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Skytrain passengers on the Canada Line make their way on to the train in Vancouver August 8, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

While Toronto struggles to raise the money to pay for much-needed transit upgrades, British Columbia and Metro Vancouver have officially come to terms on a novel way past the stew of nimbyism, political to-and-froing and generalized inertia that so often derails progress on this critical issue.

The answer is a referendum on a yes-or-no question to accept a sales tax of 0.5 per cent on most goods or services sold or delivered in Metro Vancouver. The province and the mayors agreed on the wording of the question last week. Ballots will be sent out on March 16 and must be returned by mail by May 29. The province is picking up the tab.

The estimated $250-million per year raised by a Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, as it would be named, would help cover maintenance and improvements to roads, bridges, mass transit and pedestrian walkways throughout the region's chronically clogged arteries.

This is a great plan, well worth emulating. The province and its largest urban area are co-operating on one of the most critical files for any city – that of providing a modern transit system that meets the needs of residents without choking either productivity or lungs. As a sales tax collected in Metro Vancouver, its payers would include tourists and anyone who commutes from outside the region for work or play, which is only fair.

Above all, by holding a referendum, the mayors and the province are letting voters choose their future. Early polling suggests they will vote yes. They should. If they don't, the issue will remain a football in the hands of punt-happy politicians. You only have to look to Toronto's paralysis to see where that leads.

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