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Commuters pack onto a special bus service at the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain Station on the Expo-Millennium Line. Business and local government leaders are urging a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on funding transit expansion.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A coalition of business, political and union leaders is mobilizing to sell the case for a "yes" vote in the looming referendum on the question of approving billions for new transit projects.

They're also predicting disastrous results if no solution is found to finance transit in a rapidly growing region. Those consequences, along with a discussion of the economic benefits of a comprehensive transit network in the Lower Mainland, will be the subject of a transportation summit Oct. 31, intended to spark renewed public dialogue ahead of the referendum.

"If the referendum fails … there will be serious impacts," said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who has been lobbying for a $2-billion light-rail system for her booming city and will be one of the speakers at the Moving the Future summit.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is equally concerned about the prospect of a referendum failure. "It would be a devastating blow to the region and livability and economic growth," he said. "The stakes are extremely high."

He has been pushing for a $3-billion addition to the Millennium Line that would extend it underground from Commercial Drive in the east to the University of British Columbia in the west.

Both projects have been in limbo, along with other improvements to the system, for a couple of years. Local mayors have rejected the idea of paying for them with increased property taxes, and the province has refused to give TransLink, the regional agency that manages transportation in the Lower Mainland, the power to raise money in new ways.

Premier Christy Clark, in the run-up to last May's election, announced that there would be a referendum on financing new transit. But that referendum is a mystery to everyone right now, since there's been no date set, no question decided on, and no one wanting to lead the way in championing it.

Mayors have said they want no part of it, because they don't think transit financing should be put to a referendum. And it's unlikely the province will take an active role.

Many of the groups supporting the summit, which is being organized by TransLink and paid for through sponsorships, said they fear that means the public will go into the vote without any good information.

"If the referendum were held today, the public would say, 'None of the above,'" said Gavin Davies, the vice-president of Unifor Local 111, which represents bus drivers and is supporting the summit. "What we're saying to them is, 'You're cutting off your nose to spite your face.'"

The executive director of the Lower Mainland's developer association also said that people need to realize what the benefits of transit investment will be and the consequences if it doesn't happen.

"I suppose we could decide to invest in roads and accept urban sprawl and gridlock, but if the Lower Mainland doesn't move, it affects the rest of the province," said Anne McMullin of the Urban Development Institute.

The rising anxiety over the referendum was heightened two weeks ago when the Premier announced that the province would replace one of the major Fraser River crossings, the Massey tunnel, with a bridge that is expected to cost at least $3-billion.

Ms. Watts said that, since it's provincial policy to put tolls in for all new big infrastructure, maybe the public should have a say in those as well. "There is an opportunity to put that on the referendum," she said.

Mr. Robertson said the province needs either to put everything to a referendum or develop a coherent regional plan, including ways to pay for it, and make decisions without a referendum.

"We have had a series of seemingly random decisions on new bridges and transit lines in the last decade," he said, "but not much clarity about the importance of each."