Slide from 2010 planning presentation (South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority)
Elections BC advised us on July 2 that Metro Vancouver residents have rejected a 10-year transit plan, which was to have been funded from a sales tax hike. The political gridlock around transit funding, already 17 years old, will continue.
It’s sad for most of us that Western Canada’s largest urban area can’t figure out how to run a bus service. Most of us — because a minority, I’m guessing 15 per cent, would prefer to see public transit privatized or abolished.
However, there’s modest consolation for those who voted “yes”, like myself.
- Leading up to the vote, the regional council of transit mayors reached near-consensus on a complex transit plan after years of shilly-shallying. The plan achieved a decent balance between business and political objectives. (Unfortunately, the mayors abandoned the job of campaigning halfway through the plebiscite period; as of July 9, the council website stood frozen at May 30, still hoping for a “yes” outcome.)
- The margin of defeat could have been worse. When hate filled the air in the early days of the mail-in voting process, I expected a 23 per cent vote in favour of the tax increase. The conversational tone shifted, back to the normal ill-tempered grousing, and in the final count the “yes” share of the vote stood at 38 per cent.
- A coalition of diverse pro-transit groups emerged, although their level of commitment varied and their campaign was ineffective.
As the Vancouver Board of Trade (among others) has recognized, there are good economic, environmental and quality-of-life reasons for continuing to develop a regional public transit system. However, the political path forward is not clear. Among the possible scenarios we find:
The Treading Water Solution: We decide, without deciding, that our transit problems are too big and too difficult to solve. We drift along and cope with what comes up. In the near term, available money will be bunched into the improvement of arterial bus lines while community shuttle services are scrapped. Overall, per-capita spending on transit services will subside.
The Canadian Solution: Political leaders gather in a room. Nobody needs to know. They chop the master plan into manageable bits, agree on some creative ways to share the pain — hey, maybe property developers in transit corridors could pay more — and the glory, and the announcements begin to roll. There’s a distinct risk that sexy, high-profile projects will dominate the agenda, at the expense of more modest and cost-effective improvements; but there would at least be some excitement generated around transit benefits. (We have approached this blissful state in the recent past, but due to certain developments, the opportunity was lost.)
The Geronimo Solution: Gordon Price, Nathan Pachal and the coalition choir take on the world and score a convincing win for transit funding in a 2018 plebiscite. This is slightly plausible, given that some North American regions (Greater Phoenix, even) have voted in the past to fund transit. However, remember the following:
- Large tracts of suburban Metro Vancouver will never get frequent transit. Never never never never never. Many residents in these areas will continue to feel disengaged from transit. Sure, they benefit from transit – through a healthier economy and so on – but the thrill just isn’t there.
- Outlying municipalities of Metro Vancouver, even the urban village parts, will never see the frequent transit that is taken for granted closer into the big city.
- There is no way to “fix” TransLink in a way that will satisfy the vocal critics. In the griping about TransLink accountability, nobody has put forward a public sector model for the transportation authority to copy, because every public agency, federal, provincial or regional, has a host of detractors. The discussion tends to come back to costs, and public employees making too much; and yes, you could slash administrative salaries at TransLink to half the public sector standard, and everyone would quit. Or you could organize transit along strict business lines, and cut the highest-cost services, and the biggest complainers — the people in the outer suburbs — would have no service at all.
The Contracting-Out Solution: Awarding some services to private contractors might reduce wages, but at a political cost. The 2003-04 contracting out of food and cleaning services in B.C. hospitals might be doing us good in a bean-counter’s notebook, but a public racket was raised around those services that continues to this day. By the way, HandyDART, the bus service for the disabled, is already a contracted-out service. Has anyone noticed? HandyDART is the service that is most likely to be cut back in a financial squeeze.
The Amalgamation Solution: For supposed efficiency, we collapse the 21 towns and cities in Metro Vancouver into a mega-city, as has happened in Toronto in Montreal. It would likely make transit decision-making easier. But as I wrote in one of my earliest blogs, it’s not more efficient.
The Partition Solution: A Fraseropolis.com fantasy: British Columbia agrees to divide Metro Vancouver into east and west, with a Fraser region centred on Surrey to the east, and a Vancouver region to the west taking in the Tricities, the North Shore and Richmond. Spoiler alert: there are no functional benefits, but the partition might manage down the petty jealousies that contribute to our transit headaches.
The Magic Solution: This was occasionally raised in the “no” camp during the plebiscite process. “It doesn’t matter if we refuse the funding: they’ll find a way to pay for all the program improvements all the same.” Fire a few planners, and, poof! Billions of dollars will fall from the sky.
My preference, I suppose, would be a version of the Opt In/Opt Out Solution, where municipalities with acute transit cobble together their own political and financial transit packages. Mayor Linda Heppner of Surrey started down this path during the plebiscite process, undermining the council of mayors’ 10-year proposal by saying, “Yes or No, Surrey will implement rapid transit.” If she can win over allies from neighbouring cities, great. Considering the stakes for ordinary people, and the uninformed nature of much of the public conversation, local elected leaders have a choice: either take a tough, self-reliant stand, or watch your transit services dwindle away.
After the vote results were announced, two established polling firms, Angus Reid and Insights West, released snapshots of voter attitudes. The Reid organization reports that among those who took part, 51 per cent of survey respondents thought the plebiscite was “a bad idea”.