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gary mason

It was left to Transportation Minister Todd Stone on Friday to clean up the mess created by his boss, Premier Christy Clark, on the question of B.C.'s pending transit referendum.

Ms. Clark generated controversy in an interview with The Globe and Mail's Justine Hunter, in which she made several comments about the ballot that were at odds with those of Mr. Stone, with whom responsibility for the plebiscite rests. It left many people wondering if the Premier was even aware of her Transportation Minister's position on any number of aspects of the promised transit-related vote.

For instance, the Premier said she believed the referendum needed to be a multiple-choice question that included options on how to pay for any transit improvements. She also said the vote would be held in conjunction with next fall's municipal elections. And finally, that it was important that the province remain unbiased in the entire matter.

Mr. Stone, meantime, told Ms. Hunter that while the structure of the ballot question had not been decided, he favoured one that was simple and straightforward. And nor had the timing of the vote been decided, he had said. Finally, he added that he planned to actively lobby for a result in favour of more spending on transit infrastructure.

Predictably, the Premier's remarks incited anger and bewilderment among many Metro Vancouver mayors.

It wasn't just that they were blindsided by the comments, but that they were in such evident contrast to the views held by Mr. Stone, whose ideas around the plebiscite the mayors generally support.

For instance, there are few who think making the referendum a complicated, multiple-choice question is a good idea. Nor is there much support for asking people if they like the idea of paying more taxes to fund any transit expansion. But that sounds like what Ms. Clark is envisioning when she says the question has to include options for how much expansion the public wants and what method they favour for paying for it.

There is no chance that kind of question will succeed. Zero. If the mayors agree on one point, it is that. Mr. Stone himself said that in reviewing dozens of successful transit referendums across North America, virtually all of them offered voters a clear yes or no option. And that's precisely what the voting public in Metro Vancouver need to be presented with as well.

After a preamble that might include some visionary statement about the importance of transit to the future of the region, the question might be as simple as: "Do you support increased investment in public transit in Metro Vancouver that would include a new subway in Vancouver, a light-rail system in Surrey as well other upgrades throughout the region and that would be financed by taxpayers and transit users? Yes or No."

But any question that asks people to choose among a number of funding and project options is extremely problematic.

The mayors also don't think it's a good idea to tie the vote to the municipal elections in the fall. That is when they are almost entirely focused on re-election, not trying to get a transit plebiscite passed. In fact, depending on the referendum question, some of the mayors might campaign against it to help their own re-election bids. But that appears to be a moot point now: Mr. Stone has fallen in line with the Premier and is saying the vote will be held with the municipal elections.

Which brings us to the other bomb that Ms. Clark dropped: that the province should remain neutral on the ballot question.

If the province isn't going to get behind a positive outcome, then this plebiscite is even more doomed than perhaps it already is. That's another fact everyone seems to agree on. Even Mr. Stone realizes this, which is why he told The Globe that he intended to campaign behind more investment in transit. Which is absolutely the right thing to do.

A report soon to be released by the City of Vancouver will show that the first day of a new subway along the Broadway corridor would attract 250,000 riders, 150,000 of whom would be from outside the city. Metro Vancouver's economic future depends on expanded rapid transit. And it depends on establishing a dependable and sustainable funding model to pay for it all. Something else the minister seems to understand.

On Friday, Mr. Stone was given the unenviable task of trying to sort out the confusion created by his boss. He did the best he could, saying much about the referendum is still up in the air.

He might be advised to tell the Premier that in future she check with him before making provocative public-policy statements that undermine the work he is doing. Either that, or take over the file herself.

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