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B.C. Premier Christy Clark gives the keynote address at the annual Truck Loggers Association Convention in Vancouver on Jan. 16, 2014.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Premier Christy Clark says she is open to postponing a referendum on how to fund billions of dollars in Lower Mainland transit projects beyond municipal elections this November.

Ms. Clark had been firm on tying the referendum to the municipal votes, but on Monday, she averted a potential standoff with area mayors who were dead set against the idea.

"We sure would like it to be on the ballot in November. I think voter turnout would be great and it would mean people get a chance to really focus on that issue," Ms. Clark told reporters on Monday following an unrelated speech. "It's certainly my hope that we could do it in November, but I do know the mayors have been saying they need more time."

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The referendum was a key Liberal promise in the 2013 BC Liberal provincial election platform, but the Premier and Transportation Minister Todd Stone have previously been on different pages about the timing. Both now say they are willing to talk about a delay.

Mr. Stone said Monday it's up to the mayors to come up with a joint position on timing, but that the province won't back off from allowing taxpayers to vote on new funding sources for such transit needs as light rail in Surrey and the transit line to the University of British Columbia's main campus in Vancouver.

The mayors have said they oppose the referendum as an unworkable, poorly planned option that will get entangled in local election politics. Currently, the system is paid for primarily through fares, property taxes and gas taxes. Other suggested funding sources include proceeds from the B.C. carbon tax, a regional sales tax, a vehicle levy or a regional tolling system.

Mr. Stone declined to speculate on when the vote might take place if it's not held in November.

Ms. Clark's comments caught mayors across the Lower Mainland off-guard. "We're surprised," said Richard Walton, mayor of the district of North Vancouver and chair of the Metro Vancouver mayors council. "It's a handout to us and we appreciate that." Mr. Walton said his view is that the referendum should be postponed for at least two to three years to allow for planning and a full-fledged public debate that won't be possible before November.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts called a delay a "prudent" possibility.

In past, there have been challenges around tying provincial votes to municipal votes. Former premier Gordon Campbell, who had planned to schedule a referendum on electoral reform during 2008 municipal elections, was forced to back away when his bureaucrats told him that was unworkable and 10 times the cost of holding a referendum at the same time as provincial elections.

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"The Chief Electoral Officer has raised concerns about the practicality and cost of this timing," Mr. Campbell said in a 2006 news release. "The Chief Electoral Officer is concerned with regard to adequacy of facilities, a shortage of trained voting officials, and differing voter eligibility requirements for local and provincial voters' lists."

The need for separate staff and a way of integrating the two voting systems would end up costing $25-million to $30-million, slightly more than running the referendum as a standalone event, and considerably more than the $1-million to $2-million for conducting it during a provincial election.

Asked about the issue in a 2014 context, Mr. Stone would only say he has a team considering all options on engineering a vote, whether that means mail-in ballots or a non-binding plebicite. "Obviously there are cost implications or logistical implications for each and every one of them," he said, adding a final plan would be outlined in legislation this spring.

Don Main, the communications officer from Elections BC, said the Transportation Ministry had been in touch with the elections office about the cost of a referendum, but had made it clear the province would not run it. "This time, it's a referendum at the regional level," Mr. Main said. "We have no role in it at this point."

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