In the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of ballots will be mailed out across Metro Vancouver asking residents a simple 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.“
If I lived in Vancouver, I would vote ‘Yes’. I would do so reluctantly. I would do so begrudgingly. And I would do so frustratedly, knowing that my provincial government had abdicated its leadership responsibility. Yet I would hope with all sincerity for a ‘Yes’ victory.
Vancouver is Canada’s most congested city and the third most congested city in North America, behind Los Angeles and Mexico City. As noted in a recent story by Ian Bailey in the Globe and Mail , “the average Vancouver driver experiences 87 hours of delay time a year based on a 30-minute daily commute.” With a population of more than 2.5 million and growing, it is without doubt that Metro Vancouver needs to make substantial investments in improving its public transportation.
But let’s be very clear. This referendum is a waste of taxpayers’ money and demonstrates an appalling lack of leadership by the Liberal Government. The province is abdicating its responsibility to govern and the level of inconsistency being displayed is truly mind boggling. This same government has no problem announcing high-profile ribbon-cutting opportunities like replacing the Massey Tunnel with a bridge or adding a second bridge across Okanagan Lake without even a hint of a referendum. So why are we having one now?
That this government would hamstring Metro Vancouver Mayors with a referendum on new funding for transit infrastructure—a policy that both the government and the official opposition support—is unconscionable.
In my opinion we are left with two fundamental and unanswered questions:
In the Spring of 2014, when the government introduced Bill 23 — South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Funding Referenda Act, the BC NDP spoke passionately against the bill. They argued, like I do above, that the government should show leadership and empower the Mayors Council to move forward with their transportation plans. They also pointed out that there were no details about any back up plan in case the referendum failed.
More recently the Premier has suggested that the Mayor’s could use Property Tax hikes to fund transit improvements if the referendum failed. In my opinion, this is the greatest abdication of responsibility we have seen so far. To reject Mayors’ initial strategy to raise funds, to then force a referendum on them that the Mayors didn’t want, and then to suggest that it is the Mayors’ responsibility to find the funding if the referendum fails, is indicative of a provincial government that is lacking leadership and doing all it can to avoid taking responsibility.
So what do I think we should be doing?
During the election I campaigned on increasing the carbon levy by $5 per year until it hits $50/tonne, at which point we could assess where we are at. Currently, the carbon levy is revenue neutral; all of the revenue collected is subsequently returned to the economy through personal income tax and small business tax credits. But it doesn’t have to be that way going forward. For example, Quebec used their carbon levy revenue to improve public infrastructure.
During the election campaign I argued that Municipalities across British Columbia are facing an infrastructure deficit. Our public infrastructure (roads, sewers, bridges etc) was built last century. It is now old and crumbling and increasingly strained as our population grows.
Property tax increases are becoming unbearable for many, particularly seniors on fixed-income. Deferring property tax payments into the future doesn’t deal with the problem today. So I argued that during the next phase of the carbon levy increase (the next four years) all monies could be returned to municipalities to support them to deal with their infrastructure deficits, including public transportation.
By steadily increasing emissions pricing, we send a signal to the market that incentivises innovation and the transition to a low carbon economy. The funding transferred to municipalities across the province provides them with resources to deal with their aging infrastructure and growing transportation issues. By investing in the replacement of aging infrastructure in communities throughout the province we stimulate local economies and create jobs.
And importantly, by moving to this polluter-pays model of revenue generation for municipalities, we reduce the burden on regressive property taxes. Done right, this model could lead to municipalities actually reducing property taxes, thereby benefitting homeowners, fixed-income seniors, landlords and their tenants.
What better time to do this than now, with the price of oil hovering at $50/barrel. Most businesses would have already budgeted for a much higher price for oil. And the beauty of this approach is that as revenues from emissions pricing go down, direct revenues from public transport go up as more people move from single passenger vehicles to the skytrain.
While I recognize it may be too late to cancel the referendum, it’s time that we start having a more open and honest discussion about our aging infrastructure, the requirements for public transport and the means of generating revenue to pay for them.