Getting to Yes: Notes on the Transit Referendum

Former North Van City Council candidate and NVUF alumnus Tony Valente shares his views on the upcoming transit referendum, as addressed in an article to the Grand Boulevard Residents Association:


TranslinkWe all know we are very fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful and successful regions in the world. We are consistently at the top in rankings of the most liveable cities in the world completed by the Economist and others. While we held the top spot in North America in 2014, our lowest score was for infrastructure. The category looks at the quality of our road networks, public transport, and utility provision. Our position at the top, and our quality of life is threatened.

Years of growth in the region have enriched the diversity of our community, but we have failed to make the necessary investments to strengthen public transportation and road infrastructure. Those of us who live on the North Shore are especially sensitive to this issue. We can only really connect with the rest of the region through our two busy bridges and the SeaBus. Now we are being asked to vote on a congestion tax through the Metro Vancouver Transit and Transportation Plebiscite (or referendum). It does not look good for the yes side, and as a result not for our region or quality of life either.

Background on the Referendum

Between March 16th and 27th ballot will be mailed out to registered voters. Voters may also ask for a package anytime between March 16th and May 15th at midnight. Plebiscite Service Offices will open on April 13th (more information is available at and all ballots must be received by May 29th at 8pm.

You can vote if you are: a Canadian citizen; 18 years or older on or before May 29, 2015; a resident of BC for at least six months on or before May 29, 2015; registered to vote in BC; and living in a Metro Vancouver municipality.

A brief preamble about what will be funded by the new tax is followed by the ballot question which states:

Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Council transportation and transit plan?

Voting Perspective

I encourage all of you to participate in this plebiscite and vote. I will be voting YES. I believe in the future of our region and I wish that it continue to be liveable and vibrant. We must enhance public transportation to allow the disabled, the elderly, and those who cannot drive, especially those using transit to get to work, better access to social interaction and their work places.

Some believe this is just about providing more buses and SkyTrain service, but it is much more than that. I drive to work almost every day, but there is a lot for motorists to gain through this plebiscite. The plan allows $750 million dollars to be allocated to road upgrades and maintenance. It provides for a new Pattullo Bridge as well. Benefits specific to the North Shore include 50% more SeaBus service, rapid bus routes across the North Shore and connecting to Downtown Vancouver, and Metrotown. It also provides for expansions and improvements to Phibbs Exchange and Lonsdale Quay, 2700kms in new bike lanes, as well as 30% more HandyDart service for our most vulnerable neighbours. All these transportation options are great for motorists who benefit from less competition on existing roads.

The Defence of Translink

The NO side has made a strong emotional argument that we are taxed enough, and that TransLink should not be rewarded for its inefficiencies. We do pay a lot of taxes, but this is one we cannot afford not to pay. Implementing this plan will create substantial economic value for our region according to the C.D. Howe Institute. In reality, Translink is not as inefficient as we are lead to believe. According to Vancity Buzz “there have been multiple reviews of TransLink’s expenses in recent years, including an independent study commissioned by the TransLink commissioner and another study by the B.C. government’s Ministry of Finance”, which resulted in TransLink trimming its budget by $26 million. Based on a comparison of how many transit service hours $1 million will purchase, TransLink is the most cost-efficient public transit operation for a Canadian metropolitan area. Every $1 million in TransLink’s annual operating budget for transit provides 7117 transit service hours. The next most efficient agency is Edmonton’s with 7089 hours.

Some of Translink’s successes, none of which anyone is telling you about, include:

  • A mode shift – out of cars into transit, walking and cycling – that is unmatched in North America. The number of trips by transit is up 80% since 2000.
  • By far the highest per capita transit use among other cities our size in North America – three times more than Portland, the next highest city.
  • The third-highest per capita transit use in North America, after only New York and Toronto.
  • The lowest-operating-cost light rail network in the world, more than covering operating expenses from fare box revenues.
  • The Canada Line built on time and on budget and beating revenue targets – projected to have 100,000 daily riders by 2013 but hitting 120,000 by 2011.

No one likes a new tax, but we need this plan and it needs to be paid for. Using the PST as the means of collecting means that tourists and visitors to the region pay just like residents. As a resident I like that. Remember that we pay no PST, and would not pay the 0.5% congestion tax on groceries and restaurant meals, and other items.

Plan B

You will hear local politicians tell you there is no Plan B if the plebiscite fails. According to Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, the status quo is not Plan B. Price explains that TransLink’s base plan is fully funded to maintain total service hours, but that still means declining service levels for customers because without funds for expansion, limited hours will likely be reallocated away from lower demand routes. Over ten years, about the time it might take to pass another referendum, service levels would be where they were in about 2003. In that case, Gordon foresees that “a decade of expansion in the 2000s would have been lost and an increasingly densely populated region would have fewer options. There is no Plan B just default.”

In this weekend’s National Post Charles Montgomery, author of Happy City, wrote “by most measures, a “No” result in the plebiscite will make the average person poorer, sicker, less free, more frustrated and, yes, less happy. NO is not an option if we value the liveability of our region. It is not good enough for the Lower Mainland, or our community.