In a scene straight out of a classroom, Manuel Achadinha grabbed a marker and headed for the whiteboard at the front of the room.
Members of the Victoria Regional Transit Commission and B.C. Transit staff watched Tuesday morning as B.C. Transit’s president and chief development officer drew three lines on the board, accompanied by a few key words, to plot out steps in the proposed $950-million light-rail rapid transit project.
That’s when members learned the LRT business report, now in the hands of B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, cost $3.1 million, which has already been spent by the ministry and the commission.
“It’s basically an application to get in the door,” said Achadinha, noting the report is a critical step in getting the province on board as a light rail cost-sharing partner, which, in turn, could help secure federal financial support.
The next phase of the LRT project, which has not yet begun, will feature the development of a $5-million business case that will include legal, engineering, accounting and other project details. In addition to divvying up that cost between the commission and the province, B.C. Transit hopes the federal government will contribute.
A third-party review will be conducted during that phase.
But some commission members balked when they heard the tally of the paperwork costs.
Saanich Coun. Susan Brice, who sits at the commission table, called their reaction to the news “sticker shock.”
Commission members and taxpayers should not be finding out about expensive LRT reports during a whiteboard lesson, said Victoria Coun. John Luton, who sits at the commission table.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
“I understand and share the frustration. But for me, it’s like how do we work through this rather than get indignant and walk away.”
This is a reminder of how imperative it is that the LRT numbers be in the public domain, so taxpayers remain confident in the rapid-transit plan and the process, Luton said.
It also highlights the need for a new transit governance authority, said Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, who serves on the commission. The push is on for the Capital Regional District to take over from the commission.
“I think there are some decisions being made at the B.C. Transit board that should be shared with the commission members, and preferably before the decisions are being made,” he said.
Frank Leonard couldn’t contain his disappointment and growing frustration at the meeting.
The commission was told in 2008 the report would cost $700,000 to $800,000, not $3.1 million, said the Saanich mayor and commission member.
Since the expenses only came to light on Tuesday, he said it points to the need for more transparency in the way B.C Transit does business.
“It’s like dealing with the Wizard of Oz,” said Leonard. “It’s all behind the curtain. There’s no transparency.”
Despite the hefty price tags, it’s important to keep those report costs in perspective, said Oak Bay Mayor and commission chair, Christopher Causton.
While Causton said the $7.1-million cost of planning a billion-dollar LRT service is expensive, it’s comparable to other big-ticket regional items.
“You’ve spent $10 million on a billion-dollar sewage treatment plan,” he said.