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Clark may have reason to regret her transit referendum

Of all the promises Christy Clark made during the last provincial election, none has the potential to cause the B.C. Premier more grief than her populist undertaking to hold a transit referendum.

It is Ms. Clark's belief that the public should have a say in transit's future in Greater Vancouver, particularly as it pertains to how any expansion should be financed. And that's fine, as long as she also accepts that not underwriting the costs is not an option. Naturally, Metro Vancouver mayors are skeptical about the entire exercise. Their worry, and it is a legitimate one, is what happens if people say no to forking over more of their hard-earned cash to pay for upgrades they perceive as not benefiting them. Referendums asking the public to approve any form of tax increase do not have a great history of success.

The two cities that have the most to lose are Vancouver and Surrey, both of which have long-standing and fairly urgent transit needs. Vancouver wants a subway that will cost almost $3-billion along the Broadway corridor out to the University of British Columbia, while Surrey desperately requires a light rapid transit system worth nearly $2-billion. Both are legitimate requests.

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Even the provincial government accepts that. The only question now is getting a mandate from the public to proceed.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone is the poor chap who has been given the task of "getting to yes," as the Premier likes to say. It will not be easy. Tom Prendergast, a former CEO of TransLink and now head honcho of New York's transit authority, told a conference in Vancouver last week that spending referendums such as the one the province is contemplating rarely pass on the first try. Sometimes it can take two or three attempts.

Not good news. Greater Vancouver does not have years to waste on this file. It needs to get a viable transit plan in place now.

In fact, the government needs to solve two problems: getting public approval to move quickly on a couple of major projects while finding a sustainable funding model for transit generally.

Lurching from crisis to crisis is not in anyone's best interests – but that is exactly how transit decisions in Greater Vancouver have been made for several years. That has to end.

A successful referendum will depend on a couple of things. Firstly, the province and region are going to have to present a compelling vision. In other words, people need to know what they will be paying for. Additionally, they are going to want to know why. What is the business case? That should be easy. Some of the worst transportation gridlock in North America is costing the regional economy billions.

The tricky part will be asking people how they want to pay for it. Does the province, in its question, give the public the option of saying no to all of the possibilities presented. I suggest that would be a mistake, because the risk is simply too great that a majority would not support any spending decision.

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That said, most fair-minded folks, I think, agree that expanding transit is necessary, for environmental considerations if nothing else. We need to get more people out of their cars. And we need to support those who want to get out of their cars but have no rapid transit option. These are facts. What the government and municipalities need to know is where the preponderance of the public lines up on how to pay for it – now and into the future.

Is a user-pay model such as road pricing the way to go? Or a vehicle levy? Or does using proceeds from the provincial carbon tax make the most sense?

It is going to take some impassioned selling, on Mr. Stone's part, but also on the part of municipal politicians. While the referendum may be the province's baby, everyone has a stake in it succeeding. Mayors are going to have to campaign hard on its behalf. In many respects, it is as important a referendum as the one Vancouver held before the 2010 Winter Olympics – one that barely passed despite a herculean effort by Games' proponents.

In this case, a failed transit referendum would be a monumental setback for Greater Vancouver. That much is riding on it.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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