Vancouver’s Transit Referendum: The Prequel

Our friend Malcolm says, in response to my last post, that Vancouver is second only to Los Angeles for traffic congestion in North America. We in Toronto thought that we were the worst. Whatever the standings, gridlock and the need for better public transit was a primary concern of voters during recent municipal elections in both cities. Now that the elections are over, what are the politicians going to do about it?

In Vancouver, the answer is clear. In her 2013 election campaign, provincial Premier Christy Clark promised that any new funding source for transit and transportation improvements in the Vancouver Region must be put to the voters in a referendum. She requires that the referendum be held before midsummer 2015. For the first time in recent history, voters will be asked to approve a long-term regional transit plan, and new revenue tools to pay for it.

Requiring this referendum is highly controversial. Many think that politicians are elected to make hard decisions and to defend them, and that “government by referendum” is a political abdication of responsibility. There is also a fear that defeat of the referendum might paralyze transit planning for decades and only prolong the existing gridlock.

Among those opposed to any such referendum was the Mayors’ Council, made up of the Mayors representing the 21 cities and municipalities in the region and the Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation. Up until now, this Mayors’ Council has worked (often uneasily) with the Board of Directors of the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink), who are unelected appointees of the provincial government. The Mayors have a mandate to prepare three-year and ten-year regional Transit Plans, and to decide regional funding and borrowing limits. Traditionally, the Mayors have done so, as best they could negotiate between themselves, with technical input from TransLink and no need for any direct public approval.

Among other things, they developed a funding formula to cover transit costs and provide for expansion: roughly 1/3 from property taxes, 1/3 from dedicated fuel taxes, and 1/3 from revenue from fares, advertising and property development near and around transit stations. The TransLink Fuel Tax is what drivers pay as their contribution to improving transit. Originally 12 cents per litre, the Mayors increased it to 15 cents, and then 17 cents a litre, in 2012. They did so on their own hook, subject to objection by their voters next election. Voters may grumble but few (if any) incumbents have been defeated over the issue. This formula, which differs dramatically from that in Toronto, provides basic funding for the existing system and has facilitated constructing two new SkyTrain lines in recent years, and also upgrading buses.

The new Canada Line running from the downtown harbour to YVR airport and to Richmond was a bonus, built as a priority for the 2010 Winter Olympics at the instigation of provincial and federal governments and forced on the Mayors despite their initial opposition. It is an ultramodern, underground/above ground light rapid transit line operated by a private concessionaire, ProTrans B.C.

Returning to the upcoming transit referendum, the Mayors have until December 11 to carry out three very demanding duties:

1) They must agree on their next ten-year Regional Transit and Transportation Plan.

2) They must agree on the additional revenue tools they want to fund it.

3) They must word the referendum question to have the best chance of winning voter approval.

A tall order.

In June, the Mayors’ Council released a $7.5 billion ten-year plan outlining current regional needs and priorities. These include a subway along Broadway in Vancouver, several light rail lines in Surrey south of the Fraser River, rapid bus lanes in other growing areas, hundreds of new buses, more frequent SeaBus service across Burrard Inlet, and a new Pattullo Bridge crossing the Fraser River between Surrey and New Westminster. This is the minimum they consider necessary to entice drivers to use public transit and to provide for the 1,000,000 new residents expected in the lower mainland during the next 25 years.

How to finance it? The Mayors are mooting several transit revenue tools: a new 0.5% regional sales tax, a vehicle registration levy, a local carbon tax (in addition to the successful carbon tax already implemented by the province), higher property taxes, an increase in the TransLink Fuel Tax, tolls on the bridge. Whatever they recommend must be approved by the electorate. For that reason, the wording of the upcoming referendum question is of key importance.

The issues are complex: fairness and equity between well-serviced and under-serviced areas of the region are at stake; and regional thinking may need to prevail over local interests. Pundits all agree that municipal politicians must begin right away to sell their transit plan to their voters. Without a public buy-in, the referendum will fail.

Vancouver is about to have the “adult conversation” about transit-funding necessities that Toronto politicians at all levels have avoided to date. The Vancouver experience will be very interesting to follow. For better or for worse, the B.C. lower mainland is setting a national precedent. I am fascinated by what may happen. You may be as well. More in the future. 

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  1. Ryan

    Wonderful Post Marion. This is the number one Achilles heel of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Putting on my design hat for a moment, and a systems thinking methodology in place, I believe it is crucial that your plan includes a carbon tax, if and only if, the citizen who paid that tax sees an equally viable public transportation solution. On the north side of the Fraser, this is a big problem. No transit dedicated line exists for light rail, the medium that transit planners should have in their plan, but don’t. If you tax the bad without offering the good, the politician will not last another term in office, and the carbon tax will become hated (even though it is a great policy at its roots). I reference Dr. Hansen in the US, who noted a carbon tax scheme that saw the public see direct benefit – a check in the mail – that they could use towards renewable alternatives (solar panels, for example), or they could continue to burn expensive oil. The example may be energy based, but the point is that the public is skeptical of ‘general revenue’, and they have good reason to be. Light rail has been used in Europe for generations, and it works because they used a systems thinking framework to solve their transit problems. B.C. should be looking to Europe or Japan to see how it is done and how to pay for it. I am not so sure a referendum is the way to go, since TransLink is so poorly regarded in B.C. In theory a referendum is good, but I cannot see consensus among the mayors in putting a plan in place that favours everyone (and especially one that doesn’t place the North Fraser at a severe disadvantage.) People from the Maple Ridge / Mission area notoriously pay the highest gas prices in the Lower Mainland and routinely see nothing for it. We have one bus – one. The 701. And it is rarely on time and runs inefficiently. To get cars off the road, light rail is needed to downtown, since the majority of citizens there commute into the city (and have the farthest to go). Will the mayors squeeze off this cash grab? We’ll see..

  2. Fred

    Prediction: the referendum will pass. Second prediction, the Vancouver City referendum required to sink a portion of the West Broadway subway that Vancouver taxpayers must fund (estimated to cost $600 million dollars over and above what Translink will fund) will also pass.

    Did Premier Christie Clark take the coward’s way out by requiring that regional tax increases, that would require provincial legislation to implement be put to a referendum: yes. Last premier to bring in a new tax without a referendum or running on the platform of introducing a new tax: Gordon Campbell. I give you the long gone HST and the even longer-gone former premier as a reason for requiring a referendum. Premier Clark does not want to go the way of her predecessor. Cowardice: yes. Political smarts: that too.

  3. Malcolm

    This is a fascinating post Marion – thanks for doing the research to understand and present this. Most of us pay little attention – and then just complain. It is ironic that you are essentially from Toronto – telling us about our own system. I hope that Fred is right – that this will pass. I wish that I could share his confidence. Ryan’s comments are interesting but he seems to ignore the West Coast Express… Maybe that is with good reason??


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