TransLink urged to reveal costs of megaprojects

Updates on price tags lacking, says taxpayer advocate 

Mayors and TransLink will celebrate the opening of the Evergreen Line on December 2, more than five months late and with an uncertain price tag | Chung Chow

Property tax and fare hikes are on the way after Metro Vancouver mayors and the TransLink board rubber-stamped a $2 billion expansion funding package on November 23.

To pay for more buses and a new SeaBus, and to increase SkyTrain and WestCoast Express frequency, homeowners will pay $3 more per year and single fares will rise 5-10 cents annually through to 2019. Previous to the announcement, Translink held eight meetings around the region that drew 300 people.

“The mayors weren’t interested in any real public consultation,” said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and leader of the successful No TransLink Tax campaign for the 2015 plebiscite. “At the very least, taxpayers saw TransLink being forced to put some of their own money and own property into this plan. Under the $7.5 billion original plan, they weren’t going to.”

Mayors and TransLink will celebrate the opening of the Evergreen Line on December 2, more than five months late and with an uncertain price tag.

The BC Liberal government says the Millennium Line SkyTrain extension is costing $1.43 billion, but it refused to tell Business in Vancouver what it paid SNC-Lavalin in March amid a dispute that went to mediation over tunnelling problems last year.

The next transit megaprojects on the drawing boards are on Broadway and in Surrey. TransLink also refuses to release updated cost estimates, even after City of Surrey said early this year the proposed light-rail system would cost $2.6 billion, up from the previous $2.14 billion estimate. The Broadway subway was estimated at $1.98 billion. TransLink executives have admitted it will cost more because of rising costs for land, materials and equipment, but are not disclosing the new figures.

 “We were promised cost estimates during the plebiscite campaign,” Bateman said. “They should come forward with the actual costs. The price tags they’ve been talking about for four years have always been too low. They know it. That’s why they didn’t want to disclose them during the campaign.”

Meanwhile, Surrey city hall spent almost $500,000 between January 2015 and September of this year on a no-bid contract with a company to lobby TransLink and the B.C. and federal governments for funding, even though Mayor Linda Hepner is the vice-chair of the Mayors’ Council and a member of the TransLink board of directors.

Under freedom of information, Surrey released copies of 11 invoices for payments totalling $478,411.20 from January 8, 2015 to September 22, 2016 to The Stewart Group for its “advisory services” contract.

Company owner Lecia Stewart billed $75,970 during the period, while Sarah Zaharia (now Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s press secretary) billed $74,096.40.

Stewart associates include ex-TransLink communications manager Debbie Parhar (billed $53,129.92), Compass Card project contractor Ian Wardley ($32,917.50) and Tamim Raad ($22,995), the TransLink strategic planning and policy director who was fired in May 2015 after 15 years. Raad had been seconded to work on the failed Yes campaign in the 2015 plebiscite. Stewart’s company also includes Karolina Karcz, a former SNC-Lavalin and B.C. Rapid Transit Company contract administrator.

“This is just a waste of money to pay people to do work that the elected officials should be doing,” Bateman said. “It’s not like Surrey is understaffed. It has a giant staff in a fancy new city hall and mayor and councillors who are all politically connected to all three parties federally. It smacks of paying extra money to a friend and insider in a make-work project.”