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British Columbia New coalition aims to give Yes side a boost in Vancouver transit vote

The Skytrain station and Broadway and Commercial in Vancouver, B.C.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

With six weeks until plebiscite ballots hit Metro Vancouver mailboxes, a newly formed coalition of local business, labour, student and environmental groups has launched a campaign urging voters to support a new tax to fund transportation.

The Better Transit and Transportation Coalition is set to kick off a political-style campaign to inform and persuade the public to say yes to a 0.5-per-cent Metro Vancouver congestion improvement tax, said Vancouver Board of Trade CEO Iain Black, one of the four co-chairs of the coalition.

It comes two weeks after the official launch of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's No campaign. Some in the public and media have said the Yes side has been slow to start, giving the CTF the chance to frame the debate as being about bad TransLink management, but Mr. Black said the coalition has moved at astonishing speed.

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"It has gone from nothing to 65 organizations in three weeks. That's a lot of work. And we don't have the luxury of the over-simplifications of the No campaign."

Mr. Black said it is not designed to be a "glitzy, big-money campaign," and will rely on mobilizing the coalition's substantial networks. He said the main goal is to provide the public with what the coalition believes is the strongest card: data.

"When people see the very comprehensive and geographically diverse projects, their inclination to vote yes goes up dramatically," he said.

Plebiscite ballots will be mailed out on March 16, and votes must be in by May 29. The question will read: "Do you support a new 0.5-per-cent Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors' Transportation and Transit Plan?"

The other three co-chairs of the coalition are Gavin McGarrigle, the B.C. area director for Unifor and the vice-president of the the B.C. Federation of Labour; Peter Robinson, the CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation; and Bahareh Jokar, a student and vice-president of external affairs of the Alma Mater Society of the University of B.C.

Mr. Black gave the first of what he expects will be many stump speeches on Thursday morning at the national Cargo Logistics Canada Expo and Conference. "We need your help," he told delegates, saying better transit would help them move their goods to and from Vancouver's port more easily.

Mr. Black said federal and provincial governments will be more willing to give big dollars for transit projects if the municipalities know where their share is coming from.

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The mayors' plan relies on getting $1.5-billion each from the federal and provincial governments for the 10-year, $7.5-billion package. The money would go to projects including increases of bus, SkyTrain and West Coast Express service; and building rapid transit along Broadway in Vancouver; rapid transit to connect Surrey Centre with Guildford, Newton and Langley; and a new Pattullo Bridge.

"The easiest thing [for another level of government] to do is say no to a municipality when they don't have a source for their own contribution," Mr. Black said.

Gregory Thomas, director of fiscal studies at the CTF said his group believes TransLink has wasted "incredible amounts of money over the past decade.

"We've got 21 municipal governments that already collect billions and billions of dollars of revenue … and they're crying poor over transit. And yet we have, by any measure, the most outrageously wasteful transit agency in the country," Mr. Thomas said.

Frances Bula is a freelance writer

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