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British Columbia Robertson says No vote in transit plebiscite could jeopardize federal funds

The view from the Skytrain as the train makes its way into Surrey June 14, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A No vote in the plebiscite on financing expanded Lower Mainland transit could imperil access to hundreds of millions of dollars in promised federal transit funds, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says.

Mr. Robertson's warning came with the release on Tuesday of a federal budget that includes a commitment to a new public-transit fund for Canadian cities that would start at $250-million in 2017-18 and increase to $1-billion a year in 2019-20.

But the Vancouver mayor, also chair of the Lower Mainland Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation, said the region would not benefit from that fund unless voters cast ballots in support of the new tax proposed in the transit plebiscite.

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Voters are being asked if they support a new half-per-cent sales tax applicable in the Lower Mainland. The mail-in voting began on March 16 and ends May 29.

Revenues from that tax are key to funding a 10-year, $7.5-billion transit plan that includes an east-west subway in Vancouver and light rail in Surrey. Provincial and federal funds are also necessary.

Hundreds of thousands of ballots have been mailed to voters across the Lower Mainland. There are five weeks to go before the Elections BC deadline to submit completed ballots.

"The funding from the province and the federal government will rely on a local contribution," Mr. Robertson told reporters after a mayors' council meeting at the headquarters of TransLink, the regional transportation authority.

"If we don't have a Yes vote from the referendum, we don't have funding locally to match the provincial and federal funds that are being promised."

Regional mayors are looking for $2-billion over 10 years in federal funds to help pay for new transit.

Mr. Robertson said mayors are "optimistic" about a Yes vote despite polls that have suggested stronger No support. "There's every reason to believe common sense will prevail," Mr. Robertson said.

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A report from mayors' council staff said the council has led 162 events, forums and meetings. Mayors and members of the Yes coalition have participated in 14 town halls over six weeks that have attracted 121,000 participants, and street teams have canvassed 45 regional locations, securing pledges from 35,000 residents. Over all, more than 155,000 residents have been contacted.

But Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who voted against the transit plan and is opposed to mayors campaigning for a Yes, said he expects the Yes coalition of more than 100 organizations is strong enough to win the plebiscite.

"I think that while the polls are saying No, I think that the ground troops are with the Yes side and they are able to get out there and get their vote out," he told reporters after the mayors' council meeting.

He said the key is to identify people who support the tax and get them to cast ballots. "Polls don't determine elections. It's whether or not you've got the ground game to be able to get your vote out."

He said the Yes coalition should be able to mobilize that vote.

"The hard work that the Yes side is doing and the money that the Yes side has got to be able to get troops on the ground is really likely to generate more Yes votes than actually exist in the population."

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Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a spokesman for the No side, said the Yes side is using millions of dollars in taxpayers' money to "buy votes" while the No side has about $40,000 to spend. That includes $20,000 from the federation itself and $20,000 from donors to NoTransLinkTax.ca.

"We can't compete with incessant robocalls, splashy ads, sophisticated phonebanks and political party voter lists," he wrote in an e-mail exchange, declaring the No side as the "underdog."

"Big government is trying to buy this victory, so it's up to us everyday people to push back," he wrote.

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