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A sky train on the Expo Line makes its way past the Dunsmuir Viaduct in Vancouver May 29, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Politicians and business leaders are flashing a giant warning sign to the province: Figure out a way to pay for a massive transit expansion in the Vancouver region or watch the economy in B.C. get strangled.

With a referendum on transit finance looming, mayors and others at a special conference on Thursday hammered home the message that traffic jams are already hurting the region. And another million people are expected in the region over the next 30 years.

"Congestion costs us $1.5-billion annually," Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said. "If we expect to compete on a global level, we need to get our ducks in a row. It is key and crucial that we look at this beyond the election cycle."

The Lower Mainland is facing a referendum on transit financing next year, after Premier Christy Clark announced during her election campaign that voters should get to decide how to fund the region's billion-dollar-a-year transit agency.

No one knows yet exactly what question will be on the referendum, what date it will be held on, and who will pay for it.

A negative answer on that referendum would be "disastrous," Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said. Without directly criticizing the Premier, speaker after speaker at the day-long conference, attended by about 500, made the point that a poor transit system isn't just a minor inconvenience for a few service workers.

"Knowledge is our future economy," said Michael Goldberg, a professor emeritus of business at the University of British Columbia. "You have to allow those people to get easily from one meeting to another. If people spend lots of time in congestion, it's a huge deadweight drag on the economy."

Mr. Goldberg said that affects all of B.C.

"As this region goes, so goes the province. The hinterland cannot develop with a congested, inefficient Vancouver. Our resources, we only get them out of huge ground because of human capital here."

A show of hands at the conference indicated only a half-dozen people thought the referendum would produce a positive result.

But one former CEO of TransLink, the regional transportation agency, said he thinks Vancouver has reason for optimism about eventual success.

Tom Prendergast, who left four years ago to run New York's transit authority, said it always takes two or three passes to get to a solution in the conversation all cities are having about how to pay for transit.

"When you have difficult funding issues, very rarely are they resolved on the first attempt," Mr. Prendergast said. He left after a three-year stint that ended with a massive provincial stall on efforts by regional mayors to get a new revenue source to pay for a big phase of transit expansions.

In New York, the city gets a significant amount of money for the whole transportation system through an extensive set of road and bridge tolls. As well, it is starting to get money from real-estate development along new transit lines.

Mr. Prendergast said Vancouver has some unique conditions that make it a little harder to reach an agreement.

The region has 23 municipalities, compared with only 10 jurisdictions in New York.

"The challenge is making sure you appeal to each and every one."

The region is also one of the largest transit-service areas on the continent, with only 2.5 million people spread out over almost 3,000 square kilometres. That makes improvements more expensive.

But Mr. Prendergast said Vancouver also has an advantage, which is that regional leaders are very energetic about supporting transit and the financing for it.

That was in evidence at the conference, where there wasn't a single critic arguing against transit expansion.

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