Police and fire chiefs in Metro Vancouver are backing a Yes vote in the transit referendum, warning that worsening road congestion will otherwise increase emergency response times and either threaten lives or force up municipal spending to cope.
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, New Westminster Police Chief Const. Dave Jones and Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis told reporters Wednesday that public safety is at stake in the referendum and their internal data shows the time spent to get to calls is already on the increase.
"Our concern is about the risk of life and property damage in a gridlocked situation," said Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis, adding an extra minute to reach a call can mean tragedy. "If we have gridlock, we won't be able to get there in time."
Chiefs said they expect reduced traffic congestion on roads if voters say Yes to a 0.5 per cent sales tax to fund transit and transportation improvements.
Garis said cities in the Lower Mainland already use traffic light preemption technology to speed emergency vehicles through intersections, but there's a limit to its value if traffic lanes are clogged ahead of first responders.
He said lengthening response times as congestion worsens could force cities to build and staff more new fire halls than in an attempt to provide the same level of service.
"If we can't move the traffic, we can't get through it, we need more stations and we need more people to service those calls. And that's not within our agenda or in our budget."
Garis said investment in better transportation to prevent worse congestion is a far more efficient solution.
Chu said road congestion has similar implications for policing budgets, increasing the pressure on property taxes.
"Your options are to either have the same number of police officers but reduced levels of service – reduced response time – or to spend more money on more police officers."
He cited a one minute increase over the last five years in average VPD response times and said congestion is a significant factor.
Chu also predicted public safety improvements if better transit is approved, ranging from better dispersal of sometimes violent late night crowds in downtown Vancouver to fewer drunk drivers on the roads.
"We believe that improved transit in late night hours will reduce the motivation for people, after a night of drinking, to get behind the wheel of their car and drive while impaired."
Chu said partiers in Vancouver from outlying cities can have difficulty getting taxis to take them home and suggested better transit could reduce risks for stranded young women in some situations.
RCMP and ambulance paramedics weren't present at the declaration of support for the Yes campaign, but the chiefs there predicted all first responders would face similar challenges.
The event followed the release earlier in the week of a new report by public health officials tying health benefits to transit availability as well as a Tuesday telephone town hall by environmentalist David Suzuki, who calls a Yes vote the single biggest thing residents can do to fight climate change.
No campaign head Jordan Bateman said he has "deep concerns" about police, fire and health officials becoming politicized through the campaign, and suggested the chiefs are pleasing the mayors who control their budgets.
"The Yes side is specializing in the politics of fear," Bateman said. "It's the most ridiculous over-the-top fear mongering campaign, possibly in B.C. history."