The Metro transit referendum and the mayors

LRT car of the future, from the City of Surrey website

LRT car of the future, from the City of Surrey website

Over the past month, we’ve seen intense political bickering and positioning around public transit in Metro Vancouver.

Events are moving quickly, and I hesitate to offer conclusions — except to suggest that the struggle between the B.C. Government and local mayors threatens to overshadow the question of how to build a better transit system.

It’s not clear who is responsible for improving the system. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts recently described regional transportation governance as “a mishmash of nonsense.” Her colleague Richard Walton of North Vancouver District, speaking on TV, called the regional transportation authority “a headless horse.”

Canada Line, from the TransLink website

Canada Line, from the TransLink website

According to TransLink staff (Robert Paddon, February 2 on CKNW), the headless horse has sufficient cash to pay current operating costs and debt charges, but not enough to invest in expansion. Proposed capital projects include a new rapid transit line to the University of British Columbia, three light rail lines to promote densification in Surrey, bus service expansion in Surrey and neighbouring municipalities, and a new vehicle bridge across the Fraser River.

TransLink was created by the Province in the late 1990s as a supposedly autonomous regional authority, responsible for transit and a few arterial roads. Since then, governments left and right have stepped in at key moments to impose change or veto TransLink funding proposals. Local mayors, a tragic chorus in a drama strangely lacking in principal characters, have decried a lack of sustainable funding. In April 2013, during  a provincial election campaign, Liberal Premier Christy Clark proposed a Metro Vancouver transit referendum to take place alongside local elections in November 2014. The referendum would determine whether residents are prepared to pay additional taxes to support transit and major road expansion.

Thrashing the Mayors

Fast-forward to January 2014, and we still don’t know what kind of new transit tax we’ll be voting on in the referendum. Gas tax? Sales tax? Parking tax?

The mayors, who have agitated for more authority over transit decisions, argue that the referendum idea ain’t right and it ain’t fair. Their position is understandable. Elements within the provincial government see the referendum campaign as a chance to mete out a thrashing to Metro Vancouver’s local governments.

The mayors, according to some in Victoria, have been wasting the public’s money. This,  potentially, will be a key theme during the coming referendum period. While the Province restrains spending on salaries, Metro governments lavishly reward their  unionized staff and managers. Local taxes are rising. If mayors and councils were more competent, and more disciplined, they could channel current revenues from property taxes into regional transit, without having to invent new taxes.

The local government side fears that a transit referendum tied to local elections will  degenerate into an anti-tax lynching. Normally apathetic residents will swarm out of the basements, replacing veteran representatives with know-nothing upstarts. Urbanist and former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price wrote on January 16 that such a Tea Party revolution would mark “the end of the region as we know it.”

Groping for a Question

Transit funding referendums have a fair record of success in the United States (success in raising taxes, that is.) But to succeed, the pro-transit side needs a broad coalition of support, a clear statement of benefits for the public built around a clear question, and a couple of years to campaign. In the case of Metro Vancouver, none of this appears to be in the cards.

The individual who could play the biggest part in building a pro-transit movement is Mayor Watts of Surrey. She occupies the political centre and serves a large, car-dependent city, but works hard within her own jurisdiction to promote transit options.

Mayor Watts and friend, Canada Day 2012, City of Surrey

Mayor Watts and friend, Canada Day 2012, City of Surrey

But when the Mayor intervened on the referendum issue on January 16, she chose to propose a question that is frankly impractical:

“Do you support the reduction in gas tax, a cap on the existing three per cent on property taxes for TransLink and an implementation of a fair and equitable road pricing policy under one dollar to fund the expansion of the transportation system?”

Road pricing? Let me confess that I am a taxpaying fool; I’m prepared to support transit expansion using almost any means. It will be years, however, before we have defined a road pricing plan that is clear enough and fair enough to put in front of Metro Vancouver voters. Inserting such a question into the 2014 local ballot would be an admission of defeat.

An alternative proposal, for a 0.5% regional sales tax dedicated to transit, advanced in August 2013 by bloggers Paul Hillsdon and Nathan Pachal, is cleaner and more comprehensible given the available time. But while Mr. Pachal remains active in a position with the “Get on Board” coalition, the sales tax idea has not been accepted as general currency.

The Premier Reconsiders

On January 27, the Premier softened her position on the referendum date, stating that it might go into 2015. She is a resolute leader, and I can only imagine that someone — Ms. Watts? — presented the Premier with some persuasive political arithmetic. On February 6, Ms. Clark’s transportation minister announced that if local mayors come up with a credible plan or vision by the end of June 2014, the referendum will be postponed until spring 2015, and will not be dropped on top of local elections. If the mayors fail to produce, it’s bombs away.

The government’s ultimatum is a good thing, to a limited degree. It pushes the mayors towards a constructive joint position on transit; in my view, while they have been insistent in demanding control over transit, the mayors have not shown us why they should have it. A shift in referendum dates would also increase the likelihood that the referendum campaign will focus on public transit, and not on local personalities.

Millennium line near Willingdon

Millennium line near Willingdon

However, for those who would like more money funnelled into transit, there’s still no cause for immediate optimism. Gordon Price has written an excellent prescription for how to mount a winning campaign. We don’t have the ingredients. The best we can hope is that a few mayors will attempt to engage a regional audience on transit; and that a few organizations outside the Green/bus driver circle will enlist in a pro-transit coalition. There are  persuasive economic arguments for transit investment that should attract business and mainstream voters; they include increased mobility for employees, increased access to post-secondary education, and better access to services of all kinds for seniors; plus the fact that investing in transit is arguably cheaper than investing in freeways and bridges. But it will take time — years, in fact — to  establish a region-wide vehicle that can communicate such arguments successfully. And in the meantime, of course, we still have a transit governance model that the public can’t understand.

A final point in response to anyone who is looking to thrash the mayors. It may be that municipal councils should be more hard-nosed in their labour negotiations. If so, the remedy lies in implementing provincial guidelines, or a centralized bargaining system, rather than in punishing current or potential transit users.

2 responses

  1. “the fact that investing in transit is arguably cheaper than investing in freeways”

    Something the Province should consider.

  2. Pingback: Analysis: Fraseropolis on the Referendum | Price Tags

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