New Years is fast approaching, and the media is full of lists. By way of good news, I thought it would be fun to update readers on just three of the issues discussed this year on the Effervescent Bubble.
1. Cyber-Seniors, that innovative program to encourage high school students to mentor seniors about computers, email, the internet and YouTube, is expanding. In November, they announced that the ‘Special Edition 3-Disc Set’ of the Cyber-Seniors program (with public performance license) is now available. This set includes both a 52 min and 74 min version of the film, as well as a Discussion/Activity Guide and DVD on themes, such as dispelling agism, youth volunteerism and community service, bridging the generation gap, and cyber-safety. The filmmakers and participants from the film are available to attend screenings and answer questions. To buy the package or find screenings, check their website or call 1-844-217-3057. Special pricing is available for organizations and individuals wanting to bring Cyber-Seniors to their community. The hope is that this film will find its way into schools, libraries, retirement communities, and other public institutions enabling people of all ages to witness what happens when generations bridge the gap and explore new ways of connecting.
2. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in September directed Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, to undertake a review of the Municipal Elections Act to give all 444 Ontario municipalities the option of using ranked ballots in future elections, starting in 2018, as an alternative to first-past-the-post. It will be fascinating to see how many municipalities actually make the reform and with what results. And will we see other municipal law reforms, like shorter periods for electing the mayor of Toronto? and new powers in municipal governments to discipline or impeach elected officials engaging in discreditable conduct?
3. The Regional Vancouver Mayors Council has reviewed various revenue sources to fund future transit plans in the area (including a regional carbon tax, a vehicle registration tax and a regional sales tax) and concluded that a half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the provincial sales tax (PST), collected within Metro Vancouver, is the most fair, efficient, and affordable revenue source. They have requested that the provincial government approve a referendum question to that effect to be put to the public for a mail-in vote beginning in mid-March 2015. They also asked that the government support their efforts to raise awareness of the proposed investments and the referendum so that voters can make an informed choice, and commit to carry out the results of a successful referendum. The sales tax increase would be dedicated to the specific needs identified in their transit plan which includes expansion of bus service and express bus lines, two new light rail transit lines in Surrey and Langley, a tunneled extension of the Skytrain Millenium line along Broadway in Vancouver, and expanded SeaBus and West Coast Express commuter train services. All revenues raised by the tax, together with provincial and federal contributions, will be subject to annual independent audits and public reporting.
The Mayors also gave notice that they want to move towards comprehensive mobility pricing for roads and transit within the next five to eight years, and that they need a Mobility Pricing Independent Commission to oversee the work required to carry out that objective. The Mobility Pricing goal is separate from the proposed increase in the regional sales tax, and is unprecedented in Canada, although not elsewhere. One wonders about the strategic advantage of linking the short-term referendum on a higher sales tax with the long-term mobility pricing aim. Although the referendum question refers only to the increased sales tax, will the electorate become confused? Or is the long-term goal an essential means of creating context? Primarily to educate the public about the realities of the future? Or to give an alternative that might need be more immediate if the referendum fails? Will the broader community of business and government interests rally to encourage support of the referendum? Is a mail-in ballot a useful tool to encourage (or discourage) voter participation in the referendum? All these questions will be vital to the future of transit in the B.C. lower mainland and will be an amazing case study for the rest of the country.
The sun is rising on the new year. May whatever grey clouds that appear on the horizon be met with vigor and determination, and dissipate in good humour. Have a good year, a good day at a time, every one.
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.