Editorial: We could learn from transit vote

The Lower Mainland’s transit-tax referendum might seem like a tempest in someone else’s teapot, but Victorians could learn something from the debate.

Voters across the pond are being asked to approve an increase of 0.5 percentage points to the local sales tax, which would pay for $7.5 billion in transit spending. In return, Vancouverites would get more trains, more buses, another Seabus and — theoretically — fewer cars on the road.

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In perennially congested Greater Vancouver, it seemed like a good idea, or at least one that a lot of people would get behind. When the referendum campaign began, support for the tax seemed widespread, and the mayors who are backing it were optimistic.

Today, that optimism is hard to find. Polls suggest the Yes side is dropping rapidly, largely because the debate is no longer about trains and buses. The vote has turned into a referendum on the management of TransLink.

The non-profit Canadian Taxpayers Federation has played a major role in that change of attitude — with a lot of help from TransLink itself.

The agency turfed its CEO because it wanted to show voters a new face as they pondered their ballots. It backfired when those voters learned that the interim CEO would be paid $35,000 a month while his predecessor would continue at full salary as an adviser to the board for more than a year.

The revelation played into the hands of the No side, who demanded to know why anyone would trust billions in tax dollars to a group that was throwing around money so wastefully.

Even in Surrey, which would get a new LRT line, polls suggest the Yes side is plummeting.

The Yes side has signed up billionaire Jim Pattison to oversee the way the tax revenues are spent, if the referendum succeeds. It’s a clear attempt to shore up TransLink’s credibility by using Pattison’s reputation as a smart businessman.

The debate should be about the best way to move people around the crowded Lower Mainland, not about the integrity of a few people. But the No side has successfully reframed the whole discussion.

Here in Victoria, regional politicians should pay heed. The Victoria Regional Transit System is run by the seven members of the regional transit commission, all of whom are mayors or councillors of area municipalities. Our fragmented transportation system cries out for solutions. Money will be required for improved transit services to move people from up-Island, the West Shore and the Peninsula.

The commission has got Transportation Minister Todd Stone to agree to consider adding two cents a litre to the gasoline tax in the Capital Regional District next year to fund transit expansion. The commission has been getting 3.3 cents per litre since 2013, up from the 2.5 cents that started in 1997.

The appeal to Stone avoids the messiness of a Vancouver-style referendum, but voters still have a voice.

Getting them to support a plan, particularly if it means higher taxes, will mean more than having a well-designed project. The agencies behind the project will need credibility in the eyes of voters. Taxpayers want to know that when they grudgingly fork over more cash, it will be spent wisely.

The Capital Regional District made a pitch to take control of transit from the transit commission, which wouldn’t necessarily change many of the faces around the table, but would change the face the public sees. After sewage and compost fiascos, the CRD has a public image that is only slightly more appealing than TransLink’s.

The lesson from Vancouver is that taxpayers need to see more than just a solid plan; they have to trust the people behind it.

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