A sales tax is not the ideal way to pay for transit, but it is the most politically saleable, says the leader of one of the continent's most successful pro-transit coalitions.
A vehicle levy would make more sense, because it would not just pay for transit, but also change people's choices by making it more expensive to drive, said Denny Zane, the head of Move LA.
But all the evidence Move LA gathered before voters agreed in a 2008 referendum to add a half-per-cent sales tax to pay for $36-billion worth of transit over 30 years, showed that the public really did not like a vehicle fee.
"There wasn't clear evidence why," said Mr. Zane, a former mayor of Santa Monica who is now the full-time executive director of Move LA. "The only thing we could conclude was that it's paid in one lump sum, while the sales tax is in small increments. Our key criteria [when the referendum was being planned] was what would raise enough money to matter and political viability. The sales tax scored high on both."
Mr. Zane's coalition has become a model for other cities in Canada and the United States, especially Vancouver as it braces for its own transit referendum in March.
Vancouver's regional mayors are asking voters to approve a half-per-cent sales tax to pay for $7.5-billion worth of projects over 10 years, including a subway from Commercial to Arbutus along Broadway, three light-rail lines in Surrey, several new suburban rapid-bus routes, a new SeaBus, and a new Pattullo Bridge.
Two of them went to Los Angeles to talk to officials there about the referendum, which according to California law needed a two-thirds majority to succeed.
Mr. Zane said the public seemed to prefer the sales tax as a way of funding transit because half of it was paid by business and tourists, with the result that the average resident paid only eight cents a day.
And people who really are bothered about paying amount can also control it somewhat by spending less.
"The academic world favours other methods [to raise money for transit]. And, in an ideal world, yes, that would be good. But a sales tax is a politically more favourable option."
That's just one of the strategies for a successful referendum that Mr. Zane outlined in his Los Angeles office, as he and a broad coalition of unions, business leaders, environmental groups, students and others prepare for a second referendum in 2016 to get voter support for new financing to speed the construction of the five lines, which is scheduled to take 30 years.
Construction projects are under way all over Los Angeles for the future lines, while about 1.4-million people a day ride the transit system – a network of trains extending in several directions from downtown, as well as hundreds of bus routes.
The Los Angeles referendum was also successful because of an extremely broad coalition of supporters, including people willing to put up the money for a protransit campaign that the local government agency that runs transit could not.
And opposition was weak. Some high-profile politicians campaigned against the sales tax, saying it would not bring enough benefits for their area. But the "No" side never pulled together a funded organization.
People in Vancouver are waiting to see how the battle will shape up here.
The Yes side has pulled together a coalition similar to the one in Los Angeles in spite of some very nasty history between the members.
Bill Tieleman, a communications specialist for labour unions, was a major organizer of the fight against the harmonized sales tax – a movement that took down former premier Gordon Campbell and endangered the B.C. Liberals.
Now, he is working with the Vancouver Board of Trade and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, which were pro-HST.
Metro Vancouver chair Greg Moore, who has battled the board and the chamber the past year over garbage and recycling regulations, is now allied with those business groups.
Mr. Tieleman said he and labour unions can support a tax because it would benefit working people – health and tourism workers who need to get to their jobs – and offers a clear result.
"It's not the ideal situation, but here you pay half a per cent and you get something for it. This is a straight-up transaction."
The opposition consists of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and individuals who doubt the TransLink executive, under fire for bad management for years, can spend the money effectively.
The question the mayors developed says the sales-tax revenue could be used for the identified projects only and not put into general revenue.
The New Car Dealers Association worries people will buy cars outside the region to avoid the tax, but Mr. Tieleman says his understanding is that the sales tax will be paid based on car owners' registered addresses, not where they bought their cars.