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.”