Premier Christy Clark

Premier Christy Clark

Logical to mix TransLink referendum with civic elections, Premier says

Metro Vancouver mayors unlikely to take helm of 'leaderless' transit funding campaign if province is neutral

Premier Christy Clark is sticking to her guns that a referendum on increased transit funding in Metro Vancouver should take place at the same time as the November municipal elections despite concerns from mayors.

The premier was asked Thursday if the plebiscite should be delayed or moved up so it doesn’t hijack the municipal election campaigns.

“Elections are supposed to be about issues,” Clark said, adding transit is clearly one of the top three issues facing local government in the region.

“It’s absolutely the right place for it to be,” she told reporters. “The referendum in the midst of a municipal campaign means that every voter, every politician will be focused on one of the most important issues for people in the Lower Mainland.”

Clark said she hopes it improves the low voter turnout that typifies civic elections.

“They’ll know where their local politicians stand on that issue, and they’ll turn up to vote because they’ll know that it matters.”

Some political observers have suggested a simultaneous referendum on unpopular transit taxes may bring a surge of angry voters to the polls, who may also elect more fiscally conservative councillors and mayors than might otherwise be likely.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson both opposed putting the TransLink referendum on the Nov. 15 ballot at a Vancouver Board of Trade panel discussion Thursday.

Neither mayor wants to have a referendum at all. Both say expanded transit is crucial and a failed referendum could be disastrous to the region’s future.

Clark has also said the province should take a neutral stance on the referendum, and not lead the ‘Yes’ campaign.

“I’m not clear how they could or would take a hands-off approach,” Watts said. “It’s a provincial initiative that was announced by them.”

Watts would not say if she will campaign in support of more transit funding, saying it’s premature since the referendum question hasn’t been determined.

SFU City Program director Gordon Price said he can’t imagine why any mayor would campaign for the ‘Yes’ side if the province won’t.

“If it’s going to be a leaderless campaign, you can’t ask the mayors to substitute for that,” he said. “If the premier isn’t even going to support you, why would you spend any political capital? It doesn’t add up.”

According to Price, it won’t just be drivers who don’t use transit who will be angry with TransLink and eager to vote ‘No’ in November against higher taxes for the transportation agency.

He predicts the timing will also prove “brutal” because TransLink will launch its new Compass cards this summer just in time to frustrate transit riders who will often forget to tap out of the system and pay too much as a result.

“I think it’s another nail in this particular coffin.”

Price said the premier should spell out whether referenda on transit funding increases are now permanent policy into the future and, if so, why that doesn’t apply to any increase in taxes anywhere in the province, or major projects like the Masey Tunnel replacement.

– with files from Tom Fletcher.