BALDREY: Transit referendum looms large in Lower Mainland

BALDREY: Transit referendum looms large in Lower Mainland

Premier Christy Clark’s plan to hold a referendum on how to fund transit in Metro Vancouver is shaping up to have a far-reaching impact few may have foreseen when it was first attached to the B.C. Liberal election platform.

Before last spring’s election, that platform was viewed as the grab bag of ideas of a party that was heading for electoral oblivion. But the B.C. Liberals’ surprise victory meant the platform’s contents suddenly became very relevant and a transit referendum went from what at first looked like a throwaway idea to a political reality. And now I think it’s fair to say a number of Metro Vancouver mayors are getting a little freaked out about the whole thing.

Although we have yet to see the referendum question itself, it’s a fairly safe bet it will include at least one option for raising money (i.e., taxes or user fees) to pay for transit and transportation projects.

And that means it could easily be seen by voters as a some kind of thinly-disguised tax grab. Things will get very sticky for mayors if they declare their support for a mechanism to raise money on the backs of voters to pay for the transit projects they’ve been pushing for.

A basic rule of thumb seems to be that Metro Vancouver residents want more transit and less congestion on the roads, but want someone else to pick up the enormous tab that goes with those desires.

We’re talking about spending about $20 billion over the next few decades, not exactly chump change. And that means any revenue measure (or measures) to pay that kind of bill would have to be substantial. While most mayors agree there is a desperate need for more transit, they don’t agree on which projects should be a priority, nor do they agree on how to pay for them.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, for example, has long advocated for a road pricing system that would slap small tolls on almost every bridge, but she has yet to win much support from fellow Metro Vancouver political leaders.

So the stage is being set for the referendum to become a political orphan, with very few politicians taking ownership of it. So far, at least, Clark continues to leave the impression she wants the mayors to step up and champion the "yes" vote while she remains in the background.

But with the referendum tied to municipal elections in November, what are the chances many mayors will advocate for a tax measure when there is a real chance their opponent in a mayoralty race takes the "no" position? In fact, will an actual tax revolt emerge instead? Given the bruising experience of the ill-fated HST and the entrenched crankiness of voters when it comes to tax hikes and user fees, I’d guess the potential for one being created by the transit referendum is very real.

A wild card factor in this increasingly messy business may be Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Unlike his premier, Stone has said he intends to aggressively campaign in the referendum.

Stone has been doing his homework. He’s studied more than 60 similar referendums in the U.S., and he knows referendums only succeed with a fair amount of legwork and campaigning over a long period of time.

Unfortunately, Stone may have left things too late. The successful campaign in Los Angeles that saw voters pass a half-cent increase to the sales tax to pay for transit improvements occurred after a multi-year public campaign.

Stone has just 10 months before the November vote. And if few mayors join with him in that campaign, it’s hard to see the vote passing.

In fact, the municipal elections themselves may suffer a kind of collateral damage from the transit referendum. Depending on the question and whether there is any substantial backlash among the voting public, the potential exists for mayors or councillors to lose their posts because of this one issue.

I don’t think anyone saw this coming when the referendum idea was first unveiled by a premier whose days in office seem to be numbered.

But now that the transit referendum is barreling down the track, and it’s headed straight at the mayors of a region that simply can’t find consensus on what is arguably the number-one issue facing it. Some of them may pay a hefty price for all those years of not agreeing.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC