The wait for improved public transit could get much longer if a TransLink funding referendum is defeated – regardless of the many campaign promises by municipal election candidates.

Transportation promises: A reality check on the Metro Vancouver campaign trail

Municipal election candidates big on talk, low on power to improve transit, traffic

A raft of municipal election promises to improve transit and unclog traffic jams are being floated by candidates across Metro Vancouver to win the votes of frustrated commuters.

The most ambitious projects are in the region’s two biggest cities: the $3-billion Broadway subway backed by Vancouver’s two major civic parties as well as a $1.8-billion light rail network in Surrey.

If those weren’t enough, Vancouver mayoral contender Kirk Lapointe has proposed to use counterflow lanes to reduce congestion on major arterials in Vancouver while former Surrey mayor Doug McCallum, who wants to return to the city’s top job, says he’ll create HOV lanes on King George Boulevard, 152 Street and Fraser Highway. (He proposes digging up the median and otherwise widening corridors to create the additional lanes.)

As well, North Shore politicians want TransLink to increase SeaBus frequency.

A Langley city council contender wants the old interurban rail line reactivated to carry passengers between Surrey and Abbotsford.

And in New Westminster, the reluctant crossroads for much of the region’s traffic, some candidates want a bypass tunnel built between Highway 1 and the Queensborough Bridge so the big trucks their residents hate can literally be stuck where the sun don’t shine.

“Yes, I would like hover cars too,” says Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “There’s lots of shiny baubles being thrown around and promised with nobody offering any kind of plan to pay for them.”

He and other observers say the sometimes wacky ideas often make for better politics than a realistic action plan.

“Congestion is so personal and so individual, it’s kind of irresistible for candidates to make these proposals,” SFU City Program director Gordon Price said.

Many of the transportation campaign promises — particularly big projects — would require the support of TransLink or the province and possibly both.

Neither Lapointe’s counterflow lanes — which Price calls an “absurd” idea — nor McCallum’s HOV lanes could be implemented without approval of TransLink, which controls the Major Road Network and could also veto a truck ban on the Pattullo Bridge — another idea from New Westminster.

Could Surrey go it alone?

As for Surrey’s light rail lines, McCallum — a former TransLink board chair — is prepared, like other Surrey mayoral candidates, to directly lobby for federal and provincial money. He expects the TransLink funding referendum next spring will fail, leaving Surrey to go it alone.

“It’s probably a low probability it will pass,” McCallum said, declining to say whether he as mayor would campaign for the ‘Yes’ side until he sees a finalized question on what new taxes would be levied. “I don’t support going to referendum at all.”

Observers like Price say it’s not out of the question for Surrey to go its own way — he says Surrey’s light rail system clearly should get priority ahead of Vancouver’s Broadway SkyTrain extension — but it’s unlikely to get senior government funding without being part of a broader regional transit solution.

“There’s nothing to stop Surrey from seceding from TransLink and funding its own rail system but there’s no money to pay for that,” says SFU political science professor Anthony Perl.

Ultimately, the provincial government exerts great control over what happens with major transportation projects and there’s little mayors and councillors can do to defy Victoria’s will.

“They don’t have a lot of levers or cards to play,” Perl said. “They have to follow the golden rule, which is ‘those that have the gold make the rules.'”

Perl says if municipal leaders want to improve transportation using powers they actually wield, they might start by creating bus-only lanes on major streets by banning on-street parking, even if that riles merchants and local motorists.

Road to referendum

After new councils are elected Nov. 15, voters may soon have to cast ballots again on the future of transit expansion.

The TransLink funding referendum is supposed to happen by late March but there’s still no deal between the province and the current mayors’ council on whether the mayors’ full $7.5-billion, 10-year vision can be put to voters.

The plan includes both the Surrey and Vancouver rapid transit extensions but one or both could yet be shelved.

Nor is the tax source settled — the options still on the table are a regional carbon tax, a vehicle levy or a regional sales tax — and the province has yet to commit its requested one third contribution.

Re-elected and newly elected Metro mayors will once again meet in December in hopes of hammering out an agreement with Transportation Minister Todd Stone. That’s when Price and Bateman expect the political fireworks to resume over the referendum, which they say has not been a major issue during local campaigns.

“Nobody really wants to talk about it much,” Bateman said, adding he’s surprised. “It’s not a winning issue for mayors to talk about regional tax increases. They want to get in for four more years first.”

To Price, the fact that “this dog did not bark” is cause for optimism that incoming councils will stay united behind the transit expansion plan and that public support is growing.

Most mayors on principle oppose the referendum, which Premier Christy Clark promised in the 2013 provincial election campaign would be a condition for provincial approval of any new tax for TransLink.

And if it’s defeated or shelved, transit users can forget about the broad increase in bus service that all city councils have demanded.

A system stretched

The transit system is stretched to the limit, but more new residents arrive each year, increasing demand. Transit service per capita peaked in 2009 and is forecast to drop to 2004 levels over the next five years without more revenue.

Planning experts like Price say failure means fast-growing new neighbourhoods won’t get the transit service they need, forcing their residents to be car-dependent, with bad results for urban development.

Compounding that, he says, is the province’s penchant for building freeways and bridges.

A new six-lane bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel is being designed by the province and will be built with or without a solution to expand transit.

Like the Port Mann Bridge, the Massey rebuild never went to a referendum and even Bateman criticizes the province for promising the new bridge without a business case to properly assess if it’s needed.

Another project that’s also expected to go ahead no matter what is TransLink’s replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, even though it is ostensibly listed as a referendum project in the 10-year vision.

Both new bridges are expected to be tolled, which Stone has admitted would force some type of tolling reform.

That’s another topic few politicians are talking about.

Outgoing Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts championed a light rail network for Surrey. If a TransLink referendum fails other mayoral candidates say they would seek direct funding from Victoria and Ottawa.

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