'No is not an option' for transit funding referendum: Price

Artist rendering of the Evergreen Line route in Coquitlam. The line, currently under construction, will connect Lougheed Town Centre in Burnaby and Coquitlam. The project is funded by TransLink and the provincial and federal governments. -
Artist rendering of the Evergreen Line route in Coquitlam. The line, currently under construction, will connect Lougheed Town Centre in Burnaby and Coquitlam. The project is funded by TransLink and the provincial and federal governments.
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"No is not an option."

That was the message Gordon Price is hoping a "coalition of unusual bedfellows" will help spread throughout Metro Vancouver before a referendum on transit funding is held in the fall.

Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, was speaking before a crowd of about 120 people that included local politicians, union organizers and bus drivers at the Unifor Local 111 office on 12th Street in New Westminster on Thursday night.

The meeting was intended to drum up awareness about the referendum, slated for Nov. 15—to coincide with the municipal election vote—which Premier Christy Clark promised during last year's provincial election. The issue of new funding sources for transit in the region has been hotly contested for years without any resolution, with local politicians exploring options ranging from an annual vehicle levy, a share of the carbon tax, road pricing, or even a small regional sales tax.

It's unclear at this point, however, what exactly will be on the referendum ballot as neither Clark nor Transportation Minister Todd Stone have indicated what voters will be asked.

"We are now 308 days away from having a vote for… well… what?" Price said.

In interviews, Clark has said she'd like to see voters given a multiple-choice style ballot in November to see how much transit people would be willing to pay for, or whether people want to put the brakes on any expansion.

Price worries that if voters reject new funding it could equal an actual reduction in transit as gas tax revenues decline and other costs continue to grow.

He and Metro Vancouver mayors believe there's a good chance the referendum will fail, as people are likely to reject any new tax, and various cities' priorities—such as Surreys' call for a new rapid transit line or Vancouver's pitch for a Broadway extension—could get pitted against each other.

Price also said the launch of TransLink's Compass card system in the coming months will inevitably spark widespread frustration among transit users forced to change their habits, and people could vent frustration at the ballot box.

That would be a huge setback, says the former Vancouver city councillor who also served as a director on TransLink.

Metro Vancouver's transit system is admired world over, Price said, and TransLink's model, which combines strategic planning and operations in a single entity, works incredibly well.

"People come here and say 'if only we had something like it,'" Price said.

"This is one of the best places on earth… not just in the bumper-sticker sense… but in [former BC Premier and Vancouver Mayor] Mike Harcourt's words it's a place that does it right.

"You can't imagine how stunned I am, that we might throw that all away, that we might put it all at risk in mere months."

Price also talked strategy on Thursday night, and suggested those wanting to campaign in favour of new funding should form a "coalition of unsual bedfellows" crossing political lines and including everyone from labour and business groups to environmentalists.

And they should have a good message and seek a charismatic leader, he added.

"Jimmy Pattison doing anything these days?" he quipped.

And to get broad support, the funding question should also be linked to projects that would benefit every part of the region, and propose a tax that is reasonable.

And finally, "transit champions" of all stripes would be needed to rally for the cause.

But that last point, he conceded, would be tough, particularly in an election year.

"Who amongst us is going to defend [more spending]? Who is going to go to a meeting and say 'we need to tax ourselves in the millions, billions for TransLink'?"

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, agreed.

"It is unthinkable that a modern city would not have a modern transit system," Sinclair said. "If we just talk about money, we're losers. What we need is a vision."

When asked by a member of the audience whether he'd support a new SkyTrain line over the province's proposed Massey Bridge to replace the tunnel between Delta and Richmond, Price said the region needs both because it's expected to grow by a million people over the next 30 years.

The region's plans are dependent upon more transit, he said.

"You just don't get to say no… it just doesn't add up," Price said.

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