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Transit referendum would be mail-in vote in March

North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton is chair of Metro Vancouver
North Vancouver District Mayor Richard Walton is chair of Metro Vancouver's regional mayors' council that controls tax increases for TransLink.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

A referendum next March on new taxes to expand Metro Vancouver's transit system will – if it happens – be conducted as a mail-in ballot.

But Mayors' council chair Richard Walton is far from confident the vote will take place.

He said talks with the provincial government continue and while there has been some behind-the-scenes progress, there has been no breakthrough.

Walton said a deal on the size of the expansion and how it would be funded, along with referendum details, must be hammered out in advance of the next mayors' council meeting Sept. 20 or else local politicians will be immersed in civic election campaigns, after which there won't be enough time to educate the public about the options.

"There's no question if a referendum happens it will be late March," Walton said, adding that's when there would be the most people and particularly transit-riding students in town. "You want to engage as many university students as possible because they're heavy transit users."

Mayors in June laid out their transit investment vision for the region to meet public demand for much more bus service and new rapid transit lines as Metro's population grows.

The preferred source of new funding for TransLink would be a new regional carbon tax – after the province ruled out sharing some of its existing carbon tax revenue – with some form of mobility pricing to come over the longer term.

But some mayors have wavered on the short-term source – Walton said other alternatives to the carbon tax that are still on the are an annual vehicle levy or a regional sales tax.

Charging more in carbon tax for TransLink in Metro Vancouver would effectively mean higher gas prices – in addition to home and business heating costs – and would be prone to the same problems as TransLink's existing gas tax, which has been pulling in less than TransLink expected as cars get more efficient and drivers find ways to reduce fuel use or buy it outside Metro.

"There may have to be some pragmatic deviation," Walton said.

The province's biggest objection has been the large contributions toward the $7.5-billion capital investment plan that the mayors want from the provincial and federal governments.

But Walton said he believes Transportation Minister Todd Stone will accept the plan as written, even though there may be disagreements for now on how to raise the money.

"The vision is sound and it does fulfill what the province requested," Walton said. "It's really a statement of priorities for the region."

It also remains unclear as to whether mobility pricing – which could include some form of regional tolling or per kilometre road use fees – will be on the referendum ballot.

Walton is in California next month to gather more information on U.S. transportation-funding initiatives.

Los Angeles area residents recently voted 67 per cent to approve a 0.5 per cent increase in the local sales tax for transit expansion.

Walton said most voters there may not use transit but recognized its value and he hopes similar logic will prevail here.

"Nobody was ever advocating for a second you get rid of freeways in Los Angeles," he said. "But by shifting some of those travel patterns and freeing up capacity on the roads, a lot of people's commutes is a lot shorter."

One difference: Los Angeles politicians had 32 months before the referendum to sell their ideas – Metro Vancouver mayors may have at most six months.

Another question mark is whether the province, including the premier, will campaign for the yes side.

Mayors want to see active involvement from the province, but Premier Christy Clark previously suggested the province would be officially neutral on how residents should vote.

"My understanding of referenda in the States is that it's critical you get your levels of government aligned and supportive," Walton said. "It certainly increases the chances of a referendum passing."

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