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.