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Premier Christy Clark’s promise of a regional transportation referendum hit Metro Vancouver like a drone strike — quiet, unexpected and devastating — in the middle of the 2013 provincial election.
Municipal politicians exploded, blasting the premier for creating a new roadblock to the transit expansion they see as critical for the region’s well-being.
But now there’s no getting out of the promise that any new tax to improve transit be approved by the region’s voters, even though defeat could block TransLink’s plans for years.
Metro Vancouver will find out next year if Clark’s campaign vow was brilliant populist politics but reckless public policy, as many observers fear.
After the BC Liberals’ decisive re-election last year, Metro cities were given a tight deadline in the spring of 2014 to craft their vision of what the region needs and how to pay for it.
Mayors came back with their $7.5-billion plan, which includes light rail lines in Surrey, a Broadway subway line, a dozen new express bus B-Lines, a 25 per cent overall bus service lift and more frequent SeaBuses.
But Transportation Minister Todd Stone refused to share the existing provincial carbon tax and warned the plan may spend too much, too fast for the tastes of the province, and possibly Ottawa, both of which are to contribute large chunks.
Mayors have pressed the minister ever since for an answer on what other new funding source might fly —a new regional carbon tax, a vehicle levy or a regional sales tax.
A deal and a referendum win could finally deliver sustainable funding for TransLink that has long been elusive.
Off track from the start
It seems as if Metro mayors have always battled the province over how to pay for more transit.
For nearly all of its 15-year history, TransLink struggled to find extra money to build new transit lines and boost service as the population grew and new neighbourhoods sprang up.
The transportation authority was formed in 1999 to empower local politicians to raise taxes and be accountable for those decisions, replacing the unelected BC Transit board within Metro.
A $75 vehicle levy approved by the province was to be charged annually to put the new agency on sustainable footing with an extra $500 million over five years.
But that plan quickly went off the rails.
Motorists fought the “car tax,” the opposition BC Liberals promised in 2000 to kill it and the governing New Democrats reneged and refused to order ICBC to collect the levy in early 2001, just before the Liberals swept to power.
Ever since, TransLink has been in a financial hole.
INTERACTIVE TIMELINEView history of TransLink’s financial troubles in our timeline above. Mobile users click here.
New projects were built — notably the Canada Line in 2010 — and bus service did expand but nothing happened fast enough to deliver a real transit alternative that could get many more drivers out of cars, reduce congestion and ensure Lower Mainland livability.
Without the vehicle levy, other charges climbed: fares, property taxes, pay parking taxes and the gas tax, which cities and the province agreed to raise three times, from 10 to 17 cents a litre.
All the while, mayors complained the province pushed its own priorities ahead of the region’s — construction of the Canada Line ahead of the Evergreen Line to dovetail with the 2010 Olympics; requiring SkyTrain technology instead of cheaper light rail for both those projects; and mandating the costly fare gates/Compass card project to fight fare evasion.
That discord peaked in the near-rejection of the Canada Line in 2004 by the mayors and councillors who then served on the TransLink board — it took three votes and provincial arm-twisting before the project was finally approved.
Then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon branded the board of local politicians dysfunctional and in 2007 swept them aside and installed an appointed professional board as part of a major remake of TransLink. The mayors’ council was created but relegated to approving or rejecting tax hikes pitched by the appointed board.
In the years that followed, the mayors dug in their heels and for the most part resisted raising taxes unless they got sustainable funding for TransLink and regained greater control over its priorities.
And finally, in September 2010, it seemed a breakthrough was at hand.
Then-premier Gordon Campbell signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayors committing the province to negotiate new revenue sources for TransLink, possibly even road pricing.
Six weeks later, however, Campbell, damaged from the fight over the HST, announced he would resign.
Enter Premier Christy Clark.
Bait and switch
The next TransLink crisis was whether the Evergreen Line would actually be built and finally give Tri-City residents the rapid transit they had been promised for more than two decades. TransLink needed $40 million a year it didn’t have to cover its share of the costs.
Under pressure, the mayors voted in 2011 to approve the third bump in the gas tax to ensure the line proceeded and trusted the province would deliver a new revenue stream worth $30 million a year for promised bus improvements.
But no new source was forthcoming.
Clark instead piled onto public anger over fare evasion and executive bonuses and ordered a provincial audit of TransLink to find internal savings.
TransLink managers carved savings out of the system, axed vice-presidents, “optimized” bus routes and shelved expansion plans.
Stop-and-start talks with the province over new revenue sources resumed, with the mayors once again suggesting a vehicle levy as their top choice and then Transportation Minister Mary Polak cautioning the end result must be affordable to residents and that money come from within the region, not elsewhere in B.C.
Then came the drone strike — Clark’s 2013 election campaign promise that any new funding source has to survive a referendum.
Transit advocates denounced the proposed referendum the instant it was announced, warning the system may be paralyzed for years if the vote fails.
In the midst of the election campaign, even Polak said she was concerned about that and suggested the referendum not be about whether new taxes would be imposed, but which ones they will be.
Clark threw her under the bus the next day, insisting voters will be able to reject all new taxes — period — not be forced to pick their poison.
Whose tax is it anyway?
The government’s real agenda, many Metro mayors suspect, is to box them into what would be the unpopular move of raising property taxes — which also cuts into cities’ spending room — instead of a vehicle levy or extra sales tax, which are more likely to bring voters’ wrath on the province.
The province says property taxes still have room to rise rise because Metro Vancouver residents were absolved of paying hospital capital taxes that are charged in every other region. Those taxes were removed In Metro to make room for higher transit taxes when TransLink was created. (TransLink property taxes, about $250 per average home, are lower than residents in the Okanagan pay in taxes for hospitals and BC Transit but the overall contribution to TransLink from most car-driving Metro households is hundreds of dollars a year higher because of the 17-cent-a-litre gas tax.)
The province also argues cities let municipal wages and spending rise too fast and should have been in better position to finance TransLink had they been more disciplined.
Mayors counter property taxes will go up — under Falcon’s reform, TransLink gets three per cent more each year whether they agree or not — but they refuse to voluntarily approve more, arguing homeowners are maxed out.
Metro residents will know in a few weeks if the two sides can even agree on a tax proposal to put to voters.
If the referendum is defeated or if no agreement is reached to hold one, the mayors will be back to their same old choice: raise property taxes significantly or let transit service stagnate in the face of continued growth.
Former B.C. transportation ministers Blair Lekstrom and Kevin Falcon.
Ex-ministers Falcon, Lekstrom criticize transit referendum
Two former B.C. transportation ministers – Kevin Falcon and Blair Lekstrom – expressed reservations about the premier’s transit referendum directive this month in separate interviews with Black Press.
Falcon, once a champion of direct democracy in his early years as a political partisan, said he has since come to regard referenda as generally misguided, in light of the damage they’ve done blocking public spending in jurisdictions such as California.
Nor had he ever thought of putting TransLink taxes to a referendum when he was in charge.
“Never, ever had I considered that,” Falcon said. “I always considered referendums a bit of a cop-out for politicians. It allows us to avoid making hard decisions that should be made and defended.”
Falcon said his main concern with the referendum is that it has delayed needed transit expansion that could already be underway, and brings the “very real risk” of defeat.
MORE: Read extended Q&A interviews with Falcon and Lekstrom.
Time is “very tight” for a coherent referendum that can be well-explained to voters, he said. The mail-in vote is expected to run from March to May.
Falcon is now executive vice-president of real estate firm Anthem Capital and first publicly voiced his referendum concerns earlier this month at a business luncheon in Surrey.
Lekstrom also argued politicians are elected to make decisions and be judged on the eventual results.
“I’m not a huge supporter of governing by referendum,” Lekstrom said. “If you’re going to ask people if they want to pay more in taxes, I could give you the answer right now.”
Both ex-ministers predict some further increase in property tax will need to be part of any solution.
“I think it’s going to be a combination of funding options,” Lekstrom said. “I do believe people recognize the amount of money needed in the years ahead to meet the demands of this system is huge. It’s going to take a lot of people coming to the table.”
Neither Falcon nor Lekstrom endorse another idea mayors are eyeing over the longer term – expanded tolling or road pricing.
“I’m not a supporter of huge tolling operations,” Lekstrom said. “I think we could pay a little more in taxes overall to ensure sound transportation infrastructure throughout the province. It’s the backbone of our economy. “
Perfect scapegoat gets yet another reform
A key problem with TransLink has been who takes responsibility for it.
The original board with mayors and councillors also had three seats for provincial government representatives.
But the NDP government never filled those seats nor did the BC Liberals after they took power.
With no government reps helping make decisions and share accountability for them, TransLink became the perfect scapegoat for the province – the blame for whatever went wrong stayed in Metro Vancouver and didn’t infect the government.
A new appointed professional board took over all operational decisions in 2008, leaving mayors only able to say yes or no to new taxes.
In 2012, responding to the mayors’ demands for more control if they are to take the blame for higher taxes, the province created two seats on the board for the mayors’ council chair and vice-chair. But the mayors refused to use those seats, holding out for more improvements.
The province reformed TransLink further in 2014, giving mayors authority to define the 10-year vision that the board must follow.
In early 2015, the province is also expected to name its representative to the board, joining the two mayors’ reps who began serving this fall.
If both sides actually begin making decisions together it could usher in a more cooperative era.
Whether it will be a more transparent one is unclear. The TransLink board hasn’t made a decision in public in seven years, despite promises to open up most closed-door meetings.