Dermod Travis: What will be the outcome of the TransLink referendum?

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      Far from being the favourite kid on the block, the fate of TransLink's future funding will be decided in the midst of the introduction of the Compass card and Lower Mainland residents know full well how that initiative has been going as of late. It doesn't bode well for the vote.

      Despite this, Premier Christy Clark promised that a referendum would be held on Translink's funding needs in last May's provincial election and that's what Lower Mainland residents are going to get, even though the B.C. government risks opening the proverbial Pandora's box with Clark's pledge.

      To get a sense of just how much of a gamble the B.C. government is taking on this one: look no further than to our neighbours to the south who are among the world's most experienced with tax initiatives at the ballot box.

      Since 2000, the Washington, DC-based Center for Transportation Excellence has tracked all U.S. Local Option Transportation Tax (LOTT) ballot measures that include a transit component.

      In an academic paper—Taxing for Transit: An Exploratory Analysis of Local Option Transportation Taxes—those ballot measures were analyzed. The paper focused strictly on broad-based dedicated transportation taxes and excluded other ballot initiatives such as anti-tolling and bond measures, vehicle user fees, and measures that were little more than glorified popular opinion surveys.

      From 2000 to 2011, there were 274 ballot measures that met the test. Eighty-two of those referendums passed, less than one in three. Seventy percent failed.

      Another study—Transit referendums and Funding Options: Bonds Versus Taxes—examined 111 transit referendums held in the United States between 1999 and 2007. The results were only modestly more encouraging. Fifty-five percent of the ballot measures in that study passed voter muster.

      Not surprisingly, though, that total was skewed by referendums where voters approved bond initiatives knowing full well they were passing the buck on to future generations over initiatives that sought tax increases in the here and now.

      Even still, does the B.C. government really want to place a bet on TransLink's future funding with odds that are little better than those of flipping a coin?

      Keep in mind that a lot rests on the question.

      Successful transit referendums in the U.S. had a few things in common: finite time frames, specific project and expenditure plans, more local control of transportation investment decisions, inclusion of citizen oversight committees, and whether it was a bond or tax initiative.

      This past week, transportation minister Todd Stone on the Voice of B.C. set out six conditions for a winning referendum. It's fair to say the province is close to meeting one of them: timing.

      Less than a year out, no one knows what the referendum question will be, who will approve it and how the results will be interpreted.

      Will the final question take a thumbs up or down approach or will it ask voters to choose the least nasty remedy out of a medicine cabinet full of distasteful options?

      What about the risk of voters in 20 plus municipalities being played off against each other? Will Surrey vote yes if they perceive that rapid transit needs in their community will take a back seat to a West Broadway Sky Train extension in Vancouver? What legitimacy will the vote have if a majority of communities vote no, but a majority of voters vote yes?

      Voter turnouts in B.C. local elections are also notoriously low. And if turnout in the 2014 local elections is anything comparable to the results last time out, it's possible that one out of three voters could set tax policy for three out of three ratepayers.

      And it's not just low turnout, but who turns out that should raise some flags in Victoria. Transit users may be less likely to vote in a municipal election than those who rely on a car as their primary mode of transportation.

      At the end of the day, holding TransLink's management to account and spiting the agency at the ballot box are two distinct exercises. One of them may not be so wise.

      There's a real difference between using referendums to set tax policy and using them to overturn an unpopular tax. B.C. has experience with one and it seems—despite significant opposition in the Lower Mainland—it's about to have experience with another.

      No pressure though: a region's economic well-being is only resting on the result. 




      Nov 26, 2013 at 12:14pm

      If the referendum is issued over the Translink name, it will fail - no matter what the question is.

      Translink is hated in the prime target area (Metro Vancouver). Nothing is going to change that in the short term. In my view, the hatred is largely irrational, but it exists and it will not disappear.

      The referendum is a silly, childish notion. But if the provincial government insists on dodging responsibility for transit planning, then the referendum should be issued over the signature of the person who invented the concept - Christy Clark.

      Not the mayors of Metro, not the management of Translink - only Christy, the grinning talk show host.

      Oh how times have changed.

      Nov 26, 2013 at 1:12pm

      "There's a real difference between using referendums to set tax policy and using them to overturn an unpopular tax"

      hahahahhahahahahhahahahahhhahahahahahahaa. You can't be serious.

      "No pressure though: a region's economic well-being is only resting on the result. "

      What are the economic repercussions of a Vancouver City council that bases their entire transportation system around ideology, and political donations, rather than practicality? What are the economic repercussion of earmarking 20 years of transportation funding towards two isolated projects that will result in very little improvement for the region as a whole?

      Essentially, if you don't live on the UBC campus, or on the Broadway corridor, you're going to be asked to pay thousands more per year to see ever decreasing service and ever increasing congestion. Let's see some real options for that $8 billion. This is what the ivory tower is scared of. Their plans offer very little benefit to anyone but themselves so they're trying to bully people into support with these Chicken Little economic statements.

      I must admit I get great pleasure watching all you squirm over one of your vaunted taxation referendums.

      John Beeching

      Nov 26, 2013 at 1:31pm

      November 18, 2013

      Dear Premier Clark,

      Transportation in South Coast British Columbia is central to its industries and all business, small or large. It transports workers and employees to and from work. Without that, business would fail. It is imperative that all businesses in the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Act - TransLink operate so as to achieve this need of industry and business.. Presently it is a failure as transportation for the able bodied and disabled is in crisis due to limited income from government. TransLink announced a decade freeze to 2023 for HandyDART. A Taxi Pilot Program has been introduced.

      Media and internet reveal a growing opposition to all transit changes. Our personal experiences revealing safety concerns have been sent to The TransLink Board, CBC and the Auditor General. We believe the financial problem is a result of unfair government taxation policies favouring business thus limiting taxation income for the government.

      We therefore with respect call on you and the BC Legislature to initiate forthwith a public inquiry into all transit, able bodied and disabled for the South Coast British Columbia Transit.

      Cc is reserved by us.

      John Beeching
      Elizabeth Beeching


      Nov 26, 2013 at 3:50pm

      It's annoying that Todd Stone keeps saying "it's up to the mayors to really take the lead on this it - it's their baby!"

      No! It's your freaking baby, Todd. It's your referendum. It's your government that has turned down all the many proposals from the mayors council: a vehicle levy, carbon tax, road pricing, regional sales tax...

      Why should the mayors lend any legitimacy to this doomed referendum that Christy Clark thought up in a populist fever dream?

      Why does it make sense that transit funding should even go to referendum, while the province gleefully expands highways all over the place without second thought?

      No, all this is nonsense. I'm a pretty pro-transit guy, but I'm not going to waste my energy fighting to try and win such a ridiculous, unjust, illegitimate tax referendum.


      Nov 26, 2013 at 5:08pm

      Oh how times have changed,

      The referendum would not be for 2 isolated lines, it would include such basics as bus service. Not to mention that the benefits of those 2 isolated lines benefits all of Metro Vancouver. The benefit of connecting the millennium line to the Canada line alone positively impacts a huge number of users, most of which probably originate in places other than Vancouver.

      if it fails?

      Nov 27, 2013 at 3:06pm

      Expect either roads or transit to be shut down.