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The Skytrain station at Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver, August 9, 2013. Lower Mainland mayors are concerned about the timing of a referendum on transit funding. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The Skytrain station at Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver, August 9, 2013. Lower Mainland mayors are concerned about the timing of a referendum on transit funding. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Why some B.C. mayors want local elections, transit referendum on different days Add to ...

Lower Mainland mayors say local elections could get hijacked this fall if the province carries through with its plan to hold a referendum the same day on how to fund transit improvements.

The region’s 21 municipalities could face a surge of mini-Rob Ford candidates who decide to run against anyone supporting new funding for TransLink, they say.

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“You’re going to have a lot of people running on issues like ‘No gravy train, no new taxes,’ ” said Richard Walton, the past chair of the TransLink mayors’ committee and mayor of the District of North Vancouver.

Even if that didn’t happen, mayors wouldn’t have the time that’s required to persuade voters about the need for a major shift in transit funding because they’d be preoccupied with local issues.

“We’ve all got to focus on our own communities and getting elected,” said Mr. Walton. “And if we’re not campaigning for the referendum, then who is?”

Premier Christy Clark had promised before last May’s election that her government would hold a referendum on new sources of money to pay for billions of dollars in improvements that the regional transit authority says are needed as the population continues to boom in the Lower Mainland.

Right now, the system is paid for primarily through fares, property taxes and gas taxes. Some other sources of funding that have been suggested include the proceeds from the province’s carbon tax, a regional sales tax, a vehicle levy that varies with vehicle weight and mileage, or a regional tolling system.

TransLink’s board and mayors’ council have all been singularly unsuccessful in getting the province to agree to any of those in five years of trying.

Mr. Walton said that he, unlike many other mayors in the region, does believe that a referendum is a legitimate idea when “you’re making a paradigm shift from one form of funding to another.”

But it takes time and energy to campaign for such a large shift.

“People have to see the value proposition very clearly. They want to know if they’re paying extra, they’re getting something back.”

He said it typically takes two or three years to educate the public on all the issues involved. That’s what happened in Los Angeles, where the region, which includes 80 different municipalities, did get support from 67 per cent of its voters in a 2008 referendum for a 0.5-per-cent sales-tax increase to make transit improvements.

Other mayors disagree that there should be any referendum at all. Or, if there is one, they suggest it be in the spring.

But they, like Mr. Walton, are dismayed at the possible negative consequences of holding it on this year’s Nov. 15 municipal-election date.

“If it’s held during the election, there will be groups trying to make political points on both sides,” said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart. “And we need every local government official in the region focused on selling the benefits of investing in transit. [But during an election], they’re just not going to have enough time.”

Mr. Stewart said it might be a harder sell in some municipalities than others. In Coquitlam, people are seeing shovels in the ground for the new Evergreen SkyTrain line, so they might be more aware of the benefits.

“But in those communities that don’t even have good bus services, there will be work to do to convince their residents it’s worth the investment.”

Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie also worried that the timing could wreak havoc.

“There’s definitely the potential that this question could hijack the election and local issues you’re trying to deal with,” said Mr. Moore.

No one at this point knows exactly what is going on with timing or wording of a referendum question. Last month, the Premier said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the referendum would be held in conjunction with next fall’s municipal elections. But Transport Minister Todd Stone later said the date had not been decided.

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