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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.

The Problem with the Referendum

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:

  1. Why are we having a referendum on a policy when both the Government and Official Opposition, as well as business groups and other stakeholders, all agree that new funding is required to address congestion in the Lower Mainland?
  2. If we go through with a referendum and it gets voted down, what is the Plan B for the BC Liberals to address the transportation issues facing our largest population centres?

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.

An Alternative Approach

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.


  1. Marc-
    February 22, 2015 at 11:24 am

    You’re right that property taxes are not the best way to raise the money, but a regressive sales tax is MUCH worse. It hits the poor disproportionately. For that reason alone, I would vote against it.

    Plus, our sales taxes are already some of the highest in North America—if not the world—so why raise them?

    Why is no one talking about how regressive a sales tax increase is?

    Mass transit helps everybody whether you use it or not. It’s worthy of good funding.

  2. Larry Hatch-
    February 21, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    One of the things I do not like about this referendum is the lack of choice by the ones that pay. In Surrey we have been told that the tolling of the Port Mann was not effecting the traffic on King George. Boulevard yet sometimes it is impossible to turn left out of are complex to head north towards the Puttalo and now her highness Hepner wants Light Rail Transit. More congestion and even bigger accidents at intersections like 88th and King George. Before the election she was babbling about a Ferris wheel in Bridgeview and now she wants another amusement park ride. She should research cities like Portland who have light rail but have dedicated space and actually avoid intersections on most of its line, below grade and above. I am voting no because we know that if the elected officials hold a meeting to discuss anything to do with transit they just ignore the public and do what they want.

  3. Dave-
    February 21, 2015 at 11:06 am

    they want more money to squander? can’t even get buses to be close to on time waiting 45 min. for a bus that runs every 15 just isn’t a job well done.

  4. Jamie Kelley-
    February 21, 2015 at 7:59 am

    I live in Vancouver, use public transit daily and like many, will vote no to register deep disgust with the prolific waste and incompetence of Translink.

    Yes, of course that is not the issue, but it is a non binding referendum and people here will use it to send a message to government.

    The Compass catastrophe cost $300-million and we are stuck with thousands of unworkable, unwieldy and dysfunctional gateposts.

    And our mayor’s pet project, one for which there has been absolutely no public consultation, a underground subway on Broadway to Arbutus, is an idea mired in stupidity.

    Any municipal politician with their ears to the ground should have known from the get-go that this referendum will not fly. People are just too pissed off with the government’s waste of taxpayers’ money and it’s deaf response to any consultation.

  5. bob robertson-
    February 20, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Just quadruple the Transit zone fees. Loser cruiser losers pay. I pay for my car, my ridiculous insurance, repairs, the highest gas prices in Canada (including 17Cents of EVERY liter that already goes directly to Translink’s greedy coffers). You transit riders want better transit, Users pay…and while we’re at it, cut down on Translink exec pay (the just departed CEO, who is being kept on as a ‘paid consultant”) made FAR more than the CEO of the New York City Transit system (the busiest, most complex and best working system in North America)…transit “cops” making 6 figures to just write fee skip tickets…basically meter maids making double what actual ones make. Too much “line our wallets” pork in the system…add this to constantly breaking down Skytrain (you wanna add 3 MORE lines? Fix the lines you already have). Get the constantly delayed Paygate and Compass systems ON LINE and functioning (will greatly increase revenue).

    Get Translinks financial house in order first, then (and ONLY THEN) should we talk about a FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE plan to slowly expand transit. Moonbeam and the Yes side’s fear based “sky will fall if you vote No” tactics are NOT getting anyone on board based on the latest polls. Epic Fail Greedy Translink. If we can’t even get the public onside for HST (which would have been clearly GOOD for the Entire economy provincially if it was implemented), there’s no way the tax weary people of the region are going to say yes to keep funding Translinks’s corrupt greedy coffers…

  6. Charles-
    February 19, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    While I would like to see answers to our transportation challenges here on the Lower Mainland, this is not the way. We need some real leadership and a transportation plan for the whole region, not just a few targeted parts of the region. I live in Langley. As of last year I pay $1500 a year out of my pocket to cross a bridge which I used to cross for free. Yes, the bridge is new and yes I save about 20 minutes a day driving over the bridge. The option for me to take transit would add more than an hour a day to my commute, so, I’m afraid, it is not on for me. I want to spend that time with my son, not on a bus or Skytrain. I am not about to vote to spend more money out of my paycheque for something that me or my neighbours will get absolutely no benefit from.

  7. Lucien Frauenfelder-
    February 19, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    we came to Vancouver in 1979 to a beautiful city,full on charm and history, then came Expo 1986 and things started to change and not for the better. The land was purchased by Chinese developers and the the result is that there is now an overpriced high rise city that is completely congested,and of course it is now up to the people in the suburbs that have to pay the price for living out of town,paying tolls and looking at glass towers that are mainly empty. Good thing we move to the Island and can avoid even visiting abomination

  8. Sian-
    February 19, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    I think many people are looking for a radical change in how translink is run before agreeing to pay more tax. Translink’s management of resources is inept, incompetent, reprehensible, unconscionable….need I go on? I would vote “yes”if I felt that transportation needs would be met. As it is…. It is a “no” vote from me. So, ultimately, I think that for many, the referendum will reflect not the recognition that we desperately need to address transportation needs but rather a non-confidence vote in translink.

  9. Sarah-
    February 19, 2015 at 10:10 am

    There is one detail that you neglected to mention with regards to the referendum. That its Translink that will be the recipient of said funds. Translink has repeatedly mismanaged the finances entrusted to them. There is zero accountability of Translink, they are unelected tax collectors. This referendum could fail because the people of Greater Vancouver don’t want a tax increase to just hand over to Translink so that their executives can fatten their wallets.

    • February 19, 2015 at 11:19 am

      Hi Sarah, you raise an excellent point. I have heard this from many people. The botched Compass Card installation is just one excellent. It’s clear that Translink needs to regain public trust.

      • Simon de Weerdt-
        April 3, 2015 at 9:41 pm

        The compass card program was mandated by the province and Kevin Falcon, The difficulties with it involve questions as to whether the contractor, Cubic, has met project specs.

        Translink has a PR problem, perhaps due to their complex and obtuse funding model and unclear governance. Everyone seems to find fault and neither the province nor the mayors are taking responsibility.

    • Brad-
      February 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

      The money will actually be administered by the provincial government and won’t go directly to TransLink. The money will also be independently audited yearly, and the money can only be used for the projects laid out in the plan. None of the money can go towards executive compensation, for example.

      This plan doesn’t give TransLink a blank cheque, it has all kinds of strings attached.

      Now, if you don’t trust the provincial government, that’s another story… :-)