It seemed like a bad omen when it took more than a month to count the ballots on the transit plebiscite in Greater Vancouver. The last ballots were mailed on May 29. Surely, one might superstitiously think, the reporting of the result on a proposal to move people around more quickly should not be so painfully slow.
The margin was large, 62 per cent against, 38 per cent for. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the people of the Lower Mainland were angry at TransLink, the regional transit authority, for a number of recent inefficiencies. So taking it out on the proposed plan was both reasonable and unreasonable. On the one hand, if the whole project was built there would be more, better transit and road infrastructure, and everyone would be better off. On the other, TransLink's managers would presumably be much the same people as before.
Paradoxically, the "no" vote was stronger in the outer suburbs than in the downtown core – almost as if there were an inverse relationship between utility and support. In any case, the people have spoken, with a turnout higher than in the most recent municipal election.
Perhaps the technocratic language didn't help. The word "tolls" did appear in the plan, but there was much about "mobility pricing," which appeared to mean that drivers would be charged in proportion to their use of the roads – not just at bridges or other annoying chokepoints.
What now? Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver and Mayor Linda Hepner of Surrey are talking about a less ambitious plan, costing somewhere between $2-billion and $3-billion – without any clearly identified source. By contrast, the original $7.5-billion transit plan was to be funded partly on an added half a percentage point (just in the Lower Mainland) to the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax. Neither retailers nor shoppers were keen.
Premier Christy Clark insisted on this plebiscite. Early in her premiership, the Harmonized Sales Tax referendum resulted in a return to the provincial sales tax. She is a shrewd politician and may well have been reluctant to appear to favour the Lower Mainland over the rest of the province. If so, it was an understandable but shortsighted judgment.
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier online version of this editorial should have made clear that the additional half a percentage point on the provincial sale tax in the Lower Mainland of B.C., proposed in a plebiscite, would not have paid for the whole $7.5-billion transit-expansion plan. This online version has been corrected.