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Lack of leadership on Vancouver’s transit leaves residents in the lurch

After the resounding No vote this week in the Metro Vancouver transportation plebiscite, I find myself going back to the very beginning – to the moment when Premier Christy Clark, in the middle of an election battle that no one expected her to win, floated the idea of putting the question of transit funding to a vote.

It was April of 2013 and the Premier was unveiling the B.C. Liberal Party's platform. What sounded like an off-the-cuff remark borne of a lack of imagination became a promise. It was then elevated to, as the Premier and her cabinet are fond of saying, "a promise made."

Why a referendum on transit funding in the Lower Mainland when no other major transportation project in the province required a vote? "We made a promise," came the reply, again and again. Which is a bit like when your six-year old tells you they did something, "just because."

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But the Premier insisted, it was about keeping life affordable for B.C. families because voters would be able to choose how much they were willing to pay.

The retroactively engineered explanation provided post-election by Transportation Minister Todd Stone wasn't much better. It was based on a variation of the same theme: we told people in the Lower Mainland that if they were going to be asked to pay more, then they would have a say. Once again, given the tolled Port Mann Bridge and the planned Massey Tunnel replacement project (for which all B.C. taxpayers will share the costs and no one had a say) the explanation didn't hold water.

Ms. Clark originally promised that voters would be able to choose from a number of funding options. Then she dropped the mess on the doorstep of the virtually powerless mayors' council of TransLink leaving the mayors to decide on the ballot question.

They came up with a $7.5-billion plan and should have stopped there. They should have tossed the question of funding back to the province. Instead, despite a majority opposed to holding a referendum at all, they dutifully identified a small sales tax increase as the best, worst option. The ballot would ask voters whether they felt like paying higher taxes, against a backdrop of federal and provincial governments hammering home the point that taxes are bad.

The plebiscite was a dumb idea from the second it was uttered, but given the disastrous introduction and eventual rejection of the HST, a No vote was virtually assured.

People in comas will vote against tax increases. A fetus will vote against a tax increase. It just needs to be asked and then you can see it make a little thumbs down gesture in the ultrasound.

The point being that the result cannot be a surprise to anyone.

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But promise made, promise kept. We had a referendum. For transit users, it ended in failure.

And, so, we are exactly where we were – only now we're $6-million lighter in the pocket for the cost of holding the referendum. The province is pointing fingers at Metro Vancouver mayors, insisting they come up with an alternative funding source. The mayors are looking to the province for a vague hint of leadership, and TransLink interim CEO Doug Allen is insisting that none of this could have had anything to do with the impression that TransLink executives are sitting comfortably in the back of air-conditioned limos, lighting Cuban cigars with hundred-dollar bills while they ignore their customers trapped on stalled and sweltering trains. His surveys tell him otherwise.

It's not a surprise that about 15 seconds after the referendum result was announced, the question of property tax came up.

Months ago, I had a conversation with a Lower Mainland mayor who predicted exactly this outcome. "They're trying to force us to raise property tax," he told me off the record.

Raising property taxes is ideal for the provincial government – it doesn't have to wear it. But, like a sales tax, it is in no way connected to transportation or transit use.

Drawing more from the gas tax is out of the question given that we pay some of the highest fuel prices in the country. Raising fares? A non-starter.

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A vehicle levy is another option, one the NDP is now promoting after spiking it 15 years ago, pre-election, after mayors and councillors took the political hit for approving it. It's unlikely the province would help collect or administer the levy anyway.

And so where is the Premier? This was, after all, her baby. But 28 hours after the result of the vote was announced she remains MIA.

On Wednesday she wished us all a happy Canada Day. On Twitter.

A day before that, she commented on how great Colin Farrell is on True Detective. "Complicated and disturbing," she wrote.

Indeed.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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