Metro Vancouver mayors finally got around this week to kicking off what may prove to be a fruitless campaign to convince people living in the region to vote Yes in the upcoming transit plebiscite.
Ballots will be mailed out in six weeks. In the time between now and then, the mayors and supporters of the Yes side will go forth and attempt to educate the public on why it should approve a regional sales tax increase of 0.5 per cent to help make the mayors' $7.5-billion transportation dream a reality.
In the United States, where transit referendums such as this one are common, Yes supporters often spend a year or more tutoring voters on the merits of their plan. Six weeks is an absurdly short amount of time for the Yes forces in Metro Vancouver to get their message out.
But such is the position the provincial government put them in.
It has not helped that the No movement, led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, got a significant head start. The crux of the No argument is that TransLink, the organization that oversees transit in the region, cannot be trusted.
This, we are told, is because executive compensation at TransLink is out of whack (partly true) and the proposed Compass Card fare-gate system has been plagued with problems and is still not operational (the fact is, many jurisdictions trying to introduce smart-card programs have experienced significant startup snags). Mostly, the taxpayers federation holds the view that TransLink is a badly run organization, and until issues are sorted out at the top, it should not be given any more money, especially through tax increases.
Instead, the federation believes TransLink's funding can be derived through efficiencies in the organization.
Of course, this is the taxpayers federation's stock answer for everything: Cut the fat! Stop the gravy train! Roll back executive salaries! Like that alone would be enough to finance revenue deficiencies. It's delusional.
TransLink has been far from a perfect organization. But then, transit authorities are hated pretty much wherever they exist. Overcrowded buses, breakdowns in subways and light-rail systems, fare increases, shortcomings in service levels – transit bodies get blamed for them all. They are agencies the public loves to hate.
In British Columbia, the reality is that TransLink has been the victim of a completely dysfunctional relationship between regional mayors and the provincial government, at least when it comes to transit needs. The province maintains ultimate control over TransLink and can make initiatives like the transit referendum mandatory. Yet it takes little to no responsibility for the quality of transit service in the region.
The Liberals insist on control, but want to be at arm's-length from any decision to fund transit. Why? So they don't take a hit politically. TransLink and the mayors can come up with all the wonderful 10-year plans they want, but without any real means of paying for them, they are useless.
West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith, who is urging the public to vote No in the referendum, is right about one thing: The current decision-making structure between the provincial government and the regional mayors ensures transit will remain a political football for years to come. The current governance model is badly broken.
At the same time, the population of the region is expanding at a gallop. Another one million people – and 600,000 vehicles on the roads – are expected by 2040. The mayors' plan would mean more buses, a subway for Vancouver and light-rail system for Surrey – all of which are desperately needed.
It is estimated the combined measures would cut traffic congestion by 20 per cent, commute times an average of 20 to 30 minutes a day for many and provide 70 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents with more frequent transit service.
The mayors have promised that the money raised through the consumption tax would be kept in an independent fund and be subjected to an annual audit to allay the concerns of the taxpayers federation and others that TransLink would just use it to buy private jets and Super Bowl tickets. On that front, I'm not sure what more the mayors could do to ensure transparency and accountability is built into the process.
The mayors certainly do not have much time to make their pitch. The one thing they have going for them is that their argument for voting Yes is far more compelling than those who would see the region's transportation needs set back five or 10 years at a massive social and economic cost. In theory, it should be no contest. In reality, it's probably too close to call.