Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 24th, 2013

Running Campaigns, Winning Votes

with 7 comments

Carbon Talks organized a forum today with this title to get discussion going on how to win the upcoming Translink funding referendum with contributions from Bill Tieleman – based on his winning experience with the anti HST and anti STV campaigns in BC – and Denny Zane Executive Director of MoveLA based on winning Proposition R on the 2008 Ballot which secured a half cent sales tax to support improved transportation in Los Angeles County. It is important to note that although throughout the discussion both talk about transit improvements – which in LA went mostly to more light rail lines, it also included improvements to existing freeways, but no new ones.

I was at home watching the live webcast while eating lunch, so to make things easy for myself I have put together a storify using the carbon talks designated hashtag #bctranspo – which I have lightly edited as some of the live tweets were a bit fumbled. I have also deleted those which added nothing to reporting the talk but simply commented on the topics.

The whole thing is now on the Carbon Talks youtube channel and runs 1 hour and 24 minutes. Reading this summary might be quicker, but you will probably also miss some stuff.

Denny Zane opened by talking about the gridlock that seized LA county prior to the measure being put together. At that time LA Metro had $0 set aside for expansion projects and new capacity even though 3m more people were expected to move to the region in the next thirty years. “It was like Chicago was moving in.” There was Mayoral leadership in the campaign and there was only one place to go for money. In California every revenue source has to be passed by a referendum with a 2/3 majority. This was the “crazy legacy” of Proposition 13, which meant that most people felt that there was no hope of raising taxes for anything. MoveLA is a broad based coalition which includes business,  labour and environmental groups which proposed a half cent increase in local sales tax mostly to add rail lines to their transit network. Since the closure of the Pacific Electric Railway in 1961 there are many unused rail corridors and the overall network will reflect much of the old PER interurban system.

While they had strong political leadership it was important to hold the coalition together. They acknowledged that freeways matter – but they were not going to build any more of them. They would make sure that the existing system became safer with improved intersections, for example and also ensure a state of good repair for local boulevards. They also found that once the measure passed they could use the revenue stream to fund bond issues – and persuaded the federal government to become a ‘smart lender’. By converting the federal grants into forgiveness for interest they could fund a thirty year program in ten, achieving  faster results and lower costs. They also proposed Measure J which would have extended the program to 60 years which did not pass but did win 66.1% of the vote (not the required 66.6%) This was partly ude to a lower turnout election.  Measure R was on the same ballot as the 2008 Presidential Election which saw a win for Barack Obama. LA County is heavily Democratic.

Bill Tieleman was on the winning side of both the fight against the  Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) . He stressed the importance of having a strategy – which is focussed on the ends and is an art – that is supported by tactics – the means – which is science. He started with two simple words of advice “Stop Whining!”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Sun Tzu The Art of War

Winning this referendum is entirely possible: 70% of transit referendums in the 2008 US general election passed, even though America is largely right wing and anti-tax. Hundreds of thousands of people in Metro Vancouver want to see better transit. They are the people who use the system every day to get to work or school. It will really help if we can get a fair question – and even government support. Both earlier campaigns had surprising cooperation  across party lines and sectional interests. “There is room for everyone on this bus.” This is an opportunity to improve transit, improve our lcoal economy and improve air quality. People need to understand the value proposition: there must be tangible results, but it is not a radical idea. It cannot be soft sold to drivers: the hard core of drivers will be opposed as will the Canadian Federation of Taxpayers.

The anti HST was constantly in the news as it has no resources for widespread advertising – unlike the government which outspent them 100 fold. They had to have earned media to explain the problem and the solution.

“However beautiful the strategy you should occasionally look at results”    Winston S Churchill

He also cited the Pirate Code for his recommendations – they are guidelines rather than rules. This region needs and deserves better public transit.

Q & A

In answer to the first question about the $4m that had been raised to support prop R, Denny Zame said that while MoveLA is a permanent institution there was a separate, specific committee formed to fight the referendum campaign. They had a few weeks in which to raise that sum.

qs:  We have not reached gridlock here and What will the question be?

A   If Translink takes the lead we have a huge problem. People are fed up with the inadequacies of the transit system – overcrowding, passups, lack of service in the suburbs etc. Our support will come from transit users who want a better system. It doesn’t have to get as bad as LA was to need improvement. LA Metro had had a period of very low public esteem and lots of trouble with the local electorate but had turned that around by being more responsive. Even so transit mode split in LA county was only 10% at peak periods- which meant support had to come from the 90%! The half cent tax showed that small increments mattered, defining each element clearly on a project by project basis. In Vancouver that means the Broadway subway must be on the ballot – but there has to be something for each part of the region as well. The case was made to drivers: transit would help

  • relieve traffic congestion
  • promote economic development and job creation
  • increase safety (there was genuine cause for concern with falling freeway bridges)
  • Increased choices for travel

There was an appeal to their self interest but also highly defined projects for each part of the region and an overall low cost ~25c a day per person

One source of funding was the Art Gallery: access to arts and culture is a big deal for the wealthy funders but with a station planned for the art gallery they got a better ROI from supporting the R campaign than their own capital budget.

Don’t go out and antagonize drivers

Municipal elections have a low turnout. The Mayors are not keen on having the question on the municipal ballot

A mail in question as with the HST referendum is possible

BT was more hopeful than has been suggested since we can have labour and business on the same side. He noted Peter Ladner’s article which raised concern that up to now business has been largely silent on the issue. We need a broad understanding that investing in infrastructure benefits all in the community. This is a unique opportunity to come together.

Q – Who draws up the plan?

This was directed at Denny Zane, who got into the complexities of Councils of Government. He nailed it with the line “basically a bunch of depressed people who think it isn’t going to happen” (Local municipal staffs)

An unfair question will rebound on the proposer

Treat it as an opportunity.

Expect the best of your leaders

The best decisions are those which afterwards appear to have been inevitable.


The last question really annoyed me. We know what the Plan is for this region. It is on Translink’s website and they have been consulting on it for years. The projects are all well known, the only real discussion now is which one goes first. The problem I see is that there is no consensus on which funding mechanism – or combination – is going to be favoured. I suspect that the provincial government might even support a question that suggested some increase in property tax since that has always been their preferred method, even though it makes no sense and will never get the support of the Mayors.

Someone should have been putting this broad based coalition together ever since we knew that there was going to be a referendum.

Businesses which depend on transit expansion – which includes real estate developers – should already be beating the drum for more TOD which will follow the transit expansions. It is not just the bus drivers and the environmentalists who want to see more rapid transit.

There is going to need to be similar sessions in Surrey and further out in the suburbs. Meetings in downtown Vancouver, even though they are webcast, are not going to be enough to get people to support a question – even before we know what the question is and when it is going to be asked.

I also think we need to keep in mind the reality that Translink is not just about transit – nor should it be presented in that light. It is not “soft selling drivers” to point out that Translink owns the Patullo and Knight Street bridges and provides funds for the Major Road Network. Increasing the funds going into Translink will inevitably result in more spending on roads too. You cannot put in a bus lane on a two lane road!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm