FOCUS: Questioning congestion in the upcoming transit vote

FOCUS: Questioning congestion in the upcoming transit vote

The referendum is fast-approaching and debate is flying on whether the vote should and will pass. The question?

"Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan?" It’s a 10-year, $7.5 billion transportation plan for the region that the mayors are campaigning hard to garner public approval for.

Fierce campaigns have been unleashed on both the "Yes" and "No" sides of the argument.

The "Yes" side? They’ll tell you the projects are crucial to the region’s future. Without them, roads will be jam packed, costing the region billions of dollars in congestion. The "Yes" side has been joined by a plethora of groups from varying sectors including education, business, industry and more. On Wednesday, first responders announced their support in Surrey, including Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis and Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu.

From the other side of the field the "No" team, led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, will tell you government should be able to fund these projects within the envelope they currently have, that TransLink has a horrific record and shouldn’t be trusted. In a nutshell – no more taxes.

The thing is, we’ll be paying either way. It’s just that a "Yes" vote means we get to decide how, and where the money goes.

At least that’s how Gordon Price sees it. "But by the time you see it, of course, we will have started to make commitments. Investments they’ll call it, for more roads. So you’re going to pay for that," says the former Vancouver city councillor, and director of SFU’s City Program.

Price was featured in a video for the "Yes" side and in it, he warns of the consequences of a "No" vote.

Noting the region’s international reputation for transportation, Price says the region "forged a different path" than elsewhere in North America.

He said a vote against the plan would result in a "loss of vision," adding, "What kind of choice is that?" "We fall back to building more roads, more bridges, which we will not have a vote for," he said. "Really, it’s this generation’s question. Will we aim for a first-class transportation system or do we say, ‘I’m not prepared to tax myself, I’m not prepared to pay for that.’ Do we pass on what we have to young families to newcomers and children, to seniors, young adults or do we lock them into a future that has less choices?" An Insights West poll released Monday showed the "No" vote still in the lead. In an online survey of Metro Vancouver adults, 55 per cent say they will "definitely" or "probably" vote "No," while 33 per cent claim they will "definitely" or "probably" vote "Yes."

Interesting to note is that support for "Yes" has fallen below the halfway mark among residents who use public transit to get to school or work on weekdays (46 per cent) and those who bike or walk (48 per cent).

Regionally, highest levels of support for "Yes" is in Richmond and Vancouver (43 per cent) and fewer residents in municipalities located South of the Fraser (24 per cent) plan to vote "Yes."

"So the people that you have to persuade are those that are most likely to benefit. That’s the beauty of this," Price said.

"There’s a certain elegance to it – to get the people who are going to benefit to vote against it. I think there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from that. I think they’re going to revel in it. Wow. We got the people whose HandyDart services are going to be cut to vote against it. We got students to vote against it. We got everyone who believes in this region to vote against it. The damage is going to be historic."

The "we" Price speaks of is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and its campaign against the transit tax, led by Jordan Bateman. He claims Bateman has been successful in making TransLink an "object of hatred."

THE ‘NO’ SIDE

Bateman, with the CTF’s No TransLink Tax campaign, has been fierce in his criticisms of the transit authority.

Bateman said he’s feeling "cautiously optimistic" about the way things are shaping up, particularly on social media.

"The ‘No’ side is much more vocal. And these aren’t efforts we’ve been co-ordinating," he said. "We really feel the people are with us."

He said the mayors are spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars to try to get this vote, and his campaign is spending just $40,000.

"In the end, it’s in the hands of the everyday taxpayer and we don’t see a groundswell of support for TransLink."

He said government should find a way to complete the projects with dollars they already have.

"I think there’s a huge group of people out there who just feel like they’re taxed to death. Whether it’s MSP or property tax going up… people are just saying, ‘I can’t afford all this stuff.’ There’s obviously a huge contingency of people who are voting because they don’t like TransLink, but another group just can’t afford more taxes," he said.

As a resident of Langley, Bateman shares frustrations with residents who have seen their tax dollars paid to TransLink for investments on the other side of the river.

In Surrey, $480 million has been paid to TransLink over the last two decades.

"The average Surrey taxpayer must be wondering if this council has fallen and hit their heads," he said, referring to the city promoting the half per cent sales tax for transportation amidst raising taxes in its own jurisdiction.

The average Surrey tax bill is set to rise by $162 this year as the city grapples with paying for the 100 new officers the slate promised during last year’s civic election.

Bateman is concerned a new transit tax coupled with the city’s tax increases will be too much for some to bear.

"One of the attractions of Surrey is that it’s more affordable. But in one year we’ve seen a huge increase and now they’re promoting the transit tax. Under (mayors) Doug McCallum and Dianne Watts we saw tax restraint," he said.

Bateman said he feels for homeowners on fixed incomes, or who have retired, and those who are already scraping to get by.

"All these things are adding up, and I think Surrey’s mayor and council need to look at this again."

Canadian Federation of Independent Business has also joined the "No" fight, as has the Retail Council of Canada.

‘UNCONSCIONABLE TO DO NOTHING’

Surrey council has come out in favour of a "Yes" vote, planning to spend up to $300,000 on the campaign to get it. Meanwhile, White Rock and Delta have yet to come out with official positions – Delta is seeking community input.

Mayor Linda Hepner, who will receive $50,000 per year as co-chair of the mayors’ council, said congestion is already costing Metro Vancouver $1 billion in lost time, wasted fuel and pollution. By 2045, she said that’s projected to increase to $2 billion.

"What I really want residents to understand in Surrey is that because we already lead the region in terms of growth, 40 per cent of the spending in this collective mayors’ vision is dedicated to Surrey projects."

Hepner said 9,500 new cars have been registered in Surrey per year over the last 10 years.

"Think about how many cars we have in our city already and what the next decade will look like if we do nothing – the productivity, the frustration and the quality of life. I want people to understand that this is going to benefit the City of Surrey and the region for the next 100 years."

As for the half per cent sales tax, Hepner said she sees it as the "most equitable and affordable option."

"Everybody pays including businesses, including visitors, everybody pays because everybody benefits. And it was the least expensive of the other options that were out there," she said.

Asked what she says to those who don’t want to hand TransLink any more money, Hepner said she can understand that, but the focus needs to be on what the region needs to keep the economy and the people moving.

Hepner said she was sold when it was decided that independent auditing would be required each year "on every cent that comes in and every cent spent."

Without the plan, Hepner expects the gridlock will cost the city "lost productivity, increased frustration and a detriment to quality of life," because "congestion and gridlock would prevail."

"We’ve got another million people we expect over the next two decades who need to be accommodated and it’s just unconscionable… to do nothing."

Along the civic election campaign trail last fall, Hepner promised Surrey residents would be "riding light rail here in Surrey" by 2018. She said if necessary, she’d commit land and put revenues from development along the route toward paying for the system.

Asked how she’d deliver on that is the referendum question is shot down, Hepner said her "plan B" is to apply to the New Building Canada Fund, a $14-billion infrastructure program meant to finance programs of national and regional significance. She also plans to bring in the private sector to help finance the project, and indicated she’s already in talks with one organization already.

But for now, Hepner said she’s putting all her energy and resources into getting a "Yes" vote.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR US?

Paul Lee, Surrey’s rapid transit and strategic projects manager, said all in all, the plan would mean 55 per cent of Surrey residents and 65 per cent of jobs would be within walking distance of frequent transit, up from 20 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.

"That means minimum 15-minute service, seven days a week and likely 15 hours a day," he explained.

So what exactly is in the package for Surrey? A big-ticket item for the city is the Surrey First-promised LRT line, 27 kilometres of it in the next 12 years. The plan calls for the first phase, along King George Boulevard and 104th Avenue, in seven years. A new, tolled four-lane Pattullo Bridge is in the package as well.

Also in the transportation plan for Surrey is variety of bus service improvements, including expansion of service to Clayton, Morgan Creek and Anniedale and two new B-Lines (one from Fraser Highway to connect Surrey to Langley until LRT is in service, and another on Scott Road to connect the SkyTrain station to Newton). As well, B-Line service will be extended to White Rock Centre. These buses are to run on 7.5-minute intervals.

Other benefits include a 30 per cent increase in HandyDART service and an 80 per cent increase in night bus service.

But it’s not just transit expansion, Lee explained. There’s a "significant increase" in money for road investments. In Surrey, that would mean widening of 64th Avenue, Fraser Highway and King George Boulevard to the south.

WHAT HAPPENS IF PLEBISCITE FAILS?

If the referendum fails, Price expects "we’re going to have to spend two or three times – maybe more – what we were going to spend on transit for less results. Nobody builds their way out of congestion by just building more roads."

And a "No" vote doesn’t mean status quo remains, he stressed.

"I think people believe that somehow we’ll patch together, we’ll find the money… but what they will have done is voted ‘No.’ And ‘No’ is what’s going to resonate… So it’s a ‘No’ against transit. That is going to be the interpretation (of the vote). Not that we want to reform TransLink."

According to Bateman, a "No" vote will send a clear message that "people don’t trust TransLink, that they’re tired of the wasteful spending that goes on there. They want an open and transparent government agency. A side message will be that a lot of folks are feeling very stretched by their tax burden already."

He expects the province to pick up the Pattullo Bridge seeing as the structure is in dire need of replacing, calling it "disingenuous" for the mayors to include it in the plan.

And he said Hepner will move onto plan B for light rail, seeing as she promised it in the civic election.

As for transit authority, he hopes the mayors, the premier, the minister of transportation and the TransLink board have a summit to discuss the issues brought up during the referendum campaign.

"I think you’ve got to start with the board. This is a board of directors people had high hopes for, I had high hopes for, when the system was changed in 2007. The first thing they did was decide they were going to meet in secret and give themselves raises. Openness and transparency has got to be more than a buzz word. It has to be a philosophy," said Bateman. "We want real leadership from our elected officials, not this lame tax grab attempt. Let’s really dig into the issues here."

He noted White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin criticized him for running a campaign on emotion. But for Bateman, the "Yes" side is running a campaign on fear: Fear of congestion, fear of economic disaster.

"People see through that. It’s all nonsense, they know it’s all spin," Bateman said. "There’s nothing to fear, the morning after ‘No’ vote, seabuses will still be in the harbour, SkyTrain will still be still running, buses will still be there. The sky won’t be falling."

If you are a registered voter, you can vote by mail from March 16 to May 29. Visit Elections.bc.ca/plebiscite

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