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British Columbia ‘No’ side takes lead in transit plebiscite poll, as mayors dismiss results

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, left, and Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie arrive for a news conference at Richmond-Brighouse Station in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday. Mr. Robertson says there has been an initial ‘knee-jerk response’ against a tax increase.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The mayors of Vancouver and Richmond are pushing back hard against a poll that suggests the No side is ahead in the looming Lower Mainland plebiscite on a sales tax to help pay for transit improvements.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said on Wednesday there has been an initial "knee-jerk response" in public opinion reflecting a general unease over tax increases.

However, he said he expects residents in the end will vote Yes to help facilitate such transit projects as a new east-west Vancouver subway.

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"When people have the ballot in their hands, they will make the right choice for our region," the Vancouver mayor told reporters during a Yes campaign news conference at the Richmond-Brighouse Canada Line station.

Wednesday's media event, held as Canada Line passengers squeezed around the area set aside for the proceedings, was an apparent bid to focus attention on themes the backers of the tax increase see as strong selling points. At one point, Mr. Robertson had to stop his remarks during a public-address announcement for passengers, but he noted there was no better venue for showing the success and benefits of transit investment.

But it is not clear voters are buying the Yes message. An Insights West online poll conducted from Feb. 12 to 14 found 53 per cent of respondents would vote No in the mail-in vote to be conducted March 16 to May 26. Thirty-two per cent of the 653 respondents said they would vote Yes to a new 0.5-per-cent sales tax for transit funding. A December poll found 52 per cent saying Yes and 38 per cent saying No.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who also attended the event, echoed Mr. Robertson's skepticism about polls.

"It doesn't matter what the polls say. It didn't matter when it said that the Yes side was ahead. It doesn't matter at this point," he said.

"What matters is the time that the people have that ballot in their hands and they're faced with a choice – either we're going to have a region that is going to be congested and clogged and we're going to suffer the economic consequences of it, or we're going to vote to invest in our region."

Later, the Richmond mayor said he is concerned about whether people will actually vote and whether those who do will be fully informed, but added that the only way to address that concern is to keep making the arguments for the Yes side.

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On Wednesday, Mr. Robertson said a study by InterVISTAS Consulting Group suggests the mayors' plan for transit expansion, which also includes light rail in Surrey, would add an average of $450-million a year to the regional economy during the first 10 years and $1.6-billion a year by 2045.

The No side has said the tax hike should be rejected because the regional transit authority, TransLink, is poorly operated.

Mr. Brodie, a past chair of TransLink's board of directors, said the mayors support reforms to the "unworkable" situation at TransLink, and he hopes the province will address issues such as governance after the vote.

Premier Christy Clark recently said the mayors must reform TransLink, a proposition Mr. Brodie dismissed, saying it left him "dumbfounded."

On Wednesday, the No side raised a new issue. Jordan Bateman of the B.C. wing of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation noted in a statement that the proposed sales tax has no end date and no guarantee it would not increase.

Mr. Brodie said there is no plan to increase the sales tax beyond the level being debated. "At this point, the plan that is in front of the people is the plan," he said.

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