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B.C. mayors reject plans for transit referendum

Skytrain passengers on the Canada Line make their way on to the train in Vancouver, August 8, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Metro Vancouver mayors have come out in united opposition to the province's plans for a transit-funding referendum this fall, raising a major obstacle to one of Premier Christy Clark's key policy planks.

While no motion was passed Wednesday at a two-hour mayors meeting, they emerged from the gathering firm in their refusal to go along with the vote.

"The decision was to reject the concept of a referendum. Period," Richard Stewart, a former B.C. Liberal MLA and now mayor of suburban Coquitlam, said in an interview.

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Mr. Stewart said the mayors are frustrated with the government's haste on the plan. The plan was to hold the referendum on how to fund transit improvements at the same time as municipal elections in November.

Mayors have also been exasperated with the province's failure to come up with a question for voters, which means they have nothing to use for a dialogue with voters on the need for billions of dollars worth of transit developments, such as light rail for Surrey and a new transit line to the University of British Columbia

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said, in an interview, that the referendum is mired in uncertainty without a question that mayors can decide whether they support or oppose.

Richard Walton, mayor of the District of North Vancouver and past chair of the TransLink mayors' committee, noted that Transportation Minister Todd Stone has had only one 40-minute meeting with the mayors on the issue.

He said mayors had been hoping for more opportunities for direct dialogue.

The referendum was a key policy in the platform Ms. Clark took into the spring election campaign that saw the Liberals come from behind the opposition New Democrats to win a fourth majority last May.

Since then, Ms. Clark has been firm on a commitment to proceed with the referendum, though there was confusion between her and Mr. Stone, in statements to the media, over whether to have a yes-no question or multiple-choice question and whether the province would campaign for a yes outcome on funding options.

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Making the plan work has been a key agenda item for Mr. Stone, a rookie MLA.

If the plan fails, it will be a major blow to the Minister, said the opposition critic handling the file.

"The odds of having a meaningful referendum are absolutely zero," said George Heyman, critic for TransLink – the regional transportation authority. "It's going to blow up in their faces."

Mr. Heyman said he can't see a way for the vote to proceed over the objections of the region's mayors. "(They) have been opposed to the referendum from Day One."

Mr. Stone was not immediately available for comment, but his ministry said, in a statement, that he would keep working with mayors on the issue.

"I have a lot of respect for Todd. I am hopeful the Minister can swing public policy on this question," Mr. Stewart said.

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"From my perspective, I always want to revisit. But to revisit (this), I would want to know that something has changed."

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