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British Columbia B.C. university heads say students will vote Yes to transit tax

Student representatives from both Simon Fraser and UBC say they know big transit infrastructure pieces, such subway and light rail, will benefit them as long-term residents of the Lower Mainland.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The presidents of British Columbia's two largest universities are betting students will vote Yes in the transit plebiscite, even though those student voters will be alumni of some years standing before key pieces of new transit infrastructure are operating.

While increased bus service would come soon to the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in the event of a Yes, it could be many years before the east-west Broadway subway and light rail in Surrey would be running to serve the campuses.

Still, UBC's Arvind Gupta and Andrew Petter of SFU say they are confident today's students will be thinking about their future counterparts as they cast mail-in ballots for the plebiscite to decide whether to add 0.5 per cent – earmarked to help pay for Lower Mainland transit projects – to the province's 7-per-cent sales tax.

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Voting is to run from March 16 to May 29.

The presidents commented on the issue in separate interviews Tuesday, shortly after issuing a joint statement calling for a Yes vote as essential for the 80,000 students and 21,500 staff who commute to the two universities.

"I am very impressed with our students and student leadership taking the long view," Dr. Gupta said.

He noted that students on both the Okanagan campus and the main Vancouver campus have endorsed levies to pay for new infrastructure. In the Okanagan, it's a new library that will open in coming years.

In Vancouver, it's a student union building that will open this spring.

Mr. Petter agreed with the sentiment.

"I think our students will look with a longer-term view, not just to their future as students but to their future as citizens within this larger community," he said.

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"I have confidence that they, who have the greatest stake in the future, will be most inclined to look, not just at the short-term benefits, which are certainly there in this plan, but at the long term."

For now, he said there's a dire need to deal with crowded current transit for the 90 per cent of students who rely on transit. "If they can't get a seat on the bus, they won't get a seat in the classroom," he said.

The president of the Simon Fraser Student Society and a spokesperson for the UBC Alma Mater Society both said students know that the big transit infrastructure pieces will benefit them as long-term residents of the Lower Mainland.

"The students of SFU are spread across the Lower Mainland. Post-graduation, they will benefit from the infrastructure," said Chardaye Bueckert of SFU.

Bahareh Jokar of UBC suggested there is an idealistic streak among students. "If you tell students currently experiencing the system that you're building something for the next generation and building something that will benefit the region socially and environmentally, people will support it," she said.

She said the transit issue is concrete in the lives of students because, in the case of UBC, tens of thousands of them are experiencing challenges in the system first-hand.

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The joint presidents' statement said 77 per cent of UBC students travel to the campus by transit, with hundreds passed by full buses on the B-Line along Broadway.

Ms. Jokar acknowledged the Broadway subway to Arbutus would fall short of the main campus by several kilometres, but added, "Having something on the Broadway corridor is better than having nothing on the Broadway corridor."

Jordan Bateman, head of the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a key voice in the No side, classed the two university presidents as among "elites" the "TransLink tax supporters" have lined up, but said the proposed levy is not a good deal for "everyday" taxpayers.

"University presidents, given paycheques and high-flying expenses, can be considered elite," Mr. Bateman said in an e-mail exchange with The Globe and Mail, adding students would be paying the tax the longest given no expiry date on the levy and no limit on potential increases.

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