A SkyTrain pulls into Sapperton Station in New Westminster. The future of the transit system will ride heavily on a referendum on increased funding that's expected to happen in 2014.

Hard haggling begins over TransLink referendum

Mayors first want more power via governance reform as pressure builds to decide transit funding question

Negotiations between the province and Metro Vancouver mayors are about to move into high gear over the future of TransLink and the mechanics of a referendum Victoria insists is coming on increased transit funding.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone met regional mayors’ council chair Richard Walton Sept. 4 and the minister will meet the full mayors’ council on Sept. 26 to try to hammer out agreement on key issues.

Walton said he still has no sense of what the referendum question will be or when it will be held – the minister has suggested next spring is better than fall of 2014 so TransLink’s needs don’t become a political football in municipal elections.

But mayors intend to focus first on a deal to reform governance of TransLink to gain more control over spending priorities, rather the current system where they can only approve or reject major tax or fare increases and the unelected professional board decides everything else.

Some mayors want to boycott the referendum if they can’t wrest back much more power from the board.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a precondition, but the governance is ultimately an obstacle to us resolving some of these issues,” Walton said.

It’s not yet clear, he added, whether the province will agree to major reform – perhaps even restoring a fully elected board of the sort swept away in 2008 – or just minor tweaking.

Meanwhile, he said, time is fast running out for a referendum that would have any chance of passing, as a huge public information campaign will be required, along with a clear champion of the yes side.

“That is a huge issue,” Walton said. “Look at what the government when through with the HST. And time is marching on.”

Mayors in the spring opposed the referendum on any new TransLink taxes, which was a BC Liberal election promise, and urged the province to reconsider.

It’s unclear what funding source or sources will be proposed – mayors have suggested an annual vehicle levy or a small regional sales tax are among the easiest to implement, while comprehensive road tolling would take years of research and planning.

Also up in the air is who will pay to actually conduct the referendum and run the yes campaign, and what role the mayors’ council might play, since its legislation doesn’t anticipate referenda.

“If the referendum is coming, we need some clear direction,” Walton said. “If the referendum is happening, I think the question and everything needs to be worked out clearly by November at the latest.”

Failure would be disastrous, he said.

“If a referendum does not pass, the region suffers economically, ridership suffers and TransLink is going to be under siege. The consequences for the region are significant.”

‘Daunting’ decision

Walton said one challenge in crafting the referendum question is to decide whether new money would only go to large rapid transit expansion projects, which he said might be supported South of the Fraser due to the large extension proposed in Surrey but defeated by the rest of the region.

The alternative, he said, may be to also raise extra money for a broad improvement in bus and SkyTrain frequency everywhere to help meet rising demand.

“You may then find folks in Langley, folks in Delta, folks in North Van and Maple Ridge will all see something of value for them.”

Still, he said, public anger with TransLink is “almost universal” in that virtually every city believes it’s not getting enough service back for the taxes and fees they pay in.

That was exacerbated, he said, when TransLink indicated $23.5 billion in spending is needed over 30 years to maintain existing lines and build needed new ones.

“To me it just gets people upset and generates a lot of criticism. Yet what they’re doing is what the legislation says they have to do. So TransLink’s between a rock and a hard place.”

TransLink board chair Nancy Olewiler said TransLink is attempting to assist with the “daunting” task of crafting a referendum by researching the experience with transportation plebiscites in other jurisdictions, including the U.S.

“It would be excellent from the current board’s point of view if the government could at least signal what its intentions are,” she said. “We don’t even know what the scope of the question is going to be.”

The question must also be one voters can understand, Olewiler said.

She noted the HST referendum was at least simple, unlike the complex eight-question referendum on aboriginal treaty-making principles conducted by the BC Liberal government in 2002.

“A lot of people sat home because they couldn’t figure out that question,” she said.

To be determined, she said, is how much money the referendum would seek to raise, what projects it would go to and over what period of time.

A five-year investment plan is different from a 10-year one, she said, and also from one that promises that specific projects be built in specific cities by specific years.

Leaving out major upgrades that are important to a particular city, or pushing them back too far, would risk defeat among those voters, she said.

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