Stephen Rees's blog

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

It wasn’t supposed to pass

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CMBC ETB 2171 on #16 Arbutus @ West Blvd & 57th

The word “blog” is a contraction of “web log”: a record of a “journey” across the web and the sites visited. The announcement of the results of the plebiscite on transportation investment funding produced the very rapid response we have come to expect on twitter and the instant analysis. Of course a lot of organisations were involved and most had their pre prepared press releases ready. Many claimed to have correctly predicted the outcome in advance. I had declined to appear on Global TV since I did not have such a position ready. But on reflection it became clear to me that the reason the question was made non-binding by Christy Clark was that she did not want to have to abide by an answer she did not like. And the glee that was evident on the face of Todd Stone when talking to the press pretty much confirmed that.

Of course I was not the only person to think that. Gary Mason of the Globe lists the reasons why “The referendum was an unmitigated disaster from the start.” Todd Stone doesn’t think it was a disaster – he thinks there should be more of them. But only for transit of course, not major road projects, or healthcare or education. Crawford Killian in the Tyee was far ahead of the Globe writing that the referendum was designed to fail back in February.

Much of the “analysis” was simply opinion based on preferred anecdotes. But there is some actual data based on surveys conducted by Insights West and Angus Reid. They come to similar conclusions about why people voted No. Of course since Jordan Bateman got busy far before the Yes side was even organised his simple message, the Translink was not to be trusted, got across. None of the subsequent analysis which showed that Translink is actually quite well managed dented that. Which is what I told the Vancouver Observer. The real problem is the governance model and that was created by The BC Liberals when the previous board of elected municipal officials (mostly Mayors) took exception to the way that the province wanted to put building the Canada Line ahead of the Evergreen Line (which is still not finished). So I cannot agree with Mario Canseco’s conclusion that reforming the way Translink operates ought to be the first priority – even if both Yes and No voters agree on that. It is the way it is governed that is the problem.

Discourse Media does have some good data driven information on what the No vote means. But no recommendations on what to do to achieve that. Richard Zussman of the CBC is good on why referenda are not the way to proceed. I think that means that if the province does propose another one we should organize a resounding boycott of the proceedings. Badly run referenda are designed to produce a negative response and I do not think that the province is actually interested in a better form of communication. Why would they when they got the result they desired.

The idea that I have proposed to reform Translink’s governance – a directly elected regional board – seems to be getting  some traction. There is growing disquiet too with Metro Vancouver – which is indirectly elected and also seen as remote from electoral control. If we were actually serious about doing regional planning and transportation properly, we would follow the example of cities like London, England or Portland, Oregon. I would be very surprised indeed if that actually happened. If anything at all I expect there will be some more shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic. Maybe another name change and new livery: more communications/marketing bafflegab. No real change. It is a long time before we have another provincial election, and no matter how bad the government, if it simply ignores everything going on  – the scandals this government is surviving would have brought out the media in rage if it had been an NDP government – it might even get re-elected, despite its obvious incompetence.

So what happens now? Human Transit is, as always, very illuminating. And Peter Ladner has some penetrating analysis in Business in Vancouver.

And now (July 6) from Martyn Brown (“former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia.”)in the Georgia Straight:  The great TransLink railroad job: Why Christy Clark couldn’t be happier about the outcome of the transit referendum. Which makes for a very depressing read but is, no doubt, well informed and realistic.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 3, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Posted in politics

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16 Responses

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  1. I voted No because The Mayors 2040 plan sucked. Maybe 2 Millennium stations to connect with Canada Line. Maybe extend to Arbutus by 2040. The proposed highlight would be an abysmal failure for anyone living west of Boundary Rd.

    Michael Callen

    July 3, 2015 at 4:20 pm

  2. Hello
    I also think that many people were given an easy excuse to vote no: the wasteful TransLink excuse. They were given a socially acceptable reason for voting “no” on a silver platter from Bateman rather than having to say that they didn’t want to spend a penny on transit. I don’t see how changing the governance model would change that handy excuse.

    Kathy Roczkowskyj

    July 3, 2015 at 8:04 pm

  3. Kathy

    Changing the governance model ought to produce an organisation that is more transparent and responsible to the community it serves. The province has tacitly admitted that the current model is not satisfactory by appointing a couple of Mayors to the board, and telling it to meet in public. I say the province since there is now plenty of evidence that the board is not operating independently (as they would have you believe), but everything has to be approved in Victoria. I am not going to say that Jordan Bateman is right, but he did identify a critical weakness. Translink has made terrible decisions – and it did that as often under the Mayor’s control as the province’s. No surprise there – everyone makes mistakes sometime. It is a political body in any case, and transportation/planning decisions that follow a political doctrine seldom work out well. What is needed is for the process of decision making to become clearer, and for the voters to be able to kick the rascals out.

    In recent decades our political institutions have become less representative and responsive to the electorate. They now serve a corporate elite which provides the money on which our electoral process runs. This is true at all three tiers – municipal, provincial and federal. It is probably quixotic of me to expect that this can be changed by popular pressure at any level, but that does not mean I am going to stop trying.

    Stephen Rees

    July 4, 2015 at 9:58 am

  4. The gas tax, 23 cents per litre going to TransLink, is a form of road pricing. Now Gregor wants to try another and charge by distance driven. Hacking your distance-ometer will be the new Napster.

    This is the ultimate elite answer. Only the wealthy will drive without caring and the poorer will, you know, get poorer.

    We have a society where so called ‘progressives’ come up with schemes like road pricing and this absolutely hurts the poor in society.

    Road pricing as the ‘new!’ solution is either ironic or Gregor and his dipper brothers and sisters have infiltrated the left and are not really progressive at all.

    This is Adrian Dix all over again, standing on the beach saying no to resource exports and keeping his fingers crossed that all the blue collar working men and women of the province would stay on side.

    If the Left want the sustainable, green, academic and transit vote they need to forge a party, like the Greens and grow it. The working/union voter is more interested in earnings for food and shelter.


    July 4, 2015 at 11:51 pm

  5. Richard Zussman of the CBC is good on why referenda are not the way to proceed.

    No he is not, and let’s fact the fact: most of the opinions we have read on the referendum policy are partisanery: .
    On twitter, the very same will explain . Do noone go to the bottom of the issue.

    Regarding the referendum policy
    The BC liberal could have brought the referendum idea in a awkward way, but I notice that when it is time to introduce new source of revenue, such as road pricing, referendums tend to be commonplace (e.g Stockholm, Edinburgh…), or at the minimum, people give mandate to elected official thru normal election process to do it (The London Congestion charge was a campaign promise of Ken Livingstone, Singapore is a city state…)

    All that respect a cornerstone value of our democratic systems: “no taxation without representation”

    Within the current Translink framework, Mayors have absolutely no mandate to introduce new taxes such as a PST (they have not been elected for that), but they have all legitimity to raise property taxes…

    Before the referendum, the mayors’ rational against a property tax increase, is they want a “transportation related tax”… so they came with a 0.5% PST ! …

    To introduce new regional taxes, there is no other option than
    * to get approval of the provincial assembly, so that is put our fate under control of mainly out of town MLA, and indirectly to a majority of people whose have no stake in it.
    * to hold a referendum, so putting our fate directly in the hand of local people

    Considering the general appetite for more direct and local democracy (something the Green are supposed to support). I think we should prepare ourselves for more direct input of people on those matter of regional taxes.

    That would infer more referendum to come. However, if Translink is reformed, in such a way it is put under control of a directly elected regional assembly, this assembly would have the outright legitimacy to introduce new taxes…

    In the meantimes, yes the referendum was so badly organized, that Greek can certainly teach us a lesson on it. But at the end of the day, organizational issues can hardly be the cause of a failure of biblical proportion.

    The council of mayors is the main responsible of the distorted image of Translink as I have already said here…and regional mayors are obviously the main responsbile for the referendum outcome:


    July 5, 2015 at 1:03 pm

  6. ignore the distracting sentence: “On twitter, the very same will explain . Do noone go to the bottom of the issue.”

    Stephen: Feel free to remove it of my previous comment, and eliminate this one 😉


    July 5, 2015 at 1:07 pm

  7. Oh, and partisanry should read partisan 😉


    July 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm

  8. In the Central Puget Sound area they have a whole bunch of propositions at election time. Last November the voters agreed on 2 taxes for transportation (transit and roads). Next year they will vote on a proposition that, if the voters agree, should eventually bring $15 billions.
    They will have to chose between increases of 3 different taxes (one of them a property tax increase) OR a mix of the 3 tax increases, each one being obviously much lower than if the increase of one tax was chosen.
    The big difference with B.C. is that the Washington State legislature work each time on propositions from Sound Transit (whose board is made of mayors ,councilors, Counties administrators, and the secretary of the State department of transportation.. The WA state legislature worked on the $ package these past few months, for a vote in the fall of next year…and the voters will have ample time to learn about the proposal..

    Of course the grass is always etc. but by comparison the B.C.government looks like cowboys that heard that an iron horse is coming..they don’t have a clue and don’t care anyway…

    It is easy to say that TransLink needs a new governance… How many types of governance for a transit system are they?
    1-The London type, where the mayor if responsible for various aspects of transit, under the watch of the London Assembly members..ALL municipal politicians, by other names…
    2- the council of a metropolitan area..again, municipal politicians, plus–in many cases– region president and regional politicians…

    3- the unusual Portland system, where the State Governor ask several people-each one living in a different area of the metropole–to VOLUNTEER! (one assume/hope they get great lunches out of that). At any rate they have a transportation tax levied on businesses that provides a steady income…

    4-the Japanese system, where transit is private (with some subsidies from the National Government) This can’t work here…not enough customers-passengers by far…I wonder what private company will build trams in Surrey if they can’t make a modest profit after spending billions to build the systems…unless they get the rights to build by each and every station..and even then.. PPP aren’t always the golden goose..

    There must be other types?

    The problem is that for 1 and 2 to work well means that B.C. municipal and provincial politicians must be very familiar with transit…this is not the case here..not by a long long transit will be a lame crow forever…I have seldom seen as many transit illiterates as here..including even people that look educated..

    Much as I like TransLink new CEO as he does use SkyTrain and buses (I saw him several times at VCC-Clarke station), he too is under the delusion that TransLink problems come from the huge territory “3 times bigger than Toronto” it has to cover, totally unaware that both the Golden Horseshoe and the Central Puget Sound area are much bigger …and both have a slew of transit systems working in harmony, for the most part..

    Red frog

    July 6, 2015 at 1:28 am

  9. @ Eric:

    We have a society where so called ‘progressives’ come up with schemes like road pricing and this absolutely hurts the poor in society.

    Then how do you explain the fact that the poor are disproportionately represented in every busload of people?

    How do you explain the fact that that most poor people cannot afford to own a car?

    How do you explain the fact that while there is a 50% recovery rate in the operating costs of transit through the tolls paid at the farebox which the poor pay every time they board a transit vehicle, there is virtually no operating cost recovery from drivers?

    How do you explain the fact that roads consume several orders of magnitude more public funds and create much higher mountains of debt than transit ever could, yet transit is targeted by people like you as a “waste” of taxpayer’s money?


    July 6, 2015 at 9:56 am

  10. Voony & Red Frog, the governance model for TransLink will be whatever the provincial government wishes it to be ……. for now. It was created and regularly manipulated at whimsy by no other entity.

    The current strategy is similar to the restructuring of crown corporations: set them up with a modicum of “independence” in order to insulate the government from the public consequences of its own decisions, but only with a longer leash.
    In this manner the crowns absorb mountains of public debt following government dictates while streams of government braggadocio on “fiscal responsibility” radiate from Victoria, and TransLink absorbs the punches of Clark singling out transit for a special vote while other forms of transportation – or tax policies for that matter — get off with a free pass. While both senior governments continue to download services to the cities, only the BC Liberals do it with a smirk when the mayors squirm.

    In my view, the Metro should now start flexing its muscles and aim for more self-reliance after this latest unacceptable example of manipulation by Victoria. How would a self-guided change in governance toward an elected regional government (with its own transit agency) be possible under the Constitution which places cities under provincial responsibility? How would the province act to justify its standing in the way of better local democracy? What would their specific legal challenges be at the Supreme Court that in effect couch the suppression of democracy? What would the legal position of the federal government be regarding the democratic aspirations of metropolitan governments being suppressed by a provincial government, therein separating out federal constituents as collateral damage?

    What the Clark government has inadvertently created is by definition a constitutional challenge. Metro Vancouver is too important to the BC economy to let the damage of anti-urban ideology continue. The Metro along with the Greater Toronto Area and Greater Montreal should seek to become their own city-states if this intransigence and blatant federal abdication of responsibility to its own urban constituents continues. They represent over a third of the population of the nation and own orders of magnitude more of the GDP than all fossil fuel resources combined. The six largest cities represent over half of the country’s total economic activity and 60% of the population. Yet cities are getting shafted, and they are letting it happen while complaining with a sense of helplessness.

    Not by coincidence, immediately after the No vote the mayor of Pitt Meadows issued a motion to Metro staff to report back on the ramifications of running local transit like a utility. The Metro does a pretty good job of delivering water, sewer and solid/liquid waste services to the regional population on a fee-for-service basis and is responsive to issues like the current need for water conservation during a drought, and arguably practices more needs-based long-range planning than the province or the feds together. An elected regional government will be legally bound to practice representative taxation to deliver services, and though ideology may rear its ugly head, the Metro politicos would be hard-pressed to misbalance inner city and suburban policy counterpoints if they are elected under a proportionally representative system.

    Isn’t it time for Canadian urbanism to arise and realize its vast potential through self-empowerment?


    July 6, 2015 at 11:27 am

  11. I suppose what I am suggesting is that Metro staff should study the possibility of a constitutional challenge to the province’s authority to manipulate local government while abdicating their responsibility to provide vital services, along with creating a Metro transit agency.

    It may be a lost cause but it would certainly bring more light to the issue of the suppression of local governments. A national discussion about increasing the constitutional role of cities is what we need.


    July 6, 2015 at 11:37 am

  12. @ Michael Callen:

    I voted No because The Mayors 2040 plan sucked. Maybe 2 Millennium stations to connect with Canada Line. Maybe extend to Arbutus by 2040. The proposed highlight would be an abysmal failure for anyone living west of Boundary Rd.

    Maybe so.

    But by voting No on an issue not directly related to the actual plebiscite question you may have helped hundreds of thousands of other similar-minded people shoot themselves in the collective foot and set back transit by an additional decade or more.

    That was the risk us 49 percenters in the city who voted Yes plainly saw and were not willing to take.


    July 6, 2015 at 1:59 pm

  13. Stephen and MB, I am pleased by your reaction that we need more democracy, not less (at least that’s how I interpret you). I am disquieted by those Yes supporters whose response to the plebiscite seems to be a call for less democracy: because the people were wrong, we need to exclude them from future decisions.

    I think one of the main motivations for No supporters was a rejection of elites: and I think that is legitimate and deserved, even if Translink itself is the wrong target. We have self-interested elites steering policy on issues like climate change and global governance (TPP, TTIP, TISA). While I agree that a referendum was not an appropriate vehicle for public participation, and I am as upset as anyone by the outcome, demands for more elite control strike me as both undemocratic and tone-deaf. Their perversion of democratic processes is not a good reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Such misuse of democratic process is surely a reason for better democracy, not less democracy. It’s not surprising that a disenfranchised public unaccustomed to making political judgments makes them so poorly. (Though I am mightily disappointed that No voters who think they “sent a message” can’t be bothered to keep control of that message by writing to their MLAs.)

    I’m certainly not arguing for more referenda. But I do think the Yes side would have been much more successful if it had engaged with and listened respectfully with the public. They didn’t do that. A vote like this should probably not be a way of forming public opinion: it should formalize opinions already developed. Communication is part of that. Some might see the need for advertising that tells stories as manipulative. This experience has convinced me that attitude is wrong. To listen to people one must speak to them respectfully where they live. In fields where we are non-expert, illustrating with real-life stories is effective and honest.

    But I don’t know the best way to engage citizens democratically on technical matters. Stephen mentions citizen councils. The idea had occurred to me. I like it very much, but have no knowledge of how well and when and where it works. I certainly concur with MB on the importance of subsidiarity. I dearly hope these are the sorts of directions we go in, rather than repeating the mistake of telling people what is good for them (even if it is).


    July 6, 2015 at 3:23 pm

  14. Geof, thank you for your comment and helpful rebuttal.

    “More democracy” to me means using the most effective systems and techniques for public engagement to achieve the most valuable goals. Imposing referenda, especially those with unreasonable deadlines and interference from above and on on a part of a set instead of on all just bogs down the process and pollutes the well with post vote recrimination.

    The best form of consultation that I have seen are workshops. The citizens assembly model has much merit and would engage members of the public to actually build a detailed proposal with the planners. This level of consultation has far better results than an off the cuff one time vote. Christy Clark is a complete amateur in this matter.

    Second, an elected regional goverment would have all the democratic justification it requires to make plans and fund them without referenda. Municipal elections have spending plebiscites that are piggybacked onto the council ballots and are usually explained in sufficient detail well ahead of election day. I would prefer that a Metro government skips this step to allow the open workshop process to be fully realized, then have council vote on the resulting plan after full public consultation is complete. Slate blocs and individuals can also seek a mandate based on specific issues. Election day presents the only “referendum” the public needs, until the next election day. Referenda should be reserved only for the most important issues and not abused by a politician who is afraid to assume the full mantle of responsibility to deliver vital services to the biggest city west of Toronto.


    July 6, 2015 at 11:17 pm

  15. MB
    I agree with you on all points; I do not expect the B.C. Liberals nor the NDP to ever bother finding out how other metropole have set up their successful transit authorities. The little transit grey cells that many people in the world got at birth are missing in too many BCers.

    De Gaulle introduced referenda to the French…his questions were a model of obfuscation, so most voters felt safer voting the yes he wanted ….
    Before a vote he gave a last speech using a vocabulary that few people understood but sounded as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were hovering a few hundred meters over Paris…

    Red frog

    July 7, 2015 at 12:30 am

  16. MB writes: Not by coincidence, immediately after the No vote the mayor of Pitt Meadows issued a motion to Metro staff to report back on the ramifications of running local transit like a utility.

    That looks a good step forward, and I like the idea of municipalities paying a direct fee for transit service provided sinc, it provides them an incentive to shape their city and street to deliver transit efficiently (in fact it is also a reason I believe property taxes are better than sale taxes when it is time to pay for city service like Transit, additional good reason regarding funding stability can also be also found in the NYT)

    An elected regional government will be legally bound to practice representative taxation to deliver services, and though ideology may rear its ugly head, the Metro politicos would be hard-pressed to misbalance inner city and suburban policy counterpoints if they are elected under a proportionally representative system.

    Yes, and there is some way to keep political game at bay, as I have mentioned here (so far a relative success of the current Translink structure)

    To resolves the issue of Translink governance (and evetually the Metro governance at large), an adhoc body (e.g a citizen eassembly) could be set up to draft some propositions.

    This new Translink/Metro constitituional bill could be put to a referendum: the Province could have hard time to sit down on the result.of such a process.

    At this time, the Council of mayors position as expressed by; “the ball is is with the Province”; is not a constructive one and that needs to change.

    good comment from Geoff too regarding the elitist attitude of the yes side.


    July 7, 2015 at 9:56 am

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