Transportation Minister Todd Stone insists a planned referendum on TransLink expansion is winnable despite a barrage of dire predictions from Opposition New Democrats.
Two bills to reform TransLink governance and enable the promised referendum got second reading in the B.C. Legislature this week.
NDP transportation critic Claire Trevena called it a “dangerous” and “troubling” descent into California-style referendum politics that risks defeat by voters and continued impasse on securing much-needed transit upgrades.
She said elected officials should decide tax policy and said it’s particularly disturbing that the province is entrenching referenda as a condition in perpetuity for future TransLink revenue increases from new sources.
Stone said Metro Vancouver mayors are working hard to craft a priorized list of proposed expansion projects and he’s optimistic their vision can win voters’ approval.
“It can be done,” Stone said. “The sooner the doubters get behind this and recognize that this is probably the most empowering initiative that we could possibly provide the people of the Lower Mainland to break what has been a logjam for decades, the better.”
Metro mayors remain concerned they won’t have direct authority over TransLink’s annual budget – that authority remains the unelected professional board’s.
But Stone said the board must ensure its budgets comply with the 10-year investment plan, which the mayors will control.
He said the province made significant concessions in handing over more control and promising one-third funding for new rapid transit lines and replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.
The nine-member board shifts to a new configuration of seven professional directors, two seats for representatives of the province, and two seats for the chair and vice-chair of the mayors’ council.
Mayors’ council chair Richard Walton said the mayors will likely vote April 29 on whether to accept their two seats.
Walton also wants to know if the province will actively support the referendum ‘Yes’ campaign – Premier Christy Clark previously suggested the government would remain neutral.
“It would certainly help if the province takes a proactive position,” he said.
Metro board chair Greg Moore is leading the drive to hammer out the consensus proposal on transit upgrades and Walton said it should be ready well ahead of a June 30 deadline set by Stone.
Only then does the province intend to reveal what new funding tools it might allow, subject to a referendum.
That’s left the mayors crafting their expansion plan without knowing how much money might be available.
“Obviously we find it very frustrating,” Walton said.
He said mayors fear the province will allow minimal draw from a possible vehicle levy, regional sales tax or other source that may be proposed and instead pressure the mayors to raise property taxes for TransLink.
A mid-2015 referendum would be nearly five years after former Premier Gordon Campbell signed a 2010 deal with mayors to explore new funding sources.
NDP TransLink critic George Heyman said the premier has repeatedly undermined talks between mayors and a succession of transportation ministers, resulting in worsening transit congestion, and a defeat next year would leave no end in sight.
“It is a bad idea,” Heyman said. “We have opposed this referendum from day one. Metro Vancouver deserves better.”