The Vancouver Transit Plebiscite Heating Up

Vancouver’s “Congestion Improvement Tax Referendum,” now officially labelled the “Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite,” is gearing up for what promises to be a major struggle. Where December public opinion polls were generally favourable to the transit initiative, the latest polls show that the “yes” side is slipping and opposition to the proposed tax is increasing.

Although the plebiscite is at the behest of the province, and funded by the provincial government, the role of the government to date has been anything but helpful. The Mayors’ Council defined a ten-year plan for regional transit and transportation expansion which they incorporated into the ballot they proposed in December. The government then changed the wording of the ballot, ostensibly to “clarify” and “simplify” it. In so doing, it removed the explicit rationale for why the transit plan is necessary, and watered down the specifics of what has been proposed. Where before the ballot, for example, referred to 11 new B-Line express bus lines, the new ballot drops the precise number. Where before, the ballot referred to “light rail transit” in Surrey and the extension of the Millennium Line “tunneled along Broadway in Vancouver,” the new ballot refers only to “building rapid transit” in Surrey and along Broadway in Vancouver. The new ballot refers to extending the cycling and walkway network, but has dropped the objective of improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists. There is now some confusion, and no little cynicism, about the actual parts of the plan that the province will support. The change of name from “referendum” to “plebiscite” reinforces the uncertainty; a “referendum” under the Referendum Act is binding, a “plebiscite” under the governing transit legislation is not. As Stephen Hume noted in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun, “it’s simply a memorandum of advice….”

The province also insisted that the proposed 0.5% transit tax increase would be a separate transit tax. The small business community became alarmed that the new tax, over and above the GST and the PST which are built into existing systems at the point of sale, would impose unwanted administrative headaches. It was only this past weekend (just six weeks before ballots are to be distributed) that Transportation Minister Todd Stone clarified that the transit tax would be harmonized with the Provincial Sales Tax so that there would be no extra administrative costs to business.

The “No TransLink Tax”” campaign, headed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, got off to a fast start a couple of weeks ago. They proposed that the municipal funds necessary for expansion of transit can come from the annual growth in municipal revenues which they project at 4.8% over the next decade, without the need for any new tax. Their strongest hand, however, is not their figures, but that they are playing to widespread public dissatisfaction with TransLink, the transit authority created by the provincial government. They say that the public should have no confidence in TransLink to implement the proposed improvements, given their past track record of high costs, slow delivery of services, lack of transparency, and significant technical problems. In their view, voters should send a message to TransLink, the province and the Mayors to get their house in order before they are given any new money. Even the mayors admit that “TransLink’s bad image makes transit tax a hard sell,” to quote a Vancouver Sun headline of January 19th. So far, the “No” side has set the agenda.

The “Yes” Coalition kicked off their educational campaign only yesterday. More on their campaign in a later post.

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One comment

  1. Marlene

    Really pleased to have your summary, Marion. I haven’t been following this issue and am appreciative of being informed, as there are things to learn about the BC experience (as it unfolds) that may be instructive or those of us in other cities.

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