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British Columbia Heated debate on transit tax referendum highlights Langley divide

A man exits a Canada Line train car at the Oakridge-41st Avenue Station in Vancouver in April, 2014. Critics of the proposed tax say most of it will go toward subway improvement in Vancouver, while supporters say other regions need more funds for their own transit.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A debate on the coming transit tax plebiscite pitted leaders of the Yes and No sides against one another in the municipality most fearful of the tax and dubious about its benefits.

The tussle Tuesday night foreshadowed the bitter, personal battle that's ahead, highlighting the alienation in some of the Lower Mainland's smaller cities and the resentment toward the bureaucrats who have been running transit.

The choices that Langley heard at a local chamber of commerce debate: Vote Yes for more desperately needed transit; or vote No to force the province to shake up the Lower Mainland's beleaguered transportation agency, TransLink.

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Canadian Taxpayers Federation representative Jordan Bateman, heading the opposition to a .5-per-cent sales tax for transit, hammered at people's distrust of TransLink management and Langley's resentment about always getting the short end of the stick.

"I'm not anti-transit. I am, however, steadfastly opposed to TransLink and the way it mismanages money," he said in his opening.

Mr. Bateman has spent the past three years attacking TransLink for wasteful spending on executive salaries, car allowances, the failure to get its new transit card operational, the cost of transit police and much more.

He also repeatedly said Langley businesses will suffer from the tax, claiming it would lure Langley residents to shop more in nearby Abbotsford.

And he emphasized how little Langley will get from the 10-year plan the tax is supposed to pay for and how unlikely it is that even those small improvements will happen.

"It's not coming to Langley. It never does." In the meantime, Vancouver's expensive subway will use up 31 cents of every tax dollar, he said.

On the other side, Bill Tieleman, the former anti-Harmonized Sales Tax crusader who is now one of the main spokesman for the Yes side, argued the vote is not a way to force the province to reform the agency.

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"Don't make a mistake. A No vote is not a 'I want changes to TransLink and yet I want more transit.' TransLink's mismanagement is not on the ballot. A No vote is a no to more buses, it's a no to the LRT line, it's a no to SkyTrain, it's a no to the new Pattullo Bridge, it's a no to road improvements. No means no."

And he emphasized what Greater Langley will be getting: two rapid-bus lines, a light-rail line from Surrey into Cloverdale and road improvements.

As they made their arguments, Mr. Tieleman and Mr. Bateman also traded a few insults.

Mr. Tieleman opened by calling Mr. Bateman "Dr. No" and suggested he sounds paranoid with his constant refrain that everyone but him is wrong. Mr. Bateman said his opponent is just a "hired gun" getting a lot of money from his flush union and city-government pals to argue the Yes side.

Both also claimed to be fighting for the little guy. In Mr. Bateman's version, the little guy doesn't want to pay more taxes to help bail out a dysfunctional bunch of transit managers. In Mr. Tieleman's, the little guy needs to be able to get to work by transit.

A lot of those same arguments – and the attacks – will play out with local variations, from West Vancouver to Maple Ridge to White Rock, until the last ballot is mailed May 29.

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It's likely to provoke divisions, just as it is doing in Langley.

The mayors of both Langley Township and Langley City explained their support Tuesday for the plan and tax.

"I'm putting out what I believe is the best option," said Langley City Mayor Ted Schaffer. "If we do not do something now, nothing will happen for a long, long time."

Township Mayor Jack Froese echoed that, saying that "we're faced with a growing region that needs investment."

But the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce has already decided it won't support a Yes vote, saying there isn't enough in the plan for Langley.

Some members of Mr. Froese's own council aren't supporting the Yes side and are contemplating a demand for a council vote to show who stands where.

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"I'm voting no," said Councillor Kim Richter. "The money that's being raised is going to TransLink and I think TransLink has to be overhauled."

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