to look at some recent history of TransLink and its relationship with the provincial government, which has ultimate authority to structure (and restructure) transit governance in Vancouver.
TransLink, the BC Liberals, and privatization
During their fourteen years in power, the BC Liberals have rolled out an aggressive series of privatizations. In the case of Vancouver’s transit system, this privatization took two major forms. First, new infrastructure was sold off: the Canada Line and Evergreen Line were built as public-private partnerships (P3s) that allow corporations to profit from and control parts of Vancouver’s transit system. Second, corporate interest groups were brought in: the BC Liberals removed elected politicians from TransLink’s Board and replaced them with representatives of corporate interest groups.
TransLink was created in 2000 by the soon-to-be outgoing provincial NDP government. Its Board was initially composed of 12 city councillors and mayors from the municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver. In 2004, this elected Board, under pressure from anti-privatization groups such as the Bus Riders Union, twice voted against building the Canada Line as a P3.
The BC Liberals, incensed about the “backyard politics” that threatened to scuttle their vision for greater private-sector involvement in transit, immediately began musing about a new governance structure for TransLink that would reduce the number of elected representatives on the Board. As well, various ideological allies of the Liberals began promoting the idea that there was a crisis of governance at TransLink.
The Board of Trade, a lobby group for corporate interests, held a panel discussion on new governance structures that would avoid the “Regional Chaos” supposedly caused by rejection of the Canada Line. Premier Gordon Campbell was a keynote speaker at the event. Similarly, an editorial by The Province bemoaned the “local interests” that threatened to “stymie progress” and proposed the recently privatized Vancouver Airport Authority as a governance model to emulate.
The Liberals and their corporate allies were clearly intent on ensuring that democracy did not interfere with their plans in the future, but they also were not about to let the already-rejected privatized Canada Line die. The Board of Trade, as part of a coalition of corporate interest groups and construction unions, called on Gordon Campbell “to do whatever is necessary to get the project done.” Under intense pressure from the province and with the promise of a small increase in provincial funding, TransLink’s Board held a third vote and finally approved the project late in 2004. Now, in 2015, the Board of Trade’s website describes the Canada Line as one of their “notable successes” that demonstrates their “influence”.
In 2007, the BC Liberal government made good on their threats to radically restructure TransLink. The new governance model, which we’re still largely stuck with today, has a “Mayors’ Council” exert token oversight over TransLink. Real decision-making power is vested in a “professional” Board of Directors, who cannot, by law, be elected officials.
While the Board is technically appointed by the Mayors’ Council, they must do so from a shortlist prepared by a “Screening Panel” made up of one representative each from the Mayors’ Council, the BC Minister of Transportation and one representative each from three corporate lobby groups: The Board of Trade, the Gateway Council, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of BC (see below for more on these organizations). One can note the three to two majority of business groups compared to government representatives as well as the total lack of representation for transit riders in this system.
The legislation also stipulates that if the mayors do not appoint enough of the shortlisted candidates to fill vacancies on the Board, as occurred in 2014, directors are appointed directly from the Screening Panel’s list of candidates. Post-referendum, the mayors are actually threatening to disband the Mayors’ Council altogether. As far as I can tell, this would have essentially no impact on TransLink.
Provincial legislation passed in 2014 has somewhat altered the composition of TransLink’s Board, reducing the number of corporately-appointed directors from nine to seven and adding two Mayors’ Council members and two provincial appointees to the Board. Nevertheless, corporate appointees retain a seven to four majority on the Board. Until the provincial legislation that governs TransLink is substantially changed, corporate interest groups will continue to have significant control over our transit system.
Is there any hope for progressive transit governance?
Post-referendum, TransLink is experiencing another crisis of legitimacy. Municipal politicians are demanding greater control, as they have done consistently since 2007 to little effect. Now, however, the provincial government seems ready to entertain reform with the new minister in charge of TransLink, Peter Fassbender, stating that “all options are open” in terms of changes to TransLink’s governance structure. The Board of Trade is hoping to maintain the status quo, with a recent note to its members warning against returning TransLink to greater public control.
We need to interject into this debate with new alternatives for transit and transit governance that give transit-dependent people far more control over the transit system. Unfortunately, with the Bus Riders Union largely inactive since 2010, we lack a strong activist organization that could forcefully bring these ideas into the public discourse and pressure the provincial government for reforms that serve transit riders. Such campaigns are underway in some American cities.
The New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, for example, is demanding transit-dependent representatives be appointed to the boards of transit authorities in the state. A few smaller jurisdictions have already enacted such legislation. While transit-dependent representatives on TransLink’s Board would not, by itself, radically change our system, it might at least allow transit-dependent voices to be heard. Though the BC Liberals’ fundamental commitment to serving corporate interests is likely to continue, the successes of the Bus Riders Union and Transportation Not Deportation demonstrate that dedicated activism can create progressive change.
Vancouver Board of Trade – leading mouthpiece of business in Vancouver and self-proclaimed “most active and influential business association” in Western Canada. The organization facilitates networking among businesses and is also deeply involved in advocacy. They claim to “have the ear of government” (which I do not doubt) but they also operate as a kind of corporately-controlled branch of government. In addition to its role in TransLink, the Board of Trade appoints a representative to the Vancouver Airport Authority and is one of the corporate interest groups that appoint the majority of the Board of Port Metro Vancouver. TransLink, the Port, and the Airport Authority were all formerly run by elected politicians or appointees of elected politicians. All three still administer significant public resources.
Greater Vancouver Gateway Council is a partnership between transportation corporations and governments formed to maximize the efficiency of goods movement through the region. The presidents of Port Metro Vancouver and the Airport Authority sit as executive members. According to many observers, the Council has played a major role in shaping the $4.75 billion program of aggressive highway expansion carried out by the provincial government in the last decade (the “Gateway Project”), including the new Port Mann bridge, the South Fraser Perimeter Road, and the new Pitt River bridge. The Council’s list of priorities, published in 1998, mirrors almost exactly the major investments in transportation that have been made in Metro Vancouver, including the Gateway Project highways, the Canada Line and a replacement for the George Massey Tunnel, which will begin construction in 2017.
Institute of Chartered Accountants of BC is a professional society and self-regulating body for CAs whose mission is to “foster public confidence in the CA profession”. In addition to its role in TransLink, the Institute appoints a representative to the Vancouver Airport Authority.