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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson


Will Vancouver think big on transit? Add to ...

Referendums are hard to win – not impossible, but hard.

Being against is often easier than being for. Proponents of a cause stick to the cause; critics drag in everything, from the unpopularity of the proponents to the financial cost of the cause to the charge that “you can’t trust them,” whoever they might be.

There’s often a sense, too, that if the “elites” who are proposing change want something, there can’t be much in it for “ordinary” people. Change the Constitution? The referendum on the Charlottetown accord failed. Change the electoral system? Referendums on B.C. and Ontario proposals failed. Referendums on local initiatives to spend more on this or that? They usually lose. In some U.S. states, however, referendums on proposals to raise sales taxes for specific investments, such as education, have been won.

On March 16, people in Greater Vancouver will start voting by mail in a plebiscite on raising the sales tax by 0.5 per cent, the so-called Congestion Improvement Tax. If approved, the CIT would raise some of the $7.5-billion needed over 10 years to fund major transit improvements, including a subway along Broadway, light rapid transit in fast-expanding Surrey, a new bridge and regionwide improvements to roads and local transit.

Hemmed in by mountains and sea and challenged by population increase, the region desperately needs improvements to help people get around. The mayors are mostly in favour of the CIT, which is based on a plan they drafted. So are the boards of trade, the chambers of commerce and the large trade unions. Planners and architects, urban thinkers and university professors, the great and the good, are overwhelmingly positive on it.

But at least so far, the citizens are not, according to one online poll that cheered the No campaign. As is usual in such matters, the No campaign hammers away at distrust of government and its agency, in this case TransLink, the local transit authority.

You can’t trust TransLink, the No side thunders. The projects will all go over budget. “Hard-working taxpayers” money will be squandered. It’s the usual refrain from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the small-business lobby. Mention any tax increase to these and like-minded groups, and their opposition will be automatic.

The trouble is that their alternative is no alternative. Find the money from within the TransLink budget, they say. Just where that $250-million a year might be hidden is a question to which there is no answer because the money does not exist.

But wait. There could be an answer. You don’t like the proposed sales tax increase? Fine. Then raise transit fares and get the necessary money that way. Make existing users pay for future improvements. But then the same No lobby would be out in force defending “hard-working passengers.” And what would be the point of jacking fares way up when urban areas need more people to travel on public transit?

The Yes argument goes beyond the benefits for those who travel on public transit. Better transit helps the environment, allows goods and services to move more swiftly, saves fuel and improves productivity. It’s the way forward for enlightened cities the world over. It’s the fundamental choice Vancouver has to make, and the choice goes beyond the details of this or that plan.

Opponents of such investments are easy to identify, apart from the low-tax voices. People who drive cars and never use public transit are hard to convince. Elderly people, who might use public transit today but won’t likely be around tomorrow. Voters who don’t live close enough to use the proposed improvements. Low-income voters with little change to spare, even though low-income people tend to disproportionately use public transit. And then there’s the anti-establishment, “mad as hell” voter who doesn’t trust any government of any stripe to do anything right.

Where is the provincial government on this? After all, Greater Vancouver is the province’s economic engine and Canada’s third-largest urban area.

The answer: more or less on the sidelines. Premier Christy Clark promised a referendum in the last election. Now, one is being held. The Premier says she will vote Yes, but she spends more time patting her government on the back for fulfilling the promise than she does urging people to vote as she will.

Vancouver has a choice similar to that of other large Canadian cities: Think big and long, or think small and now. A No vote reinforces a deteriorating status quo.

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