Transit support swings to ‘yes’ in telephone town hall meeting

SOUTH FRASER — The "Yes" side may be gaining momentum if an informal poll is any indication during Thursday evening’s South Fraser telephone town hall meeting on the upcoming transit plebiscite.

Callers from Ladner, Tsawwassen, White Rock and Surrey were invited to join host Bill Good along with White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and Elizabeth Model of the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association for a question and answer telephone meeting.

Of the reportedly thousands of people listening in, 27 per cent said they would vote "Yes" in the plebiscite question, 16 per cent said they would vote "Yes, but with some concerns," 22 per cent said they were undecided and a further 35 per cent said they would vote "No."

All three guests spoke heavily in favour of the "Yes" vote, which was sponsored by the Mayors’ Council which is advocating in favour of the plebiscite question to approve a 0.5 per cent regional sales tax to fund a 10-year, $7.5 billion capital plan.

Baldwin said a 25 per cent improvement in day buses and an 80 per cent improvement in night buses will save White Rock commuters 20 minutes in roundtrips to the Vancouver Airport, 15 minutes to Metrotown, 20 minutes to UBC, and 40 minutes to North Vancouver.

"A ‘Yes’ vote will mean an extension of the 96B line from Newton to White Rock, frequent buses from South Surrey and White Rock to the Canada Line every five minutes during rush hour and new light rail on the doorsteps of thousands of residents South of the Fraser," Baldwin told callers.

Model said the funding is particularly important for Surrey, which is expected to created 160,000 new jobs in the next 30 years and absorb the bulk of one million new residents to the region over the same time span.

"It’s not just the transit riders, it’s also the drivers, too, because that will benefit us from the reduced congestion," she said, adding congestion costs the regional economy an estimated $1 billion a year. That number, she said, is expected to rise to $2 billion a year by 2045 without a change to the status quo.

"Doing nothing will cost us far more than the small 35 cent investment a day for better transit and transportation."

Callers asked a number of questions about the plebiscite vote, with many expressing a lack of confidence in TransLink to handle the money.

"We pay the money and then we have to trust where it’s going to go," said the first caller. "How much of that is going to go to Surrey?"

Hepner reassured the woman that up to 45 per cent of the plan will go to improvements in and around Surrey, including 400 new buses, which will be allocated to new routes or where there is little or no service at all.

Baldwin said a "disproportionate" amount of the funding would go to South of the Fraser transit services.

"Finally it’s our turn. Right now Vancouver has 90 per cent of their population within walking distance of a regular bus service at 15-minute intervals. South of the Fraser there’s about 20 per cent. So there’s a huge disparity."

Model said the Mayors’ Council will monitor the fund and it will be set aside from the general revenues of TransLink in order to ensure the projects designated for improvements will receive the funding they need. Baldwin reminded the caller that Jim Pattison has volunteered to act as a "gatekeeper" for the money to ensure it’s spent wisely, as he did for Expo 86.

Another caller said people need some time to develop confidence in TransLink before they can vote in the plebiscite.

"Why not wait a year and see whether or not TransLink is worthy of our trust in how they spend our money," she asked.

Baldwin said that the Mayors’ Council has been discussing TransLink governance for at least six years and that replacing former CEO Ian Jarvis with Doug Allen is the first step. Jarvis stepped down from his position last month, although it has been revealed he will continue to collect a pay cheque from the organization until June of 2016.

When another caller asked how TransLink ended up paying two CEOs to the tune of roughly $35,000 a month each, Hepner defended the decision.

"Sometimes people are not particularly geared for the role that they’ve got but they’ve got enormous skills," she said. "And I can tell you right now that this man, Mr. Jarvis, has enormous skills and will be utilized in that way."

Hepner said firing Jarvis would cost much more in severance pay and TransLink wouldn’t be able to draw upon his expertise in an advisory role.

One caller suggested the plebiscite is coming too soon after Jarvis stepping down and people need more time to decide.

But Baldwin reminded listeners that the timing of the plebiscite was determined by the provincial government, with the next available option being in 2018.

"We told the province to do a referendum properly you need about two years to set it up. We were given four months. So our choice was to either go with it at the time of the municipal elections or do it before June 1 and we chose the latter." 

The town hall meeting lasted an hour and those who didn’t get a chance to ask questions were allowed to leave a voice mail for the guests afterward.

Ballots will be mailed out to Metro Vancouver residents on March 16 and must be returned by mail-in ballot by May 29.

A simple majority of 50 per cent plus one will be considered support for the following question: "Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan? Yes or No."

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