Mar 20, 2015

Transit referendum: if no vote wins, what is Plan B?


I got my plebiscite ballot today and of course voted yes. Whatever you think of TransLink management, its governance, the rough and largely undefined edges of the mayor’s plan, and the politically expedient but otherwise not particularly appropriate sales tax source of revenues, the simple fact remains that I and most residents of Greater Vancouver will be better off with significant new investments in transit and other public transportation infrastructure than without it. And a plebiscite victory should help that happen.

At the same time though, like most of my votes and electoral wishes in recent years (and days sadly), I suspect this one won’t be on the winning side. It is not just the polls and punditry; it is what people all around me are saying. There are too many reasons to vote no and too little focus on the basic questions that need to be asked.

Do we want more investment in transit and public transportation infrastructure like what the mayors outlined? Yes or no?

If yes, how do we want to pay for that — with an increase in the sales tax as the mayors propose or in some other way that will yield comparable revenues?

It is unfortunate that the plebiscite wasn’t split into two parts like that. Maybe that is all that was needed to get a positive response. But we are past that, so the question we must now focus on is: what should be done if the no’s, for a whole host of reasons, carry the day? What is Plan B?

A no vote will undoubtedly set the region back in the planning and implementation of new transit and public transportation infrastructure. But it doesn’t have to be the disaster that many would suggest.

Plan B requires a careful reading of a no vote. I cannot believe that people do not want major investments in transit and other public transportation infrastructure. Government will have to carefully consider and address the reasons why people voted no, whether that be concerns about TransLink management and its governance, fears about wasteful and ‘gold-plated’ spending, or an aversion to the use of the sales tax to raise the needed revenues.

By all objective measures and accounts, TransLink management is not as bad as proponents of a no vote argue. Nevertheless there clearly are problems with TransLink’s governance. It is one thing to have a privately appointed board to oversee operations; it is quite another for that board to decide on major policy matters. TransLink governance was never perfect but the changes the provincial government made that effectively pushed elected officials aside are not acceptable. They need to be reversed.

There are lots of reason to have fears about wasteful and ‘gold-plated’ spending. One need only look carefully at the major investments TransLink and the province have made over the past fifteen to twenty years. Much of the excess was driven by the province, not TransLink, but regardless there has been far too much emphasis on building the most expensive rapid transit systems rather than efficiently and cost-effectively meeting our transit and public transportation needs.

With or without a no vote that has to change. Just like in energy, a comprehensive transportation demand side plan, starting with transportation-efficient land use planning, is needed every bit as much, perhaps more, than new services and facilities.

As for the way we pay for needed improvements,  there are other and better ways than an increase in the sales tax. Something that helps reduce peak congestion problems, like systematic road pricing as opposed to the inefficient and inequitable project tolls we currently have, is an obvious place to look. What is critical though is not to ask people whether they want to pay for what we need. The only question is how.

So, will a no vote set us back. Certainly. But it needn’t be the end of the world. What it should be is the immediate start on the development of a better, more comprehensive plan, one that not only addresses our infrastructure needs but also the legitimate concerns many people have.

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