Metro reps argue mayors no longer deserve TransLink role

Regional politicians wrangle over how to reform transit authority, some accusing mayors of botching plebiscite campaign

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner and other members of the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation during the transit sales tax plebiscite campaign.

Regional politicians tussled Friday over whether Metro Vancouver board directors or the mayors’ council should set transportation policy if TransLink is reformed yet again.

Some directors argued the mayors’ decisions on how to lead the plebiscite Yes campaign led directly to the defeat of a new sales tax to fund transit, and suggested they resign as a result.

“The mayors’ council is responsible for the No vote in a large way, and a lot of it was the robocalls and the millions of dollars spent,” Richmond Coun. Harold Steves said at the July 31 Metro board meeting. “In the public mind, the best thing they could do is resign.”

The Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation was created in the province’s 2007 reorganization of TransLink when elected officials were turfed off the board and replaced with unelected professional directors. Mayors were stripped of any real power over TransLink and left mainly with decisions on whether to approve tax hikes.

“The public clearly wants a change in how transit is done in the region and I’m not quite sure that the public has huge confidence in the mayors’ council to effect that change,” added West Vancouver Mayor Mike Smith, who supports the Metro board and staff taking on any future transportation oversight role, as well spearheading the region’s position on TransLink reform.

Smith was one of three mayors who voted against holding the plebiscite in the first place and also said the robocalling of residents to push Yes messaging backfired.

“It just irritated the public and the results of the referendum speak for itself,” Smith said, who said the No vote was also a backlash to mayors spending more than $6 million to “tell people how to vote.”

The mayors’ council, meanwhile, has already threatened to quit its role in the governance of TransLink unless the province grants them more control and a new funding source to resolve the impasse that has followed the plebiscite defeat by the end of this year.

That’s one reason why an urgent push is now on for the Metro regional district to potentially take on a major transportation planning role, which would mesh well with its responsibility for regional land use planning.

Supporters of the shift say transportation policy could be another arm of the well-staffed regional government, alongside its water and sewer utility functions.

For now, the Metro board has agreed to work jointly with the mayors’ council in determining what new governance reforms to propose to the province.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said it’s important for regional politicians to remain united and avoid wasting effort drawing up duplicate, or possibly conflicting, prescriptions for what should come next.

Some directors – including White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin – praised the premier’s naming of new communities minister Peter Fassbender, a former Langley City mayor who once chaired the mayors’ council, to oversee TransLink, adding he expects a “genuine effort” at reform.

But Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan called it another rotation of ministers by the province that typically has come with promises of greater understanding for cities’ concerns – followed by another shuffle.

“The way they change and pop up it’s a little bit like playing whack-a mole,” he said.

Corrigan predicted a showdown is imminent with the province for ultimate control over TransLink, adding the current system is dysfunctional.

“We’ve got to make a decision and tell the provincial government ‘Either you run TransLink or we run TransLink. But there is no in between.’ The reality is there has to be one master that is going to be responsible for the decisions that are made in TransLink and are going to be accountable to the public.”

Other directors said the region needs to examine whether it was wise to accept the tax trade-off that came with TransLink’s creation – regional taxpayers no longer pay a hospital construction levy but took more responsibility for funding transit.

The province has repeatedly pointed out other B.C. regions pay hospital taxes in addition to contributions to B.C. Transit. That’s part of the government’s longstanding rationale for why Metro mayors should raise TransLink property taxes rather than seek a new funding source.