After half a year of blogging on the transit referendum, I was wondering whether anyone really cared about it – and the consequences of what appears to be its likely failure. Apparently it took the politicians sniping at each other to get the media’s attention. And in the last couple of weeks, they certainly have.

Just today, for instance, in The Sun alone:

There’s a lot of ‘false equivalency’ going on – the meme that each side is equally at fault for the inability of the region to move forward on transit funding, that the local leaders are unable to agree among themselves. That charge suits the Province since it seems to justify an imposed referendum.

Palmer, however, sees it differently:

… Stone overreached when he argued that the Metro Vancouver mayors were therefore obliged to come to the table with the Liberals, agree on transit priorities and possible revenue measures, then help frame the referendum question.

… notwithstanding Stone’s call for them to “show some leadership,” I don’t see that the Metro mayors, as a contingent, are notably weak on that front. …

A better case can be made that provincial governments – NDP and Liberal – have been incapable of following through on the consensus of the mayors for new or expanded revenue sources, notably the vehicle levy.

But in the charge and counter-charge, however, one question still remains unanswered: Why a referendum at all?

In particular:

  • Why a referendum only for Metro Vancouver.  Why not all taxing proposals in all regions around the province?  (Or perhaps that’s the eventual intent.)
  • Why only on transit?  Even though TransLink has responsibility for roads and some bridges, the Premier framed this as a transit-only question.  Why not, in particular, an inclusive vote on provincial infrastructure within the region too, notably the Massey crossing?  After all, no road-pricing scheme or universal bridge-tolling is viable without provincial participation.
  • Why are only the mayors expected to provide the leadership, whether to craft the question or fight for its approval – especially when the outcome is weighted against them?

Again, Palmer:

The province is sometimes forced to assume a leadership position on transit when the locals balk, the best example being the decision to impose construction of the Canada Line ahead of regional preferences for the Evergreen Line.

The Liberals are not proposing to go that route this time. Rather, they want to enlist local government leaders in setting priorities and promoting revenue sources that might well go against the interests of their own ratepayers.

Ironically, by imposing the referendum on the mayors, the Province has achieved what it claims they lack: unity.  Save for the Mayor of Delta, all the others are agreed in their opposition to the vote.

So what to do?

Perhaps everyone can take a step back, inhale, and decide, no, we don’t have enough time to agree on priorities, settle on the funding sources, craft the question and mount a campaign in the time available (now 295 days).  Let’s punt.  There’s no actual requirement to have a referendum on November 15 if there’s no request for new funding at this time.

This region deserves a successful outcome if there is inevitably to be a referendum.

Let’s take the time to do it right.


  1. I think that the Province asking the mayors to cooperate is a test to see whether they can make hard decisions (i.e. there are implications for any future governance review – will they be able to devise a funding formula without passing the buck, or will there be division and flip-flopping (like in Toronto, where in the time the Province built the M-Line and the Canada Line, they built the Sheppard Stubway).

    As to why a referendum? Probably fallout from the HST backlash and voter calls for transparency and “democracy”. As for the Mayors being opposed?
    Probably because of all politicians, they are most exposed to voters, and have already felt backlash from other social engineering initiatives.

  2. To me it’s obvious.

    I don’t think there is a conspiracy, just stupidity on Christy’s part.

    This is going to be politically costly to her when it inevitably fails, and she’s realizing this, and trying to pass the responsibility (and blame) off onto the mayors.

  3. But it’s also increasingly sounding like the Liberals are saying “nice transit system… shame if something happened to it.”

    It’s starting to sound more desperate and threatening. “The mayors had better own this referendum, or we’ll write the question for them… and you don’t want us to write the question.”

  4. The CBC’s Early Edition also included two items on the transit referendum on January 24.

    An interview with Education Minister and former Langley mayor Peter Fassbinder was largely about the referendum. Fassbinder essentially repeated the latest comments from the Transportation Minister, but did admit that Langley actually receives more transit service than it pays for through TransLink taxes and fees.

    The Early Edition’s weekly “At the Ledge” commentary also dealt with the referendum and some of the politics that may be at play. The segment is found at approximately 1:52:20 in the January 24 edition

  5. IMO a lot of the bad blood between the province and the mayor’s council stemmed from the fight to approve the “RAV line” in 2004.

    The arguement went away from whether building RAV first instead of the evergreen line was good for the region to all sort of arguments about the P3 structure, the technology choice, the role of the 2010 olympics etc. If the governance structure is changed to have more regional control, we will have more politics, not less about the big ticket items.

    Was this really 10 years ago? I feel old now…

    “Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, an outspoken opponent who voted against RAV for the third time, said the provincial Liberal government bullied the TransLink board into accepting the deal because Victoria was more concerned about ideology than fiscal responsibility.
    ‘‘They don’t care how it affects the taxpayer – as long as they look good to their right-wing friends,’’ said Corrigan, who said he believes the computer-operated, driverless SkyTrain system is inferior technology.

    Corrigan, who favoured a light-rail option, said that after inviting the world to bid on RAV, it was ludicrous that only two companies – SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier – remained in the running for the contract.

    He added ‘‘a lot of people’’ – implying the federal and provincial governments – wanted SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier, who collaborated on SkyTrain, to build RAV.
    ‘‘They’ve been joined at the hip for the last two decades in developing SkyTrain,’’ said Corrigan. ‘‘They did Expo line, they did Millennium line. To say the two are competitors is, in my view, absurd..”

    I found this part funny:

    “‘‘What you saw today, what we’ve been doing up to this point, has been democracy,’’ said [north vancouver mayor] Sharp. ‘‘It’s been discussion, debate, arguing about the issues, and that’s what I would think the public expects us to do.’”

    ….yes democratic – it only took 3 votes to get there….

    1. Exactly my point.
      The Mayors have to demonstrate they can work together and not devolve into petty politics between municipalities (or wards) like they do in Toronto. That would be worse for the transit system.
      And working together doesn’t mean Vancouver steamrolling over everyone.

  6. I know I complain a lot about the mayor’s council, but FWIW, here’s my 2 cents on how TL should run:

    -Regional control is important for the smaller yet incrementally important day-today things that involve operations or small capital costs: bus service changes, routings, bike infrastructure etc.

    -Like it or not, victoria will have a final say on major infrastructure like new skytrain/rail lines, roads bridges etc. they will assert the final go-ahead and routing like we saw with the canada line and millenium line. they will rely on input from the region surely, but they would have their own objectives they would want to fulfil that may be at odds with the region.

    -new unpopular ideas like road pricing and car levies and fare increases will involve a lot of buck-passing. a saavy mayor’s council or MoT will learn how to trick us to gain approval.

    – IMO, ideally, translink should be run like what it is a utility. Sometimes even utilities can’t even escape politics (look at BC hydro), but for the most part a utility has autonomy,, with governmental oversight. Look at corrigan’s remarks above about choice of technology about the canada line, or dianne watt’s preference for LRT despite TL’s study showing maximal ridership and performance with skytrain for south of fraser.

  7. The mayors say they lack the staff to come up with infrastructure priorities, but didn’t TL make a draft plan with the Transport 2040 document? Are they not in agreement with Transport 2040?

    Both sides are being disingenous here – the province seems to be negotiating in the media, but the mayor’s council has no opinion on the matter despite information provided by TL.

  8. @mezzanine- Corrigan and the naysayers were proved wrong by the Canada Line achieving ridership goals well ahead of schedule. Why would we want to listen to them now?

    As Mr. Price well knows, the funding mechanism is there: the municipal polticians are just too scared politically to increase the property tax. Instead they want the provincial government to take the fall by implementing road pricing, yet another strategy that relies on taxing only one segment of the population (motorists) to pay for a benefit for all. That worked so well with the gas tax, didn’t it?

    1. If anything, I agree with road pricing. I like not waiting 30 min on the 152 on ramp just to get onto the highway. But to try introducing road pricing now when TL is already behind on planned revenue would be at risk to fail, especially with an inconsistent mayors council.

      Look at what the carbon tax did for the liberals. Their opponents mounted an insincere ‘axe the tax’ campaign that did not capture the public and ultimately failed. I can see the referendum potentially going this way. If the libs posed the question as transit increases as listed already in transport 2040 be funded be either 1) a full property tax or 2) a lesser tax composed of a mix of prop taxes car levies and road pricing it woul likely divide the mayors and portray Victoria as advocates for transit regardless of that outcome.

      1. The Port Mann and Golden Ears have shown that commuters are very sensitive to increases in the marginal cost of driving. In our two examples, the revenue from tolls is far less than the expenses. If road tolls can’t even pay for roads, why are we expecting them to pay for transit? If traffic keeps disappearing in response to small bridge tolls, tolling a half dozen more bridges might not bring in enough revenue to cover the losses on the new bridges and the maintenance and operations on the old bridges.

  9. Pigouvian taxes that try to alter behavior are inherently paradoxical. The more they succeed, the less revenue they bring in.

    If we implemented comprehensive road pricing and revenue became a problem due to decreased driving, I think we could count that as an unqualified success, not a failure.

    Perhaps we’d need another tax. Fine.

    1. Right. Road tolls benefit motorists by saving them them time, and, equivalently, money at half the median hourly rate (or whatever garbage they throw into benefit/cost analyses for highway projects).

      The point is that no or little money can be made from tolling bridges beyond the costs that they impose so they can’t be significant revenue sources in themselves.

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