Michael Smith: Why West Vancouver’s mayor is voting no in the transit plebiscite

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      I have been asked by many why I oppose the transit plebiscite and plan to personally vote no on the question.

      I became mayor of West Vancouver in December 2011. Since my first TransLink Mayors’ Caucus meeting shortly thereafter, it became obvious to me that the existing model for transit in the region was not one that would lead to successful outcomes.

      There was no clear roadmap for operating or financing the organization. There is an unelected board of directors to oversee management, a Mayors’ Caucus to approve new funding sources, and the minister of transportation who has to approve the mayors’ recommendations and who has the power to make changes through legislation at any time. This cannot be called a winning formula for success.

      Funding was already an issue in 2011 as the mayors believed that property and gas taxes were maxed out. As an example, in West Vancouver, the average homeowner pays over $800 in property taxes directly to TransLink, plus 17 cents per litre in direct gas tax. Our community has successfully run buses for 102 years and could provide them now entirely free to our citizens if we had that revenue.

      The need for transit in our region is undoubted. What should be our first priority is to determine who will have the ultimate authority to make transit decisions. In the past three years, the mayors have had to deal with three different ministers of transportation. The first meeting with all of them has produced the same inevitable result: “I need time to get up to speed on this file.” In other words, nothing could happen to address the transit issues quickly.

      Does it not make more sense to allow the mayors of this region to make the necessary decisions to ensure that present and future transit needs are met? The mayors are obviously more aware of the needs of their cities and are in the best position to reflect what their citizens want and are prepared to pay for. In addition, I think it is entirely relevant and fair to say that the mayors collectively have far more business and management experience than the MLAs from Kamloops and Kelowna who now have the ultimate decision making power over our transit.

      To decide a complicated question on the best way to fund a transit system through a referendum is not good policy. Each potential funding source has to have a detailed business case which outlines the positives and negatives. Is it a reasonable expectation that each voter will have the opportunity to make themselves aware of all the details? What is next, a referendum on whether or not to build the Site C dam? When you plan a referendum, you should also consider what you will do if it fails. What is the plan if this one is not successful?

      At the heart of my objection to this proposed tax is my belief that government does not have the right to ask citizens to pay more in taxes unless they can assure them that their money will be well spent. This is not now the case. TransLink does not have the reputation of being a well-managed corporation delivering excellent value. This cannot be blamed entirely on management, although it is entirely reasonable to question the number of well-paid executives that run what is essentially a monopoly organization.

      But there are many questions that remain unanswered. Are returns from fares a reasonable percentage of costs? Why is a transit company spending millions to subsidize drivers on the Golden Ears Bridge? Why has so much been spent on fare gates and the Compass card that have yet to show value? Why the breakdowns on the system and the need to look to outside experts for answers?

      Why is an expensive TransLink Police force necessary instead of making each city responsible for policing in their own areas? The benefits from development from rapid transit in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Surrey are certainly enough to cover their share of policing costs. In West Vancouver, our local police department will obviously attend to issues on our buses. We will not rely on TransLink Police to come across the bridge.

      The ballot itself is an issue for me. It is misleading. It lists the Mayors’ Transportation Plan as putting more buses on the road, increasing SkyTrain and SeaBus service, building rapid transit in Vancouver, Surrey, and Langley, replacing the Pattullo Bridge, and maintaining and improving road, pedestrian, and cycling networks. A real chicken-in-every-pot commitment that seems hard to resist.

      The question on the ballot is, “do you support a Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan?” A simple “yes” or “no” is called for. Unfortunately voting “yes” does not guarantee that everything in the plan will happen. The major projects will require provincial and federal funding which has not been confirmed and the region will need to find additional revenues to see the mayors’ plan completed. I suppose we will need to have another referendum at some point down the road.

      Transit has been treated for too long like a political football, being kicked back and forth between the province and the region. The proposed plebiscite offers no relief from this. I fully support an efficient and effective transit system, but to make it a reality we need local control to plan, operate, and fund the system and be accountable for results. Metro Vancouver now provides water, sewer, garbage, and other essential services. Transit can certainly join this list.

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      24 Comments

      Steve y

      Jan 26, 2015 at 1:07pm

      michael smith for premier

      ursa minor

      Jan 26, 2015 at 1:58pm

      Mayor Smith, in response to your questions:

      "Does it not make more sense to allow the mayors of this region to make the necessary decisions to ensure that present and future transit needs are met?"

      Yes, but after the mayors refused to heed Kevin Falcon's temper tantrums on rapid transit to YVR and the Gateway Project, the Liberals stripped decison-making power from the mayors.

      "Is it a reasonable expectation that each voter will have the opportunity to make themselves aware of all the details? What is next, a referendum on whether or not to build the Site C dam? When you plan a referendum, you should also consider what you will do if it fails. What is the plan if this one is not successful?"

      The referendum makes Christy Clark appear to be concerned with transportation in the Lower Mainland while at the same time holding the line on taxes for her suburban bridge-and-tunnel base voters. Gridlock's not her problem since she moved to Kelowna in 2013.

      "Why is a transit company spending millions to subsidize drivers on the Golden Ears Bridge?"

      A quick search at the Elections BC website shows how much highway contractors, auto dealers, and oil companies donate to the BC Liberals.

      "Why has so much been spent on fare gates and the Compass card that have yet to show value?"

      An appointed Board of Directors will never show the same regard for fiscal prudence with public money as a Board whose members are elected by the public.

      "Why the breakdowns on the system and the need to look to outside experts for answers?"

      Some of these questions answer themselves. If money wasn't being wasted on fare gates, the compass card and overpolicing, it could have spent on maitenance.

      "Why is an expensive TransLink Police force necessary instead of making each city responsible for policing in their own areas?"

      Because the Federal Tories BC Liberal Government doesn't trust some municipal police forces (like Vancouver's) to sufficiently criminalize poverty by writing fare evasion tickets that poor and homeless people can't afford to pay. Senior levels of government place a far higher priority on punishing people for their misfortune than addressing actual security issues.

      “do you support a Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan?”

      Ever see the movie "Sophie's Choice"? This is Christy's Choice.

      Dale Christy

      Jan 26, 2015 at 2:03pm

      Mr.Smith's words translate what I and so may other people feel.
      Thank you so much Michael Smith.
      I would like public transit to be free, even if it was on a trial basis, just to see if that would get people out of their cars and using the system as it was meant to be used. Then perhaps there would be money more wisely spent, and not so much going to the thinkers of an ever failing system.

      Jeanie L..

      Jan 26, 2015 at 3:09pm

      I agree with Dale Christy,
      Thank you so Michael Smith - you speak eloquently and sensibly.
      As for a trial period of free transit, let's consider a 1 month period of time when riders will not be charged for using transit with a passenger count system in place so we may compare transit use. Perhaps it would make sense to do so during a less tourist trade period omitting June, July, August September months. It would also be useful to open a comment forum so that riders may speak their peace about their experiences.
      As for operations, I agree with Michael Smith "I fully support an efficient and effective transit system, but to make it a reality we need local control to plan, operate, and fund the system and be accountable for results. Metro Vancouver now provides water, sewer, garbage, and other essential services. Transit can certainly join this list."

      Derek

      Jan 26, 2015 at 3:42pm

      I agree with many of these points, and there are some good questions here. But what is the plan B? If this referendum results in a "no", I fear that transit will sit on the back-burner as long as the Liberals are still around, and possibly even with an NDP government. This whole thing stinks.

      Misa

      Jan 26, 2015 at 8:58pm

      Once again, we have the red herring of "We can do it better if Translink didn't exist" which is nonsense. The reason Translink exists is so that there's no overlap in services, the transit system is fully integrated, and an appropriate technology is picked when it comes to expanding the transit network.

      But what would happen without Translink is what happens in Toronto, with every subsequent mayor scuttling the previous mayor's transit project. Wasting millions, if not billions of dollars each time, and years of delays. Each city in the metro area running their own transit system is a seriously boneheaded idea that only a politician would think is good.

      We picked the Skytrain technology in 1984, we should be sticking with it for every rapid transit project in the Metro area. This is a lesson that we should have learned from Toronto's falling-apart streetcar CLRV's. Once rails are laid, they never get replaced. Any vehicles purchased you'll be stuck with for 30+ years. It's too expensive for the TTC to get standard light rail vehicles for both their existing streetcar LRT and their Subway system, neither which are standard gauge. Do we really want city in the Vancouver Metro area to have incompatible rolling stock/buses and duplicated services? That just wastes money.

      Sure, West Vancouver could probably run their own bus system for free, but they're only complaining about it because that is where most of the highest value properties are in the Metro area.

      This is the same red herring Surrey's Mayor and city council pull. "We could do it better ourselves." Unlikely.

      Think about it. If you want to get from Downtown Vancouver right now to Langley, you have to waste a lot of time waiting around Surrey, which would only be made worse if each city wanted to run their own transit system. If the Skytrain wasn't around, you'd have to transfer no less than 5 times, waiting between 5 minutes and 2 hours for each transfer as each city would only build their bus system to the edge of their borders, and would refuse to have buses terminate in another municipality. The entire fight over the RAV(Canada Line), and Evergreen Line, and Millenium Line being incomplete proves this. And don't think that light rail will come to the rescue either, as BRT would always be cheaper, and no city could justify light rail alone.

      Thomas Folkestone

      Jan 26, 2015 at 11:37pm

      I've seen the transit in Auckland, NZ, which is privatized and runs different services in different neighbourhoods. Getting around on it is a major, major pain in the ass. Plus if you take three different bus companies to get where you're going, you pay three different fares.

      Tallin, Estonia just made transit free, the first capital in the EU to do so.

      Can we do better? Yes. But not with the BC Liberals quasi-private slush fund called Translink. It needs serious material reform from the ground up. That is our starting point.

      Ben

      Jan 27, 2015 at 5:43am

      This article doesn't really make sense. On the one hand, he is saying that mayors are in a better position to judge what transit improvements are needed than the provincial government, then says that they have no right to impose a tax unless it is clear that the money will be well spent. This plan WAS designed by the mayors, after a careful appraisal of what was needed in each region. The funds will be audited to insure that they are spent on transit improvements.

      And most of the mayors agree that a referendum is a bad way to implement policy. It wasn't their idea - It was the provincial government's. The provincial government also rejected the mayors' request to divert carbon tax funds for these transit improvements, which would have made the .5% increase in PST unnecessary. The provincial government also foisted the fare gates and transit police on Translink, which is now getting the blame for those fiascos.

      In short, most of the problems Smith identifies lie with our Provincial government and the utter lack of leadership it has demonstrated. Luckily, though, they can be removed from office by popular vote. Hopefully the NDP or somebody else gets its act together to provide a viable alternative.

      BurnabyBob

      Jan 27, 2015 at 7:37am

      "To decide a complicated question on the best way to fund a transit system through a referendum is not good policy."

      It wasn't the mayors' decision to hold the referendum. It was the provincial government's. It doesn't mean that people should vote no.

      "At the heart of my objection to this proposed tax is my belief that government does not have the right to ask citizens to pay more in taxes unless they can assure them that their money will be well spent."

      Aren't you a member of the Mayors' Council that designed the plan being voted on, Mr. Smith? Isn't it your job as a member of the Mayors' Council's job to make sure the money is well spent, by designing an effective plan?

      "TransLink does not have the reputation of being a well-managed corporation delivering excellent value."

      It sounds like you're just repeating hearsay, rather than offering substantive criticism of Translink. Translink isn't perfect, but no organization is. And its inefficiency is overstated. Brad Cavanagh did a good analysis on his blog about the CTF's misleading claims about Translink. In any case, it seems more like the CTF is more interested in confusing the issue than in offering feasible funding alternatives.

      Tommy Khang

      Jan 27, 2015 at 10:33am

      This is why the referendum will be very close - because of rational sounding arguments such as the above. It's funny because this view represents what I posit is representative of the silent majority who will vote NO because they don't see why as road users they should subsidize transit for primarily urban users.

      What is ironic though is that the Translink system especially regarding service in Vancouver is already one of the best systems in North America.