5 reasons why Metro Vancouver's transit referendum will succeed

Dec 19 2017, 9:14 pm

Transit is the talk of the town, with the question for the referendum approved by the Mayors last week. Not unsurprisingly, many have argued that it is bound to fail. While the plan may be good, folks would never vote to raise taxes, they say.

I, for one, wholeheartedly disagree. As one of the few proponents of a referendum since the get-go, I’m quite confident the referendum will pass with at least a slim majority. Here’s five reasons why:

1. It’s a winnable plan

The referendum is about three things: new transit infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and accountability measures.

In terms of infrastructure, the plan will fund the Broadway subway, LRT in Surrey, 11 new B-Lines, a third Seabus, and a new Pattullo Bridge. These projects are highly desired and reach all corners of the region. Check.

A 0.5 per cent regional sales tax was endorsed as the funding mechanism. This was chosen as it was the most affordable and equitable option available. A carbon tax increase or vehicle fee would cost a household $230 a year, while the sales tax is just $125. That equates to just $0.35 per day! Unlike the carbon tax or vehicle levy which penalize drivers, everybody contributes through the sales tax, including tourists. Check.

The referendum question also includes the provision that the funding proposal will be subject to annual independent audits to ensure the money is being used effectively and according to plan. This measure will help address some of the concerns people have about TransLink’s decision making processes. Check.

2. The majority are already on side

The first scientific, representative poll on the referendum has shown that 52 per cent of adult voters will ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote ‘Yes’. Only 39 per cent will ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ voting ‘No’. 9 per cent are undecided. This is a strong baseline for the ‘Yes’ campaign and fits with the general consensus among residents that transit is a smart investment.

The 2012 PlaceSpeak Urban Futures Survey ranked “expanding the public transit system” as the top issue overall for the region, with an increase of four points since 1990. The Vancouver Foundation’s 2013 Vital Signs Report ranked transportation as one of the top three issues for our quality of life, along with affordability and housing. “Expand public transit” and “making transit more affordable” were the top two suggestions to improve the transportation grade. An Insights West survey from 2013 found that 72 per cent of residents supported additional funding for TransLink, but simply couldn’t agree on the best mechanism.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that, right out of the gate, the ‘Yes’ side is strong. People in Metro Vancouver support better transportation and improved transit. The challenge will be convincing the undecided and making sure people cast their ballots.

3. Business, labour and environment working together

Politics in British Columbia is roughly divided into three camps: business (BC Liberals), labour (BC NDP), and environment (BC Greens). Transit is perhaps one of the only issues that all three of these camps can, and have, come together on to support.

While transit has long received support from the left (labour and environment) for obvious reasons, in Metro, business has recently begun to see transit as key to economic growth. Getting people moving around the region and out of single occupancy vehicles is critical to achieving the intended benefits for goods movement of the Pacific Gateway project. Business groups that got the Gateway plan pushed through Cabinet in the 2000’s, advancing the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Port Mann twinning, are now back to support the referendum.

With all three major interest groups coming together to support a ‘Yes’ vote, it leaves only the Tea Party-style, vocal anti-tax folks in opposition.

4. Spring awakening

Most proponents have complained that there is not enough time to educate voters or sell the benefits of the plan. As I argued above, most folks already understand the benefits and support transit, meaning the compressed timeframe isn’t actually that big of a problem. While additional time is generally good, I’d argue that having a vote in a matter of months will actually support a ‘Yes’ vote.

Just like with municipal, or even provincial elections, the majority of voters don’t pay much attention until about a month or two weeks before the vote. Everything before hand is mostly chatter within the political bubble. With transit talk in the air, having a vote in the near future is actually good – it keeps the topic fresh in people’s minds.

In addition, it forces proponents to get their act together and move swiftly to make their case. Besides, most of the messaging and information is ready to go; it just needs to be communicated to folks.

Four months is plenty of time.

5. The Vision and Surrey First machines

Both Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner ran municipal campaigns that promised major transit projects. Despite a groundswell of opposition to both incumbent parties, the machines of Vision Vancouver and Surrey First easily secured majority victories just a few weeks ago.

From this, one can surmise two things. First, that both mayors will be strong and vocal proponents for a ‘Yes’ vote, as they made major platform commitments to build more transit. Additionally, having won their easily seats, they have a mandate from the public to do just that.

Secondly, the Vision and Surrey First machines are robust, well-funded, have critical databases and get-out-the-vote processes that can be mobilized for the referendum. With much of their municipal victories tied to winning a ‘Yes’ vote for transit, we’ll be sure to see both of these parties getting their supporters to cast their ballots.

With the weighting of votes across the region, if both these parties can mobilize the support they saw in the municipal elections to support the ‘Yes’ vote, then the referendum is all but passed.


Written by Paul Hillsdon, a guest contributor to Vancity Buzz. Hillsdon is an urban planner and policy researcher in Metro Vancouver and runs his own blog called Metro604. Follow him on Twitter @paulhillsdon.

Feature Image: SkyTrain Pattullo Bridge via Shutterstock

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