Mementos of past political battles poster his office walls, and evidence of his current fight sits in avalanche-prone piles as political activist Bill Tieleman savours the memory of a recent “down and dirty” debate.
Tieleman was leader of the successful 2013 campaign to stop the HST. And now—as part of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition—he hopes for a “yes” win in this spring’s Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite. His young debate opponent, Jordan Bateman, director of B.C.’s right-wing Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, is an avowed defender, as he himself sees it, of the overtaxed and perpetually aggrieved.
Bateman’s slogan is “No Tran$link Tax.” So I repeat to Tieleman what Bateman had earlier said to me about Tieleman’s powerful 100-group “yes” coalition: “They’ve got Big Government. Big Unions. Big Business. Big Environment. All the elites. All the money. They’ll outspend us 100 to 1. But we’ve got the Little Guys.” To which Tieleman rolls his eyes and laughs.
Despite Bateman’s casting of his Taxpayers’ Federation as the puny David to the province’s Goliaths, the yes/no nonbinding plebiscite will not be mythic. But its consequences will really matter. For the first time in Canada, voters are being asked directly to approve raising their taxes: from today’s seven-percent PST to a future 7.5 percent. This sales-tax increase costs out at $125 a year per household, or 35 cents a day. It will generate annual revenue for TransLink of $250 million. If there is a “yes” victory, it will launch—in conjunction with billions of promised provincial and federal dollars—a 10-year, $7.5-billion transit/transportation construction and service-improvements boom unequalled in the region’s history.
Here, briefly, is what “yes” endorses: a) immediate 2015 increases in B-Line bus service, with buses running along more routes, later, and more frequently at peak hours across the entire Metro region; b) beginning in 2015, and costing $16.5 million annually, a 2,700-kilometre expansion of the region’s existing bikeway network; c) the purchase of 400 new buses and their deployment, starting in 2017; d) three $2.1-billion Surrey-crossing light rapid transit (LRT) surface rail lines, the first paralleling King George Highway southward, from Guildford to Newton, and opening in 2022; e) a $2-billion, five-station Vancouver subway—bored or dug—beneath Broadway, opening in 2024; f) increased capacity and stations along the suburban West Coast Express train route, costing $36 million; and g) a new (and tolled) Pattullo Bridge, opening in 2023.
The overall goal is to get 10 percent of current drivers off roads and onto transit, providing remaining drivers with faster commutes. TransLink estimates that commuting drivers will save 25 minutes a day due to reductions in highway congestion.
A “no” vote means—in the near term—that none of this will happen.
But by 2045, according to TransLink, a projected one million new Metro Vancouver residents will still have arrived. In the 30 years ahead, the Central Broadway business/hospital corridor—already the busiest bus route in North America—will add 150,000 workers and UBC (Metro Vancouver’s third-largest employer) will have 15,000 more residents. Langley will double its population, and Surrey will grow by 300,000. With them will come 500,000 more cars and three million more local automobile trips per day. So, with a “no” vote, today’s average 35-minute suburban commute, each way, each day, will increase in duration. I won’t even mention the issue of cars, congestion, local pollution, and global warming.
A year ago, Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam, found himself in the catbird seat as chair of Metro Vancouver’s Mayors’ Council subcommittee on visioning this region’s transportation future. It was, he knew, a minefield of potential conflicts. Experts needed to be heard. Studies analyzed. Municipal wish lists whittled down. Financing strategies considered. Decisions voted on. All in the face of a ridiculously hurried, provincially imposed spring 2015 transit/transportation–funding referendum, something every mayor detested.
Moore knew that the defeat of past American transportation plebiscites—Canada has had no experience with such votes—usually occurred from the triple intersection his committee faced: lack of time; individual leaders’ potential intransigence over local priorities; and a general suburban/urban schism over the virtues of roads versus transit.
After all the talking and whittling had been done, the mayors agreed the best way to raise the requisite $2.5 billion—Metro Vancouver’s 10-year share of the total projected TransLink transit/transportation cost—was a regional increase in the province’s carbon tax combined with mobility pricing, like bridge tolls and road-user fees. These would hit drivers directly—in the wallet.
Moore soon learned, however, that neither was acceptable to Victoria. Minister of Transportation Todd Stone advised him instead that a small increase in the seven-percent provincial sales tax was on the table. This surprised the mayors, since the B.C. Liberals had been badly burned by the Tieleman-led defeat of the despised HST. Thus, the mayors, facing a tight 2015 deadline, accepted Plan C: a localized sales-tax increase to 7.5 percent. It didn’t hit drivers directly and was simple to implement, efficient to collect, and—with mandated auditing—easy to direct toward the list of transportation projects the Mayors’ Council wanted. It was, among all revenue-generating options, also the least onerous, moneywise, on voters.
With the council’s referendum option finalized, and approval required, Moore watched as the region’s mayors voted this past December at a meeting in New Westminster. Endorsements went around the semicircle of seated mayors: “Yes, yes,” and “Yes.” But Burnaby’s mayor, Derek Corrigan, broke the self-congratulatory mood by saying “No.” As he explained: “A referendum’s no way to go about things. A referendum’s no way to make public policy. It polarizes the public.” Several mayors nodded in agreement with Corrigan’s principled position. But his words were lost on the others, who understood that, handed a referendum lemon by Premier Christy Clark, they should make lemonade. Eighteen mayors voted “yes”; three chose “no”.
Within a few days, Transportation Minister Stone made it official: there would be an 11-week-long mail-in plebiscite, running from March 16 to May 29, 2015, held throughout Metro Vancouver. It would ask: “Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan?” Voters would be given a simple yes or no choice. (The ballot would contain a brief list of the various projects called for.) No one seemed to notice that two words in the plebiscite’s name were oddly ambiguous: congestion improvement. Do voters want to improve congestion or, more accurately, reduce it?
Simultaneously, the newly formed Better Transit and Transportation Coalition (BTTC), with Tieleman as one of its spokesmen, joined the battle. It’s an unlikely, if well-funded, alliance involving the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, Unifor (one of Canada’s biggest unions), the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Vancouver Board of Trade—usually opponents in political conflicts. Tieleman says he found it amusing that he’d recently fought some of these same groups over the HST referendum and now found them on his side. (In the past two months, the coalition has grown from the initial six groups to 100, including Vancouver’s right-leaning NPA political party. All told, Tieleman claims, the BTTC now represents more than 250,000 Metro Vancouver voters.)
As it turns out, Burnaby’s Mayor Corrigan was right in December about one thing: the referendum would spark public polarization. It took Bateman’s Taxpayers’ Federation little time to launch an attack on TransLink and the referendum. Bateman complained that TransLink was full of overpaid and incompetent executives and that suburban merchants would lose money from local residents who would go instead to Abbotsford, where the sales-tax increase wouldn’t apply. (Reality check: on a $100 purchase, a 0.5-percent tax increase would add 50 cents, hardly an incentive to drive to Abbotsford to shop.) And anyway, Bateman maintained, people should vote “no” because TransLink would just waste the money. He was, to his mind, defending the defenceless Little Guy.
This assertion makes Tieleman go ballistic. “The little guy? The little guy! A ‘no’ vote means cutting bus service, cutting SkyTrain, making things worse. The little guy’s trying to get to shift work at Tim Hortons at 5 a.m. Trying to get to classes at UBC during rush hour. Trying to get home late at night after working as a nanny in Kitsilano. Those are the little guys. He’s a hypocrite saying he’s defending the little guy.”
Last month, Carl Guardino, chair of the California Transportation Commission and one of that state’s leading transit advocates, came to Vancouver to advise TransLink on winning tactics in plebiscite campaigns. After several Californian sales-tax referendums, he has become, he told me at the Vancouver Board of Trade’s Canada Place offices, inured to many Americans’ antitax catechism. “ ‘You can’t trust government! They’re gonna waste your money!’ ” he said in mocking imitation. Guardino was in Vancouver because he knows how to get tax-averse people to vote “yes”. He has led five straight transit-funding campaigns—each based on sales-tax increases—in his Silicon Valley region and won every one.
What’s required, Guardino explained, is to convince voters that supporting a sales-tax increase is in their best interest. “You have to reach the people who often don’t vote but who’d benefit from better service,” he said. “Students. The working poor. The new-immigrant community. Transit riders themselves. You get to ‘yes’ by providing hard evidence. You use data, not dogma: that voters can afford it; that they’ll benefit from it; that the tax revenue will only be spent on the transit projects promised, not commingled with general government funds. And you say to the committed car drivers: ‘I hate paying taxes. But I hate being stuck in traffic even more.’ You say: ‘Every brake light in front of you that leaves the road for transit is one less brake light in front of you. You’ll get home from work faster.’ ”
I enter a nondescript building located two blocks from Vancouver City Hall and find a bare-walled, dystopian environment similar to one Winston Smith might have faced in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Occupants call it the Bunker. It is here that regional transportation authorities operate under the unofficial rubric of the Referendum Secretariat. This is, in other words, ground zero for what lies ahead, transportationwise. That is, if—and it’s a big if—voters approve the plan, and if provincial and federal authorities subsequently cooperate. In numbers with 10 figures—like $7,500,000,000—nothing is certain.
Located at the centre of the action here are Tamim Raad, director of strategic planning and policy at TransLink, and Michael Buda, executive director of the Mayors’ Council. They tell me that theirs is a formidable job. The thing they’re selling—the plebiscite and its multiple goals—is complex. Even worse: they’ve got just three months to make the pitch. But, they add, transportation planners have actually been working for years on elements of what’s being proposed: a Broadway subway, ultimately to UBC; a new Pattullo Bridge; LRT lines fanning out across the Fraser Valley; and critically needed B-Line buses everywhere. With a “yes”, these will happen in the decade ahead, occurring in two five-year stages.
In the first “tranche”—fiscal lingo for “portion”—many of the less dramatic but immediately useful transit changes will occur. According to TransLink, starting in 2017, 11 new B-Line express-bus routes—costing $150 million—will be created, serving everyone from West Vancouver to Langley, White Rock to Maple Ridge. Peak-time SeaBus service will increase to every 10 minutes (from every 15 minutes during the day). There will be an 80-percent increase in night buses, running later and more frequently. And the first of 270 new railcars will be purchased for the region’s West Coast Express. As well, advanced geotechnical and engineering research will go to tender this year so design work can commence on Vancouver’s subway and the first of three LRT lines across Surrey. Construction on both projects begins in 2019.
As TransLink’s Raad explains: the goal is to create in the next decade a Metro Vancouver–wide “frequent-transit network” serving 70 percent of the region’s population. “You head out your door—in Surrey, say—and walk a few blocks. You don’t need a schedule. A bus comes every 15 minutes. Average wait: seven-and-a-half minutes. That’s the plan.” To which Buda adds: “If you have nearby easy-to-access transit, a two-car family can go to one car—or to zero cars. Saves money. A vehicle costs its owners about $10,000 a year in amortized purchase price, gas, insurance, and maintenance. Compare that to the $125 a year you’ll pay for the sales-tax increase. The money isn’t an expense; it’s an investment.”
But it’s early in the second tranche—from 2020 to 2025—that things get really interesting. The two biggest TransLink infrastructure projects, the Broadway subway and the first Surrey LRT line, will be built simultaneously. (Construction will also be under way on the new TransLink-funded $1-billion Pattullo Bridge and the provincially funded $3.5-billion toll bridge that replaces Highway 99’s antiquated Massey Tunnel.)
In many ways, it’s what Buda says next that I find most compelling. Research worldwide shows that cities prosper, and property owners benefit financially, in direct correlation to the proximity of good transit. “In real estate,” Buda says, “it used to be ‘Location, location, location.’ Now it’s ‘Transit, transit, transit.’ A nearby bus or SkyTrain service means more people walk. Or bike. They’ve got less reason to own a car. Maybe they car-share. It costs developers about $30,000 for each parking space they provide apartment and condo residents. Developers building near transit are now receiving waivers to create fewer spaces. The savings gets passed to buyers. And the resale value of a property goes up according to its closeness to transit.”
To double down on this, he points out that the same applies to commercial properties. Store owners and businesses want to be near transit too. More foot traffic, more money. In fact, Buda says, Brentwood Mall in Burnaby is replacing much of its old parking space with new stores located closer to the SkyTrain station there. This also explains why, according to media accounts, TransLink and the City of Vancouver’s property departments have spent more than $10 million in recent months buying buildings adjacent to possible future Broadway subway stations.
Today, what will become the Broadway subway is nothing more than an obscure, elevated concrete stub located near the foot of Glen Drive below Vancouver Community College’s King Edward campus. This marks the point where SkyTrain’s unfinished Millennium Line now ends in East Vancouver blackberry bushes and rusting railway tracks. With a “yes” vote, it will mark the beginning of what Vancouver’s director of transportation, Jerry Dobrovolny, calls “the most important transportation project—in terms of ridership—in B.C history”.
Travelling westward and parallel to Great Northern Way, the Millennium Line extension’s first stop will be at the campus of soon-to-be-built Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The line will then curve southwest and enter the slope east of St. Francis Xavier School. An S curve will connect the subway to its straight, 4.5-kilometre run west beneath Broadway—with four more stops at Main, Cambie, Granville, and, finally, Arbutus. TransLink projects that on opening day in 2024, the subway will carry 140,000 riders. In 25 years, with the Millennium Line long completed to UBC, TransLink also estimates that it will carry 320,000 daily and will halve former travel times on crammed 99 B-Line buses for those using the underground route.
There are, of course, several reasons the “no” vote could win this spring, and all these possibilities become so much sleepwalking. As Seattle’s Clark Williams-Derry, Sightline Institute’s deputy director and a transportation-policy expert, told me: there are potential problems for Metro Vancouver’s plebiscite. For example, in early 2014, King County (which includes Seattle and its suburbs) held a transit/transportation referendum similar to Vancouver’s. Seattle and adjacent municipalities voted 70 percent “yes”. But King County’s vast, car-driven, exurban regions voted overwhelmingly “no”. The referendum was defeated.
However, when a second, more limited referendum, aimed strictly at transit-loving Seattle voters, was held in late 2014, it won. The lesson, says Williams-Derry: it’s best to have a specific goal and a specific area where “yes” is likely. A second vulnerability of the impending Metro Vancouver plebiscite is the real danger that what’s being costed today— $5.1 billion for the three different megaprojects—could run over budget tomorrow. For example, Boston’s famous Big Dig tunnel of 15 years ago had an estimated budget of $3 billion; its final cost was five times that: $15 billion. And Seattle’s current waterfront tunnel project, expected to cost $3 billion, will be way over budget because Big Bertha, the world’s largest tunnelling machine, has been hopelessly stuck underground for more than a year, with only about one-tenth of the tunnel bored.
To add to the worries of those working for “yes”, West Vancouver’s mayor, Michael Smith, announced in late January that he’s voting “no”. Echoing Bateman, he said that TransLink is poorly managed and that neither TransLink nor the provincial government should be in a position to decide, as they now are, what’s best for Metro Vancouver. It should be a regional decision. Furthermore, Smith complained, there’s no guarantee of funding at the provincial and federal levels, even if a “yes” vote gives approval for a sales-tax increase. After all, dropping oil prices have put bazooka holes through 2015 government budgets. If previous transit-funding promises are broken, the plebiscite could be seen as a political charade.
Among the politicians and transit experts I spoke with, the view is that Bateman and Smith have created a couple of strawmen. TransLink mismanagement, lack of regional authority, and uncertain transit funding are not what the plebiscite is about. It’s about a 0.5-percent sales-tax increase. “Yes”? Or “no”? By voting “no” because you don’t like TransLink, say Bateman’s and Smith’s critics, you’d be shooting yourself in the foot. You’d be delaying for years what could be gained by voting “yes” next month. A “no” doesn’t change TransLink an iota but would result in increased congestion and larger future bills—when traffic problems are worse than now and the cost of new buses and rapid-transit systems higher.
From where Mayor Gregor Robertson sits in Vancouver City Hall, he can see—before springtime tree growth obscures his view—the roof of the three-storey building that contains the so-called Referendum Secretariat, and, nearby, Original Joe’s at the corner of Cambie Street and Broadway. In the years ahead, if “yes” wins, these buildings will be demolished—along with dozens of other low-rise buildings to the west and east. High-rise towers will then appear to accommodate the tens of thousands of new people drawn to central Broadway by the subway.
“The mayors of Canada’s big cities all agree,” Robertson tells me, gesturing toward the cityscape beyond his back. “Canada is, what…? Eighty-five percent urban? It’ll only increase. Two of the most critical issues in Canada today are urban: better transit and affordable housing. They’re essential.
“A ‘yes’ on the plebiscite will be good for property owners and businesses. It will concentrate development along transit lines and improve livability with easier commutes. A ‘yes’ vote would send the strongest possible signal to the province and federal government to come to the table with the money promised. A knee-jerk, antitax ‘no’ rejection of the plebiscite would be brutal.”