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British Columbia Vancouver-area mayors join forces on TransLink council to lobby for transit funding in next federal election

Mayors in the Vancouver region have launched a political campaign that encourages voters to lobby local candidates in the next federal election for extra transit funding.

By registering the TransLink mayors’ council as a third party, the agency will be able to appeal directly to voters, asking them to write to candidates – an unusual approach for municipalities trying to get their message heard at the federal level.

The mayors say the move is key to keeping the momentum flowing on transit improvements, with ridership booming in recent years and regional-growth projections showing there is more to come.

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“We need the federal government to stay on board,” said mayors’ council chair Jonathan Coté, also the mayor of New Westminster. “But this campaign has to be more than just the mayors. It will take thousands of residents to engage with politicians.”

The agency will spend at least $50,000 on the campaign and has developed a website and an e-mail tool that voters can use to send off pleading letters for transit funding to candidates.

Vancouver’s once-reviled transit agency has basked in a golden era the past four years, as provincial and federal money poured in and transit ridership increases have set records for North America.

That was due in large part to the Trudeau Liberal government, which sold itself to frustrated city dwellers in 2015 as the party that would put big dollars into new projects.

Once the NDP was elected in B.C. 18 months later, TransLink saw a rare period of co-operative and generous funding at both levels, after years of apparent lack of interest in city problems from the federal Conservatives and two decades of bickering with the B.C. Liberals about how to fund regional transit. That deadlock culminated in 2015 with a referendum where the mayors’ proposal to add a 0.5-per-cent regional sales tax was resoundingly defeated.

Many local politicians and TransLink bureaucrats thought, until early this year, that the transit-funding utopia in recent years would continue with a Liberal second term.

But now agency leaders are anxiously watching the dynamics of this October’s election as the Liberals’ popularity has plummeted in the wake of high-profile controversies.

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Mr. Coté made the announcement about the new strategy with a choir of supporters behind him, including Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter, North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Patrick Stafford-Smith, and the executive director of the B.C. Healthy Living Alliance, Rita Koutsodimos. Student groups, unions and immigrant-services representatives were also there.

He said the current federal and provincial money will pay for transit projects through to 2027, but there is nothing so far to pay for the third phase of the current 10-year transit-improvement plan. For example, about $1.3-billion is needed to complete the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain line that Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum has been pushing for.

Although none of the mayors mentioned it, a lack of federal participation would also make provincial contributions more difficult, since big projects often see each level of government requiring matching funding from the other.

The mayors’ council ran a somewhat more limited campaign in the provincial election, with a greater emphasis on getting information about and publicizing the various parties’ positions on transit and less on voter mobilization.

“We’re trying to ensure all parties hear these concerns before they finalize their platform,” said Mike Buda, the CEO of the mayors’ council secretariat. “It is not normal for government agencies to be involved like this, but the mayors think it’s important that we try something different.”

Mr. Coté and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart both said they think all parties recognize that transit funding is important, so they are not writing off anyone as a lost cause.

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“I actually think Metro Vancouver is a success story across the country. The ridership increase that we’ve seen is leading North America. I think all the major parties are interested in transit investment,” Mr. Coté said. “This campaign isn’t about trying to get votes for one political party or another.”

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