Does Greater Victoria need a transportation authority?

Stuck in traffic and wishing you had a say in what to do about it? After years of local politicians spinning their wheels over creating a regional transportation authority, some say not giving voters a chance to weigh in on the issue during the Oct. 20 municipal election was an opportunity lost.

“I would have loved to have seen that [transportation authority] question on the ballot, because I’m convinced that the vast majority of the voters would say yes,” said View Royal Mayor Screech. “The only reason I didn’t push it is that the minister of Transportation and the premier have assured me that once the local government election is over, we will have a meeting with the mayors and figure out what we’re going to do.”

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Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt said he, too, would have been interested in hearing directly from voters around the region on a transportation function at the CRD.

“Should we ask voters do they support forming a regional transportation authority to get people moving and to deal with gridlock? To test that support wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Isitt said.

Michael Prince, Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria, says creation of the transportation authority would have been an ideal referendum question and could have the side benefit of bringing residents closer to the regional government.

“I think referenda are a good idea, particularly in a two-tier system like ours where we’ve got the regional district, which is kind of one step removed. It would help empower the voters and the public,” Prince said.

In the CRD, regional referenda are rarely held, as the preference is to try to work things out at the board table, said Andy Orr, senior manager of corporate communications.

Orr notes that the Local Government Act gives the region the authority to hold a non-binding vote seeking community opinion on an issue, but regional referenda are not cheap.

Similar to an election, a region-wide question would require statutory ads, polling stations, polling station staff and vote-counting machines, which would probably add up to about $100,000.

“The CRD has generally worked by consent of councils to bring in new services or new expenditures,” Orr said.

But efforts to create a regional function to prioritize and co-ordinate transportation have not met with much success at the CRD board table.

The latest effort died in March, when only five of 13 municipalities at the CRD board table supported the idea.

One of the options brought forward this year was to hold a regional referendum, but that was abandoned because of strong opposition at the CRD board, Orr said.

Ironically, the most vocal opposition came from the West Shore communities of Colwood and Langford, whose residents waste countless hours in congestion dubbed the “Colwood crawl,” but whose elected officials argued the new service would do more to build another layer of bureaucracy than it would to smooth out commuter traffic.

Such a referendum would have been a non-starter for Langford Mayor Stew Young.

“All you’re doing is asking people to spend money on a study that doesn’t really get anywhere. All a regional transportation authority does is give [the CRD] the ability to tax the sh— out of you without representation,” Young said in a recent interview.

Young said any new body dealing with regional transportation in the capital region has to involve the province — through B.C. Transit, for example — because the province will be the primary funder. “The CRD forming an authority to put $10 million to manage that authority doesn’t mean you’re going to get money,” Young said. (The latest proposal considered at the CRD board table had actually reduced the funding proposal to $2 million from $10 million.)

“You just need to revamp B.C. Transit a little bit to be a little bit more forward thinking,” Young said.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who sits on the Greater Victoria Regional Transit Commission, agreed.

“I don’t think we need a regional transportation authority,” Helps said. “I think B.C. Transit is a good start and that body can be repurposed, potentially to address more than just transit.

“But, again, if the next four years show that we need a transportation authority, then I would totally be in support of putting that out to referendum. It’s a perfect referendum question.”

Meanwhile, the Capital Regional District is also contemplating a major change to its successful parkland acquisition levy when it expires in 2019, which some say should be put to a vote before it’s implemented.

CRD staff are now conducting surveys to get residents’ feedback on making some of the millions of dollars collected annually in the levy available for parks capital projects such as building washrooms or parking lots, to open up new parks or even for maintenance in existing parks. Currently, the funds are used solely to buy property.

Metchosin Mayor John Ranns opposes the change, saying it would have the effect of transforming a popular and successful program into a type of hidden parks maintenance tax.

“It’s debt-free acquisition of park land and you don’t acquire it until you can pay for it. To switch that to doing maintenance, which is something entirely different, definitely is a complete change in the mandate we were given to do it in the first place,” Ranns said.

Screech, who chairs the CRD parks committee, said staff are still just gathering information and no decision has been made whether to recommend the changes.

“The fund has been a remarkable success in terms of the amount of land that we’ve protected. So do we continue that way or do we look at other options? I think that’s the sort of information that they are trying to get,” Screech said.

The levy has allowed the CRD to buy and protect about 4,500 hectares of greenspace since it was introduced in 2000.

It was initially $10 per household when established in 2000. In 2010, it was extended for 10 years, starting at a rate of $12 per average household and then increasing by $2 per year to a maximum of $20 in 2014 through to 2019. It now generates about $3.7 million per year.

Local politicians were so timid about the original levy that about half a dozen jurisdictions polled their residents before agreeing to it.

Should there be any change in the levy’s use, residents should be polled again, Ranns said

“I think there’s still lots of land that needs to be acquired. You’ve got very interesting potential now to co-partner with First Nations and I think it’s too early to consider switching.”

Isitt, who also opposed the change, pointed to “vast tracts of wild lands” in the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area that should be protected in partnership with the province and the federal government.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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