Over the coming weeks, organizers of the Yes side in B.C.'s transit plebiscite will be closely monitoring interim results posted on the Elections BC website. And they will be praying the numbers suggest low voter interest.
That appears to be the Yes movement's best hope for victory. Public opinion polls that show the majority of Metro Vancouver voters against the ballot measure reflect the Yes side's own internal numbers. Over the course of the campaign, support for the mayors' transit plan has fallen steadily, plunging right off a cliff in specific areas.
One of those is Surrey, a city that stands to gain the most if the referendum is approved. No one is precisely sure why backing for a tax measure to finance public transit has nosedived so precipitously there. However, some in the Yes camp suspect Surrey mayor Linda Hepner's boneheaded declaration that her city will get a light-rail system regardless of the outcome has something to do with it.
Why would people in Surrey vote for a tax increase when their mayor is saying they will get everything in the transit plan regardless?
According to Yes-side organizers I have talked to, support for the transit plan remains strongest in Vancouver. If the Yes forces are to prevail, they will need a high percentage of eligible voters in the city to return their ballots, and No folks in Surrey and elsewhere to decide they cannot be bothered to mail in theirs.
According to interim results on the Elections BC website, only 3.1 per cent of registered voters in Surrey have returned their ballots so far, compared to 13.1 per cent in Vancouver.
While it is far too early to discern trends or make predictions, the Yes camp is preparing for defeat. Informal, back-channel discussions have been taking place between the City of Vancouver and the provincial government about what will happen should the plebiscite be defeated. It sounds like Plan B looks much like Plan A, which means the city will likely try to forge ahead with plans to build a subway along the Broadway Corridor.
How it would be financed remains to be seen. Funding from both Ottawa and Victoria would be crucial if the $3-billion project is going to happen. In a federal election year, the city could get commitments from each of the three major parties to cough up infrastructure dollars. It would seem Surrey will be counting on similar contributions if it is going to go it alone on light rail.
It is a certainty that financing for both projects will be the focus of the provincial election campaign two years from now should the plebiscite fail.
The City of Vancouver has crunched numbers that show a strong business case for the Broadway subway, at least as far as Arbutus Street, on the city's west side. The profit-loss numbers beyond that point are not as favourable. All of this is to say the city believes it could craft a strategy to build the subway based on revenue from ridership, commercial and residential development fees that would accrue from new projects along the route and anticipated contributions from the federal and provincial governments. At least, this is the scenario being envisaged should the Yes side in the referendum go down in flames.
If and when that happens, look for the recriminations to be loud and fierce. Not many were happy about the provincial government's insistence on having this referendum, and the governing Liberals have even fewer friends now as a result. Premier Christy Clark has intentionally kept a low profile on the issue, not wanting to be tainted politically by an increasingly unpopular proposal.
If the government is smart, it will ensure the vote has not been a complete waste of time. While debate has been passionate, and at times heated, on either side of the ballot question, agreement has been near unanimous about one thing: the TransLink governance model is broken.
The government has ultimate control over TransLink, and yet regional mayors were assigned the task of crafting a transit vision for the Metro Vancouver region. Consequently, transit has become a political football, all but ensuring that thoughtful, sensible region-wide planning does not occur.
If nothing changes, the system will continue to deteriorate at a heavy, and unnecessary, economic cost to the province.