In light of the most recent poll showing the No forces moving ahead in the upcoming transit vote, it's perhaps an appropriate time to ask: What is Plan B?
It was a question I posed to Premier Christy Clark in an interview here this week. As much as Metro Vancouver mayors have been made to look like the ones responsible for the region's transit needs, it's the province that still holds all the power. It's the government that could blow up TransLink and start all over again if it was believed that was the best way to restore the public's trust in the system – not the mayors.
And then there is this: Congestion is costing the Metro Vancouver economy (see the province) billions of dollars in lost time. One would think that eliminating damaging bottlenecks would be just as big a priority of the province as it is Metro mayors. And yet, the province imposed on the region a poorly placed plebiscite that seemed doomed to fail from the start. On top of that, the government has done little to help it succeed since then – other than having people such as the Premier say she plans to vote Yes.
Apparently that hasn't helped move the meter much.
For her part, Ms. Clark is not apologizing for the referendum, saying it forced the mayors, for the first time, to unite around a common transit vision for the region. "So that's a victory," she said. The Premier said the vote also compelled the mayors to come up with a plan for raising the money, one which gives the public a say in the process. And if the public says no, she said, the mayors will have to start from scratch.
"It's not like they don't have any way to raise the money," she said.
She's right, of course. The mayors do have levers they could pull to raise capital to fund expansion plans under TransLink – options they've rejected in the past, for good reason.
One is the gas tax, a TransLink funding source that has been in decline as more fuel-efficient vehicles hit the roads and people drive less. The other alternative is property taxes, something the provincial government has been urging regional mayors to use for transit expansion for some time.
But the mayors have repeatedly rejected this suggestion, as property taxes remain the primary source of revenue for municipalities, beyond direct fees for services such as water and utilities.
"Over the years, the FCM [Federation of Canadian Municipalities] has done copious work showing that federal and provincial budget tightening has pushed the pain down to local governments, and we are constantly criticized, including by the provincial government, for budget increases," said Richard Walton, mayor of North Vancouver District. "But we also have a lot of infrastructure built in the postwar years coming up for replacement."
He said that infrastructure was initially paid for by selling raw lands as communities expanded, but now with most communities built out, a lot of the replacement capital is coming from the tax dollar. "We have been very clear for the last decade that property tax is maxed out for transit," Mr. Walton said in an interview. "We are unanimously opposed to more property tax and have full public support for that position."
The province has so far rejected allowing the mayors to raise transit funding through a vehicle levy, or by increasing the carbon tax. A regional sales tax, which is what the mayors settled on as a solution, is not ideal because it is not linked to people's transit decisions in the way mobility pricing (tolling all major roadways) or a fuel tax is.
All of which is to say, we're likely still going to be debating this six months from now, possibly six years from now. A new poll from Insights West shows the No side has gained the momentum in this plebiscite. Of 653 adults surveyed, 53 per cent said they would be voting No, while only 38 per cent said they'd mark Yes on their ballot. (The rest were undecided.)
The public-relations disaster that was the decision to continue paying freshly ousted TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next year and beyond while also paying an interim CEO $35,000 a month to replace him unquestionably hurt the Yes side. Then there is the fact that the Yes forces have simply failed to mount an effective campaign.
As things stand now, transit policy and governance in Metro Vancouver is pretty much a broken mess. And the problems will only be exacerbated if the transit referendum goes down to defeat, as it increasingly appears it will.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a recent poll of 653 adults found that 32 per cent would support the transit-tax plebiscite. In fact, 38 per cent said they would vote yes.