Transit funding and election speculation

Focus on Surrey: the B.C. government’s $2.2 billion transit announcement, March 31, 2017. Transit minister Peter Fassbender, MLA for Surrey Fleetwood, is flanked by Marvin Hunt, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, first elected to Surrey City Council in 1988; and by technology minister Amrik Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, formerly a prominent RCMP officer in Surrey. The photo by Arlen Redekop is clipped from the Vancouver Sun.

British Columbia’s Liberal government took a surprising step late last week with a rapid transit announcement that exceeded most expectations.

The Province will match the federal government’s $2.2 billion pledge toward Phase 2 of the 10-year transportation plan put forward in 2016 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors Council. This phase includes construction of a Clark Street to Arbutus SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and the Newton-Guildford light rail line in Surrey.

Fassbender and the government had previously suggested they would pay less than Ottawa and impose conditions on the regional transportation authority, but the conditions appear to have been forgotten.

The announcement took place in the city of Surrey, and came just six weeks before a scheduled provincial election. It triggered scornful comment on the news chat threads and from the political opposition. Light rail will transform Surrey, but this was overlooked in the media. The Vancouver Sun‘s Vaughn Palmer, perhaps the most astute political journalist in B.C., suggested that the government’s thinking is much more short-term, pointing out that the nine provincial seats in Surrey may decide the election. He speculated that the Liberals’ dramatic turnabout on transit may indicate that they’re running scared.

Do the Liberals face defeat, after 16 years in office? Coming up to the 2013 vote, B.C. was awash in polling results that promised a big win for the provincial New Democratic party. The NDP lost, of course, and since then we have seen other and more significant embarrassments for the polling profession with Brexit and then Donald Trump. Most polling firms are shying away from the publication of voter-preference polls in B.C., with the bold exception of Mainstreet Research*, and their numbers offer no clear trend, except for the rise of the Green Party in parts of Vancouver Island. Students of the political occult can check out “Too Close to Call”, which presents elaborate hunches built on available polling information. As we write this, “Too Close” gives the NDP a 61.5 per cent chance of winning B.C., and the Liberals a 38.5 per cent chance.

The transit announcement was nearly the last of a long series of funding announcements from the Liberal government — funding for hospitals and highways, seniors’ services and apprentices and much more, in all regions of the province. The common theme through all this was that the government has money to spend, thanks to their management of the public treasury — unlike governments in most other provinces which, for various reasons, are broke.

We will see on May 9 whether the Liberals’s many funding decisions will keep them in office. As of today, April 5, the election campaign has officially turned negative. Surrogate organizations on both sides have been running attack ads for several weeks while the political parties stood clear. But from here on, the New Democrats will spend millions to spread the message that the Liberals are “working for there rich donors.” The Liberals will recall the NDP time in government in the 1990s, when thousands of people left B.C. to look for work elsewhere.

The provincial transit commitment is a good thing, and I don’t care about the motive. As for predicting the election result, political culture in B.C. is fragmented by region, and increasingly divided by language and culture, and by the countless echo chambers on the internet; whichever party wins, it may be difficult to explain why it happened.

*Mainstreet Research is unrelated to Main Street Communications Ltd., which is our consulting firm based in suburban Vancouver. 

Surrey LRT – the vision. Graphic from the City of Surrey.

Touring B.C.’s Southern Interior

Hedley

Hedley

A recent four-day trip through the South Okanagan, Central Kootenays and the Shuswap Valley reminded me of the benefits of slowing down. I would have liked to really get to know these landscapes and villages — what you see here are only glimpses. Thanks to co-tourist Dominic Kotarski for bringing his global perspective, and to the excellent Hume Hotel for a welcome in Nelson.

Many of these towns — Princeton, Hedley, Midway, Greenwood, Kaslo, New Denver — were at their peak in 1900 or before that, riding a boom in silver. Our guide at the volunteer-run historical centre at Sandon said the now-abandoned town was “the Fort McMurray of its age,” the place where young men came to make their fortune. Continue reading

Passionate about Esquimalt

Esquimalt House 1

Fernhill Road, Esquimalt. Garry oak, a tree peculiar to southern Vancouver Island, grows all around this house. The garage-under-the-dining-room feature was popular on the West Coast from the 1910s into the 1940s, but many of these spaces are now used for storage.

Voters in Greater Victoria, population 345,000, are looking at the possible amalgamation of their 13 municipal governments into a smaller number. Possible, but not likely, since so many urban British Columbians are passionate about the randomly-sized cities and towns where they live. Rather than amalgamation, a slight increase in the number of “shared services” — a joint parks department here, a joint library there — is a safer bet.

Esqumalt condos

New apartments, Carlisle Avenue, Esquimalt

Esquimalt is one of the odd-shaped municipal bits that makes up Greater Victoria. Its Pacific shoreline is home to a naval base that employs 6,000 people. Otherwise, the city has waterfront parks, a modest urban village and an on-street bike lane connecting to the offices and retail stores in Victoria’s downtown. Continue reading

Does British Columbia need elected school boards?

Hastings School, Penticton and Franklin streets

Hastings School, Vancouver

Last year, property owners in British Columbia paid close to $1.9 billion to support  elementary and secondary schools through property taxes. It works out to thousands of dollars per homeowner over time, but if you’re childless like me, you may never have asked where the money goes. I ignore the school board ballot at local election time because I don’t know the people or the issues.

In December 2015, the Government of Quebec introduced legislation to eliminate elections for local school trustees. Only five per cent of the electorate filled in their school board ballots in the most recent election. The government plans to operate the school system through local administrators, with input from voluntary local advisory committees made up of parents, school employees and community members, up to a maximum of 16 people per committee. Over time, it will look for ways to share services across school districts. Continue reading

Oak Bay: behind the tweed curtain

House 2

The District of Oak Bay, population 18,000, is the third most heavily taxed municipality in British Columbia, of 161 listed in provincial tax tables. Property taxes on a representative house are 29 per cent higher than in the City of Victoria next door, and close to 90 per cent higher than the B.C. average.

The numbers suggest an affluent population prepared to pay for services such as an  independent police force — as in the highest taxed local jurisdiction in B.C., the District of West Vancouver. Continue reading

Slowing down in Trail, B.C.

Downtown Trail with the smelter on the hill

Downtown Trail with the smelter on the hill

The city of Trail, British Columbia, about 600 kilometres east of Metro Vancouver, lies in a valley near the American border. We visited Trail, my wife’s birthplace, as part of our summer vacation. We took some time to walk around and see what hasn’t changed.

Bay Avenue, downtown Trail

Bay Avenue, downtown Trail

Central Trail presents a museum of mid-20th-century architecture, which is great for a visitor like me. Some residents, however, worry that the city has been forgotten by the outside world.

To be fair, there have been improvements since the 1970s; the city is much greener than it was, due to emissions  improvements at the smelter that dominates the town. Trail’s 1961 hockey world champions were called the “Smoke Eaters”; the smoke used to kill the trees for miles around, as well as driving away tourists; but that is in the past. Continue reading

British Columbia’s election: and so we continue

Walmart under construction, Abbotsford, April 2012

Walmart under construction, Abbotsford, April 2012

In December 2012, Fraseropolis presented a seat-by-seat projection from threehundredeight.com showing a massive New Democratic Party lead in British Columbia opinion polls. Surveys continued to give the NDP up to a 10-point lead on the weekend before the May 14, 2013 provincial election.

To the astonishment of many people, including myself, and subject to the counting of some mail-in ballots, it appears our new legislature has 50 Liberals, 33 New Democrats, and 2 others. The Liberals enjoyed a five-point edge in the popular vote. Surrey, the North Fraser and B.C.’s southern Interior all showed surprising strength for the Liberals. Continue reading