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An eastbound Skytrain stops at the Main Street-Science World Station in Vancouver, January 8, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
An eastbound Skytrain stops at the Main Street-Science World Station in Vancouver, January 8, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

On transit, Lower Mainland mayors can’t do it all themselves Add to ...

If there is one thing that seems certain now about the B.C. transit referendum scheduled to be held this fall in conjunction with municipal elections, is that it will not occur. That idea is all but dead.

Both Premier Christy Clark and her Transportation Minister, Todd Stone, have recently indicated their willingness to budge on when to hold the vote if Lower Mainland mayors can make a case that more time is needed. Well, here is the case: to have the plebiscite in 10 months’ time would only guarantee its failure and ensure that the urgent transportation needs of the region are delayed for years – at an enormous economic cost to the province to boot.

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Here are some thoughts on the transit plan as it stands.

First, it needs to be acknowledged that a vote on how to finance transit improvements was the idea of the Premier, not the mayors. For Mr. Stone to say to the mayors: go create a vision and a ballot box question and get back to me as soon as possible seems unfair and not in anyone’s best interests. Mr. Stone has said himself that the region has 21 mayors with competing visions. That’s only natural. It is going to take outside leadership, in my opinion, to help them reach a consensus on a forward-looking transportation plan. Otherwise, self-interest would surely stall efforts to achieve agreement in anything resembling a timely fashion.

Beyond that, it seems to me that the province and the federal government should be involved in these discussions so the mayors know what they are dealing with from a funding standpoint. If the region can count on some money from Victoria and Ottawa, that will affect how much they would need from their taxpayers.

As well, transportation in Greater Vancouver is a mish-mash of jurisdictional responsibilities. It would be difficult to create an overarching transportation vision, one that might include the need to toll bridges, unless all the players are at the table. The province is in charge of certain crossings, the City of Vancouver for others and the region more yet.

The two glaring transit needs in the region are light rail in Surrey and a subway or light rail line along the Broadway corridor in Vancouver. The price of those two pieces alone is $5-billion to $6 billion – quite possibly more. In a regional referendum, what could the mayors throw into the pot to make the plan appealing to citizens outside those two cities? How big would the final dollar amount sought in the referendum grow, and over how many years would it be amortized? Good luck finding common ground on that.

In successful transit referendums held elsewhere, detailed studies and plans showed voters precisely what they would get for their money. Who is going to do this work for the Greater Vancouver mayors? Where is the money for it going to come from?

Winning referendums have also been aided by massive public relations campaigns, often led by outside forces such as the business community. What work, if any, is being done on that front? Who would finance the campaign and where would the money come from? After a provincial election last year and failed HST referendum before that, Vancouver’s business community is tapped out. And a federal election is on the horizon, meaning more wallet diving.

Referendums involve intense polling to narrow the focus of the ballot question. What financial instrument, for instance, would people favour to pay for the improvements? It seems better to present them with one option rather than a buffet of choices that would make it harder to achieve a solid consensus. Lots of work needs to be done on this aspect of the vote.

There is also this: we are not used to referendums as a means of making policy decisions in Canada. In the United States, yes. Here, no. Referendums in B.C. have more often been associated with rejecting rather than supporting something. Consequently, the education that must take place with the public before any trip to the ballot box is significant.

Months, if not years, of work are needed ahead of this transportation referendum in B.C. It will take uncommon leadership for it to succeed, and I believe that needs to come from the province. The next logical time to hold a transit referendum would be in conjunction with the federal election in the spring of 2015.

But if the vast amount of spadework does not start immediately, even that may be too soon.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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