Governance & Politics
July 17, 2013

Referendum: Ladner's 13 reasons ….

… why a TransLink funding referendum would be wrong


My favourite:

3. Because a referendum is a costly, overly simplistic, inefficient way to make complex public policy decisions. The HST referendum, although different in being provincewide, cost an estimated $9 million to administer, with $250,000 in public money given to each side, with the government spending another $5 million in pro-HST advocacy, and an estimated $10 million to $20 million spent by private HST supporters.
The same decision would have taken a few hours in the legislature.

Add your own.

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Peter Ladner does a guest column in Metro:
There has been a lot of misguided commentary about the proposed referendum on transit funding. The premier had a populist brain burst during the election when she blurted out the promise of a November 2014 referendum on new sources of money to keep buses and SkyTrains running and expand to new routes.
Of course: Ask the people directly! Let the people decide on which new taxes they want! Look how well it worked with the HST!
Rather than oppose this referendum, as the smarty-pants mayors, councillors and so-called forward thinkers are all doing, they should learn from the premier. Every time some piece of essential, complex infrastructure has to be funded, go to the people with a simple yes or no question. Why didn’t someone think of this before?
So I propose we really put this idea into action.

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Are rural-dominated legislatures fighting a war on transit that they can win by default?  It looks that way in the U.S., as close as our nearest neighbour:
From the Seattle Times:

The Legislature failed to grant local cities and counties the power to ask voters for transportation funding. We will face crippling congestion in the coming year.  (Without the option to ask voters for funding, the county will need to cut the transit system by 17 percent in 2014.)
A coalition of business, labor, environment, social services, and regional and local officials warned state legislators of the dire consequences of the massive transit cuts King County Metro bus service would face without this option.
In the state Senate, leaders chose to ignore those warnings and avoided action. Hollow promises of action next year or beyond will come too late to avert massive transit cuts that will gridlock the region. The Legislature should regroup and reconvene in a special session this year to act on transportation.

One supposes that representatives outside the Puget Sound urban area see transit as a social service for the urban poor, even if paid for by local taxpayers.  Ironically, by standing in the way of sufficient funding, they are also hobbling business and the source of wealth that finances infrastructure in their districts.

King County is the economic engine of the state of Washington. Forty percent of the state’s jobs are located in King County. Transit is critical to our county’s transportation network. It is how 43 percent of people get to work in downtown Seattle.
As employment is reaching pre-recession highs in the Seattle region, transit ridership is growing dramatically.
It’s an affordable, efficient and environmentally friendly way for people to get to work in a place where expanding highways to accommodate more cars is often prohibitively expensive and geographically constrained.

Proponents of the referendum can argue that, unlike in Washington, Metro Vancouver is being given a vote.  Masterfully, the Premier has positioned herself so that a ‘no’ vote on a referendum to provide new sources of revenue for transit will be seen as a vote against TransLink, presumably without the provincial government having to take the blame.
But what happens the day after a no vote?  Is it viable to say to the Lower Mainland: No more transit for you, regardless of the million more people who show up and the increased congestion that will hobble the economy?
The best advice I’ve heard so far is that, if a referendum goes ahead, it has to be about jobs and economic growth – the same planks used by Christy Clark to win the last election.  Without effective transit service, as Washington State will learn, it is not just the poor who get punished.
[As of July 12, there are 491 days to the proposed referendum date.]

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From News1130:

With fewer than 500 days to put it together, is it even possible for all parties to agree on a transit referendum in Metro Vancouver?
One transportation expert is very skeptical.
Even crafting the agreement is going to be a challenge, according to SFU City Program Director Gord Price. He doesn’t think it has been properly-thought through.
“Can you agree on the wording? Can you mount a campaign? Can you overcome any opposition there may be on the united front especially when the province isn’t likely to be a part of it? Is there any realistic chance of it passing?” he wonders
He figures even putting the question out is going to take a lot of time. “I think the real question is ‘Should we even try?’ Is this any exercise where there is enough possibility of winning that it is worth everybody now focusing on this intensely for the next year?”
When it comes to the campaign, he says “You’ve got to also somehow find money, and large amounts of it, because it will have to be a major media campaign to convince the public that all these things we say we want… we are prepared to pay for it when the bill is going to be in the multi-billions of dollars.”
Metro Vancouver mayors unanimously voted against a referendum last month, saying it would divide the region.
The council is also pressing the new transportation minister to abandon the promise, but there are so far no plans to do so.

I discussed the referendum with a councillor from one of the northeast municipalities who, despite his enthusiasm for transit, doubts a referendum would win.  He’s doubtful that there will be much in it for those beyond the Evergreen Line.  Indeed, if there was a strong challenge from anti-tax candidates, he might be, by the time of the municipal election, at best neutral and at worst forced to oppose it.
There’s also an interview with the new Transportation Minister Todd Stone in the Sun today.   (I had forgotten that he was an assistant to Premier Gordon Campbell; he is certainly that style of leader – and was probably influenced by Campbell in the same way that Campbell was influenced by Mayor Art Phillips when he was his assistant.)
Astonishingly, other than a question regarding tolling policy, there is no reference to the referendum.  Yet this will be a huge test for Stone’s abilities.  Can he find a way through the tangle that the Premier has created with a requirement for a vote on any new funding source for TransLink with a ‘none-of-the-above’ option?
[As of July 8, there are 495 days left – if the referendum is held on municipal election day.]

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The Mayors’ Council thinks not

Referenda are tools without context and would be divisive to the region… [and] making complex policy by referenda is contrary to principles of good governance.

The real question is whether the Premier wants a ‘Yes’ vote on the result.  If so, she will have to take some ownership of the question – which I expect is the sign the mayors are looking for.
If the Premier believes ‘No’ is an acceptable response from the voters for any new funding – and hence no transit expansion for Metro Vancouver – then why should the local politicians and leaders participate in an expensive, divisive process that gets them no further ahead?
You can vote now on this question in the Metro newspaper poll:

Should the question of how to fund TransLink be put to a referendum?   At posting, about 62 percent say no.  Vote here at bottom of article. Read more »

It’s just a matter of time before the awfulness of the proposed referendum (for any new source of revenue for transit funding in the region) becomes fully apparent.  This is, despite the appeal of breaking through the impasse between region and province, not a proposition that has much chance of success.
To get a taste of the debate likely to ensue, just check out the letters in today’s Sun.  In all the three, there are either mistakes or misunderstandings – but so what?  TransLink serves as the convenient whipping boy, and few are likely to come to its defense.  The frame will be set before the wording of the initiative is even settled on: Send TransLink a message to protest a grievance.
If the Province proceeds with a referendum under the current proposal, the implication is pretty clear: ‘We do not want to take responsibility for approving taxes to fund transit expansion for Metro Vancouver – but don’t want to have to say that.  The referendum will do it for us.  Meanwhile, we expand highways.’


[No. of days until civic elections and possible referendum: 509]


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Robert Steuteville in Better! Cities & Towns explores what ‘peak car’ means for urban places, transportation, and policy:

Per capita driving (in the U.S.)  is down 8.75 percent, and is now at 1996 levels. The decline has no end in sight. … . The trend is most pronounced among the young. “Between 2001 and 2009, the average yearly number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds dropped a staggering 23 percent,” wrote Brad Plumer of The Washington Post. This cohort includes both Millennials and Generation X, but the trend is strongest among Millennials. . Ollder drivers are (also) contributing to the end of the driving boom …. . A US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report looks at three scenarios: “Back to the Future” where driving starts to rise again at historical levels, “Enduring Shift” which assumes the decline “is real and lasting,” and “Ongoing Decline” where today’s VMT trend grows into a bigger change. … .

Assuming walkable neighborhoods and driving trends are mutually reinforcing, some version of Enduring Shift or Ongoing Decline seems likely going forward. Among 16 to 34 year olds, transit use is up 40 percent since 2001, Plumer reports. …

Other factors are “new mobility” programs like carshare and bikeshare, which only work in walkable places. These services are centered on downtowns and close-in neighborhoods, with a handful scattered in the densest suburbs. The neighborhoods served by carshare will grow over time, and you can chart the spread of high-value areas by Zipcar locations. Bicycling, overall, rose by a quarter from 2001 to 2009. …
Full article here.

In a theme that you’re going to hear repeated frequently from now on, Metro Vancouver could well be voting in less than a year and a half as to which direction we are going to take: moving forward into a transit-oriented future or locking ourselves into a roads-only strategy.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.

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I’ve been conducting a very informal (and too limited) poll to ascertain whether the referendum on TransLink funding options, required to go to a vote in the Metro region no later than the next civic election on November 15, 2014, has a reasonable chance of passing.

If the vote is lost, then the consequences are dire, since surely it would be suicidal for a Liberal government, with the HST still painfully fresh, to go back to British Columbians with a new, negotiated deal that involves a tax.  In other words, there is no Plan B.
So we need a very hard-headed discussion now as to whether this process is actually do-able.  If not, then why start?
The region might still at this point say to the provincial government: “This initiative is not, in our assessment,  winnable, so we’re not starting.  There won’t be a ballot measure next year.  What do you want to do?
“If your position is ‘No vote, no transit,’ then say that now.  We’ll be no further behind than where we would likely be on Nov 16.  And you would have to take some political responsibility for rejecting transit plans and, with it, our regional growth strategy.”
If the Province then wants to consider other options, now is also the time to start discussions, before the machinery gears up, sides are taken and we’re locked into a process that could, in its worst manifestations, rip the region apart.
Or, more optimistically, if this referendum is winnable, then we need to decide that now too, since it would break a deadlock and move us forward in a way that wouldn’t be possible without public affirmation.  But we’d need to move fast, be united, and find strong leaders to make it a reality.
So you can see why it’s necessary to get a realistic sense of ‘winnability.’
Yesterday I had the chance to ask a group of knowledgeable Vancouverites on matters urban.  It was at  Stantec’s Urban Development Innovation Series that brings together key industry leaders who, in many ways, shape our urban environments across public and private sectors, academia and industry.  Who better to ask.
I tried a straw poll with a question phrased as neutrally as possible: “Can a question on the ballot at the time of the next civic election that specifies taxes needed to fund transit growth in the region (with none of the above as an option) have a chance of winning a majority?
Of the group of about 50, not a single hand was raised.  None thought it had a chance.
But it’s still too early to decide.  We’ve hardly had a chance to consider how this process will work, much less all the factors that need to be weighed.  No one has yet looked at this challenge, or the process involved, in any depth.
The first off the mark is NPA councillor George Affleck, who yesterday tabled a motion at Vancouver City Council that calls for the Mayor and those councillors who represent Vancouver at Metro to report back on the needed information before the discussion gets serious.
Here it is:

4. Transit Referendum

MOVER: Councillor George Affleck



1. The City of Vancouver believes strongly in an efficient, effective transit system;

2. The Premier of British Columbia recently announced that a referendum on Metro Vancouver transportation funding will be held no later than the Civic Election of 2014.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of Vancouver Directors to the Metro Vancouver Board ask Metro Vancouver to report back on:

1) Transportation and funding issues in Metro Vancouver that need to be included in a consensus position, possible funding options and mechanisms, and impediments or issues that need to be identified or resolved beforehand;

2) The potential economic, social and environmental ramifications of referendum results on Metro Vancouver;

3) Who would be responsible for developing transportation priorities for Metro Vancouver;

4) How campaigns for the referendum will be funded and estimated costs;

5) The possible roles of Translink, its Board, the Mayor’s Council, Metro Vancouver and its Board, and Municipal Councils in a referendum process;

6) Clarification of the rules by which the referendum would be held, how the outcome would be determined and whether the results would be binding on all parties involved.

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