Metro Vancouver mayors say their blueprint for new rapid transit lines and other transportation upgrades, as well as proposed new taxes to go to a referendum, will be made public next month.
The almost finalized document, still under wraps after weeks of closed-door meetings, will go to a final vote of the TransLink mayors’ council in late May or early June before being sent to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who challenged the mayors to come up with their vision of what’s needed.
“A lot of folks thought perhaps we couldn’t do it,” said TransLink mayors’ council chair Richard Walton.
But there’s still uncertainty among mayors as to how the public and the province will react to the specific expansion proposals and methods to pay for them.
Mayors say the package will propose at least a couple of new funding sources – the ones most talked about in the past have been an annual vehicle levy, a regional sales tax, a regional carbon tax and eventual pursuit of road pricing.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep the ask down,” Walton said.
“We recognize the fact the smaller the amount in general of the whole plan the more likely it is for there to be public appetite and provincial approval as well. Therefore we’ve really sharpened our pencils.”
The mayors’ council intends to poll the public when the plan is released and Walton expects the province to also carefully gauge public reaction before revealing if it’s willing to approve the new taxes, contingent on a referendum.
Stone has said the referendum can take place separately from the November civic elections and potentially as late as June 2015, provided an acceptable plan is tabled by the end of next month.
Walton said the minister has indicated the referendum will pass if there are a majority of ‘Yes’ votes counted across the entire region – there won’t be any additional requirement that it pass in a certain number of municipalities as some have suggested.
He said that means the set of projects must appeal to voters in the entire region.
A package heavily slanted to one part of the region could risk defeat by the large numbers of voters in Vancouver or Surrey, he noted.
The province has pledged one-third funding for major new rapid transit lines, such as the Surrey and Vancouver Broadway extensions, and to replace the Pattullo Bridge.
Port Coquitlam Mayor and Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore says he’d prefer the referendum be part of this November’s municipal elections, instead of waiting until 2015.
“The longer, frankly, that we wait to get to referendum the longer we wait to get the funding we actually need to build the system to meet the needs of today, never mind the future growth needs we have,” said Moore, who has led the work to hammer out the plan.
“Every month that we don’t get new funding we’re falling further and further behind.”
But he said there’s no consensus among mayors for a November vote and he suspects it’s too early for the province as well.
Walton said he understands the desire to move fast, but said success will depend on voters clearly understanding what will happen if the plan and new taxes are approved – and what will happen if it’s rejected.
“If this thing is going to pass you need to have a highly informed electorate.”
An earlier referendum risks a less informed, more “superficial” debate that’s mixed in with the many other civic election issues before voters, Walton said.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said the work to arrive at a near-consensus has been challenging.
“There are areas that already have pass-ups and want more service,” Corrigan said. “There are other areas saying we’re developing new density and we need transit support to do that.”
He said there’s broad acceptance among cities across the region of the need for solution on Vancouver’s congested Broadway corridor, for expansion in Surrey to support growth there, better service South of the Fraser and improved bus service elsewhere.
But he said some projects may have to be priorized behind others, pushing them back a decade or more, and that debate on priorities has been intense.
“There may not be unanimous agreement on all elements of it, but there will be a plan and something that people will have an opportunity to rally around,” Corrigan predicted.
Premier Christy Clark made new funding for TransLink conditional on a referendum after previously rejecting a series of requests from the mayors to authorize more money.
Many mayors still fear voters will reject paying higher taxes and the Metro region will then stagnate in worsening congestion as the population climbs.
Corrigan said it’s “anybody’s guess” as to whether the province will even allow all the proposals to go to referendum.
He said it will be the “last straw” for many mayors already “at their breaking point” if Victoria rejects all new sources, leaving higher property taxes and transit fares as the only options.