COLUMN: Referendum trepidation

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The level of finger-pointing, recrimination and just plain politics in the debate over a proposed transportation referendum makes many people furious.

They have every right to be, as the level of leadership from the premier, minister of transportation and most Metro Vancouver mayors has been deplorable. Few are ready to take any risks and come up with some kind of plan – not only for transportation improvements, but also for means to fund those improvements.

The idea of a referendum came up during last year’s provincial election campaign.

People outside Metro Vancouver, who are even more sick of the endless TransLink debate than those who live here, were generally delighted that Clark suggested taxpayers be involved in selecting funding options.

Whether it was a major factor in the outcome of the election or not is debatable, but the B.C. Liberals did very well in ridings outside Metro Vancouver, with the exception of Vancouver Island. The referendum promise certainly didn’t hurt.

Clark has to follow through with it, if for no other reason than the damage it will cause her if she doesn’t. She is well aware of the taxpayer revolt over the HST and has no plans to ignore taxpayers if big tax increases are on the horizon.

However, her government has made no serious effort to craft a question or set out a series of options for transportation. At the same time, Metro Vancouver mayors, who were supposed to be involved in the process, have been ignored.

They have been increasingly vocal, as they fear they will be punished if the referendum is held at the same time as municipal elections, and they are tarred with TransLink tax increases. Yet they should be held accountable for TransLink spending decisions, as they ultimately approve the TransLink budget, now put together by a private board.

Mayors don’t want voters making decision on TransLink spending, nor associating them with TransLink taxes. The premier doesn’t want to break an election promise.

Two mayors have shown at least some modest leadership. Delta Mayor Lois Jackson has supported the idea of a referendum, rightly pointing out that taxpayers are the ones paying any extra taxes to fund TransLink and they deserve a say.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, unlike all her other colleagues, has at least put forward a funding suggestion. She has said TransLink could get additional funds through a combination of tolling all bridges at a lower level than current Port Mann tolls; boosting property tax by no more than three peer cent a year and reducing the gas tax.

While this would certainly play well in Surrey, where unfair tolling policy hits the hardest, Watts at least hasn’t shied away from actually raising taxes. There is no question that additional taxes are needed in order to fund additional transit services – particularly rapid transit in Surrey and Vancouver. Watts at least is not shutting her eyes to this fact.

Most of her fellow mayors want access to the province’s carbon tax, but few are actually ready to put their necks on the line and suggest new taxes which would affect their residents directly.

Leadership is sorely lacking in this discussion. It’s long overdue.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

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