Funding for future new SkyTrain extensions would be approved or rejected by voters in a referendum that may now come as early as next spring.

Early TransLink referendum could come next spring

Timeline tight as province, mayors grapple to decide transit funding question for voters

A referendum on new taxes or tolls for TransLink that will decide the future pace of transit expansion may come sooner than a promised date of November 2014 to separate the contentious debate from the next municipal elections.

The province now says that’s the latest the vote can be held – not necessarily the date – but there are serious doubts over whether a referendum as early as next spring is feasible.

Richard Walton, chair of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, said it would take a speedy resolution of numerous issues in the next few months, including a promised overhaul of TransLink governance to give mayors more control over spending.

And he said it would be impossible to work out the permutations of a highly advanced new funding source like road pricing, which could charge motorists distance-based fees that might vary by time of day.

“This is a pretty brief window,” he said Wednesday. “To try to do what other jurisdictions took seven years to do in 10 months and have a chance at public support is really difficult.”

Walton has asked the new transportation minister but still has no answers on what the referendum question might be, who will pay the costs of holding the vote and educating the public on the options, or where money raised from a new source would go.

TransLink is about to prepare a 15-year transit investment plan to spell out what transit projects would get funding if the referendum passes. It’s not clear if the province would have the final say on those spending priorities, or if provincial projects like a Massey Tunnel replacement might be included.

And the province, the mayors and TransLink will have to determine what funding source or sources will be on the ballot. A vehicle levy or a small regional sales tax have been raised by mayors as options that could be quickly implemented.

A key decision for the province will be whether voters get a “none of the above” option that lets them reject any new money for TransLink.

Many mayors fear a veto option will doom the referendum to failure and the region to worsening congestion as the population and numbers of cars on the road grow.

The alternative is politically tricky as well.

If voters can’t say “none of the above” they’d be forced to choose the most palatable of perhaps two or three different sets of revenue sources.

Some mayors say the question shouldn’t be specific to funds at all and instead be a more general plebiscite on the principle of expanding transit that would leave politicians to work out the details.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone won’t yet say whether a veto should be allowed.

“I look forward to working with the mayors on that,” the minister told Black Press. “I’m not going to predetermine what the question is going to be. I really want this to be a collaborative effort with the mayors.”

Stone said he hopes governance reform can first be settled swiftly.

“Timelines are tight, there’s no question.”

TransLink governance changes and the referendum would have to be enabled by the Legislature in an expected April, 2014 session, Walton said.

A few months is needed to draft the legislation, so the key decisions must be made by this November or December.

Running the referendum concurrently with civic elections would save money, but Walton said the transit funding question would overshadow municipal issues and likely result in most civic politicians campaigning against it.

Most mayors have opposed a referendum, which was a B.C. Liberal election promise.

“The referendum is a mistake,” said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, who said if voters nix more cash for new transit lines his city should logically stop building regular-sized roads in favour of six-lane highways.

“The alternative is doubling the number of highways, doubling the number of roadways – to pave more and more of the Lower Mainland.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said the region physically can’t build more or wider roads and the debate needs to be about the future of the economy, which risks being “locked into congestion indefinitely” without better transit.

She questioned whether the province wants the referendum to succeed or fail.

“Or do they not care?” she asked at the July 17 mayors’ council meeting.

White Rock’s Wayne Baldwin said the province and TransLink’s appointed board should make the decisions, since the mayors’ council has no real power.

“I can’t imagine 10 months from now going to a referendum,” Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said. “That’s just ludicrous. And what it will do is set us back another 14 years.”

A realistic discussion of what residents can afford should come first, Corrigan said.

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said she supports the referendum because “people need to have a say in how this damn thing is being run.”

TransLink officials have estimated up to $23 billion will be needed over the next three decades to maintain the existing transit system and build new lines, expected to include Vancouver’s Broadway corridor and lines in Surrey to Langley and White Rock.

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