Former TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast

Transit ‘Yes’ forces on defensive, seeking allies

Looming referendum on higher TransLink taxes in Metro Vancouver overshadows transport conference

Speaker after speaker at a regional transportation conference last Thursday called for a massive expansion of transit in Metro Vancouver and urged the province to provide the leadership to ensure it happens.

The Oct. 31 Moving The Future conference in Vancouver drew 500 academics, engineers, economists, politicians and others.

Presenters warned traffic jams will choke the economy unless a solution to congestion is found and outlined many advantages of transit investment, from more affordable housing to a healthier population.

Urban Futures demographer Andrew Ramlo noted the Lower Mainland’s population, from Squamish to Chilliwack, is set to grow 56 per cent to 4.3 million by 2046.

If the region doesn’t build more transit and make better use of the infrastructure it already has, he said, it faces a “gridlocked” future.

High real estate prices already deter people and businesses from locating in the Vancouver area, delegates heard, and a failed transportation system will render the region less competitive and livable.

“If we design our cities around cars what do we get? More cars,” said Gil Peñalosa, a keynote speaker and advocate for healthy cities. “It’s like trying to put out a fire using gasoline.”

The conference came against the backdrop of a looming referendum on transit investment that Metro Vancouver mayors fear may fail and run the expansion agenda off the rails for years.

Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson said defeat would be “disastrous.”

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts said better transit is the only way to get more single-occupant vehicles off the road.

A show of hands in the room revealed the vast majority don’t think the referendum will pass.

“If anyone thinks a referendum is winnable, I’m amazed,” SFU City Program Director Gordon Price said, adding the province’s decision to force the vote on the region reflects a “crisis of leadership.”

The question has not yet been decided by the province, but others in the room saw the gathering as a chance to build an alliance of leaders to campaign in support of the expected vote to raise billions in taxes to build new transit lines.

The problem, many delegates admitted privately, is that the academics, business leaders, planners and other elites present don’t hold a majority of the vote.

And they concede they face broad public opposition to more taxes of any kind – be it a possible regional sales tax, a vehicle levy or the more distant prospect of comprehensive road tolling.

It doesn’t help, some say, that the debate is inaccurately cast as a struggle between two tribes – transit users versus motorists who supposedly won’t benefit from new rapid transit lines but may end up footing a disproportionate share of the bill.

“To me, it would be tragic if it’s a ‘No’ vote,” said Michael Goldberg, a conference presenter and dean emeritus at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

“I think it’s terribly unfortunate that we’re having a referendum.”

Goldberg said opposition voices, amplified by the media, recite a simple but short-sighted no-new-taxes mantra and unfairly attack TransLink without acknowledging that transit is a public good that’s crucial to making the region more competitive.

“I hope we can marshall the forces to inform the general public why this is good for them.”

Bob Wilds, general manager of the Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, was one of the business leaders in the audience who is outspoken about the dangers of road congestion and a likely ally.

“There would be a real problem if there isn’t a successful referendum,” said Wilds, whose group represents shippers, port terminals and goods movers.

He declined to say if he opposes the premier’s decision to order the plebiscite.

“We are where we’re at. It’s been announced. We just have to figure out a way to deal with it and be successful at it.”

Blair Qualey, president and CEO of the New Car Dealers’ Association of B.C., was another attendee whose presence raised some eyebrows.

“Public transit is an integral part of the overall transportation system,” he said in an interview later, adding it’s important for the whole province that solutions be found.

Qualey wouldn’t say what funding source the car dealers’ group would support, but added spending on roads and bridges is also needed.

“How it’s paid for, I guess, becomes the big question,” Qualey said. “We’re a bit concerned that the costs of financing more public transit may be put on the backs of working people. We are supporters of user pay to the extent that it needs to be fair and equitable. It’s a tough discussion.”

Ex-TransLink CEO still hopeful for solution

Former TransLink CEO Tom Prendergast says he’s not surprised TransLink is no closer to solving its financial challenges that it was when he left four years ago.

But nor does he think the region is doomed to remain forever mired in political paralysis about how to pay for transit upgrades that most leaders consider essential.

The former boss of Metro Vancouver’s transit system left in 2009 to take charge of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but returned last week as a speaker at the Moving The Future transportation conference.

Prendergast said it’s not unusual for it to take two or three tries to find the right path in such a challenging public policy debate.

He was cautious not to give an opinion on the merits of holding a referendum, adding he has no experience with one, but said he believes the region’s mayors can be influential champions of the ‘Yes’ side.

“The 23 mayors got it – they understood the importance of the transportation network to the region,” he said, referring to the united political front that has remained relatively intact in seeking an ambitious transit expansion.

“If you had the majority of mayors saying that they’re for this, I think people get it. I think if you had unanimity it would be exceptionally strong.”

Prendergast told the conference the biggest recent shift in thinking in transit circles is understanding the changing demographics of transit and transportation.

“We’ve got people who are millennials right now who don’t own a car and they don’t want to own a car,” he said.

Those younger people are using transit on a much more daily basis, he said, not just for the commute.

The takeaway, Prendergast said, is to plan not based on current patterns of transit and road use, but what’s likely 10 or 15 years from now.

Another glimmer of optimism for transit advocates came from the head of Los Angeles County’s metro transportation authority, Art Leahy, who recounted how his region recently voted 67 per cent to approve a 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to fund major transit upgrades.

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