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.