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gary mason

Metro Vancouver mayors worried about the fate of a planned transit referendum in the fall can take solace in one thing: Similar initiatives in the United States have a remarkable success rate.

Over the past 13 years, transit-related plebiscites have a 73-per-cent support record, according to research compiled by the Washington-based Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE). In the past five years, that average has climbed to 76 per cent – more than twice the approval level for ballot measures generally in the U.S.

Why is that? Jason Jordan, director of the centre, believes it is connected to a growing awareness that for metropolitan areas to be competitive economically, highly integrated and efficient mass transit systems are essential.

"Secondly," Mr. Jordan said in an interview, "when you break away from the abstract question of public transit versus driving, or public transit versus some other type of public investment, and start talking about how a project will solve a major congestion problem in this corridor or how it will help build an economic development strategy around transportation investment in this neighbourhood, it becomes a very different conversation."

But one that proponents of any transportation ballot measure must have with the public ahead of any vote.

It's a discussion that so far the B.C. government has failed to begin regarding the proposed transit referendum slated for the fall. The leadership vacuum around the plebiscite has been filled with confusion and recriminations. Even Premier Christy Clark and her Transportation Minister Todd Stone have not appeared on the same page regarding when the vote should be taken and what the ballot question should look like.

This is not good if the American experience is any indication of what it takes to achieve victory. According to Mr. Jordan, most transportation referendums involve a "long time horizon" to accommodate the ground work necessary for a successful campaign. (Some have been years in the preparation.) Among other things, the pre-vote work entails intense polling to see where the public stands on various transportation-related matters, including the critical question of what financing mechanism is most favoured as a means of raising money for transit infrastructure investment.

Since 2000, the most popular choice in the U.S. has been a sales tax. Roughly 40 per cent of all the measures with a funding component incorporated some form of sales-tax increase in them. Seventeen per cent of transportation-related measures involved a property tax hike. (A bond issuance was right behind it.) Interestingly, the property tax option has the highest victory rate of any financing option, with more than 80 per cent of all measures that included it finding success, according to CFTE.

One of the aspects of the transportation referendum that has evolved over the years is the language being employed; communities holding these types of plebiscites are increasingly using wording that specifically links a particular financing instrument – a one per cent hike in sales tax, for instance – to a detailed project plan.

That would be in contrast to the multiple-choice approach Ms. Clark has suggested the ballot in B.C. take.

"At the core of successful campaigns is a very straightforward value proposition to the public: In exchange for your approval for this, we will provide you with this benefit and it will contribute in these specific ways to your quality of life and overall well-being," Mr. Jordan said.

"It doesn't always mean you have to have the route map, or need to demonstrate where the bus is going to stop in a particular neighbourhood. People need to know what they're buying with their tax dollars. People have real concerns about blank-cheque ballot measures that ask the public to approve a funding request but effectively say, 'We'll tell you later what you get for it.' Those don't work at all."

There are numerous considerations that the B.C. government has regarding its referendum, many of which are complicated and will involve considerable thought and analysis. Meantime, the clock is ticking and each day the province loses before announcing details of its ballot measure – allowing some form of Say Yes campaign to coalesce around it and push it over the finish line – the harder it becomes to achieve a positive outcome.

As the U.S. has demonstrated, getting majority support for transportation-related referendums isn't impossible. But it's no piece of cake either.