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British Columbia Surrey Board of Trade head says transit plebiscite a mistake

The Central City complex is seen through SkyTrain tracks in Surrey, B.C. The City of Surrey plans to spend between $200,000 and $300,00 to promote the yes side.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The head of the Surrey Board of Trade says the transit plebiscite is a mistake, but the only choice now is to secure a Yes vote to bring about the buses, light rail and subways that the Lower Mainland – and Surrey in particular – needs.

Anita Huberman also said Wednesday that timelines are too tight to properly make the case for a Yes vote, reducing the likelihood of winning approval for a proposed 0.5-per-cent regional sales tax to help pay for new transit projects.

They would include an east-west subway in Vancouver and light rail in Surrey, a community growing at a rate of about 1,000 new residents a month.

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Voters will cast their mail-in ballots between March 16 and May 29 on whether they support the Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax.

Ms. Huberman made her comments shortly after a speech to her board by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who promised the vote in the May, 2013, election in which her B.C. Liberals won a fourth majority mandate. The Premier was speaking about the B.C. budget.

Although Ms. Huberman's caution is at odds with the more effusive Vancouver Board of Trade, which has been central to the Yes campaign, she said she was not "going rogue" on the Yes movement.

But she offered a gloomy assessment of the challenge ahead.

"We are, at this time, compromised in terms of our ability to educate the public," Ms. Huberman told reporters after the Premier's speech. "We're suffering from a time issue."

She said it was a mistake for the government to put the transportation issue to voters.

"The referendum should not be taking place – or the plebiscite as it's called – but we're in this. We have to do what we have to do to win a Yes."

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She said leaving such a complex issue to a plebiscite in such a short period of time compromises the B.C. economy. "Things like this and the HST we were supportive of should never be left to a referendum. They're too complex to explain."

Ms. Huberman also said she did not speak to Ms. Clark about her concerns even though they were in the same room earlier in the day.

Asked about Ms. Huberman's comments, Ms. Clark said that people criticizing the idea of holding a vote are concerned they won't get the answer they want. Ms. Clark, who lives in Vancouver and Kelowna, said she would vote Yes, but individuals are free to make their own choice. "I think the prospects for the Yes side are good, but we'll see."

The City of Surrey has disclosed it plans to spend between $200,000 and $300,000 to promote the Yes side.

The City of Vancouver has not similarly disclosed a figure, but there has been discussion about using city-owned channels and the city's social-media team to help make the case for a Yes vote.

Ms. Huberman also said she did not necessarily think recent changes in the executive suite of the regional transportation authority TransLink would win over voters, but instead shake public confidence in the organization. TransLink's CEO was demoted and an interim CEO installed.

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Earlier, Ms. Clark told reporters her government deemed it important that voters have a say in how transit improvements were going to be paid for.

"I'm proud that we are giving people a chance to have a say in this, and I am going to let people have their say and we are going to respect what people tell us," she told reporters in a Q&A session after her speech.

She also said her government's commitment to that vote had the positive effect of uniting Lower Mainland mayors around a vision on transportation.

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