Winning a transit referendum ballot in B.C. will be challenging

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      He is regarded as the father of modern transit in the Silicon Valley. California’s San Jose Diridon Station, a major hub for rail and bus, also bears his name. There’s no question that Rod Diridon Sr. is a legend.

      With Metro Vancouver heading to a referendum on transit funding next year, Diridon’s wisdom may point in the right direction.

      He led Santa Clara County’s successful vote on a half-cent sales tax for transit in 1976, the first in California. He went on to chair other regional and statewide election campaigns for transportation bonds and financing.

      “You can’t start on the last minute,” Diridon told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from the San Jose–based Mineta Transportation Institute. The long-time executive director of the transportation think tank was talking about lessons from the extensive U.S. experience in deciding transportation questions through the ballot.

      Premier Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government has committed to asking voters in the Lower Mainland to approve any new funding sources for transit. The referendum will be held concurrent with the municipal elections in November 2014.

      “You need to early on begin talking about what you’re going to do with the money,” Diridon responded when asked if a one-and-a-half-year window is too tight. “So if you’re in a local area where you’re going to be doing light-rail system or commuter-rail system or whatever, you need to be doing the environmental studies that have a lot of outreach over a period of years, with hundreds of public meetings.”

      The key to this, according to Diridon, is for the legislative assembly to come up with a tax measure ahead of time.

      The experience in North Carolina’s Orange County may be instructive. In 2009, that state’s general assembly passed the Congestion Relief and Intermodal Transportation 21st Century Fund, authorizing a half-cent sales tax for transit.

      More than three years later, when voters in the county went to the presidential polls, they also approved in another referendum a tax that will bankroll planned bus and rail improvements totalling $661 million.

      The Orange County measure was one of the 13 out of 19 local-public-transit ballot initiatives approved across the U.S. on November 6, 2012, a passage rate of 70 percent. All in all, 46 out of 58 pro-transit initiatives in the U.S. passed in 2012, a rate of more than 79 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The APTA, a group formerly chaired by Diridon, notes that these reflect a long-term trend since 2000 wherein more than 70 percent of public-transit ballot measures have succeeded.

      Winning a transit referendum isn’t easy. “The big issue is how much money you have to spend on the campaign,” Diridon said. “We know that the antitax folks are going to oppose you. The highway people will oppose you.”

      District of North Vancouver mayor Richard Walton is acutely aware of the challenges posed by a referendum. First laid out in the B.C. Liberal platform during the May 14 provincial election campaign this year, the referendum has surprised members of the Walton-chaired Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.

      “I don’t think we’ll have any opportunity of success whatsoever,” Walton told the Straight in a phone interview.

      According to Walton, it would take years and the three levels of government working together to engage citizens. “People see that, you know, ‘I’m going to pay more; what do I get? I’m [just] going to move a little more quickly along the roads,’ ” he said. “A lot of people’s perceptions is, ‘Build more roads and the ministry pays for that; the cities pay for that. So why are you going to hit me? It’s just a tax shift.’ ”

      Through early 2014, TransLink will be updating the region’s long-term transportation strategy, Transport 2040. As part of this process, the agency has released a discussion paper that contains estimates of the significant costs to support public transportation in the future.

      According to the document, dated June 10, 2013, it will take $5 billion to maintain the current system and keep pace with growth. New projects of the “highest priority” will cost $18 billion.

      Bob Paddon, TransLink’s executive vice president of strategic planning and public affairs, doesn’t yet know how the provincial government intends to proceed with the referendum. What’s clear for Paddon is that there will be adverse consequences if no new investments are made.

      “There’s significant public concern about increasing costs,” Paddon told the Straight by phone. “There’s concern about new taxes or fees that could impact them economically. That is clearly the case.”

      But it’s possible that Metro Vancouver voters may agree to take a hit on their wallets, according to Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

      However, that will only reinforce the “fundamental unfairness” of the current system of transportation planning in the province. “We place a much higher burden on finance for walking and bicycling and public transit than we do for financing highways,” Litman told the Straight by phone. “Highway projects are not getting the same scrutiny and have a larger funding pool.”




      Jun 27, 2013 at 8:12am

      Politics is filled with things that are good for you but that people don't want to do. Smoking laws are a good example. Dictatorial mayors like Mike Bloomberg in New York essentially said--screw public opinion, I know what's good for you. It's hard to see that now, but there was a lot of opposition to preventing smoking in bars and restaurants in NYC. Yet the outcome has been generally beneficial.

      Bloomberg has been much like Gregor vis-a-vis bike lanes--he has shoved them down the throats of unwilling car drivers and some reluctant pedestrians. Yet it's hard to walk through NYC and not see the improvements Bloomberg has made.

      So are we better off with transit? Is this a case where public reluctance to pay for a benefit will doom that benefit?

      Christy is a coward--she should have principles. Government by referendum (see Prop 8 in Calif.) is not a good way to run a government.

      kwh ism

      Jun 27, 2013 at 10:07am

      Crispy has to stop bowing to Port Metro for everything
      they want and do, $$$ always available somehow, and
      do what is right for the long-term view of public
      transport, which, if done VERY efficiently, will be

      Lavishing on highways and bridges and not on Rail transit
      (Port Mann bridge a perfect example, of what could have
      linked Langley to the Evergreen Line) is the wrongheaded
      way to bring transit comforts to the public, who put their
      X on a referendum. Or not.

      The developer-hawks are always nesting in the trees waiting
      to swoop like raptors wherever mass-transit might happen.
      And then they pollute the problem with more condos, more
      cars, more stores. With no new streets.

      More: Always More. From a More-Headed Society. All
      geared to the thinking "If I don't...I am not..a Leader"

      Evil Eye

      Jun 27, 2013 at 7:00pm

      There is a massive disconnect here, as San Jose used light rail and not the hugely expensive SkyTrain.

      The problem for metro Vancouver is that SkyTrain (elevated) can cost up to 4 times more to build than LRT for about the same capacity; up to 10 times more to build than a SkyTrain subway (20 times more than a real subway) with the same capacity.

      Our current transit financial fiasco has been created with Skytrain and the more SkyTrain we build, the deeper in the finical hole we get.

      Ever notice that no one builds with SkyTrain? Ever wonder why?

      Unless the referendum asks a question, such as:

      "Do you wish to keep building with the SkyTrain light-metro system, even though it may cost up to ten time more to build than light rail, yet has no operational benefits?"


      "none of the above."

      TransLink's financial fiasco has been long predicted, yet not one provincial politician has the moral fortitude to say "no more Skytrain."

      Pay more for less?

      Jun 28, 2013 at 10:29am

      This should be interesting for Vancouver residents like myself. On one hand I'm going to be asked to spend hundreds, if not thousands, more annually to increase Transit funding and "relieve congestion". On the other hand you have a Vancouver city council who bases their transportation decisions on ideological beliefs. Those ideological decisions have led to a dramatic increase in downtown congestion which will not be fixed through paying more. Essentially, I'm going to be asked to pay dramatically more money for increasingly worse service.

      To top it off you have Moonbeam pushing for a Broadway line at the expense of the entire regions transportation system. The largest transit deficiency in the lower mainland is the lack of a commuter rail service combined with poor suburban transit service, yet the Messiah is pushing for a multi-billion dollar line that will do absolutely nothing to address regional or city congestion issues. We're dealing with finite resources and spending that money on a Broadway subway you will cripple the Lower Mainland's transportation system for decades.

      If we actually had competent politicians, who placed practicality above ideology, I would happily pay more for better service. Paying more to sit longer in traffic is a no go. The worst part is there are many simple fixes Vision could enact to increase biking infrastructure while also improving traffic flow but they're too fixated on punishing drivers to make real solutions. Show me you can competently manage a system that involves all modes of transportation before you get more money.

      I must say it's hilarious seeing all the lefties squirm about government through referendum just months after claiming that's what democracy is all about (HST).


      Jul 1, 2013 at 11:56am

      I would like to see a referendum on income tax since the door has been opened on "government via referenda." We could have a series of them on things like property taxes, education spending, revisions to the health care system and so on down the line. If allowing "the people" a voice on the HST was a good idea expanding the process must be an even better idea, right? Naturally a vote on income taxes would be overwhelmingly in favour of their reduction or elimination, and getting the vote out for the anti-tax side wouldn't be a problem.

      The NDP didn't completely embrace the anti-HST vote because they understand the can of worms that represents. They can't embrace an anti-tax initiative because if they do form a government in the future they will raise taxes and user fees just like they did before. How about a dual referenda with eliminating the income tax and legalizing marijuana? That would provide hours of entrainment.