Stephen Rees's blog

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

Transportation Referendum: Lessons Learned from the Front Line

with 11 comments

First of the 2015 Rethinking Transportation: New Voices, New Ideas series of lectures sponsored by Translink at the SFU downtown City Program. This talk was also live webcast and is  available on youtube. I have also created a Storify from the tweets that carried the #movingthefuture hashtag.

Carl Guardino is the president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade association that represents more than 385 of Silicon Valley’s most respected companies.

He also serves as the chair of the California Transportation Commission, an independent public agency responsible for programming and allocating of funds for the construction of highway, passenger rail and transit improvements throughout California.

The sub headings are his own. He spoke without visual aids.

1 “Confessions”

He opened by talking about how much he loved Canada, having visited Vancouver “five or six times …and it never rained”. He said he was a political scientist (“the only real science”) a “public policy geek” and concerned not just with transportation but placemaking. Transportation is the skeleton on which we build the body of our communities. He was proud the innovative housing trust fund the SVLG had set up using a $20m fund to leverage $200m of investment. They had intended to house 4,800 individuals and families who could not afford housing in Silicon Valley’s expensive real estate market. Since 1999  they have now housed 20,000 families and individuals. He recalled the first city meeting he had to attend where he spoke last after a large number of opponents to the plan. He he was thinking to himself “One man, armed with the truth, is a majority.” He managed to persuade the city to proceed despite the opposition, and when the first project opened, the opponents came up to him at the ceremony and said: if we had known what affordable housing looked like, and what the people who need affordable housing looked like, we would not have opposed the proposal. The trust seeks to house three groups, and divides its tenants into roughly equal thirds: the homeless, those who need affordable housing (i.e. low income) and first time buyers. Out of 250 proposals they have only lost 12.

2 Context

SVLG was founded by David Packard (of Hewlett Packard fame) who called together 38 CEOs of companies in the valley many of whom were competitors. He stressed they shared common ground in the well being of their community. They now represent 390  employers with annual revenues of $6 trillion, all concerned with making their region a better place. They have taken part in five transportation funding measures, each of which became a magnet for regional, state and federal funding. “We were the first” – just as the Vancouver region is the first to have a funding ballot for a regional sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements.

In 1984  the first measure was a ten year, half cent sales tax increase for specified improvements which raised $1.4bn in local funding. Each of the improvements was delivered on time and on budget “except those which were delivered early and under budget…. Promises made, promises kept.”

3 Common Ground 

The proposal included annual audits of the funds raised and spent, which were kept segregated from other funds. A watchdog committee was appointed to ensure accountability. The same structure was used for the 1996 campaign which looked a lot like the set of projects in Translink’s plan. There were 19 projects over nine years spread over all transportation modes – roads, transit, cycling and walking.

He has been impressed by the broad base of the coalition he had been speaking to that day. (This was the fourth discussion he had had – each different. And delivered on Martin Luther King Day, a public holiday in the US.) He stressed that opposition is important to a functioning democracy. “I hate taxes. I hate traffic more.” It was important to “wisely invest in the future”. The opposition continues but over time “build that trust, keep your word”. More California counties have followed suit until 80% of the state is covered by these voter supported initiatives accounting for 50c on every dollar invested in California transportation.

4 Commitment

“We can sit back and be enraged or stand up and be engaged.” There are now 55 days until the ballot starts and 75 days of voting to speak to the electorate. One million more people are coming here in the next 25 years which means there will another 600,000 additional weekday trips on an already congested system. Business CEOs have to “get into the game and move the ball forward” not just shout encouragement from the sidelines. They need to mount in house information campaigns – not telling people how to vote. It was important that people hear from their peers – students talking to students, for example

In the most recent campaign they had budgeted for a $1.6m fund: campaigns demand “time, treasure and talent”

5 Courage

A campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. You are running an Iron Man. I have immense respect for you: you care enough to work for it or are concerned enough about to want to learn more. We have won nine of ten campaigns. I am always asked what I learned from the loss. I hate losing. We worked as hard on the campaign we lost as those we won. Win this campaign, build a better Vancouver then invite me back. You are building for your future and that takes time. You are in it for the long haul.

Q & A

Q  Why doesn’t transit run 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

He politely declined to answer the question as it is outside his knowledge. He did point out that we are similar in size and population to Silicon Valley, but we have a higher percentage of trips on transit/walk/bike – and the climate in California is better.

Q  What guarantees are there that the projects will be built? You spoke of a skeleton which suggests that we have to build on what we have. Would courtesy transit be viable?

Silicon Valley is a lot more sprawled than the Metro Vancouver region. We do not provide free transit as the farebox helps pay for the service. Roads are subsidized too. We all benefit from their improvement.

Q about the campaign

Silicon Valley is comparable in size: the campaigns we are talking about did not apply to the whole of California. We chose to take command of our future as the federal and state governments were not getting the job done [applause]

Another Q about this campaign

There was a football game this weekend. I doubt the team coaches exchanged play books before the game started. This meeting is open to all and being webcast so I am not going to share what we discussed at the meetings earlier today. It is essential that everyone be engaged, but we all care about different aspects – cyclists care more about bike routes than buses. Employers are more concerned about how their employees can get to work in reasonable time and cost which plays heavily into employee retention. We must speak to the concerns of the community but I will not address strategy or tactics here. We started much earlier than you did, but we also had to deal with a skeptical media. The annual audits, sticking to the declared schedule and not co-mingling funds brought about a greater degree of trust. Our tax expired when the projects were done and all the commitments were met.

“I have never yet seen a government that everyone thought was great.”

Q We did not make the choice [to have a referendum]. It was forced on us. Is there a term on our sales tax?

See the language on your ballot. We had sunsets but Los Angeles, which faces far bigger problems, had an open ended approach

Q Disputed the statement that there is not enough transit. The questioner used it regularly without issues. He also felt that the No campaign was being under reported

This morning’s Vancouver Sun story was 90% unflattering. The coverage in general seems to be even handed.

Q related to Urban Farming

“You have me stumped”

Q The voice of youth has been under represented. The No campaign speaks for older voters, who are more concerned with no tax increase than better transit service. How do we bring in students into the campaign?

Students do not vote as often as they could. First get them registered to vote, so they get a ballot, then make sure they fill out and post the ballot.

We started two years before the vote – and before the recession hit. Once that happened the question “Can I afford it?” became more important to the voters than “Is it worth it?” We also had to get a 2/3 majority.

Q Issue for small businesses – included a remark that the opening of the Canada Line helped the questioner’s business

Often our approach has to be one of balance. Yes the cost goes up but the benefits are real and measurable. Neither the state nor federal governments were investing in transportation at a time when there was increasing demand and there was a clear cost due to the resulting congestion – and that is a real cost we all pay. We do a lot of polling and we have to be hypersensitive to what people are willing to pay. We found that a small sales tax increase was much more acceptable than larger (but revenue equivalent) increases to gas taxes or tolls.

Q There is no accountability here: the Compass card was cited as an example as well as underperforming bridge tolls

Q About specialised services for People with Disabilities

These were included in all four transit packages

Q Does your state still build roads without ballots?

California is at present adopting a band aid approach. They are not spending enough to meet growth nor local priorities. They are constraining spending to be barely enough to maintain the system.

Q Turnout? What about misinformation from the opposition? We tried to inform students recently “not many stopped at our table”. “We haven’t got enough detail about how the proposals will impact our students.

If they didn’t stop at your table maybe you should make your table more attractive – free chocolates? Or get out from behind the table and go talk to people.

Most of the campaign should be about your message. When someone posts misinformation, set the record straight. But if they are posting to Twitter and only have three followers, it may not be worth getting into an argument.

Q Does your experience with a series of successful ballots mean you are now locked in to doing this forever? Higher levels of government are probably quite content for you to take all the heat and pressure off them.

Washington DC is dysfunctional. Our measures do matter a hoot to them. The dysfunction is widespread and affects most programs not just transportation. We have found that when we had funds in hand and approached them for matching amounts we got a better response than we we simply asked for them to do something for us. We have formed a Self Help Counties Coalition to build on success and the federal government now often builds in a local match requirement in many programs. “Yes, they should do more, but  I can’t change their mind on that.”

“What’s in it for me?” is always top of mind

Pavement maintenance and rehabilitation spending now requires that local government maintains its previous levels of spending for the prior three years. This ensures that funds raised by the initiatives do not supplant existing funding but supplement it. The Pavement Condition Index must equal at least 75% to qualify for funds, and cities that are at 90% can use the funds for improvements on other things.

Q A planner asked how the campaign included planning

We bring them to a safe space and get them to talk to us as professionals. They have a huge say in what we do. Their local knowledge is essential to our regional challenge.

Q How do we make the shots they take work for us

“Come let us reason together” is the ideal. Stay factual, provide data and if you don’t know the answer, admit it. I have never yet seen a 100% vote in favour of anything in a true democracy.



I was really impressed by the style and clarity of the presentation, and the politeness with which all questions were dealt with – even when it was quite obvious that the questions were being directed at the wrong person. He was universally polite and good humoured throughout. The people who brought him here on a holiday weekend and exploited him so relentlessly owe him big time.

Despite all the similarities in the situation, BC is not California. That is the place where voter initiatives and “direct democracy” took root – mainly as a taxpayer revolt. This of course is as popular as the Boston Tea Party. Which was not actually so much about taxes as the lack of representation of colonists back in Westminster. But the idea that people hate taxes is a very old one, but not nearly as universal as might be supposed. Peace, order and good government is a collection of desiderata that at least implies a willingness to pay for the support services that provide that. We do not have the same deeply held and misguided faith in the value of personal responsibility as Americans. Remember that the US is the only advanced country on the planet that does not have universal healthcare. Proposition 13 was the start of the tax reduction movement which required a shift away to much lower service standards and a much greater reliance on fees and charges. Right wing governments at both provincial and national levels here seem eager to follow the example, but what was as equally clear after Proposition 13 was the collapse of civil society, the abandonment of many valuable programs and the continuing shift towards ever greater inequality.

Most of the people who spoke against the sales tax increase stressed its regressive impact on the poorest people in our community. The sales tax increase is not the best idea, merely the best of a bunch of poor alternatives. We have to improve our transportation system and the Massey Tunnel replacement is not regionally a high priority. It is obvious that most people here would not vote to increase their taxes to pay for a new bridge – or a new interchange in North Vancouver. We are also not being consulted on our willingness to help pay for transit in Kelowna – or another lake crossing there. People in Greater Vancouver already pay taxes to support transit in every other place in BC that has it, and we cannot understand why there is not reciprocity. The value of Greater Vancouver to the economy of BC is not in any doubt, yet fails to get mentioned whenever essential service improvements are needed here.

The province of BC continually pleads poverty, yet has no problem at all in funding freeway improvements. There is always money for tax reductions for the wealthy and for highly profitable corporations, who appear to be able to dictate terms to the province whenever they want to exploit our raw materials and natural resources, and never take any responsibility for the damage they cause.

The referendum must not be viewed as a popularity poll for Translink or the provincial government. Voting no on principle will hurt all of us. Voting no on the grounds that “Translink cannot be trusted” is simply falling for the three card trick that Jordan Bateman thinks he is so clever at. But he knows that the savings he claims are available are nowhere near enough to meet the necessary expansion. He also knows that “value capture” (building permits and development cost contributions) are already spoken for and the Mayors have made clear that yet another hike in property taxes to pay for transit is not acceptable.

The advice provided by the gentleman from Silicon Valley is critical to win the plebiscite. But we must not let our province become another California, nor our country a pale imitation of the US. We must win this one, then get on with the essential task of removing Stephen Harper and Christy Clark from office.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 20, 2015 at 4:42 pm

11 Responses

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  1. On the sunset (or lack of) sunset clause in Los Angeles. I am not sure which referendum he was talking about.

    The major Transportation referendum was in 2008 (measure R), and it has a 30 years sunset clause.
    It was another referendum in 2012 (Measure J), to extend the sunset date by another 30 year, but it didn’t passed the 2/3 bar..

    Most of the US referendum are heavy on capital and low on operating cost:
    for example in the Los Angeles measure R, no more than 25% is spent on operation.and that is fixed by law.

    In our plebisicite, 50% of the CIT revenues would be spent on operation over the 10 first years, and by 2024, 70% of the annual CIT revenue will be spent on operation (see this link for detail …so the real reason why we don’t have a sunset clause here.


    January 20, 2015 at 11:25 pm

  2. I do not understand the absolute refusal to tack on to property taxes. Yes, it is far from ideal, but so is a sales tax! Raising property taxes is completely within the power of the Mayor’s council. They can do it without approval and raise equivalent sums as the proposed sales tax.

    Metro Vancouver indeed gets a good deal on property taxes. Look at what they pay in Ontario for property tax, plus HST and higher Provincial income taxes. If you compare the Ontario tax burden to BC, there is plenty of room left in BC!

    The Mayor’s Council big mistake is making this an issue of putting future transportation sustainability on the line. It should not be about the plan, but how we will finance the plan. The plan is needed! The sales tax is one way to get the funds. It should be branded that a No vote will mean that the public is opting for a property tax increase instead. Heck, if real democratic value were to be chosen, a raft of payment methods would be on the table to allow the public to choose from. Its making the expansion itself a thing that can be jeopardized over the course of a vote that is really putting the long term sustainability of the region at risk.

    Of course, the Mayors won’t put property taxes on the table in order to save their own hides. That said, they are but six months into a four year term. Would it still be an issue 3 years from now? Will memories have faded by then. At that point you’d even have the beneift of being able to show the first concrete steps of the plan at work. More buses in operation…shovels in the ground for rail expansion. Its not as if the Province or the Feds don’t do this all the time! Make the tough choices in the early part of the mandate and hope for clemency near the end!

    Failing this referendum and saying that the status quo will remain for the next 3-4 years will mean the end of TransLink. While many may applaud that, you can bet there will be a bloody divorce and fragmented services across the region as regional cohesion gives way to camps of urban vs suburban splits. It won’t be pretty. It will use up a lot of precious time….and transportation costs will shoot up even higher than what is proposed in this referendum. Unfortunately groups like the CTF seem more than willing to pander to public fears and reduce complex subjects to simpleton arguments all so they can go about and shoot our collective region in the foot. Perfection does not exist, yet so many are willing to sacrifice the public good under the illusion that some way, some how it can be achieved.


    January 21, 2015 at 11:33 pm

  3. I am surprised you say that you “do not understand” the Mayor’s opposition to yet another increase in property tax to pay for transportation. It must be one of the best documented stories in the history of Translink. Briefly, when the original GVTA was created, there was going to be a vehicle levy. It was contained in the original legislation, but at the end of the life of the NDP government then Premier Ujjal Dosanjh reneged, feeling that it was too unpopular. Even so, the NDP lost that election but Ujjal went on to win an award for his courage — in dealing with other issues. The province has always wanted to utilize more of the property tax to pay for transit in Greater Vancouver but the Mayors have good reason to resist: even so on more than one occasion they have blinked in the staring contest. The usual provincial case is that this is a one off increase as a temporary measure until a better source of revenue can be set up, but that never happens. You will also recall that the Mayors resisted the provincial decision to proceed with the Canada Line instead of the long held regional priority of the Evergreen Line. That led the Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon to determine that the set up of the GVTA was “dysfunctional” and he removed the Mayors from the Board. This now gave the Mayors a further reason to oppose the use of property tax. They no longer had control over how the money was being spent. They refused to allow further increases until control was returned to them. It is only recently that the province has grudgingly increased the Mayors’ involvement but it is still far from representative or responsible government.

    In any event, right now this option is not on the table, and the Mayors have also said that there is no Plan B. Given the history of distrust between the province and the Mayors the surprise to me is that they have gone along with Christy’s stratagem for avoiding responsibility. She is quite happy to spend money on transportation projects provided that they are roads or if transit then not in the lower mainland. She is also happy to throw taxpayers money at chimera like LNG plants to the point where the province is actually prepared to subsidize the extraction of a nonrenewable resource which will more than negate all the benefits attributed to the carbon tax. Yet you see the Mayors as being “willing to sacrifice the public good under the illusion ….”

    Stephen Rees

    January 22, 2015 at 8:08 am

  4. Stephen, Your reply needs to be written up as a stand-alone blog post. You hit at the centre of some issues that people in the region (especially the “where is Plan B?” crowd) just don’t realize, or choose to acknowledge.

    A second point that few emphasize (and you raise): Saying that senior governments have failed TransLink is not an anti-Liberal argument – the blame for this includes some poor decisions made by the Provincial NDP and by the Federal Governments failure to invest in urban transportation (unless it is partnering on a new Big Bridge PPP)

    You have a history and knowledge that is really valuable to the discussion, thanks!


    January 22, 2015 at 12:28 pm

  5. Christy’s stratagem for avoiding responsibility.

    It is a stratagem, but I’m not sure the goal was to avoid responsibility (and we should acknowledge given the sinking ship the B.C. Liberals looked like when the proposal was made there probably wasn’t a whole lot of thought put behind it beyond “what do we care least about”).

    I think the stratagem is more about creating the sort of “us vs. them” divisions that conservative parties thrive in.

    Municipality v. municipality
    Urban v. suburban
    Motorists v. transit users

    Etc. It doesn’t matter that in the big picture such distinctions are arbitrary. If “No” wins, Clark will say to the Langleys and Maple Ridges “I gave you a chance to stand up to those latte-swilling Vancouverites and you did”. If “Yes” wins, she’ll say “it was those latte-swilling Vancouverites that kept you down, but don’t worry I will make sure to stand up for you”. It doesn’t matter that Langley, Maple Ridge, and Vancouver are all in the same boat. It’s politics.

    In terms of winning the referendum for the “yes” side, in addition to accentuating the economic positives of strengthening transit, “Yes” supporters should ask the pointed questions:

    1. Why aren’t we voting on other parts of the transportation network?

    2. Is this referendum a one-off? If yes, then why are we having it? If no, why isn’t it being made part of the regular election cycle?


    January 22, 2015 at 2:20 pm

  6. to answer the Spartikus question

    1. Why aren’t we voting on other parts of the transportation network?

    the referendum is not on the transportation network, but on the raising of a new tax to finance Translink, which the Province has mandated to be subject to a referendum first?

    Mayor are still free to go aheaed by using the existing revenue tool, that is the property tax. A reason why the “no plan B” discourse hold no much water…
    and a reason why the fearmongering discourse we have seen so far (“a no vote will bring calamities to the region as not seen since the black death”) is not credible either… if it was, the mayor could have waste no time to increase the Translink revenue, isn’it?

    Furthermore on the topic, municipalities revenues have increased at an average of ~6% a year since 2005.
    but the same municipalities have refused that the Translink propertiy tax revenue increase by more than 3% a year. Stephen Rees explains this as:
    ” They no longer had control over how the money was being spent. They refused to allow further increases until control was returned to them. It is only recently that the province has grudgingly increased the Mayors’ involvement but it is still far from representative or responsible government.

    If that is true for the mayors, it is even truer for their constituents, isn’it?

    2. Is this referendum a one-off?

    A priori yes, See above. According to the referendum requirement wording, we don’t need a new referendum for further increment on a tax once the principle of the tax (revenue source) is approved.

    On the plan B
    In virtually every democracy, a budget vote is a confidence vote in the authority in charge of the budget…and this referendum is a vote on the Translink Budget…In case of “no”, Translink restructuration is politically unavoidable.

    Many part of the plan could be implemented thought. It is a no brainer for the Pattullo bridge, but for other. Surrey could look at how Portland as financed its streetcar (so a 104th symbolic LRT line is almost granted too as promised by Hepner).

    For buses, municipalities could look at Seattle, while Translink would take a more aggressive stance in regard of bus network optimization. (diversion on the 49 could be quickly axed, unless the city is ready to pay the additional cost, bus stop consolidation would be on the menu…), Compass card will allow better pricing and use of the resource,… .so no mcuh bad thing could happen here.

    The main casuality could be the Boradway subway.

    It could be the only reason to vote for some (most of other part of the plan are more politically motivated than demand driven, and could lead to more or less tremendous waste. in fact the farebox recovery of the plan would not be no better than 17% a reason why most of the tax revenue will disappear in operating cost)… but also the “only” reason to vote no for some others.


    January 22, 2015 at 9:42 pm

  7. but on the raising of a new tax to finance Translink

    No. No where in the question does it mention Translink. It’s to fund the “Mayor’s Transportation and Transit Plan” and will exist no matter what body administers it in the future. Nor is it a “new tax” – it’s a 0.5% increase to an existing tax.

    which the Province has mandated to be subject to a referendum first

    Mandated in an arbitrary, unprecedented way chosen for political expediency rather than principle. The province could just have easily provided the funds to Translink from the same source it’s providing funds to build highways. Or, it could mandate a referendum on a new tax for highways and roads just like for the public transportation network.


    January 23, 2015 at 9:06 am

  8. […] to Stephen Rees and his trusty laptop are back on the job.  Here’s his detailed summary of the Carl Guardino lecture at SFU, also reproduced below the […]

  9. The BC liberal have been elected on the platform explictly specifying:

    Work with the Metro Vancouver Mayor’s Council and TransLink to identify possible sources of new funding for transit improvements. Any new revenue sources would then be subjectto a referendum to be held at the same time as the November 2014 municipal elections.

    it is not the plan which need to be subject to referendum, but the new source of revenue: The BC liberal have been very clear on it.
    and like it or not, it was their electoral platform…the relevance of it is behind us.


    January 23, 2015 at 9:59 am

  10. Did you have a look at:

    Recent Posts:
    “That’s pretty weak, Jordan.”
    Referendum Myths: “TransLink is Wasteful”
    Regarding Translink’s ‘Fare Not Paid’ Button

    Red frog

    January 23, 2015 at 11:09 pm

  11. RedFrog, good link I have read the last post of canspice:

    I appreciate there is lot of passionate people for transit, and it is good to see them.

    On the post “That’s pretty weak, Jordan.”:

    Mr Bateman says that the Shirocca review found that Translink has a cost per revenue passenger about 30% higher than peers, and he explains that has been throughly debunked by Daryl Dela Cruz:

    What Daryl, found is that “TransLink provvides 72% more transit service hours per revenue dollar, at just 40% more operating cost per revenue passenger.”

    If you ask to me: That is more a confirmation of the Shirocca report finding than a debunking of it 😉

    Daryl offers this graph:

    The graph just makes Translink looking bad comparing to Toronto:
    service hour is something to be minimized not to be maximized!

    The whole discussion on the cost of service hour is in fact totally irrelevant:
    One has to realize that operating subway trains carrying ~1200 people and streetcars carrying ~200 people is obviously more expensive that operating trains carrying no more than 500 people and buses carrying no more than 100 people. What is much more relevant is the operating cost/passenger (what the Shirocca report naturally uses)

    in fact I have already touched on the irrelevance of the whole service-hour metric in a previous post, . but I plan to write a more detailled post on it later on.

    that said the other posts on canspice are well written and to the point.


    January 24, 2015 at 12:14 am

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