Stephen Rees's blog

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

“Greens support a referendum on how we fund transit”

with 6 comments

The title is a tweet by @Vangreens. I am a member of the Vancouver Green Party and I have supported their current campaign – although as I did not pay $100 or more, that does not show up in their public declaration. This blog post is my response to the tweet, simply because there isn’t a way to say this diplomatically in 140 characters.

I do NOT support a referendum for transit. On the whole the move towards more direct democracy has been used by right wing ideologues who think that voters hate paying taxes and will vote them down. Seattle, of course, is now being cited as a success. Indeed of the transit questions on the US ballots in the most recent midterm elections, voters said Yes on 65% of them. That’s not bad, but I do not take a lot of comfort from it.

As many people have pointed out, there was no suggestion of a referendum for the widening of Highway#1, Port Mann Bridge, SFPR package. Nor will there be one for the replacement of the Massey Tunnel. There wasn’t going to be a referendum on BC Ferries either, but I was very impressed indeed with the speed with which Todd Stone moved to quash the idea that the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo might be cancelled. And that after the BC Liberals had tried to pretend that making the organisation a company rather than a crown corporation would reduce political interference. Which, of course, is still rampant at BC Hydro and ICBC which have both been used as (regressive) revenue sources to replace fairer taxes.

It seems to have been generally accepted in the mainstream media than “money is tight”. For instance, CBC tv news a few nights ago was looking at why school playgrounds must be paid for through PAC fundraising and not taxes. Money is not tight at all. We are so flush with it that we are paying over the odds for money borrowed for infrastructure projects. BC bonds would pay 4%: going through the P3 process means we now pay 7%. The Auditor General is not impressed.

The terms of the “transit” referendum have not yet been announced, although the Mayors have set out in detail what the funds would be spent on. We also know that the Province has been busy making sure the question will conform to their policy straight jacket. So the carbon tax is out. The province continues to push for more property tax as well.

If the use of referenda were more widespread and the questions more open, I might be more inclined to support them. But I do not think that it is a good way to increase participation in politics. The questions have to reduced to sound bites, and populism is more likely to win than policy analysis. Not that in our system politicians pay much attention to that, even when they have set up the system themselves (see BC Ferris above).

The need for this region is much more transit. The referendum will be about much more than that. Translink is a transportation agency, which means the province was able to lumber it with a number of problem structures – Patullo, Knight Street and Canoe Pass bridges – all of which were in need of expensive upgrades. The Major Road Network was devised as a way to get support for the new agency from suburban Mayors who were going to get provincial highways downloaded onto them anyway. Some of the questions that got turned down in the US had significant road measures tacked onto the transit elements in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the sort of people who vote. I am afraid that what we have seen so far is that inevitably the referendum will be a way to pass judgement on Translink. Just as the midterms were used to pass judgement on POTUS even though his name was not on any ballot.

I think that in BC we need to see a fairer tax system which extracts more from large corporations and the exceedingly wealthy individuals who have done so well from the tax cuts of recent years. I would like to a general roll back of flat fees and charges for public services, to be replaced by a truly progressive income tax system. Those who can afford to pay should pay more than those who have little. It is time to reset the balance. Inequality has become extreme nearly everywhere. The few countries that have resisted the pressure of the Chicago school have done better economically as a result.

I do not accept that there is no money for transit in Greater Vancouver. I do understand that it is unpopular in a political system where constituencies outside the Lower Mainland have far more electoral power than we do. I also understand that politicians who repeat the mantras of the right will get better treatment in the mainstream media and thus from voters. It does not make them right. There ought NOT to be a referendum and I oppose it. But since there is going to be one anyway, we Greens had better make sure that we get over the pass mark. Note too that there was a referendum, not so long ago, on a better voting system. That followed a remarkable public consultation process, and was supported by more people than opposed it. Just not quite enough to get the supermajority required by those who benefitted most from ignoring both sense and popularity.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

6 Responses

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  1. I grew up in France when de Gaule was president. He was elected–in the middle of the Algerian War—by a referendum, whose question he had planned for years. It was in 2 parts, but one could only give one answer.
    And NO would obviously bring an Apocalypse…for sure. All his successive referendums were the same…as jokers said at the time, it was akin to ask “do you support motherhood and more taxes”

    A referendum question must be short and very precise and voters must be given a lot of background information. Unfortunately in B.C. too many people, including provincial politicians don’t know transit and don’t like it.
    A referendum on transit is wrong.

    Red frog

    November 6, 2014 at 1:30 pm

  2. Our tweet was admittedly incomplete, but if you read our platform it reads: “Support a transit referendum if the question is HOW we fund transit not whether we fund major transit investment.” — that’s a pretty clear position on a provincially imposed referendum that is being supported by the mayor’s council and Gregor Robertson. We don’t actually have the power to stop a referendum can only support that it is well funded and contributes to a robust transit infrastructure for our city. Pretty nuanced stuff to fit into 140 characters.


    November 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm

  3. On the other hand we could take a leaf from Seattle…Sound Transit has a 3rd transit plan that will drastically expand their system. Cost $15 billions. They will present it to the 2015 legislature session, with a possible vote-by the public–in 2016.

    The Sound Transit plan3 gives 2 choices:
    1- Either an increase of the sale tax OR an increase of the property tax OR a motor vehicle excise tax to renew license tabs.
    2-Have the 3 taxes, each one at a much lower %. (they give figures in both propositions)

    Nov. 4th was elections time in Washington State and the voters said yes to an increase in the sale tax and have a car-tab fee to ensure that there will be more buses on the road.
    A proposition–by a single individual–to raise $ 2 million a year to create another transportation agency that would study a possible new monorail died on the spot.

    Unfortunately for us, the B.C. Liberals aren’t hot for public transit..(not that the NDP, when they were in power, knew much about transit) and the average Metro-Vancouverite isn’t used to referendums, and doesn’t care too much for transit.
    Mind you…Mr. Falcon is against a referendum on Transit….

    Red frog

    November 9, 2014 at 1:41 pm

  4. Referenda were held in BC in 1991, 2005 and 2009. Municipal referenda are also common. For example, there are three questions to be answered on the back of the current Vancouver ballot on borrowing questions.

    Stephen Rees

    November 9, 2014 at 3:38 pm

  5. Agree Stephen….I forgot…but these aren’t as controversial as transit..

    Red frog

    November 9, 2014 at 9:43 pm

  6. I wish there was a national referendum on increasing the federal government’s rate of participation in the health and well-being of our cities.

    On that we have only a deep, deep vacuum.


    November 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm

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