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Referendum on new TransLink taxes has fans, foes

The BC Liberals' surprise pledge of a referendum in November 2014 on any new taxes or tolls for TransLink is getting mixed reaction from transportation watchers.

Canadian Taxpayers' Federation B.C. director Jordan Bateman said the election promise unveiled Monday would give local voters the power to block any new revenue tool for transit expansion they decide is unjustified.

"That will really change the tenor of the discussion around TransLink," Bateman said.

"From my point of view, that's great. Direct democracy is always the best democracy."

Metro Vancouver mayors have asked the province for new funding sources – a vehicle levy, a share of carbon tax, a small regional sales tax or some form of road pricing – to give TransLink the money for a massive transit expansion that would include rapid transit through Surrey to Langley and west on Vancouver's Broadway corridor to UBC.

But some Metro Vancouver mayors are critical of the promised referendum, saying it threatens to dumb down the important debate over the future expansion of transit and put the long-term future of the region at risk.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts warned it could divide the region, with voters in cities that already have SkyTrain lines refusing to vote for the higher taxes needed to build new lines in the remaining underserved parts of the region.

"There are going to be people who don't want to have any expansion in the region whatsoever and that leaves the communities that are growing that have had no investment in rapid transit at a disadvantage," Watts said.

"Surrey has paid for significant amounts of infrastructure north of the Fraser," she said. "Now that we're looking to expand south of the Fraser, where 70 per cent of the region's growth is coming, we just really need to stop playing politics and get the job done."

Watts said the debate over funding for TransLink has dragged on for years and waiting until November 2014 would keep the region at a standstill until then.

"Not to be able to do anything for another two years for us in Surrey is simply unacceptable," said Watts, who questioned why there isn't a referendum on Liberal plans for changes to income tax levels or the sale of Crown land.

Watts also said the Liberal platform wrongly calls rapid transit for Surrey a "new" proposal, noting it was promised in the Provincial Transit Plan more than five years ago by then-premier Gordon Campbell.

Mayors' council chair Richard Walton doesn't reject the idea of a referendum but said he's concerned 2014 may be too soon to have an informed public debate on a complex issue like road pricing, which could see motorists charged to drive on major routes.

That public discussion would need to address not just what residents would pay in extra charges, but what they would get for the investment and the downside if it was rejected.

"Saying no is easy," Walton said. "But people don't necessarily understand the repercussions of saying no."

Both he and Watts said the referendum idea came without any warning despite months of meetings with Transportation Minister Mary Polak.

The timing of the vote for November 2014 is to coincide with the next civic elections, saving money.

SFU City Program director Gordon Price said a referendum could be a disaster for the region, blocking transit upgrades needed for the livability of the growing region.

"It's an excruciatingly bad idea," he said, pointing to transportation funding referenda in U.S. states, where he said good policy is often sacrificed to craft an initiative that might pass.

"It just invites everything to be framed as part of a cynical political exercise that's put through the grinder of ideology, partisanship and parochialism. It becomes what will sell. Not what's right or how do we make the tradeoffs that need to be made."

Price said the move reflects a continuing provincial government bias against transit and in favour of bridge and freeway projects that appeal to drivers but ultimately undercut the aim of more transit use and lower emissions.

"Why is only one part of the transportation system up for a referendum?" Price asked. "I want to vote on the [replacement of the] Massey Tunnel. And why didn't they do that with the Port Mann Bridge?"

Price said he believes the referendum promise is designed so the Liberals can dodge responsibility for whatever deal may be struck with Metro mayors.

"Everything is framed so they have an out," he said. "This just sounds like a way to avoid making the really tough decisions."

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