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When the SkyTrain broke down last year, Vancouver Mayor Greg Robertson quickly called for a review of TransLink’s operations.

Andy Clark/Reuters

Canada's first vote on transit finance since 1946 was supposed to be a referendum about subways, light rail, buses, bridges and roads.

Instead, the Lower Mainland's precedent-setting vote on a "congestion improvement tax" has turned into a flame war about wasteful spending on public art, about a smart-card system that has been in the works for two years and still isn't operational, about closed-door board meetings and about fat paycheques for both executives and board members.

That means many people are going to vote, with ballots due to arrive Monday for a mail-in plebiscite that will run until May 29, not on whether they support transit or a sales tax, but on what they think of the region's unique transportation agency, TransLink.

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The level of public vitriol evident in letters, town-hall talks, social-media channels and call-in shows has been startling for some.

"Did it surprise me? Yeah, it has for sure," says Greg Moore, the Port Coquitlam mayor who has been the Yes side's most forceful political voice.

If there is a majority No vote, which every poll seems to indicate, the distrust of TransLink will be blamed.

The Yes side has done many things right, going by the many American studies done on what it takes to win a transit referendum. It has a broad coalition, from business to environmental groups to students to unions. It has money to do an advertising campaign. It has a package of transit and road improvements that give something to every part of the region, agreed on by 21 mayors.

But the Yes side has one potentially fatal weakness.

"All that organization and support can be thrown off kilter if there are negative perspectives about the agency," says Peter Haas, a professor with the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif., who has co-written a book about what makes transit referendums pass or fail. Referendums in San Jose, St. Louis and Cleveland all failed in the past decade because of questions that got raised about the transit agencies' decisions or spending.

The controversies don't even have to be that big or meaningful, he said. In Cleveland, a relatively small and poorly organized opposition got the public riled up that buses frequently ran empty at night. "That's not that unusual for a transit system," Dr. Haas said, "but it was turned into a negative perception that was not warranted."

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Back here in Vancouver, the mayors' council knew Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation had been targeting TransLink for several years and he would likely be the energetic, but not well funded, opposition that would play to the anti-tax crowd.

But no one seemed to connect the dots about how Mr. Bateman, operating mainly through free media attention and the Internet, would be able to tap into some deep reservations about TransLink.

The agency, by some measures, was doing all right. Its users rated the basic transit service highly. It covers a huge area and is frequently judged as the best and most used for a city its size.

But the agency's own public-opinion surveys since 2010 have showed that it was not doing well and that a significant core of people, 29 per cent in the 2014 survey, had a "negative impression of mismanagement." Twenty per cent also said they didn't like TransLink taxes and thought the organization was wasteful. That was mainly connected to controversies over executive pay, executive car allowances and the smart-card system that has been endlessly delayed, not to system-wide problems.

A poll done for the mayors' council last fall asked people only whether they would be willing to pay higher taxes or fees and how bad they thought the congestion problem was. It looked like a majority agreed that it was worth paying more to get more. No one asked whether they were willing to give that money to TransLink.

Only five years ago, this unique agency set up in 2000 to give the Lower Mainland more control over its transportation, was basking in the warm sunshine of popular approval.

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The Canada Line had just opened, allowing people to get from downtown to the airport for less than $5, and the Olympic Winter Games were about to begin. During the Games, the region's transit system became a kind of large-scale, non-stop party bus.

TransLink's public-approval rating was at 75 per cent, a high point.

But there were always signs the agency was going to become a flashpoint, say planners, politicians and brand-management specialists who have watched TransLink over the years.

For one, TransLink started from the baseline that government-run utilities are rarely loved by the public.

Like BC Hydro or BC Ferries, TransLink is the single provider of an essential service whose customer base – and therefore its complaints department – is enormous.

"From a reputation-management perspective, it's difficult being a monopoly," says James Tansey, the director of UBC's Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing.

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Government-affiliated utilities also bear the brunt of everyone's frustration with all level of politics.

"Any time it's a Crown agency, it's a referendum on government," says Dr. Tansey.

But the agency has other problems.

It was saddled from the start with a contradictory mandate that put it in the position of having to constantly beg the public for more money.

It lost its only public defenders in 2007, when the province took control from mayors and gave it to an airport-style appointed board.

And its managers developed what recently appointed CEO Doug Allen called a "bunker mentality." That led, many say, to near paralysis when it came to developing any kind of plan to engage the public or even to respond appropriately during a short-term crisis.

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The former CEO of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, Ken Cameron, says things went badly from the start because TransLink was supposed to be an agency that did nothing more than run the existing transit and road system.

"It was never intended to build projects."

But the first two CEOs, Ken Dobell and Pat Jacobsen, wanted to build things. That meant the agency then needed to find new money – beyond the gas tax, property tax and fares – to pay for major new initiatives, such as the Golden Ears Bridge.

Since TransLink's access to money is controlled by provincial legislation, that meant that every time it needed more dollars to build more stuff, it needed to ask the public. (The agency's public-opinion grades have typically dipped when it makes a big push to ask for a new tax or fee, as happened in 2009 before the extra two cents of gas tax was approved.)

But at least in the early days, it had energetic defenders, such as Vancouver councillor George Puil and Surrey mayor Doug McCallum.

Once the mayors were sidelined in 2007, when then-transportation minister Kevin Falcon decided that having an appointed board would eliminate parochial decision-making, they became more critical.

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Surrey mayor Dianne Watts called for an audit at one point, ticked off by TransLink's decision to pay people to fill out a survey and its choice to pay $30,000 for a study of a gondola to Simon Fraser University. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has been incessantly antagonistic, especially over the province's decision to make TransLink install fare gates.

In the last year, "the toughest critic was [Vancouver Mayor] Gregor Robertson," says District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton. When the SkyTrain broke down last year and people ended up walking along guideways to get back to the stations, Mr. Robertson rushed to say that TransLink's operations should be reviewed.

Provincial politicians, especially Premier Christy Clark, were never defenders either. That's even though, say numerous politicians and TransLink employees, the agency's executives and staff are on the phone to the Transportation Ministry in Victoria several times a week, getting clearance for everything from news releases to new equipment.

Finally, the executive and board hunkered down, making decisions that no normal politician sensitive to public opinion would make and declining to talk much with the public.

"The shadow lurking behind us is governance," says Mr. Walton, who fought hard the past four years as chair of the TransLink mayors' council to get more control for the mayors.

"It's a headless beast and, as a result, it's never been able to defend itself. For the people who use it every day, it's important to have a very clear person who is accountable. When something goes wrong, people want to know who to call."

They don't, and the consequences of that are about to unfold.

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