Metro Vancouver mayors are pressing the provincial government to abandon its promise to hold a referendum on any plan to raise more money for TransLink through new taxes or tolls.
There are no details yet on how the province intends to tackle the pledge, which was contained in the BC Liberals’ election platform and reinforced during the campaign by Premier Christy Clark.
“The demand for public transit service is growing more rapidly than Translink is currently funded to accommodate, and we do not feel a referendum is the best means to resolving the issue,” Metro Vancouver mayors’ council chair Richard Walton said.
Mayors debated the topic behind closed doors at a meeting June 19 and passed a unanimous resolution formally opposing a referendum on new funding tools for TransLink.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie is one of the Metro mayors who think it’s a recipe for disaster and the issue is too complex to be left to voters.
They argue a defeat of new funding sources by tax-hating voters would doom Metro Vancouver to a stagnant transit system for decades with rapid transit expansion frozen, while the population grows and congestion worsens.
“I think the referendum is a terrible idea and it should be reconsidered,” Brodie said. “We believe it’s a short-sighted, unwise decision.”
Metro mayors have suggested options that could be invoked quickly – like an annual vehicle levy, a share of the carbon tax or even a small regional sales tax. Over the longer term they also want to pursue road pricing, which could bring congestion control advantages as well as new cash, but would require years of study and preparation.
Most mayors think voters are apt to vote ‘No’ out of a kneejerk response, without contemplating the downside of failing to expand transit, or understanding potential traffic flow benefits from road tolls.
The mayors’ resolution also warns a referendum could be very divisive.
“If the most expensive improvements are south of the Fraser, the people elsewhere in the region will understand they have very little to personally gain from the funding and they won’t approve it,” Brodie said. “It will divide the whole region and if it fails we’ll be farther behind than we ever were.”
He said the premier and minister must show leadership on the issue and not use the promised plebiscite as a way to dodge a difficult challenge.
“A referendum is simply a way to avoid responsibility,” Brodie said. “Yes, the people are unhappy with extra taxes or levies for anything. But an expanded public transportation system is critical to the environmental goals we have set and it’s critical that we get more people out of their cars.”
New Transportation Minister Todd Stone said he looks forward to meeting the mayors soon but said the government has no intention of dtiching the referendum commitment.
“I want to be very clear to the mayors and the people of the Lower Mainland, there will be referendum on any new funding options, period,” Stone said in an interview.
“Let’s sit down, let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out what would be the most appropriate question for this referendum.”
During the provincial election campaign, former Transportation Minister Mary Polak suggested the referendum might force voters to choose some new funding tool for TransLink from a menu of options – none-of-the-above wouldn’t be a permitted outcome – but Premier Christy Clark swiftly rejected that notion.
Stone said the province will ensure taxpayers “have a say in any new funding options” but struck a more cautious note than Clark, refusing to go so far as to guarantee voters an ability to outright veto any extra transit funding.
“My vision of this is still forming,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to pre-judge the discussions to come. “There are many different ways we could come at this question.”
Stone also said the province will introduce TransLink governance reform legislation in the spring of 2014 to give mayors more say in spending priorities.
As a minister from Kamloops, Stone said he brings no axe to grind on behalf of any one part of the region.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to hit the reset button and come to the table and have a frank and open discussion.”
TransLink is updating its long-range Transportation 2045 plan, which puts more emphasis on road pricing as a tool to raise money and control congestion.
By fall it’s to draw up a 15-year plan of proposed new investments.
That list of what’s needed – expected to include new lines in Surrey and on Vancouver’s Broadway corridor – would then be paired up with proposed funding sources to finance the work.
If TransLink, the mayors’ council and the province all sign off on the proposed strategy, it would then go to referendum in the fall of 2014, concurrent with municipal elections.