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Robertson breaks ranks on transit referendum

The Skytrain travels underneath Vancity Credit Union headquarters in Vancouver, June 5, 2012. Mayor Gregor Robertson has distanced himself from municipal colleagues on the question of a transit referendum.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has broken ranks with his regional colleagues by supporting a referendum on transit funding, suggesting it should be held within a year of municipal elections this November.

The B.C. Liberals have said they would like to put the referendum question on the ballot this fall in the Lower Mainland, but Premier Christy Clark said this week she is prepared to talk with the mayors about the timing. The referendum would give taxpayers a say on how to raise funds for billions of dollars in transit infrastructure.

Mr. Robertson says a delayed referendum should come with interim funding to make sure transit services do not decline between now and the vote.

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Most Metro Vancouver mayors have slammed the proposed referendum as a poorly organized initiative on an as-yet undetermined question with little time for an information campaign. But the mayor of B.C.'s most populous city says the vote would clear the air on transit policy – a critical point as he tries to push forward construction on a $3-billion SkyTrain system across Vancouver.

"We don't want to delay [the referendum] too long. We have been waiting for investment in transit for years now," Mr. Robertson told reporters at City Hall on Wednesday, decrying years of inaction on transit development aside from the start of work on the Evergreen Line in Metro Vancouver's northeastern suburbs.

"We need [the referendum] to happen soon. It was forcing it [in] the fall for the civic election. I think it's important that it's later than that, but it would be good to see it within a year."

But Mr. Robertson said he was concerned about "eroding" transit service, so intermediate funding from the province would be helpful. He did not specify how much would help.

"What's at stake now is the transit system is starting to erode. We're going to see less service over the next year, per capita, across the region," he said. "It would be good to see some intermediary funding. If the referendum is going to be delayed a year or more, we need some investment in the meantime to make sure the transit system stays strong."

Richard Walton, mayor of the District of North Vancouver and chair of the Metro Vancouver mayors council that will be meeting to discuss the issue next Tuesday, said Mr. Robertson is right about bridge funding. "He's definitely thinking in the right direction," he said. "We need the funds to keep the wheels turning at the level they are now."

The B.C. Liberals made the referendum a key plank in their platform for the 2013 election with Premier Christy Clark suggesting taxpayers should have a say in the tools, such as taxes, used to raise money for transit. Ms. Clark has said the vote would be held in conjunction with municipal elections this November because that timing would boost attention to the referendum.

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Mr. Robertson, who is seeking a third term this November, has staked a great deal of political capital on ensuring the construction of the underground SkyTrain line to link the main campus of the University of British Columbia to the rest of the city. The mayor says the system is the best means of easing transit chaos along the Broadway corridor in Vancouver – one of North America's busiest corridors.

However it isn't the only big transit initiative being sought. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has been making the case for a $1.8-billion light-rail system in her city that would include 19 stations along about 27 kilometres.

Mr. Robertson said postponing the vote would be a "positive step" because it would untangle the vote from the politics of the municipal elections.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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